Rotters, rogues and Champagne moments

This book is so colourful and well told that it should interest even those who find the game of Cricket dull


This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

At around 1am on 11 June 1921, a telegram from the England cricket selectors finally reached the Hon Lionel Tennyson, captain of Hampshire and playboy about town, who was deep into a night at the Embassy Club on Bond Street. Having been routed by Australia in the first Test of the Ashes, the selectors were shaking up the side for the next and wanted to give him a crack. Could he report to Lord’s for the start of play, just ten hours away?

Cricketing Lives: A Characterful History From Pitch to Page by Richard H. Thomas Reaktion, £20.00

Tennyson rattled off a reply, explaining that he was now on his second cigar and third bottle of fizz, but “having informed you of that, I shall be delighted to play”. It is not clear how quickly — or if — he returned home, a whole 80 yards from his club, for a kip, but it was not before he had struck a £50 bet (worth £2,000 today) with a pal that he would make a fifty in the match.

In his first innings he was stumped for five, trying to hit the bowler out of the ground, but he collected his winnings with 74 in his second knock. By the next Test he was captain. This was Tennyson all over. Grandson of the poet laureate (he can apparently be heard gurgling on the National Sound Archives wax cylinder of his relative reading The Charge of the Light Brigade), he was a colourful rogue.

While in the Coldstream Guards, he invited a bevy of chorus girls to enliven duty at the Tower; when Asquith ticked him off for trying to seduce his married niece, Tennyson wrote back calling the prime minister an “interfering old buger [sic]”; and when he returned to the Western Front after being wounded for the second time, it was with a case of Champagne.

Life for Tennyson was “one long cavalry charge”, his biographer Alan Edwards wrote. Everything was done “boldly, confidently, often waywardly, once or twice idiotically, but never meanly”. It is no surprise that on the centenary of his summons to Lord’s, Tennyson takes up a good chunk of Richard H Thomas’s entertaining collection of portraits of cricket’s characters.

From Frederick, Prince of Wales, a generous patron of the game who died in 1751 after being hit by a ball (a rare case of “play stopped reign”, as Richard Stilgoe put it), and “Silver” Billy Beldham, a flamboyant Regency batsman who was said by John Nyren to make “men’s hearts throb” (and presumably other bits of women since he fathered 36 children), to modern swashbucklers like Ian Botham and Ben Stokes, Thomas delights in digging up derring-do.

Drinkers, adventurers and shaggers abound, such as Bill Edrich, who won the DFC as a squadron leader and got divorced with almost the same regularity as he scored centuries. At Edrich’s fifth wedding, his Middlesex colleague JJ Warr was asked if he was bride’s side or groom’s. “I have a season ticket,” he replied.

Nor are they just Boys’ Own stories. Some of the great female legends of cricket are chronicled, such as Eileen Ash (still with us at time of filing, aged 109), who played Test cricket, worked for MI6, flew in a Tiger Moth on her 100th birthday and kept one of Don Bradman’s bats by her bed to repel burglars. Or Martha Grace: having survived being a guinea pig for her inventor father, who strapped her to a chair, attached kites and flew her at a height of 300ft, she gave the world three Test cricketers, including the great WG.

So colourful and well told is this book, heavy on research but light in touch, that it should interest even those who find the game dull

Then there is Nancy Doyle, the “small yet volcanic” head cook at Lord’s, who ticked off the cerebral Mike Brearley when he asked if she could serve something less stodgy than steak and kidney pudding. “You worry about the fucking cricket,” she told one of England’s finest captains, “and I’ll worry about the fucking food.”

The big names all get an innings — your Bradmans and Richardses, Comptons and Hobbses — though the past 30 years or so is rather dashed over, perhaps because these legends have not had time to build. But the treat is in discovering the journeymen who flourished briefly then were never heard from again, such as Ted Alletson, who one afternoon in Hove in 1911 went berserk and made 142 in 40 minutes for Nottinghamshire (97 of them in five overs), was given an England trial, flunked it and never made another hundred.

Then there’s poor Roy Park. Named in Australia’s 1914-15 Ashes squad but denied by war, he waited six years for another go and took guard in what turned out to be his only innings just as his wife dropped her knitting. By the time she picked it up, Park had been bowled and she thus missed his entire Test career. So colourful and well told is this book, heavy on research but light in touch, that it should interest even those who find the game dull, though the inclusion of an eight-page glossary and eight more pages explaining the laws feels needless.

The book will certainly appeal to those who love dipping into Great Lives and who already feel, with Douglas Jardine, the former England captain, that cricket is “that beautiful, beautiful game that is battle and service and sport and art”.

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