Norman Ackroyd – artist, Royal Academy powerhouse and occasional golf opponent of mine – once drew an evocative etching of a village scene and cricket match between Swinbrook CC and Lord Gnome’s XI.
Ackroyd depicts ‘the great match’ of 1986, a tie, but all is not what it seems, as a closer look reveals. This lovely etching is less about scenery and more about the artist’s bowling analysis of 7-55, which Ackroyd admits is a “disgraceful act of self-indulgence”. His medium pacers bowled out Swinbrook after the Gnome’s XI declaration at 197 for nine.
The Ackroyd anecdote is just one of countless quirks in a new definite book on wandering cricket called Gentlemen, Gypsies and Jesters; The Wonderful World of Wandering Cricket (Fairfield Books: £25), edited and written by Anthony Gibson and Stephen Chalke. The whole exercise, energised by the Cricket Foundation, is a treasure chest of reminiscence for cricket lovers.
Lord Gnome’s XI evolved from the Private Eye team when the supply of satirists and celebrities began to dry up. They had little trouble in attracting guest players, and the journalist Peter Gillman tried to pinpoint the ethos of wandering cricket.
Gillman wrote that Lord Gnome’s XI liked to win games as much as anyone and that they practised in winter nets. But he added: “We regard the after-match socialising as a key part of the occasion – drinking at our hosts’ bar rather than sloping off to the nearest pub. Since we usually umpired our own innings we made it a rule to walk for catches behind rather than risk embarrassing our umpire. We had one member who made it clear that he did not feel obliged to walk, so we always gave him out anyway.”
These comments would be echoed by many wandering clubs up and down the country, summing up the book’s sub-title The Wonderful World of Wandering Cricket. The cost of publishing to a high professional standard has been met by benefactors, more than 550 of them, ensuring that all profits go to Chance To Shine. The project has become a personal triumph for Simon Dyson, the charity’s commercial manager and former Wimbledon CC leg-spinner.
Dozens of wandering clubs are covered, including those now defunct. Every club has a story or two to tell, and the book recounts many many anecdotes in its pages, where name-dropping is unashamed and fascinating. A chapter is devoted to the Cricketer Cup, the high-octane old boys competition.
Most wandering clubs seem to be characterised by a common bond. A few remain exclusive, but most are not. To play for the Harlequins (founded 1852) – of Douglas Jardine fame – or the Quidnuncs (1851) a player has to be an Oxford or Cambridge graduate. Quite a few clubs have a literary, acting or media connection, without exclusivity, such as Invalids, Authors, Fleet Street Strollers, Woodpeckers and Heartaches, Tim Rice’s club with its own annual ‘Wisden’. One could add the Elvinos — not in the book – a group founded by Reg Hayter and Sun sports editor Frank Nicklin, who once fined disc jockey Ed Stewart, a good medium-pacer, two bob for impersonating an opening batsman after his innings against Torquay CC.
The Invalids were founded in 1919 by the leading literary figure JC Squire, later Sir John, and their antics almost certainly inspired AG Macdonell’s account of the village cricket match in his book England, Their England. It is widely accepted that Mr Hodge, the visiting team captain in the story, was based on the eccentric Squire. The mischievous and not entirely sober Mr Harcourt was almost certainly JB Morton, better known as Beachcomber in the Daily Mirror. The list continues, and Macdonell’s account of the enormous quantity of beer consumed was entirely consistent with the Invalids. Cricket, in Squire’s words, provided “the exceptional opportunity of raising a thirst”.
In one match at Brook in Surrey it was Squire who lumbered off in pursuit of a leg-side hit when his trousers fell down. Neville Cardus once mentioned that when a shot was launched high in the sky, three Invalids fielders circled underneath and Squire, as captain, called out masterfully from slip “Thompson!”. All three fielders stopped and the ball fell to earth as Thompson wasn’t playing that day.
The Cryptics (1910) can boast two Prime Ministers as players – Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Bob Hawke, of Australia – though no doubt the Lords and Commons (1850) could top that as a phalanx of distinguished politicians have reached the crease. The Lords and Commons were involved in the most bizarre of last-ball last-pair finishes in their annual match against the Civil Service, called the Mandarins, at the Bank of England ground at Roehampton in 1975. Lord Orr-Ewing, the non-striker, set off like a hare as the bowler delivered, but the batsman Michal Latham, MP for Melton, missed and stumbled as he sought the winning run. Somehow Latham managed to knock himself unconscious by colliding with Orr-Ewing, the top of his head butting his partner’s aluminium box. When he came round several minutes later, a Mandarin fielder broke the wicket and appealed. “Not out,” said the umpire. “Surely you can see he has retired hurt.”
The Stoics (1877) were immortalised in 1886 when Andrew Stoddart, later an England captain, hit 485 against them for Hampstead CC in a total of 813, leaving no time for Stoics to bat. These were the days before declarations were permitted, and a change in the Laws followed three years later after farcical incidents in county cricket, which involved fielding sides trying to prevent batsmen from deliberately getting themselves out.
It is worth mentioning that many wandering clubs are affiliated to the Club Cricket Conference, and only recently the Nomads were rescued by the emergency fixture bureau after their scheduled opponents scratched.
By coincidence another book about village cricket was published at the same time with the same scene on the cover – the Barley Mow at Tilford Green. Our Beloved Cricket by Brian Scovell looks at wandering cricket through the eyes of the Woodpeckers and various media teams. Scovell, a former Daily Mail sports writer, claims to have played in 24 countries on more than 500 grounds, and his 26th book is a delight.
Wandering clubs seem to have toured in every conceivable part of the world, and the sense of fun permeates through the book. Though middle-age experience forms the backbone of many sides, plenty of young guns enjoy in this form of cricket. Perhaps club cricketers who have not tasted the carefree life could use the book as a sort of sales catalogue, make contact and go a’wandering. Strange things can happen.
Gentlemen, Gypsies and Jesters
by Anthony Gibson and Stephen Chalke (Fairfield Books: £25)
Telephone: Stephen Chalke: 01225 335813
Post: 17 George’s Rd, Bath BA1 6EY
Other recommended recently published hardbacks:
Lost In The Long Grass by John Barclay (Fairfield Books; £15)
Micky Stewart and the Changing Face of Cricket by Stephen Chalke (Fairfield Books; £18)
Our Beloved Cricket by Brian Scovell (Fonthill; £18.99)
This article first appeared in the Club Cricket Conference website