A Long Half HourMartin Chandler |
Stephen Chalke is one of the finest cricket writers we have – on his favourite subject of English county cricket in the three decades after the second world war he is always at his very best. He has just published two new books. One of them, A Long Half Hour, is vintage Chalke, as he reflects on time spent talking to six fascinating characters from the post war era. One of the six is Bomber Wells who died in 2008. Writer and subject, over a number of years, became great friends and it was entirely appropriate when Bomber slipped away that Chalke should write a tribute to him. What was written was, inevitably, by definition an obituary, but is much better described as a celebration of Bomber’s life and times:-
Bryan ‘Bomber’ Wells (1930-2008)
Bryan ‘Bomber’ Wells was one of English cricket’s greatest characters.
Born in Gloucester in July 1930, the son of a blacklisted trade unionist, he never really changed from the happy-go-lucky club cricketer he had been when he was first summoned to play for the county.
He learned the game during the wartime years of Double British Summer Time, when they played cricket in the street till the sun went down: rough-and-ready games with a tennis ball, a lump of wood for a bat and stumps made out of bean sticks. From that he progressed through various local sides: the Harlequins, the Nondescripts, Gloucester City.
He was an off-spinner but hardly a conventional one. He had a wide girth and a rolling gait, he ambled in off one or two paces, and he bowled whether the batsman was ready or not. This last aspect of his bowling was the subject of some wonderful stories, which he never tired of telling in that broad ‘Glorster’ accent of his.
One, from his early days, involved a Gloucester Nondescripts match at Witney where he bowled an opposing batsman, the Oxfordshire player Len Hemming, and the Nondies skipper, not sure Hemming had been ready, called him back. “We played all away matches, you see, and we didn’t like to offend anyone.” The batsman returned rather sheepishly and was immediately bowled a second time. Again it was not clear that he had been ready – “but, before our captain could say a word, Len Hemming swung round. ‘Bill, if you think I’m staying here for him to get his bloody hat-trick, you’ve got another thing coming.'”
By 1951 Bomber’s bowling was attracting attention. He was summoned to play for the county second eleven against Glamorgan, and he took six wickets in each innings. Then the following week, in a story he told many times over the years, he was sitting with his girlfriend on a park bench on Friday evening when Tom Goddard, Gloucester’s legendary off-spinner, appeared.
“Are you Bomber Wells? … Well, get down to Bristol tomorrow. You’re playing against Sussex.”
“He was just a boy from the sticks,” Arthur Milton recalled. “He strolled in, changed, came out. Nothing worried him.”
“Why should it?” Bomber would reply. “It was just another game, wasn’t it? All I ever wanted to do was to bowl.”
The captain, Sir Derrick Bailey, did not ask him to bowl till after lunch. Then Bomber came in off his two paces. Some say that Sir Derrick, fielding at mid-off, walked in for the first ball, turned, went back to his mark and walked in again for the third ball.
Imagine what it was like to be a fast bowler at the other end. “One time I was walking down to third man at the end of my over,” Frank McHugh tells, “and I heard this shout. And the ball whistled past me for four. Then I found out it was the second ball of the over. I’d hardly have my sweater on, and in no time I’d be taking it off for the next over.”
But for all this Bomber was a fine bowler. He had powerful shoulders, a fast arm and a perfect action at point of delivery, and the ball came down much more quickly than the batsman expected. Not only that. His standard fare was off-breaks, but he had control of a wide variety of other deliveries: seamers, floaters and leg-breaks. And he could change his pace with no discernible sign. “It used to bore me silly to bowl two balls the same,” he would say.
“He just stood at the wicket and turned his arm over,” a later opponent recalled. “John Edrich had this ritual. He always looked down three or four times when the bowler was in his run-up. Well, Bomber would be standing there, ready to let the ball go. ‘Are you ready, our John?’ he’d ask in his broad Gloucester accent, and John couldn’t get in synch. He couldn’t get his four nods in.”
Bomber took six Sussex wickets that first day, and he became a regular in the Gloucestershire side, alongside John Mortimore and Sam Cook, ahead of David Allen. In 1956, that golden summer for slow bowlers, only Don Shepherd and Jim Laker among off-spinners took more wickets than his 123.
Allen, Mortimore and Cook all played for England, but there were some on the county circuit who thought Bomber the best of the lot – though perhaps he offered less in the batting and fielding departments.
As a batsman his only aim was to entertain, the cry of ‘Bomber’s in’ enough to clear the bars. He had only one real shot, a great agricultural mow over mid-wicket, but it was spectacular when it connected. His scrapbook contained a newspaper report of a Sunday benefit match at Stinchcombe, against several first-class bowlers, when he came in at 91 for nine and hit a hundred in 35 minutes. “They must have lost the ball four times,” he said. “They were building houses next to the ground, and they kept scrambling over this wall into the building site.”
His running between the wickets occasioned many stories – like the mix-up with Sam Cook that ended with Sam run out. “For God’s sake, call,” Sam cried out, and back came the reply: “Tails.” Or the time Derbyshire’s Derek Morgan picked up the ball and out-sprinted him to the bowler’s end: “That’s not fair, Derek,” Bomber protested. “I’ve got pads on.”
He even had a story of a day at Bristol when both batsmen had runners and such was the confusion he caused that all four men finished at the same end.
As a fielder he was even less like a modern cricketer. A leisurely figure on the boundary, he liked to chat to the nearby spectators, on one occasion – he reckoned – contriving to hold a catch while juggling a cup of tea in his other hand. His approach was not to everybody’s taste, particularly when the game was nearing a tense conclusion, but even his disciplinarian captain George Emmett found it hard not to see the funny side of Bomber. As Michael Parkinson wrote, ‘There was a summer’s day in his face and laughter in his soul.’
In 1959, with Tom Graveney as captain, David Allen replaced him in the side, being picked for England before the year was out. Bomber played in the second eleven, where his captain was once more George Emmett. Then Tom Graveney was injured, George Emmett resumed the first-team captaincy, and Bomber took charge of the seconds, leading the team to first place in the newly established Second Eleven Championship. It became one of his jokes: “I’m the only man who’s captained Gloucestershire to a championship title.”
The following year he went to Nottinghamshire to bowl on the batsman’s paradise at Trent Bridge. He was attracted, he said, by the beautiful ground and by the larger helpings served at meal times. “Not like the little salads we used to have every day at Bristol, one slice of cold meat so thin you could see through it.”
“What do you want to go up there for, Bomber?” Sam Cook said. “You’ll end up being cannon fodder.” But Bomber enjoyed the challenge, and in his first summer there he bowled more overs than anybody else in England, taking 120 wickets. “The great thing about Bomber,” Tony Brown says, “is that he was such a good bowler on good wickets.”
He lost his place in 1965, and he had a story about that, too.
“Some statistician worked out that I’d taken 999 wickets so they offered me the game against Gloucester at Bristol. They said, ‘Somebody down there will give you their wicket.’ But I said, ‘No. Plenty of people have got a thousand wickets. I bet no one’s got 999.'”
Alas, the story had a sad ending.
“Three months later they found I’d only got 998.”
For Bomber statisticians were in the same category as coaches, people who suffocated the natural fun of the game. He loved the stories, both from his own playing days and from further back in history, and he loved to watch people playing naturally, expressing their character and not moulded into a standard way of doing things.
“I could bowl standing still,” he would say. “If you’re a natural, everything comes easy. You can do what you like and get away with murder. If you’re coached, unless you stay in that groove, you’re struggling, aren’t you?”
Bomber had started out as an apprentice printer, and after cricket he stayed for many years in Nottingham, working once more as a printer. Then, when his wife Pat died, he returned to his beloved Gloucester where he was lucky to meet Mary and to enjoy 18 happy years with her. He suffered a major stroke in 1998, but such was his spirit that, with Mary’s steadfast support, he fought his way back to enjoy another ten years, years in which he continued to tell his stories on the boundary edge throughout the county: at the Cheltenham Festival, at the Spa ground, at cricket matches of all sorts.
For Bomber, cricket was a people’s game. Whether you played for England or for Gloucester City third eleven, it made no difference. It was a game of sunshine and laughter, of human beings revealing themselves – and, at its best, of wonderful artistry. He was not a religious man but, on a sunny day at Cheltenham, when he was settled in his favourite corner beyond the scoreboard, his conversation captured that sense of timelessness that makes cricket such a special game.
He expressed it superbly in a foreword I helped him to write to a book about Gloucestershire cricket:
Robinswood Hill still looks down on the Wagon Works ground, but now the county plays in the shadow of Gloucester Cathedral – at the Archdeacon Meadow. When I was a boy, I used to pick bulrushes there, when it was just scrubland, and now it maintains the tradition of county cricket here in the city of Gloucester. How many runs Hammond would have scored on its placid surface, I can’t imagine.
The County Ground in Bristol is no longer the open field it was in my day. It is a modern cricket stadium with all the facilities. But for the true cricket lover there can be nowhere like Cheltenham College on a Festival day – with the sun shining, Matt Windows cutting his way to a hundred and the folk around the boundary reminiscing about days gone by. Reminiscing about Emmett and Zaheer, some even about Hammond and Parker, where once they sat and reminisced about Jessop and Grace. One day they will reminiscence about Russell and Windows.
Generation upon generation of great Gloucestershire cricketers. Long may they keep coming – as long as the sun shines over the River Severn.
For certain, the crowds at Cheltenham will be reminiscing about Bomber for years to come. He brought so much joy into so many lives.
A Long Half Hour is published by Fairfield Booksin paperback and the UK cover price is ten pounds. You can read CW’s review of it here. The book is available, as the old cliche goes, at all good bookshops as well as internet booksellers and, of course, direct from the publisher. The celebration of Bomber’s life appears in The Way It Was, the National Sporting Club Cricket Book of the Year for 2009, and was also published by Fairfield. It is now out of print although we understand some Waterstones shops still have copies for sale. You can read CW’s review of that book here.