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Ayres’ Cricket Companion

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There is, as we all know, a cricket annual that has appeared every single year since 1864 so, for the 156th time in 2019. Wisden has certainly had a rocky patch or two along the road, but that longevity in itself demonstrates that cricket can sustain a substantial annual publication that reviews the world game.

Over the years Wisden has had a bit of competition. Back in Victorian times there were the two Lillywhite publications, but they merged in 1885 and the survivor, the ‘Red’ Lilly, whilst it survived to see in the twentieth century did not appear after 1900. For a while from 1979 the Pelham Cricket Year, which became the Benson and Hedges Cricket Year and then the Cheltenham and Gloucester Cricket Year provided another interesting annual publication, albeit one of a rather different type. That one did not get past thirty editions and appeared, without a sponsor, for the last time in 2008.

Cricket Year was a large format, heavily illustrated publication. Over the years a few smaller publications have done well, and indeed the Playfair annual still appears with Wisden each spring and has been with us now since 1948. For these purposes I disregard more local publications on the basis they have a different market. The counties and other clubs issue yearbooks and have done so now for many years.

England opening batsmen Herbert Sutcliffe and Cyril Washbrook lent their names to annuals after the War, in 1947 and 1950 respectively, but neither made a second appearance. There were many other short-lived annuals before them, and one or two that enjoyed a decent innings before fading. Only one of them however holds much interest for collectors today.

Edward Ayres began his business in 1810 in Clerkenwell and for many years toys, games and furniture were his firm’s main business. Succeeding generations saw opportunities in the burgeoning sports equipment market and in 1895 FH Ayres Limited was incorporated. At that stage the business, still with its manufacturing base in London, employed more than 600 people.

The reasoning behind John Wisden’s venture into publishing in 1864 had been, primarily, to advertise his sports outfitting business and Ayres Cricket Companion, no doubt with a similar motivation, was launched in 1902. That first edition is exceptionally rare and indeed almost unprocurable, a copy that appeared at a Knight’s auction last year being the first I have ever seen for sale. The hammer price was £2,300.

It is as well that, realistically, that 1902 edition is unimportant in bibliographical terms. It was a tiny (around 11cm by 6cm) paper wrappered pamphlet that contains nothing more than a brief biographical note with a photograph of the Essex cricketer Charles McGahey, a few instructional pages and the laws of the game within its 42 pages. It was quite unlike any of the succeeding editions.

In 1903 the Companion doubled its pagination and increased in size to 16cm by 11cm. It would retain that page size up to and including its 1931 edition, by which time it had grown into a sturdy book of 300 pages. For the 1932 edition there was a rebranding, and the book became Ayres’ Public Schools Cricket Companion and put on another centimetre in height and width as well as a further 38 pages in girth. Sadly however that was to be the last Ayres and, after 31 consecutive editions the Ayres went the same way as the Lillywhites.

Why did the Companion fail? It is difficult to find out any details now but it seems likely that one way or another the Great Depression was responsible. By now Ayres were not the power they had been in the sporting goods business either, and although the firm survived the Second World War soon afterwards the company was taken over by Slazenger and the name Ayres, in a sporting context disappeared, so much so that it meant absolutely nothing to me when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. That the name resonates at all today is thanks to its finally much valued cricket annual and, it would seem, the desirability in the antique toy market of FH Ayres’ rocking horses!

Ayres’ advantage over its competition was its content. One alternative publication of which I have a few copies is the long running Athletics News Annual, which began as long ago as 1888 and carried on until just after the Second World War when the Playfair saw it off. The Athletic News Annual is smaller than the Ayres and sufficiently slim to make it, despite its paper covers, relatively robust and hard wearing. On the other hand there is virtually no narrative content, and the substance of the book is almost entirely statistics, the laws of the game and fixture lists.

The 1903 Ayres, although it had the basic appearance it was to retain until 1931, was still not quite into its stride. Its strength as a chronicle of the game in the Public Schools was not yet apparent, but whilst there were the basic statistics of the 1902 season inside there were also good accounts of all the summer’s major fixtures (including the five Test Ashes series in which Victor Trumper cemented his reputation) and a look back at the previous summer. The editor, WR Weir, also included a photograph and pen portrait of JR Mason, and a particularly good look at the history of the game in an article entitled A Peep In To The Past.

By 1905 the die was cast as a lengthy essay appeared in Ayres dealing with the history of the game at Winchester College. From then on the Companion contained such an article on an annual basis. These essays were always well illustrated, and whilst primarily concerned with the cricket of the featured school were certainly not limited to that. Generally they were written by Weir, but on occasion also by JN Pentelow.

Over the years a number of articles appeared in Ayres from the pen of FS Ashley-Cooper, undoubtedly the foremost historian of the day. Pentelow too contributed on a frequent basis and indeed was to edit the Companion from 1928 until his death in 1931. As befits an annual that set out its stall to attract a schoolboy audience there were also technical articles from the likes of Australian Test batsman Charles Macartney, South African Herby Taylor and the former England captain Stanley Jackson.

Another interesting name that crops up in the list of contributors to Ayres, particularly those with a leaning towards the Red Rose, is northern writer George Brooking, whose work turns up all too rarely in book form. Lord Harris and the statistician and bibliophile AD Taylor also wrote features for Ayres. In addition to those substantial pieces of writing, for those who like that sort of thing, there are regular items of cricketing poetry from Charles Plairre, whose byline was either CP, or ‘The Picknicker’.

Following Pentelow’s death the editorship passed  to John Slee. His is not a name that will be familiar to many but, as former Sports Editor of Reuters he was clearly not without a pedigree in sports writing. Slee made changes, increasing still further the coverage of school’s cricket and reducing that of the First Class game. His introduction clearly evinced the intention that the Companion would continue, but it seems likely that his changes failed to convince sufficient schoolboy cricketers that the Companion was worth, in such difficult economic times, the 66.67% increase in the cover price that the changes had brought.

No one has ever put together an anthology of the articles in Ayres, so for the present day collector there is much to be learned within its pages. The books do not crop up with great frequency, but there are generally copies available and, as I write this post, one UK dealer has a run, missing only 1903, 1904 and 1932, available for £750.The first two are rarer, but not so difficult to track down that a full set (ie 1903-1932 inclusive) would not still leave a purchaser with change from £1,000. An added advantage is that, unlike Wisden for the same period, the books are robustly produced and generally in good condition and, pleasingly, can therefore be read free from the fear that they will fall apart in your hands, something that anyone whoever reads their pre-WW2 Wisdens will confirm  is always a bonus. An additional advantage is that if space is at a premium a full run of Ayres’ will take up around the same amount of space as no more than seven modern Wisdens.

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