Heir To AdventureMartin Chandler |
Author: Evans, AJ
Rating: 3 stars
It has been a couple of generations now since the last of those with first hand memories of the 1921 cricket season departed this mortal coil. The big story of that distant summer was Warwick Armstrong’s Australians defeating a demoralised England team that had just been brushed aside 5-0 in Australia. Two heavy defeats in the first two Tests meant a change of captain for the Englishmen and a change of attitude as the Honourable Lionel Tennyson stepped into the breach. Under Tennyson’s leadership there was another heavy defeat, but at least there was a better performance under the new skipper. The fourth and fifth Tests that followed were drawn and provided, if not a recovery, then at least a glimpse of a future where Australia might be beaten again.
There were plenty of incidents in that difficult summer for English cricket, many involving Armstrong or Tennyson, as well as the stories of the means by which Armstrong achieved his domination, his ground breaking pair of strike bowlers, Jack Gregory and Ted MacDonald. Not too far behind is the ‘Boy’s Own’ tale of Archie MacLaren’s all amateur side unexpectedly lowering the Australian’s colours at Eastbourne at the back end of the tour. One fascinating story that passes most by however is that of AJ ‘John’ Evans, who came into the England side for the second Test from nowhere, and disappeared again just as swiftly afterwards.
There is very little written about Evans the cricketer, but a line from Ronald Mason’s book on the series, published exactly fifty years later, sums up his unexpected elevation rather well; I can attribute his selection in the present situation to no traceable source but encroaching panic.
So who was Evans? Between 1908 and 1912 he had played in 43 First Class matches, most of them for Oxford University and a handful for Hampshire. A product of the ‘Golden Age’ such descriptions as there are of his batting emphasise a right hander who was an uncertain starter but, once he got going, a fluent batsman when he could get on the front foot and drive.
After graduating Evans played just twice more before the Great War, in 1914, and after that was next seen in First Class cricket in 1919. That occasion may well have been relevant to his England appearance. It was for the Gentlemen of England against the Australian Imperial Forces side. The Australians, for whom Gregory was the star turn, were beaten four times on their tour, but only on this occasion was the defeat by an innings. Evans scored 68.
Two years and two matches later Evans was invited to play for the MCC against Armstrong’s side at Lord’s. The Australians won, but only by three wickets and Evans top scored in MCC’s first innings with an unbeaten 69. If a further nudge to the increasingly desperate selectors was needed he made his debut for Kent a week later, and scored a century (only his second ever) against Northamptonshire. The East Midlands county’s strength lay in its bowling rather than its batting, but even so there was no real comparison between William Wells and George Thompson on the one hand, and Gregory and MacDonald on the other.
Nonetheless Evans was in and, scoring 4 and 14, he did better than Donald Knight and Patsy Hendren before, in both innings, falling victim to MacDonald. He had batted courageously and had assisted Tennyson, another unexpected selection, to add 33 in the second innings. He had however, unsurprisingly, looked some way out of his depth. He was not retained and played just half a dozen matches over the next six years. He then skippered Kent for one summer, in which he batted pretty well, before a few appearances the following year were his last in First Class cricket.
The reason for going into Evans’ cricket career in some detail in this review is because it is not a subject on which he dwells in his book, sub-titled ‘Notes for an Autobiography’. In fact he covers his cricket in its entirety in less than a page. Even then there are some factual errors and Evans’ modesty is such he tells his reader very little beyond explaining why, all things considered, he preferred playing golf to wielding the willow.
So what of the other 156 pages? The first quarter of the book concerns Evans’ upbringing and contains much about his father, another First Class cricketer and the man who founded Horris Hill school near Newbury. The school is the Alma Mater of one of the most famous England captains, Douglas Jardine. Evans makes no mention of that nor, to my amazement does the school today. The son of a friend of mine recently joined the staff there and, six months after he joined, had I not asked him for an invitation to view the school’s Jardine memorabilia he would never have known he was employed by the Iron Duke’s prep school. Needless to say no part of the school is a shrine to DRJ nor, to the best of my friend’s sons’ knowledge, does the school own any mementoes of their best known cricketing alumni.
But I digress. The truth is that Evans was already something of a national hero when he faced Gregory and McDonald, and the story of why takes up much of the second part of the book. He served with distinction in the Great War and his claim to fame was, having been taken prisoner, managing to make his way out of a supposedly escape proof prisoner of war camp and indeed that story, as The Escaping Club, was first published in 1921. The book ran to several editions and the most recent, from 2012, remains in print and available through Amazon.
The account of Evans’ war service and his famous escape is a story that remains fresh more than a century on, and by the time Heir To Adventure appeared Evans was able to add the story of his service in the Second World War, providing training in the art of escape, and something of his later life outside the military, but still in post war Germany. The book was published in 1961, so in the year following Evans’ death at the age of 70, which is presumably why the project never progressed beyond being ‘Notes for an Autobiography’.
Heir to Adventure is a well written insight into a life well lived and the only real regret any reader can have is that Evans did not live long enough to turn his notes into the finished product, as there are a number of questions left unanswered. In particular there is no mention of what became of Evans’ family. All he really discloses is that he had four children. The youngest would probably now be well into his or her 80s, so it is highly unlikely that all survive, but hopefully one or two of them and some remoter issue are still with us, and perhaps some enterprising biographer will one day provide us with a definitive account of AJ Evans’ life. This reviewer for one will be at the front of the queue to purchase a copy, even if the cricket content is but a chapter or two.