Jack Mercer: A Bowler of Magical Spells

Published: 2011
Pages: 149
Author: Hignell, Andrew
Publisher: ACS
Rating: 3.5 stars

Jack Mercer: A Bowler of Magical Spells

I have read more than a few biographies of cricketers over the years, and one thing I thought I had convinced myself of was how not to approach the task of writing one. All of the books that I have liked least have had a similar format. They start with a short chapter on the subject’s parents and siblings, followed by a cursory look at his childhood and schooling. Next is the tale of how he first came to the attention of the team with whom he rose to prominence, the main part of the book then comprising a year by year examination of his playing career. Winding down there is then a quick look at the man’s personal life, a swift run through what he did after he retired from professional cricket culminating in a brief summary containing a few tributes. Hopefully, but not always, there will be a selection of photographs, a statistical appendix and an index.

Andrew Hignell’s life of Jack Mercer follows exactly that brief, yet I found it a most enjoyable read, so either my preconception was misconceived, or it is, to use one of my favourite “Get out of jail free” phrases, the exception that proves the rule. In truth I think it is a bit of both, but perhaps rather more of the latter.

Mercer’s name will not be familiar to casual readers, and even for seasoned cricket tragics it will not immediately ring too many bells. A late starter, he had passed his thirtieth birthday before he became anything other than an occasional extra in the English domestic game. He never did play for England and despite Hignell suggesting, no doubt with some force, that he may have done had he played the bulk of his First Class cricket for a county more fashionable than Glamorgan, his record is that of an honest toiler rather than a budding great. The consequent lack of familiarity with any of his deeds makes the strictly chronological journey through his career rather more appropriate than it would have been for a Hutton or a Compton.

It is also relevant that Hignell is the Glamorgan archivist, and has already written full biographies of county stalwarts and contemporaries of Mercer, Maurice Turnbull and Wilf Wooller. Mercer’s story is inextricably linked to the difficulties that the fledgling First Class county had after it first acquired Championship status in 1921, most notably a constant battle for financial survival in the teeth of the Great Depression, so there is very much an element of two stories for the price of one.

That Jack Mercer is an interesting character helps Hignell greatly as well. Aged 20 he was in Russia for some time, staying on after working his passage to the country in 1913. The outbreak of war cut short his stay, but not before he had learned the language. He quickly enlisted on his return and was made an officer in the Infantry. In the lead up to the infamous Battle of the Somme he lay in No-Man’s-Land for 48 hours before being rescued, the shrapnel wounds that put him there ending his war. He served again in the Second World War, the full story of which might one day be known if the relevant papers are declassified – suffice it to say he spent time at Bletchley Park, and found his Russian to be of use. The problem of course is that these were not matters, like his far from straightforward personal life, that Mercer was generally prepared to discuss, and his having left no children to whom he might have opened up more Hignell has just a few scraps of information with which to work.

I dare say that a disproportionate part of the print run of Jack Mercer: A Bowler of Magical Spells will have been dispatched to addresses in South Wales and Northamptonshire, where its subject spent his later working life first as coach and then scorer. Mercer’s story is however an unusual one, and should be on the reading list of anyone with an interest in the development of English cricket between the wars.

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