The Champion Band

Published: 2014
Pages: 304
Author: Reeves, Scott
Publisher: Chequered Flag Publishing
Rating: 4 stars

The Champion Band

Reviewing books definitely brings out the pedant in a man. There is a feeling of smug satisfaction to be gained from spotting an error in an author’s narrative. It is not necessarily an appealing trait, and I know from my own experience that I do not always hold such observations to the credit of a reviewer. That said when faced, before even opening a book, with what looks like a mis-statement on its front cover, the instinct kicks in involuntarily.

The relevant phrase with The Champion Band is its sub-title, The First English Cricket Tour which, as the book is concerned with George Parr’s side’s trip to North America in 1859 is in the view of some seven decades wide of the mark. My immediate reaction was to turn the book over in order to glance briefly at the back cover, whilst I decided whether it was worth reading it at all.

But there can be deflating moments whilst nitpicking, and the one here was reading the words In 1859 twelve cricketers left Liverpool to embark on the first overseas tour by a representative England side. So then I didn’t know whether author Scott Reeves was toying with me, so I had to read the book to find out.

As I progressed through The Champion Band it became clear Reeves knew the story that says the first tour ever arranged was, supposedly, back in 1789 when a trip to revolutionary France was put together. The adjective revolutionary is the devil in the detail as the chosen party, on reaching Dover, turned back at hearing news of what might await them in Paris.

In relation to the French tour Reeves has chosen to adopt the John Major line that, in the former Prime Minister’s words the whole story is nonsense, but Major quotes no source to support his view. In the absence of a bibliography to his very readable book on cricketing pre-history More Than A Game: The Story of Cricket’s Early Years I did wonder whether the Right Honourable Gentleman might not have been aware of John Goulstone’s meticulously researched 1972 study The 1789 Tour, which convinced me when I read it some years ago. If he had then if nothing else he would surely have put forward both sides of the argument, wouldn’t he? But then I learnt that the man who did much of the research for Major was none other than the man himself, John Goulstone! I will say no more other than make the observation that the full truth, well over two centuries on, will doubtless elude us in perpetuity.

Having already strayed a long way from my brief I remind myself I am here to review The Champion Band, an interesting and very well written account of what was, on any interpretation of the facts, a ground-breaking venture. There is a contemporary account, written by Fred Lillywhite of the famous brotherhood. An astute businessman Fred played a part in organising the tour and accompanied it, taking with him his printing press and tent so he could sell scorecards at each fixture. His tour book, understandably, was an important source for Reeves. At the same time the visit attracted great interest in both the US and Canada and was widely covered in their newspapers, material which Lillywhite had no need to have regard to, but which Reeves has made extensive use of.

Reeves, does a fine job of putting the tour in context, reminding his reader that International sport was in its infancy at the time. Indeed whilst sport in general played an important role in 1850s society the landscape in which it was played was wholly different to today. Golf’s Open Championship was a year away, and the FA Cup a dozen years in the future. It was almost two decades before the first Wimbledon Championships were held, or Test match played, and Rugby Union had only had a set of rules for just over a decade. The only regular sporting events already established were of the equine variety, The Oaks, The Derby, The St Leger and the Grand National amongst other races all being well-established. Of team sports there was the University Boat Race, which just pre-dated the formation of The Champion Band and, although it had not been an annual meeting, Canada had played the US at cricket on ten occasions since 1844.

Against such a background the story of William Clarke and his All England XI assumes greater importance, as does the subsequent breakaway by John Wisden and George Parr who formed their own United All England XI. The rift between the two rival groups of professionals was resolved after the death of Clarke in 1856, and The Champion Band comprised six men from each eleven. There was no ECB of course, so who organised the tour and why? Reeves, tells the story from both sides of the Atlantic.

The cricket itself is fully dealt with, the combination of contemporary newspapers and Lillywhite’s book enabling Reeves to give detailed accounts of the major matches. In each of a number of centres the tourists took on 22 locals. The most resistance, unsurprisingly, came in Philadelphia but even that game was won comfortably enough by the Englishmen. There were also a number of eleven a side matches, for which the tourists split in two, and joined with the best of the local players to produce the teams.

In recent years a number of books have been published about tours of long ago, and the accounts of the cricket are often their achilles heel. It is never easy to write about events so long in the past in a manner both authoritative and entertaining and that, to my mind, is the biggest challenge that faced Scott Reeves when he embarked on this project. He has done very well. There is, perhaps, a little too much detail in places, but better that than not enough.

The two voyages across the Atlantic by sea were neither short nor uneventful for the tourists and other passengers onboard ship, and there is certainly more of a story there than in any later tour. Reeves, has also had the advantage over Lillywhite of rather longer than a couple of months in which to reflect upon the events of those four weeks, and his closing thoughts are well-articulated. Overall the tour was a success, certainly for the players, all of whom took as much as their tour fee again by way of their slice of the profits of the venture. Whether Scott Reeves makes any money out of publishing The Champion Band I am not so convinced, as I fear this particular corner of the game’s history may not arouse a great deal of curiosity. But he has made an impressive first contribution to cricket’s vast literary heritage, which I hope his sales do reflect, and we see his name here again.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler