There’s Only One Tommy Wilson

Published: 2015
Pages: 125
Author: Douglas Miller
Publisher: Charlcombe Books
Rating: 4 stars

Some years ago I read somewhere that Harold ‘Dickie’ Bird’s 1997 autobiography was one of the best-selling cricket books of all time. I have often wondered whether Dickie spent his umpiring career actively courting all the publicity he generated or not. I suspect probably not, but then if he didn’t he clearly had an agent who did, and with a number of other titles bearing his name selling very well over the years he must be one of the few people connected with the game, and most certainly only umpire, who has ever made any real money out of cricket literature.

There are a few other umpires who have ventured into print before, and I dare say Darrell Hair shifted a few copies of Decision Maker, but they are very much the exception, and all officiated at the highest level. As to biographies there is the odd book around that amounts to a collection of pen portraits of umpires, but unless I have forgotten something Douglas Miller’s biography of Tommy Wilson is the first book of that genre I have read. And Tommy never stood in a Test match, and in fact was a First Class umpire in England for just a single season, so on the face of it certainly not an obvious candidate to be the trailblazer.

There are a number of reasons why Tommy’s story has been told, none in themselves compelling, but put together they fully justify the time that Douglas Miller spent on a project he clearly very much enjoyed. Tommy is 77 now and still lives in the same small Lancashire village where he was born. He has never played the game he loves, a consequence of childhood polio that left him in need of a calliper on his left leg. So he certainly had a tough upbringing, and his reaching anything like the top of the tree as an umpire is a significant triumph over adversity, as was his establishing a retail business in his home village that provided for him and his family until his retirement.

It helps of course that Tommy’s story is well told, but then Douglas Miller has demonstrated in previous biographies of Don Shepherd, Alan Watkins, Jack Bond, Charles Palmer and Mike Smith that he is a skilled wordsmith when it comes to recounting the lives of those who achieved much without ever quite becoming household names. There is however a big difference between the lives of players and umpires, that being the self-evident but all too easily overlooked point that when a player does his job well the result will often be a stirring tale of derring-do, whereas when an umpire conducts himself faultlessly there is, as the saying goes, nothing to write home about.

The result is that there needs to be a rich vein of humour in a book like this, but not so much that, like some of Mr Bird’s early titles, that becomes the be all and end all. There’s Only One Tommy Wilson fits the bill perfectly, and indeed one of the more entertaining chapters involves Tommy’s week on the circuit with Dickie. Perhaps my favourite story however involved Mike Brearley persuading Tommy and his fellow umpire to resume play on a dark day at Lord’s with a promise to bowl his spin twins John Emburey and Phil Edmonds following the resumption. Having got to the middle Tommy and the batsmen were greeted by the sight of Wayne Daniel pawing away at the end of his run up, with Brearley expressing the view that the light had improved. I suspect a fair few new umpires would have let the England captain get away with it, but Tommy didn’t fall for Brearley’s shenanigans, and picked up the bails and went straight back to the pavilion.

Another story I enjoyed, and one which with all due respect to Miller would by its nature be even more entertaining when told in person by Tommy himself, arose out of a benefit match for Lancashire’s Ken Higgs in 1968. Some imaginative person on the Benefit Committee had come up with the very clever idea of staging a cricket match at Old Trafford between players and officials of Manchester’s two mighty soccer clubs, City and United. As around a quarter of the eventual total of Higgs’ benefit was generated by the game it clearly was a good plan. But it seems the supporters of the Sky Blues and the Red Devils didn’t treat the game in the traditional light-hearted manner of a benefit match. As, unlike at Maine Road or the other Old Trafford, they were not segregated there were, unsurprisingly given the intensity of the clubs’ rivalry, a number of items of property damaged. Tommy laughs about it now, but would doubtless have had a few uncomfortable moments at the time – but I shall play spoiler no further on that one.

The book also reminds its reader that some curious insights into the First Class game are to be found in the leagues and the Minor Counties, where Tommy spent most of his career. A couple of examples involve the hoary old chestnut of illegal bowling actions. One concerns David O’Sullivan, sometime New Zealand orthodox slow left arm bowler who lost his overseas berth at Hampshire when Andy Roberts arrived. O’Sullivan played for Durham for a while in the 1970s, and his and Tommy’s paths crossed then. More surprising is a revelation about Clairmonte Depeiaza, who played five Tests for West Indies as a wicketkeeper batsman in the mid 1950s. I read all I could find about Depeiaza when researching Denis Atkinson’s remarkable performance against Australia in 1955. What I knew nothing of was Depeiaza’s transformation, once he played League cricket in England, into a bowler. I learn now that by then he had a dubious action, one that Tommy encountered when ‘The Leaning Tower’ played for Northumberland.

There are many more stories, some serious and others more light hearted, and through them the reader certainly gets to know Tommy well, and also learns a few things about cricketers and umpires, as well as getting a flavour of life in the wilds of central Lancashire. There’s Only One Tommy Wilson is highly recommended.

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