Walter Read – A Class ActMartin Chandler |
Author: Booth, Keith
Rating: 3.5 stars
There cannot be a man alive who knows more about Surrey cricket in the Victorian era than Keith Booth. He has already written biographies of Walter Read’s teammates George Lohmann and Ted Pooley, and also one of Charles Alcock, who was secretary of the Surrey club for more than thirty years as well as a writer and, probably most famously of all, the driving force behind the launch of the FA Cup. In addition Booth has already contributed a book in this series about Ernest Hayes and I understand another concerning Tom Richardson is in the pipeline.
Returning to Read he was a fine batsman and occasional lob bowler. He was an educated man who played as an amateur, but as he did not enjoy the benefits of a substantial private income he had to work, and accordingly it was not until 1881, when he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the assiduous Alcock, that he was able to play regularly. He then played on until 1896 and as well as fulfilling his committments to his county he played in 18 Test matches between 1882 and 1893.
The difficulty with this sort of book is that with no possibility of any first hand testimony about their subject an author is reliant on family archives and memories passed down the generations or, perhaps, a long ignored cache of personal correspondence if he or she is to be able to paint a full picture of the personality they are dealing with.
Unfortunately for Booth while he has tracked down surviving relatives they did not have a great deal to add to the story, and while he has found some correspondence as well that was, essentially, purely formal letters in relation to the eventual termination of Read’s contract with Surrey. While these are interesting for their content they reveal little about Read other than that he was, as befits a man with teaching and secretarial experience, an intelligent and articulate man.
Booth has, naturally given his background, done the best possible job in recreating Read’s cricket career and rightly dwells on his famous century, coming in to bat at number ten, against Australia in 1884. What has never been properly explained is why he batted as low as ten. Booth is scornful of the “official” line that Read felt out of form and asked to be placed there and clearly favours the school of thought that Read had had a row with the England captain, the autocratic Lord Harris. On this point I was surprised to see no mention of the view expressed by Sir Home Gordon in 1939 that the reason arose out of Read’s captain not even wanting him in the team to begin with. Gordon did state that the captain was Grace and not Harris, and may well therefore simply be wrong, or confused (he was nearly seventy at the time), but given this was one of the more colourful aspects of the story I would still have thought a brief digression was merited.
One reassuring aspect of anything that bears the imprint of the ACS is that the accuracy of its content can be relied on, and will not be “sexed up” in order to make it more interesting. In his closing chapter Booth quotes another writer as describing Read, in a book published in 1989, as … a bluff and dashing extrovert who never worried about whom he upset. Not having learnt very much about Read the man up until that point, and knowing that Booth’s book only had four pages to go, I was intrigued and managed to locate my copy of the volume concerned and opened it up for the first time in years. As expected there was no cited source for this assertion and I can only assume therefore that there was none. The only other description of Read’s character that Booth quotes suggests exactly the opposite, although he does make the observation that while this latter description was contemporaneous it was from what amounted to an official source. We will never know of course, but it is reassuring that the opportunity for Booth to fill in the gap with an assessment of his own making was foregone.
Walter Read – A Class Act will not appeal to the casual cricket fan, and indeed I would go as far as to say it will give little pleasure to the more hardened follower of the game unless he is a Surrey man or has a special interest in the Victorian era. That said it is a welcome addition to my library, comprising as it does a record of the career of a man who was not without importance in the era in which he played. Anyone in the future who wants to know about Walter Read will, because of Booth’s hard work, be spared the task of flicking through fragile old copies of Cricket – A Weekly Record of the Game. Neither will he or she have to try and tackle the rather tedious Annals of Cricket that Read himself wrote and was published in 1896. Keith Booth has done a considerable service to the game’s future historians.