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Denzil Batchelor

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Denzil Batchelor was born in India in 1906. His family were not short of intellect. His father and grandfather were both High Court Judges. His mother did not, in the manner of the times, have a profession of her own but was a voracious reader of books and a not untalented writer herself, who had a novel published in later life.

Between the ages of three and thirteen, during which period he was sent to England to be educated, Batchelor saw his father only once, and was effectively brought up by his grandparents. At thirteen however, unusually, he returned to India. A bout of pneumonia had developed into malnutrition. There is therefore a slight irony in the fact that, having been built back up and returning to England in 1922, Batchelor then began a lifelong and unequal struggle with his weight.

After his return Batchelor attended a minor public school, Trent College in the East Midlands. From there he went up to Oxford to read English. He had had some poetry he had written published in India, and whilst at Trent some interest was shown in his work. At University Batchelor enjoyed himself, but still found time to get his degree. His more successful sporting endeavours were in the boxing ring and on the rugby field, although he did not get a blue. Cricket he clearly enjoyed, and he even founded his own team, ‘The Batchelors’, but he does not seem to have been a particularly talented player.

After graduation Batchelor worked in London as a journalist but soon accepted a job with a newspaper in Sydney. The problem Batchelor had with that one was that as soon as he turned up for work he realised that the paper was about to fold. There followed a difficult time financially in which he attempted a career as a vacuum cleaner seller, and as a rep for a mobile library. He even claimed to have, completely unsuccessfully, tried prospecting for gold.

Eventually Batchelor’s resourcefulness saw him through the crisis. He began by hiring small venues and giving talks on aspects of English Literature for which he charged an entrance fee. These lectures proved popular and led to further work as a Batchelor met people who could give him a route back into journalism. He was very much a generalist, and certainly didn’t limit himself to sport. In time he was one of those who helped establish Woman magazine. Batchelor also found his way into broadcasting, and became the film critic for the ABC.

By the end of 1936 Batchelor was ready to return to England but, chastened no doubt by his previous migration, he made sure he left Australia with plenty of commissions for work from press and broadcasters. He then returned to London via Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) and wrote about what he found there, before moving on to Spain to report on the Civil War.

Once he got back from Spain Batchelor decided that a good way to earn a living was to interview interesting people for his Australian connections. The likes of Hugh Walpole, Compton Mackenzie, Hilaire Belloc and Somerset Maugham are not such famous names today, but back in the late 1930s their thoughts, particularly when skilfully interviewed, were much in demand.

It was in the late 1930s that Batchelor began a long association with Charles ‘CB’ Fry. The pair had not dissimilar backgrounds and Batchelor has often been said to be one of the few men Fry met who could hold his own in conversation with the great man. The most famous example of that was an occasion when Fry announced that, fed up with people asking him about cricket, he was going to turn to horse racing, something else at which he would excel. Batchelor’s rejoinder to this was along the lines of: Really Charles? What as? Owner, trainer, jockey …….. or horse?

As to the role that Batchelor played where Fry is concerned he is often described as secretary, although the arrangement seems to have been rather more of an ad hoc one than a structured employment. Batchelor’s main task was to assist Fry in putting together his 1939 autobiography, Life Worth Living. Batchelor himself gives the impression that he did little more than write down what Fry told him, although it seems that in truth his role, whilst perhaps not that of a ghostwriter as such, was rather more than just taking dictation.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Batchelor, by then 33, joined up and became a Lieutenant in the Army, eventually rising to the rank of Major. His role was not a military one however, and he utilised his journalistic skills in a new propaganda department, reporting to the Director of Military Intelligence.

After the war ended Batchelor went back to journalism. He reported on sport for The Times and spent a number of years as Sports Editor of the magazine Picture Post. He wrote for a number of other publications as well and particularly, in the 1960s, for Playfair Cricket Monthly. One rather less successful venture was a brief period in which Batchelor was entrusted with the then well known William Hickey gossip problem in the Daily Express, in respect of which he found the editorial interference from on high too much for him.

Over his lifetime Batchelor wrote almost forty books. Many were on subjects other than cricket. His first book, that appeared when he was only 21, was a collection of poetry. A number were on the subject of boxing, and one was a history of association football. One of Batchelor’s own favourites was a history of horse racing, and he also published a book on wine, another area of expertise. There were novels as well, general fiction and crime fiction and, as we will see, one work of cricket fiction. Batchelor wrote a few plays as well, one of which at least was used by the BBC.

The cricket novel mentioned was the only Batchelor book published whilst he was in Australia and indeed was, the early collection of poetry apart, the only book from him to appear before he was 40. The Test Match Murder began with England’s leading batsman walking out to bat in an important match, pulling on his batting gloves and being poisoned by a concealed pin. In Batchelor’s own words it then contained a dope gang, a murder in Sydney’s Chinatown, a car chase with a villain shooting good and bad alike as he swerved round corkscrew curves on two wheels, with a final plunged suicide from the topmost pinnacle of the Harbour Bridge.

The book has not, that I have read, received much in the way of acclaim but Batchelor, who I get the impression recognised its limitations, felt it sold reasonably well and, more importantly, that it was the book that persuaded the Sydney Morning Herald to take him on to provide day to day reports on the 1936/37 Ashes Tests that were designed to out-Cardus Cardus

Batchelor’s first book of cricket fact was The Game Goes On, which appeared in 1947. The publisher’s blurb brought another suggestion that Batchelor’s work might, during the great man’s absence in Australia, be considered a substitute for that of Cardus. It is a collection of match reports and other essays, some of which had already appeared elsewhere, notably in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1949 the same publisher, Eyre and Spottiswoode, published a not dissimilar collection of Batchelor’s work, Days Without Sunset. That book largely consists of Batchelor’s reports on the 1948 Invincibles’ series, but also has a few other essays including some on the 1948 London Olympics, boxing, racing and rugby union. It is also a book that, at a time when such were almost always disappointing, has an excellent dust jacket.

The following year saw another book with Batchelor’s name on its spine, this time The Match I Remember, albeit the eleven main chapters were contributed by a selection of Test cricketers. The clue is in the title of course, and the fact that the same format has been reprised by so many editors in the succeeding years is testament to the fact that it is a decent formula, and one that sells well.

A year later and a biography of Fry appeared in a series of short 64 page biographies published by Phoenix House. Batchelor knew Fry sufficiently well that this could have been a valuable book. Unfortunately however Batchelor seemed oblivious to his friend’s faults and what might have been an interesting book ended up as just another account of Fry’s achievements.

1952 saw the release of The Book of Cricket: A Gallery of Great Players from W.G. Grace to the Present Day, which was a substantial quarto and the sort of coffee table book that the 1950s saw coming into vogue. In truth the photographs are a little disappointing, and not so impressive as the similar sort of books that had appeared in the late Victorian era, but Batchelor’s pen portraits impressed John Arlott who observed that he performed excellently, condensing the historic and personal qualities of his two hundred great players with rare felicity.

It must be assumed that The Match I Remember sold well as in 1953 Batchelor produced Game of a Lifetime, a very similar format save that on this occasion the writing was all Batchelor’s, based on conversations with eleven famous cricketers, and a closing conversation with poet and author Edmund Blunden. Reviewing the book for The Cricketer GD Martineau clearly enjoyed it, and Batchelor must have enjoyed reading the observation that: the atmosphere of suspense that accompanies collapse or sorely needed stand has been admirably conveyed.

For the rest of the 1950s Batchelor’s cricketing output was limited to souvenirs of the Ashes series of 1953, 1954/55 and 1956, although a number of books on other subjects also appeared before, in 1961, he published an autobiography, Babbled of Green Fields. There is not much cricket in the book, but there are a few interesting observations on Fry, and the sole chapter devoted to the game contains some interesting observations on the Bodyline series, the Allen trip to Australia four years later and the generally poorly chronicled 1938 series.

In 1964 for the one and only time in his career Batchelor was commissioned to write an account of a Test series, that summer’s Ashes series. The Test Matches of 1964 was published by Epworth Press and is a traditional tour account, albeit a well written one. 

What turned out to be Batchelor’s last book appeared in 1966, a collaboration with Learie Constantine entitled The Changing Face of Cricket. The book begins with a substantial essay on the history of the game from Batchelor, which leads into a similar length contribution from Constantine on the growth of cricket in the West Indies before Batchelor looks at post war cricket and what he describes as a Defensive Game in much shorter order. The pair then combine in a closing chapter which sets out an eight point plan for the future.

Were Batchelor and Constantine visionaries? I’m afraid the answer is no. None of their ideas have ever gained any real traction (save a plea for fast true wickets) and some of their suggestions, like reducing Test and county matches to four and two days respectively were doubtless as unpopular then as they are now. In truth their views are pretty reactionary, calling for the return of the old lbw and no ball laws, and certainly making no suggestions for one day cricket, even though by the time their book appeared the Gillette Cup had been part of English cricket for three summers.

Denzil Batchelor was only 63 when he died of a heart attack in 1969, at which point he was part way through editing a book that would eventually appear a year later, Great Cricketers, a collection of around sixty pen portraits by a wide variety of writers. 

Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Cardus and Arlott, Batchelor’s is not a name that resonates down the years as a cricket writer, but his work is nonetheless worth revisiting and Babbling of Green Fields in particular is an interesting account of a life well lived. As a highly intelligent and articulate man with many and varying interests Batchelor was an excellent wordsmith and the comparisons with Cardus are not entirely inappropriate given that both could tell a story and hold an audience.

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