EHD Sewell – A Writer From A Bygone AgeMartin Chandler |
Edward Humphrey Dalrymple Sewell was born in India in 1872. He died almost 75 years later at his home in West London. In between Sewell led an interesting life including a period, in the largely barren years for cricket publishing of the second world war, when his output as a cricket writer could properly be described as prolific. Today however his name is rarely mentioned. Sewell was no Cardus or Robertson-Glasgow, but his writing is not so uninspiring that he deserves to be completely forgotten.
Sewell’s father was a career soldier and the youngster remained in India until he was twelve when, in the manner of the times, he left Bombay, travelling alone, to go to school in England. He was perhaps a little fortunate. The P&O ship on board which he sailed to England was wrecked on its return voyage.
In seven years at Bedford School Sewell proved to be a outstanding sportsman. Bedford was not a major cricket school but Sewell was nonetheless a great success. He was a hard hitting batsman, useful medium pace bowler and a fine fielder who could throw the ball well over one hundred yards. His school’s strength was Rugby Union and the fourteen stone Sewell was a powerful figure in the three quarter line. On the athletics field, not unexpectedly given his fine arm, he could putt the shot a highly creditable 36 feet.
At 19 Sewell returned to India to join the civil service. As a pen pusher he seems not to have been entirely successful, eventually leaving as a result of an incident (the details of which he did not elaborate on) when a Deputy Commissioner preferred to believe the word of a Madras native Christian to mine. At that point Sewell became a freelance journalist.
Outside his work Sewell seems to have divided his time between shooting game and playing cricket. He proved to be very successful at the latter becoming the first Indian batsman to score three consecutive centuries and made many other substantial scores. He was a member of the first ever All-India team that faced a touring side led by Lord Hawke in 1892/93.
Hawke was impressed by Sewell and, a few years later, was in large part responsible for Sewell receiving an offer from Essex to play professionally for the county. Sewell’s journalistic career was, presumably, not entirely satisfying and he was happy to accept the Essex offer and accordingly at 28 years of age he returned to England in April 1900.
On arrival Sewell had to spend two years acquiring his residential qualification. He played for Essex Club and Ground and had a few games for WG Grace’s London County. Financially life was a struggle for Sewell, now a married man with a son, and he was assisted greatly when an article he wrote and sent to the Athletic News was accepted and an offer to write regular cricket pieces was forthcoming.
In 1902 Sewell was able to play in the County Championship but, in scoring less than 500 runs and averaging only 17 he disappointed. He doubled his run tally the following summer and then broke the important thousand run barrier in 1904 in the course of which he scored three centuries and pushed his average past 28.
The main problem that Sewell had was in adjusting a game that had been honed on Indian wickets to one suitable for softer and greener English wickets. That he was settling in was clear from the steady improvement but at 31 Sewell doubtless realised he was not going to play for England. He also felt uncomfortable, with his military, Indian and public school background, playing as a professional and, an offer to become the sports editor of the Evening Standard having been made to him, Sewell decided to leave professional cricket at the conclusion of the 1904 summer.
The rigours of the editorship did not suit Sewell and that job lasted only a matter of months, but the parting was an amicable one and having left the employ of the Standard Sewell continued to write for the paper on a freelance basis, a status that he was to retain for the rest of his days. In the main he would report on cricket in the summer, and rugby union in the winter, and his freelance status allowed him to answer to other masters as well. Thus between 1907 and 1909 he was a coach at the Oval, and he was also briefly employed as secretary of Minor County Buckinghamshire for whom he turned out regularly in the years immediately preceding the Great War.
In 1911 a substantial work, The Book of Football, was published by JM Dent. Sewell wrote mainly of the oval ball game, although the book does cover soccer as well. Sewell’s first cricket book came a year later from the same publisher.
Triangular Cricket was the only contemporary account of the never repeated experiment of a Test tournament in England between England, Australia and South Africa. The tournament was ill starred in that a domestic dispute prevented the best Australian players travelling and, from the heights of just a few years previously, the standard of South African cricket had dropped markedly. Throw into the mix a poor summer of weather and the tournament was not a success. Unsurprisingly against that background the book did not sell well and it is today the only Sewell book that has any real value. A copy in good condition will set a purchaser back in the region of £200.
That Sewell had become a well known writer is evidenced by the release in 1923 of The Log of a Sportsman. The book is an autobiography and contained much of Sewell’s school days, his times in India and recollections of his cricketing and rugby playing experience.
The next book from Sewell did not actually bear his name. Prior to the visit of the 1926 Australians, England it will be recalled having lost all three Ashes series since the Great War, A Searchlight on English Cricket appeared. The book examined the need for change and England’s prospects in the forthcoming series. The book was authored by “A County Cricketer” although at no point does it appear to have been a secret that Sewell was the man who wrote it. The book is an interesting one containing a number of forward thinking ideas and attracted some praise from Raymond Illingworth in the 1970s. Illy, the archetypal gruff Yorkshire professional, is not a man whom one might normally regard as being likely to have much in common with Sewell.
Two very similar books from Sewell appeared in 1931. A new publisher, John Murray, released his Rugger Up-to-Date and Cricket Up-To-Date. I am not familiar with the former, but the latter is something of an instructional book. At the same time, England having regained the Ashes in 1926 and retained them convincingly in 1928/29 before Bradman almost singlehandedly wrenched them back in 1930, a good deal of the narrative is Sewell casting his searchlight around once more.
The well-known, at the time, Boy’s Own Paper, published Sewell’s First Principles of Cricket in 1935. This slim paperback is rather more of a pure instructional text but within its 86 pages Sewell is unable to resist wielding his searchlight once more. His main concern is the game becoming too defensive and he makes a number of suggestions as to time limited cricket. In addition, and something I had not realised until I looked at the book for the purpose of preparing this article, Sewell also gives three pages to his opinions on ‘bodyline’ bowling. It is a subject that Sewell returns to several times. He does not approve, but interestingly his main objection is not the risk of physical injury that was created, but the loss of the offside strokes that he held dear. It is an interesting analysis and, given the modest outlay the book requires, a copy is well worth seeking out.
In later life Sewell, a long standing member of the MCC, spent much of his time at Lord’s, sat in the long room. A book of his writings entitled From A Window At Lord’s appeared in 1937. The book consists of two distinct parts. The first is a series of essays on current issues in the game and takes an interesting look at the then new, having been introduced two years previously, lbw law. The second part of the book was the novel and by its nature not entirely convincing exercise of an account of a Test series, the 1936/37 Ashes, written by someone who was not actually present. Also in the book is a second look at ‘bodyline’. This time Sewell coins his own name, ‘torso bowling’. That one never caught on and the analysis, similar to his earlier one but much less objective, rather smacks of a writer being controversial for the sake of it.
There is little for ‘bodyline’ enthusiasts in Sewell’s next book, Who’s Won The Toss?, published in 1940. Wartime paper restrictions give the book a strange appearance, a smaller font and fewer pages creating a rather cluttered look. Sewell uses 120 of his 155 pages to select all time sides to represent all the county and national teams, and then over 35 more he gets out that searchlight once more.
Sewell’s next book came out as soon after Who’s Won The Toss? as 1941. There must have been a temporary easing of the paper restrictions as Cricket Under Fire is entirely normal in appearance. It is a series of essays on a variety of subjects one of which, The Fade Out of Jardine and Larwood, revisits the 1932/33 tour again.
The views Sewell espouses in the bodyline chapter in Cricket Under Fire are interesting and well written but, at the same time, difficult to take seriously. No cricketer has ever had any objection to it on the score of possible physical hurt to the batsman, is one ridiculous comment. Another is the bold declaration, coming from a man who certainly wasn’t there, that Larwood was in 1932/33 a good two or three yards slower than CJ Kortright (Essex) or E Jones (Australia) or WB Burns (Worcestershire). Sewell also felt obliged to add that many of the county elevens of the 1895-1905 decade contained a bowler as fast as Larwood.
But that wasn’t quite the end of Sewell on bodyline. In 1945, with the wartime paper restrictions back, he produced another autobiography, An Outdoor Wallah. One of the questions that inevitably arises with someone like Sewell is whether, after he came here in 1900, he ever returned to India. The answer is that he did, once, in 1933/34 after persuading The Times of India to send him to accompany the side led by Jardine to play the first official Test series in India. It is clear that Sewell, who was accompanied by his wife, much enjoyed his return to the country of his birth. He continues to express his disapproval of ‘bodyline’, but at the same time makes his admiration for Jardine equally clear.
There were to be two more books from Sewell’s pen, both published in 1946 and, like their three predecessors, from publisher Stanley Paul. Overthrows was a selection of essays on various aspects of the game and Well Hit Sir! was more of the same, albeit it also contained an account of the visit of the 1946 Indian tourists.
As already indicated Sewell died a year after those two books were published, in 1947. During his lifetime he earned praise as a fearless writer from the likes of CB Fry, Lord Hawke and others and was clearly well connected within the game. His skill as a player must be respected as well and he is a decent enough writer who certainly has a readable style. It must be therefore that his somewhat combative style, and his entrenched view that the players he played with and against were more skilful than those he was paid to watch must count against him.
The comments on ‘bodyline’ which have already been quoted do not stand the test of time and indeed very probably did not in 1943. There are also a couple of chapters in Cricket Up-To-Date which certainly make the 21st century reader feel uncomfortable. The subject is the 1930 Ashes when Bradman, in scoring 974 runs, was by common consensus the difference between the two sides. The primacy of Bradman was ignored by Sewell, who was perhaps therefore the exception that proved the rule. The two strange chapters in Cricket Up-To-Date were on the subject of Bradman. The first was Bradman of 1930, in which Sewell acknowledged that Bradman was a fine batsman, but pointed out that he never had to bat against Lockwood, Richardson, Kortright, Mead, Young, Faulkner, Briggs, Vogler, Hearne, Trumble, Jones or a great many more of the world’s best. In short Sewell concluded that Bradman struck England at the lowest ebb of bowling she has ever known.The chapter that followed was entitled Why Did Australia Win In 1930. Sewell identified five separate contributory causes – the name Bradman did not figure in any of them!