Kings of CricketMartin Chandler |
The name of Richard Daft, certainly in my lifetime, has never been one which has attracted very much in the way of attention. Daft was however a very fine cricketer and, at his peak, WG Grace apart, he was the finest batsman in England. Thirteen years younger than WG his legacy’s misfortune was that his best years came just before Test cricket began.
Born in 1835 Daft was a talented cricketer from an early age but he also enjoyed a stroke of great good fortune at the age of 19. An uncle on his mother’s side of the family, who it seems possible Daft never really knew, died in Scotland whilst on a business trip and, having no family of his own, shared his not insubstantial estate between his many nephews and nieces.
For a couple of years, as a single man, the young Daft was able to play as an amateur but whilst the income he derived from the trust fund set up by his late uncle was a reasonable amount it was certainly not excessive so, in 1859, he turned professional. In the main Daft turned out for Nottinghamshire, and captained the county between 1871 and 1880. He also appeared from time to time for the famous wandering side, the All England Eleven, and he appeared regularly for the Players against the Gentlemen and for the North against the South.
Outside of cricket Daft was, contrary to the impression given by his name, nobody’s fool. In time he acquired three businesses, a brewery in Radcliffe near Nottingham, a sports outfitters in the city and he was also the licensee of the Trent Bridge Hotel. His First Class career ended, to all intents and purposes, at the end of the 1880 season. There was an occasional appearance after that and Daft continued to play a decent standard of cricket at a lower level, so much so that when Arthur Shrewsbury was injured in August 1891 the 55 year old Daft was persuaded to return. In the end he played three times, and 27 runs in four innings amply demonstrated that the recall had been a mistake.
By the 1890s Wisden had been established for more than a quarter of a century. Other cricket annuals had come and gone, and there were a number of books of instruction available. Less common were books of appreciation, although men like Fred Gale and James Pycroft had published more general cricketing books. There had been a couple of tour books and, half a century previously, John Nyren had produced his classic The Cricketers Of My Time, and William Denison had collected together a number of biographical essays in his Sketches of the Players.
Back in 1882 Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game had launched, and contained interviews and reminiscences. Other magazines such as Bailey’s Magazine and Bell’s Life contained much cricketing material and, admittedly only for four years, The Cricket Field appeared in direct competition to Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game. It is perhaps surprising in the circumstances that the first cricketing autobiography did not appear until 1891. Entitled Cricket, almost inevitably the book was largely an account of the life of WG Grace, albeit the great cricketer did not put pen to paper himself, the book being ghosted by William Methven Brownlee.
In his preface to Kings of Cricket Daft said that he had been asked to write a book for many years now, so it must be likely that the success of Grace’s book persuaded him to finish the project. Of those who assisted him his two sons were certainly involved. The elder, also Richard, played once for Nottinghamshire in 1886. Harry, three years younger, was more successful playing as many as 200 First Class matches, almost all of them for Notts between 1885 and 1899 without ever suggesting he had anything like the talent of his father. Harry also played professional football for ten years. The majority of his appearances on the football field were for Notts County, and he was good enough to be selected five times for England.
Did Daft have a ghost writer? He clearly had plenty of assistance in placing the book for publication from James Catton. Catton was a sports journalist who wrote under the pseudonym Tityrus and whilst he was primarily a football writer his titling his autobiography Wickets and Goals clearly marks out his interest in cricket as well. He was a successful editor of the Manchester based Athletic News but, oddly given his undoubted role in getting the book published, Catton is not mentioned anywhere in Kings of Cricket.
Another outsider who is worthy of a mention is Andrew Lang, who penned a lengthy introduction. A Scottish man of letters Lang, whose younger brother played briefly and with some success for Gloucestershire in the early 1870s, was a famous man at the time and obtaining his patronage was quite a coup for Daft. That introduction is a marvellous essay that has appeared in many collections of writing on the game and contains two of the great truisms of cricket. The first is; one beauty of cricket is that, if you cannot play at it, you can at least look on and talk very learnedly, and find fault with the captain, showing how you would order matters if you were consulted, and the second; There is no talk, none so witty and brilliant that is so good as cricket talk, when memory sharpens memory and the dead live again.
The first chapter in Kings of Cricket is Early Days. Daft gives something of himself here but it is not really autobiographical other than to put in context Daft’s memories of the cricketers he writes of, who include giants of the game such as William Clarke, George Parr, Fuller Pilch and Alfred Mynn.
The next three chapters look at Daft’s time with the All England Eleven, followed by a chapter on its southern rival, the United Eleven (normally referred to today as the United South of England Eleven). Again these chapters are less about Daft than they are about his teammates and opponents. In addition not all of the narrative is, by any means, about the game itself. A brother of George Parr, Sam, was clearly something of a practical joker and, to cite a couple of examples, Daft relates a story of an occasion when a dead mouse was secreted in William Caffyn’s hat, and another when an elaborate ruse resulted in Thomas Box, apparently a man very proud of his long locks, being practically shorn by a barber in one town the All England Eleven visited.
After a chapter that concentrates on the Gentlemen cricketers of his time Daft moves on to his time with Notts, which he treats in much the same way as he did his association with the All England Eleven. One incident that occurred in 1870, long forgotten until the tragic death of Philip Hughes in 2014, was the death of George Summers after being struck on the head in a match at Lord’s in 1870. It is a curiously matter of fact recollection, and rather odd that Daft makes no mention of his own well publicised walk to the crease, next man in after Summers’ accident, with a towel wrapped around his head for protection.
Following his look at the county game Daft includes a chapter on his one overseas tour, to the USA and Canada in 1879. Again showing his fondness for the camaraderie of the game Daft relates with some relish a tale that involved George Ulyett filling the socks of Yorkshire teammate Tom Emmett with snails when the team visited Niagara Falls.
From North America Daft takes a brief look at the cricket he played after his retirement and also devotes an interesting chapter to his ill fated recall in 1891. Having brought his own story up to date Daft then spends a couple of the lengthier chapters in the book considering the ways in which the game had developed over his half century of active involvement in it as well as looking at the players who had taken centre stage in the years leading up the book’s publication. Some of these of course are names that are, because they played in the Test cricket era, familiar to many today, men like Tom Hayward and George Lohmann.
Daft concludes Kings of Cricket with a chapter entitled On the Advantage of Cricket over Other Games followed by 17 pages of Hints on Cricket. It seems an odd thing to tag on to the end of such a book, but then Grace’s book, which emanated from the same publisher, JW Arrowsmith, contained a substantial instructional section, so one suspects that Daft was just following WG’s lead. That said the hints were also separately published as a small booklet, which is the only other contribution to the literature of the game bearing Daft’s name that was published in his lifetime.
As to the book itself the manuscript was sold by Catton to Tillotsons of Bolton for £325. According to Daft’s biographer in 2008 that was the equivalent of £17,000. Neil Jenkinson must have used a different table to those I found, which suggest that figure, then, should have been nearer £30,000. Tillotsons themselves produced a subscriber’s edition, signed and individually numbered on better quality paper and with a different binding. It is was meant to be an edition of 150, although higher numbers than that have been seen. Both editions contain as many as 70 illustrations (plus some line drawings of Daft in the Hints on Cricket section) of which, and this perhaps illustrates as well as anything the book’s emphasis, only three are of Daft himself.
Despite his successes in the business world and the fact that Kings of Cricket was a considerable critical and commercial success Daft’s life began to unwind as the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign unfolded and in 1898 he was placed in the ignominious position of being left with no alternative but to petition for his own bankruptcy. The strain of those proceedings no doubt contributed to his death, two years later, at the age of 65.
After Kings of Cricket was published Daft continued to write down more reminiscences, perhaps intending at some point to produce a follow up. If he did then he died before completing the project, but years later his remaining notes and drafts came into the possession of the leading historian of the day, Frederick Ashley-Cooper, who gathered them together and edited them into a second book, A Cricketer’s Yarns, which was published by Chapman and Hall in 1926. It is similar in content to Kings of Cricket, and there is a chapter on practical jokes, in which Sam Parr again plays a starring role. A Cricketer’s Yarns is certainly a decent read, but it does lack the continuity of its predecessor and it is, perhaps, fair to conclude that Daft’s best material had already been used.
For those interested in reading the book a copy of Kings of Cricket is not hard to obtain in the twenty first century, something that can only reflect how well it sold on publication. The limited edition is expensive but there are always copies of the standard edition available and a patient purchaser should be able to get a good copy for less than £20 and indeed for that price there would appear to be a modern reprint. That is something which sound appealing to me, albeit I have to confess to never having seen a copy. A Cricketer’s Yarns is less frequently seen, and might therefore cost a little more or, if a copy were found with the rare dust jacket, a great deal more.