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Northamptonshire’s Forgotten Fast Bowler

NobbyClark

Edward Winchester Clark was born near Peterborough in August of 1902. By the age of 18 he had moved to Yorkshire to take up an engineering apprenticeship. He started to play Bradford League cricket for Undercliffe and made such an impression with his left arm fast bowling that the former Warwickshire player Frank Field recommended him to Northamptonshire. He joined the county in 1922. In those days, and indeed throughout Clark’s tenure with them, Northants were lamentably weak, only once, in 1925, rising as high as eleventh in the table. Generally they were in the bottom two.

Today Clark is still the county’s leading wicket taker, with a career haul of 1,208 wickets at the decent average of 21.49. How many more wickets he might have taken in a stronger side is a matter for speculation. Certainly however he suffered from his batting colleagues not scoring sufficient for him ever to have much to bowl at, and he also suffered enormously from dropped catches. In Clark’s time Northants had one top class close catcher, Fred Bakewell, who invariably fielded at short leg. They had no reliable slip fieldsmen at all, and many slip catches went down from Clark’s bowling.

As a bowler Clark was that rarest of beasts, a genuinely fast left armer. He was much quicker than his contemporary Bill Voce and was said to be comparable in speed to Harold Larwood. Like Larwood he also had a much vaunted action, classically side on with a ramrod straight arm that just brushed his ear as his arm came over. A photograph of that delivery stride was used for some years to advertise Worthington’s beer. In the days before players had agents or, for the most part, any business acumen Clark’s reward for the use of his image was an annual crate or two of the company’s product.

Returning to 1922 Clark made an impressive bow, taking 20 wickets at 17.10. He was not quite so impressive in 1923, and missed almost all of the 1924 summer after injuring his hand in a motorcycle accident, but in 1925 he established himself and was immediately talked about as an England prospect. Particularly impressed was the Australian opening batsman Warren Bardsley who, despite taking a century from him in 1926, declared a few years later that England should have taken him to Australia in 1928/29.

It may have been the fiery red head’s temper that held him back internationally. Certainly the combination of that and playing for such an unfashionable county did not help. In addition Clark had no interest in batting. He had enough of an eye for a ball that his aggression made sure he scored more runs than he took wickets, but he was not a man to be relied on with the bat, and never did score more than 30 although, just occasionally he would show, in the course of an obdurate last wicket partnership when the opposition had got his tail up, what he might have achieved had he been captained more forcefully. Clark was no great shakes in the field either, regarding that part of his duties as a chore between overs.

The first cap finally came against South Africa in 1929. In what was easily his best season with the ball (altogether he took 149 wickets at 19.09) Clark was called up for the final Test of a series that was won 2-0 by England by virtue of having won the third and fourth Tests. The visitors put on a much better demonstration at The Oval scoring 492-8 in their only innings. Clark was England’s most impressive bowler with figures of 3-79 in 36 overs. He removed opener Bob Catterall in his first over, but had to wait a while after that to claim the scalps of Herby Taylor and Denis Morkel. The Cricketer described his bowling as having pace and devil, and commented that he worked very hard, but did criticise him for overuse of leg theory.

Northamptonshire captain Vallance Jupp, a fine all-round cricketer who was good enough to do the double on nine occasions, more than anyone other than Wilfred Rhodes, would frequently clash with Clark and in 1930, with Australia in England, there was one dispute too many and Clark was sacked. The county were playing a Championship match at Worcester when Clark received an offer of £20, a very substantial sum at the time, to play a match for Rochdale in the Central Lancashire League on the following Saturday. Contracted to Northamptonshire Clark needed their permission to play and, Jupp contacting the committee on Clark’s behalf, agreement was reached, the county not having a fixture that weekend anyway.

The details of what happened next are not clear but Jupp, having taken the trouble to sort out the opportunity for his wayward fast bowler to play in the match was then angered by Clark’s ‘insubordination’ during the Worcestershire match and his report of that, coupled with what the committee described as Clark’s general attitude of late, caused them to withdraw the consent. Clark chose to appear for Rochdale anyway and the committee sacked him as a result. He did not play for Northants again that season.

For 1931 Clark signed a contract with Todmorden in the Lancashire League worth £450 to him. It is often the case that those with limited pretensions to batsmanship in the First Class arena bat with a degree of competence in the leagues, but not Clark, who scored fewer runs (23) than matches in which he competed (24). With the ball however he took 71 wickets at 7.23. Of the other professionals on show only the legendary Sydney Barnes, who was by then 58 years of age, bettered Clark. Barnes haul was a remarkable 115 wickets at 6.30.

Clark remained with Todmorden in 1932 when his bowling brought him 93 wickets at 8.66. Again Barnes was the leading professional, and Clark’s record was also bettered by another Lancashire League great, Learie Constantine, but he still had the third best record amongst the League’s professionals. He also did rather better with the bat in that second season, albeit his tally of runs was still less than his wicket haul. Nonetheless it seems Clark must have missed the First Class game as there was a rapprochement with Northants as he turned out for them when his commitments to Todmorden permitted. In nine appearances he took 38 wickets at 21.00 and, more importantly for the county, signed back on for them on a full time basis for 1933.

The summer of 1933 was one of the more interesting English seasons, Douglas Jardine’s side having just returned from Australia with the Ashes, mired in controversy over Jardine’s ‘Bodyline’ tactics. No stranger himself to bowling leg theory it was perhaps unsurprising that the pair came together over the course of the summer. For Clark there was a memorable start to the season as he took 5-32 and 5-29 for Northants in an innings victory over that summer’s tourists. Making the point that the West Indians must have been disheartened to suffer such a comprehensive defeat at the hands of one of the weaker counties The Cricketer commented that they could at least console themselves with the fact that they found Clark at the very top of his form, and it is extremely doubtful if any side would have made many runs against him.

Selected for the first Test of the series Clark missed out on winning a second cap because of injury and lost the opportunity, in a comprehensive England victory, to pick up some more cheap West Indian wickets. He was fit again for the second Test at Old Trafford but, buoyed by the presence of the talismanic Constantine, the West Indies were much stiffer opposition this time. This was the famous occasion when, to the disgust of Walter Hammond and one or two other Englishmen, Constantine and Manny Martindale treated them to a display of hostile leg theory bowling. Two Englishmen enjoyed themselves though, skipper Jardine who demonstrated whilst recording his only Test century that ‘Bodyline’ bowling could be mastered, and Clark who had licence to retaliate. He took six wickets in the match and was generally reckoned to be England’s best bowler, a slower ball that bowled Oscar Da Costa in the first innings attracting particular praise.

For the third and final Test of the series Constantine was back at Nelson, and England won again by an innings. This time the most successful bowler was ‘Father’ Marriott who, with his wrist spin, took 11-96 in his only Test. In the opinion of John Armitage, writing in The Cricketer, he had Clark to thank; From the start Clark bowled so fiercely and so well that the batsmen shuddered, and when Marriott came on they turned to him with relief and were hopelessly deceived. In the visitors’ first innings Clark took 3-16 and in the second, opener Clifford Roach getting on top of him for a time, 2-54.

In the winter of 1933/34 Clark went on the only overseas tour with England of his career, to India. England were led once more, but for the last time, by Jardine. Like Larwood before him Clark seems to have had considerable respect for Jardine and, unlike his county captains at Northants, the ‘Iron Duke’ seems to have had no problems with Clark, who headed the tour averages with 79 wickets at 12.51. At least in part Clark was doubtless won over by the loyalty that Jardine showed to those who played under him and followed his instructions. In the second Test of the three match series, after Clark repeatedly struck the Indian wicketkeeper Dilawar Hussain about the hands whilst bowling leg theory the former Middlesex player Frank Tarrant, who was umpiring, told Jardine that if Clark did not desist from bumping the ball down at the Indian batsmen he would order him to be removed from the attack. It is said that Jardine’s response was that if such a move were attempted he would stop Tarrant umpiring, and indeed Tarrant was stood down from the role in the final Test.

There was more trouble for Clark in that final Test when, in India’s first innings, he struck the Indian opener Naoomal Jaoomal on the head causing him to retire hurt and miss the second innings. The home supporters are said to have barracked Clark over the incident, although as the ball went from Jaoomal’s bat to his head as The Cricketer was at pains to point out, Clark was not at fault. Despite that there was still a potential flash point after the injury to Jaoomal when there was some barracking from the crowd and a stone was thrown at Clark, which landed close to where he was fielding at square leg. Clark picked up the stone and walked slowly and deliberately back towards from whence it came. Given the combustious Clark temperament there must have been some who feared an incident of the type that half a century later caused namesake Sylvester Clarke problems in Pakistan. Clark however showed he was not entirely lacking in diplomatic skills and proceeded to carefully place the stone back behind the rope before smiling at the onlookers and walking back to his mark. A potentially problematic situation had been diffused.

One man who resented his treatment in India was Tarrant, and he was deeply critical of Jardine and Clark in the Australian press, making it clear that in his view Clark was bowling ‘Bodyline’, under orders from Jardine, and with the intention of injuring the Indian batsmen. Tarrant also accused Clark of deliberately digging a hole in the wicket during one of his occasional short stays at the batting crease in a match in Ceylon. Tarrant added that the hole was just on a good length for Clark, and that his actions were so blatant that the MCC captain for the day, Brian Valentine of Kent, felt obliged to apologise to the opposition. Tarrant went on to say he had reported the matter to Lord’s. If he did it seems reasonable to assume that the powers that be treated the allegations with a large pinch of salt as it seems improbable that Clark would have been picked against Australia in 1934 had it been thought they were true.

Jardine’s men spent the best part of six months travelling to and from the sub-continent and playing a total of 34 matches in India and Ceylon. On their return a number of them seemed jaded and the two pace bowlers, Clark and Stan Nichols of Essex particularly so. Clark had a number of niggling injuries and his summer’s work brought him just 50 wickets at 29.64. Nichols did not miss so many games, but his tally of wickets in 1934 was half what it had been the previous summer, and indeed half what it would be in the next. Despite Clark’s problems he did however demonstrate enough form to be selected twice for the England side against Bill Woodfull’s Australians.

That Clark was in the selectors’ minds was demonstrated by his selection for England to play for the Rest in a Test trial at Lord’s in early June. He bowled nine good overs and took two wickets before limping out of the attack with a side strain. The injury ruled him out of the first two Tests although he was back for the third at Old Trafford and made the final eleven.  The match was drawn with England’s second innings not having progressed very far. Having won the toss and chosen to bat England piled up 627-9 to which Australia replied with 491. Clark took 1-100, his victim being opener Bill Brown. He didn’t bowl badly, and amongst a number of errors in the field Bill Woodfull and Stan McCabe were dropped from his bowling, but it wasn’t enough for him to keep his place and he was left out for the fourth Test.

At Headingley Don Bradman and Bill Woodfull put on 388 for the fourth wicket as Australia took a first innings lead of 384. England saved the game easily enough but with the final Test, in light of the 1-1 scoreline, to be played to a finish Clark, the attacking option, found himself back for what proved to be his eighth and last Test. It is worth remembering at this point that the series was played in the aftermath of ‘Bodyline’ and the Australians were extremely sensitive to the possibility of the repetition of the tactics that had cost them the last series.

England’s skipper, Jardine having retired from the game at the end of the tour of India, was Bob Wyatt. Of the bowlers who had tormented Australia in 32/33 Harold Larwood was injured and Bill Voce not selected. Voce continued to bowl leg theory and did so with great success at Trent Bridge for Nottinghamshire against the Australians just a week before the final Test, taking 8-66 in the first innings before appearing for just two overs in the second because, so it was said, of ‘sore shins’. The Notts skipper, unimpressed at the ‘sore shins’ cover story, was Arthur Carr.

As a left arm bowler Clark had always been happy to bowl leg theory and he was not averse to bouncing batsmen either so there were, given his volatile temperament, concerns about him appearing against the Australians. In the event he did bowl some leg theory, although not in a manner that could be called ‘Bodyline’. The Australians won the final encounter building up an impregnable 701 in their first innings, Bradman and Ponsford adding 451 this time.

Neville Cardus, no fan of ‘Bodyline, complained that there is no reason in fair sport why Clark’s field against Australia on a docile wicket should ever vary from the field he is entitled to when he plays, say, against Lancashire at Northampton, where the pitch is usually lively. A left handed swing bowler loses half his deadliness if he is deprived of his proper field. The case against fast leg theory depends on the high kicking ball persistently exploited. If a fast bowler is not bumping over after over by malice prepense, he is free to set his field in whatever way he is prompted by invention, speculation or even desperation. Bumping balls today were extremely few.

The match itself turned into a huge Australian victory. England conceded a first innings lead of 380 whereupon, given the timeless nature of the contest, Woodfull chose not to enforce the follow on and Australia added 327 more. The pressure was clearly off them but, with 5-98, Clark ended his Test career with his only five wicket haul. He missed out on dismissing Bradman, but his five victims were all front line batsmen. Interestingly in the second innings Clark did utilise his normal field with six men on the leg side.

The by then retired Carr, in an autobiography published the following year, and doubtless still vexed by  the events at Trent Bridge the previous summer wrote; Ponsford’s horror of the new ball from fast bowlers is well known, and it was pathetic to see him time after time turn his rump to the bowling of Clark. Carr’s view was clearly to the effect that the Australians were deliberately setting out to make it appear as if Clark was bowling ‘Bodyline’.

That Clark wasn’t bowling ‘Bodyline’ is amply demonstrated by the approval of Cardus to his change of tactics. The change of heart can only have been the length Clark adopted, but Jardine still felt the need to complain, writing of the same passage of play in his book on the 1934 series; One asks why it should have been right for Clark to do this and wrong for Voce, who, though rather more accurate, is distinctly slower than Clark.

Although Clark played his final Test in 1934 he was back to his best in 1935 and took his 79 wickets at 18.50 each. The South Africans were touring England that summer and Clark was called into the England squads for the second and third Tests. The second Test was the famous ‘leatherjacket’ match at Lord’s. The pitch had been attacked by a plague of crane fly larvae and took spin from the off. England decided to play three spinners and just one pace bowler, Stan Nichols of Essex, so Clark missed out. The man who played the decisive hand however was the visitors’ leg spinner Xen Balaskas. It was the only Test of the series that was not drawn.

For the second match at Headingley Bill Bowes was selected on his home ground. Whether he would have got the nod had Clark been fit is debatable. Unfortunately however the selectors had their decision made for them when a cracked rib cost Clark his chance. What is known is that he had sustained the injury when county teammate Fred Bakewell pushed him over a pile of kit bags. What has proved more elusive is whether it was an act of horseplay, or the two strong characters had had a disagreement.

In 1936 Clark was still only 34 and was granted a benefit and, although he wasn’t called upon by the selectors for the Test series against India he still bowled well, taking his wickets at a cost of less than twenty runs apiece. The following year was a disappointment however and his average soared to over 27. Wisden commented that he was troubled by injury from June before dropping out of the side altogether in August. At least one source has it that in fact he was sacked after the committee had received complaints (unspecified in nature) from the club captain Geoffrey Cuthbertson. Whilst it must be highly likely that Clark did disappoint his skipper the truth seems to be more along the lines that Clark flounced out of the club. In February 1937 he took the step of placing an advertisement in a morning newspaper seeking an engagement for the forthcoming season. When the Northamptonshire secretary was approached about the news his account was that the club were talking to Clark and hoped to agree terms with him for the coming campaign, something they clearly failed to do.

Having left county cricket Clark moved to back to the leagues and became Darlington’s professional in the North Yorkshire and South Durham League for 1938 before, the following season, joining West Bromwich Dartmouth. Then it was war, and Clark returned to Northamptonshire and found employment as a local War Agricultural Committee Officer. He continued to play cricket for sides representing Northamptonshire throughout the war and, when the County Championship resumed in 1946 he rejoined the county for a third time. Approaching his 44th birthday Clark was inevitably not the bowler he had been, but was still as quick as anyone in the country for a few overs and he was a valuable player for Northants in that first post war season. He was less effective the following year and dropped out of the side, this time for good, towards the end of the summer. The county must have been happy with him this time however as before the season was out a collection was arranged for him during the match against Yorkshire.

His Northamptonshire career over Clark was not quite finished with county cricket. He played a few matches in the Minor Counties Championship for Cambridgeshire in 1948 and occasionally in the early 1950s for a team styled as the county of his birth, Huntingdonshire.  Clark married in 1931 and had two children. Eventually the family moved the forty or so miles east to West Winch near Kings Lynn in Norfolk. ‘Nobby’ Clark, something of an unfulfilled talent, died in 1982, three months short of his eightieth birthday. 

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