book_reviews_banner_image-81x81 A BIBLIOPHILE'S BLOG

Roy Webber

IMG_1446

There have been statisticians around the game ever since cricket began, and the records the ancients left are still used today. But there can be no doubt but that in recent years the use of and analysis of the numbers our great game generates has vastly increased, and in the 21st century there are a number of people who, one way or another, earn their living from stats. All of them owe at least a nod back to Roy Webber a man who, if he certainly didn’t invent cricket statistics, certainly brought them into the mainstream.

Born in 1914 in Brighton Webber had already come under cricket’s spell when, as a twelve year old schoolboy, he was at the Oval Test in 1926 when England finally regained the Ashes for the first time since before the Great War. He must have had some latent talent and ability for the statistical work that was to be his legacy as he spent the 1930s employed in accountancy before joining RAF on the outbreak of the Second World War.

The hostilities over Webber decided to make his living from cricket. He secured employment with the BBC as their scorer and he was in at the start of what is now the Cricket Society (then the Society of Cricket Statisticians). That group was never intended to be a business and at the same time Webber began the Cricket Book Society, the purpose of which was to produce monthly booklets on a variety of cricketing subjects and, in doing so, to generate an income for him as proprietor.

There was a falling out between Webber and what became the Cricket Society over the cost of the production of its first journal, a dispute that ended up in court with Webber being successful. His cessation of any involvement in that Society enable him to concentrate on his own, but that lasted for less than three years, Webber seemingly at no point getting remotely close to the 500 members he claimed to need to cover costs.

The booklets issued by Webber’s society do appear from time and are never expensive, nor are the selections of them that were bound together as Cricket Omnibus. The quality is variable. Webber himself produced some reasonable statistical offerings, and Gerald Brodribb some typically entertaining work. There was some rubbish however, most notably the first one of all, a concise history of the game which was riddled with errors. For some reason Webber wrote it under a pseudonym, a fact that did not emerge for many years.

The Cricket Book Society also published two rather more extensive books, one limited edition biographical sketch of the brothers Grace and the other a statistical record of the doings of Glamorgan since the Welsh county’s elevation to the Championship in 1921. The former was the work of AG Powell and S Canynge Caple, the latter of Kevin Arnott and Webber himself. The Society lasted long enough for a second edition of the Glamorgan book to appear to mark the Welsh club’s unexpected Championship title in 1948, but no longer.

Irving Rosenwater described Webber, with some affection, as; never a scholar, never a profound thinker, he nevertheless catered for a mass audience that in a way he was partially responsible in shaping. Another job that Webber had was to produce the statistics for the Playfair Annual that was launched in 1948 and sold very well and which, in a different format, is still with us today. With his work for the BBC and Playfair Webber was much more ‘visible’ to many more people than any previous statistician had ever been.

In 1951, thanks to Playfair, Webber’s magnum opus appeared. The Playfair Book of Cricket Records, which Webber claimed to have been working on for all of his adult life, was 320 pages of tables, lists and other statistics. The book was not free of error, but then no book that was that ambitious could have been. It was well received and reprinted four times. It appeared once more, ten years later in 1961 without the ‘Playfair’ tag, and on that occasion ran to 480 pages. The biggest problem the book had, and the second edition did not resolve it, was failing to adequately deal with the sometimes vexed issue of whether or not certain fixtures merited First Class status.

In 1952 Who’s Who in World Cricket appeared. There had been two previous attempts at such a book, one that appeared annually between 1909 and 1913 and was edited by DV Dorey, and a one off in 1934 from Canynge Caple. Within its 192 pages Webber’s book contained 750 potted biographies of not only current players, but umpires, journalists and officials as well. As far as the players were concerned the biographies built on those Webber had prepared for the Playfair Annual. The book did not, in the manner of the Dorey and indeed the current Who’s Who that is now in its 25th edition, become an annual, but there was a revised version published in 1954.

Suitably encouraged by sales of the Book of Cricket Records in 1952 and 1953 Playfair published two volumes of the Playfair Book of Test Cricket. Volume one was 399 pages long and included the scorecard and a brief description of every Test played between 1877 and 1939. Volume two was slimmer, 256 pages, and brought the story up to date as well as including an extensive collection of Test records as well as a select bibliography of the format.

In 1957 another Webber book appeared, The County Cricket Championship. This purported to produce a definitive list of county champions going back to 1873. The County Championship as we know it was put on a formal footing in 1890 and that is the date that is now generally accepted as its first year. What is also universally accepted is that prior to that date there was press and public interest in the concept of a ‘Champion County’, and various writers have attempted to produce lists of champions going back as far as 1864.

To the delight of Sussex supporters everywhere Webber’s research caused him to assert that in 1875, rather than Nottinghamshire being outright champions, Sussex had shared the title with them and also with Lancashire. The issue then came up in a television quiz show in 1958. A twelve year old contestant was asked how many times Sussex had been winners and his Wisden checked answer of ‘Never’ was accepted by the quizmaster. In time that explanation became conflated into something that might be described as a conspiracy theory, and it took an exchange of emails in 2015 between Stephen Chalke and the by then 69 years old and living in Australia successful contestant to get to the somewhat more prosaic truth.

The minutiae matters little however because Webber was furious that his book had been overlooked. Wisden were then unhappy as well given that by implication Webber had said the Almanack was wrong. The Almanack’s editor, Norman Preston, looked to Rowland Bowen to clear up the mess. With his usual thoroughness and attention to detail Bowen had no difficulty in dismantling the Webber theory and seems to have been incensed at what he considered to be the cursory manner in which Webber had tackled his subject. It was one of the rare occasions when, perhaps subject to the addition of a few expletives, Bowen would doubtless have agreed with one of Rosenwater’s assessments, that which I quoted above.

In 1960 the Phoenix History of Cricket appeared. In 110,000 words Webber told the story of the game although this was not really a complete history. Webber’s historical knowledge was never great and this book was more of a whistlestop tour through the game’s early years, the bulk of the material covering more recent events. An unnamed reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement was witheringly critical of the book, and was presumably Bowen. Other reviewers were kinder, but Webber’s history is not regarded as one of the classics of the genre.

In addition to all his other activities Webber also found time to contribute to The Cricketer throughout the 1950s before, in 1960, being the joint editor, with Gordon Ross, of the first serious competition the magazine had ever had. Playfair Cricket Monthly dragged the concept of a cricket magazine into the modern era and, before too long, took The Cricketer with it. Ultimately however there wasn’t a sufficient market to support both, and in 1973 the two merged.

Did Webber dabble in anything other than cricket? The answer to that is certainly yes, at one stage dipping his toe into the world of professional gambling. It is perhaps not surprising that a statistician should try and find a way of beating the roulette wheel, but rather more unusual that one should think he had succeeded. Webber’s ‘system’ relied not on the spectacular but on making modest gains consistently. For a couple of weeks in Monte Carlo in 1958 he succeeded, but in the end, as it almost always does, the house won.

Roy Webber was at a meeting with the publishers of Playfair Cricket Monthly on 14 November 1962. Later that day however he collapsed as a result of a massive heart attack and died at St Bartholomew’s Hospital shortly afterwards. He was only 48, but had been carrying a great deal of extra weight for many years as well as the burden of an enormous workload.

Webber was survived by two children of his first marriage and his second wife. That lady, Daphne, must have been almost as keen on cricket as Webber was as she was responsible for preparing some of the earliest scoring charts. In time she married another cricket statistician, Michael Fordham, albeit one not so well known as Webber.

As noted Webber was no great historian or analyst of the way the game was played but he nonetheless influenced the way the cricket loving public of his time viewed the sport. Whilst I suspect that the widespread fascination with cricket statistics that we now have would have developed anyway there can be no doubt but that it was the 1950s and the work of Roy Webber that gave huge impetus to that particular area of fascination for researchers.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler