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Squadron Leader William John Edrich, DFC

Bill

The elder and most successful of four brothers who played First Class cricket Bill Edrich was one of the game’s great characters. Renowned for living life to the full he was also a fine cricketer as well as a very brave man who was, without a doubt, a genuine war hero.

The Edrich family came from Norfolk and it was for that county that Edrich first made an impact on the game. He had not long turned 16 when the 1932 Indian tourists turned up at Lakenham for a two day match. It was India’s first tour as a Test playing nation and three weeks later they played their inaugural Test, the only one allocated to them that summer. They lost the Test by 158 runs, but emerged with considerable credit, in particular a burly fast bowler, Mohammad Nissar.

At Lakenham Norfolk started well, dismissing the tourists for just 101 with Edrich bowling eight economical overs in which he took 1-11. The conditions were good for bowling however, and Norfolk were shot out for just 49, Nissar taking 6-14. Edrich came to the wicket with the score 21-5 and Nissar in full cry. He added 25 with one of another cricketing brotherhood, Desmond Rought-Rought, who contributed just four. Edrich’s 20 was the only double figure score in the innings.

India did rather better in their second innings and in bowling Norfolk out for 128 second time round secured, with Nissar this time taking 8-43, a comfortable victory. Edrich again batted skilfully and scored 16, third top score, before Nissar bowled him. Impressive performances for Norfolk brought a Middlesex trial for Edrich in early 1934 and, successful in that, he then spent three seasons waiting for his residential qualification to enable him to play in Championship. In the meantime in five matches in 1936 Edrich scored three centuries and, finally able to play regularly in 1937, he began his county career with more than 2,000 runs.

It is as a batsman that Edrich is primarily remembered. Not a tall man he was, in common with many shorter batsmen, particularly strong square of the wicket. Under the wing of the veteran ‘Patsy’ Hendren both Edrich and Compton were terrific hookers of the fastest bowling, but Edrich had an excellent all round game. In his early years he could match anyone in the country as a strokemaker. As the 1950s wore on and the lightning reflexes dulled a little he became much steadier, and then demonstrated a defensive technique as sound as any.

In the years before the war Edrich was only an occasional bowler, but for the first few summers afterwards, with both England and Middlesex having limited pace bowling resources, he became something approaching a genuine all-rounder. Unsophisticated in the extreme Edrich would charge up to the wicket and bowl as fast as he could with a slinging action not unlike that of Jeff Thomson two generations later. He didn’t move the ball very much, but was distinctly sharp and could hurry the best. Later he did develop an off cutter but the legacy of a shoulder injury suffered in 1947 meant that after that he was never truly fast again. Edrich was also an excellent slip fielder, his athleticism enabling him to bring off some spectacular catches.

After their exploits in 1947 Edrich’s name became inextricably linked with that of Denis Compton. The glamorous Compton set a new record for a season’s run scoring with 3,816, shattering the old record by almost 300 runs. Edrich too beat the old mark, with 3,539. In addition to their wonderful batting the love of a good party was certainly something else the pair had in common, and both were also fine footballers. Compo played on the wing for England in wartime internationals and famously won an FA Cup winners medal with Arsenal in his last appearance for the club in 1950. Edrich was also a winger and by the 1936/37 season had forced his way into the first team of the then second division Tottenham Hotspur. In that winter however he suffered an ankle injury against Swansea but, unlike with the ‘Compton knee’, the owner of the ‘Edrich ankle’ was persuaded that he should give up the winter game.

There was no official England tour over the winter of 1937/38 but a strong side led by Lionel Tennyson did travel to India and, by way of confirmation that the selectors had noticed him Edrich was selected. He had a decent tour as well, averaging more than 46, and that paved the way for a bittersweet 1938 summer for him. It was sweet because he begun the season by becoming the seventh man to score 1,000 runs before the end of May, and was therefore deservedly selected for the first Test of that summer’s Ashes series. He stayed in the side for the whole series, but 67 runs in six completed innings was a disappointing return. Three times he fell victim to ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly, and Edrich never quite shook off a reputation that he was vulnerable to wrist spin.

Despite his disappointments in the Tests Edrich still enjoyed a productive season in 1938, scoring almost 2,400 at more than 52, and he was selected in the party for South Africa for what proved to be the last England tour before the Second World War.  In the first Test he was asked to open the innings, and scored 4 and 10. The second Test followed immediately and Edrich moved to the middle order. In his only innings he did not trouble the scorers. In the third Test he didn’t get to the crease at all, England’s first five batsmen scoring all the runs that were needed, and then in the fourth, now batting at seven and opening the bowling, he scored just 6. He was probably fortunate to play in the last, timeless Test, but 150 and 45* against Natal in the only game between the two matches, coupled with his ability to bowl a few hostile overs kept him in the side. In the first innings he scored just a single. At this point his miserable average after nine Tests was exactly eight.

The ‘Timeless Test’ is part of the game’s folklore. Both captains played defensively and despite its name the match eventually had to be left drawn to enable the Englishmen to make the boat home. Their fourth innings target was 696, and when time ran out they were 654-5, so nearly there. Coming into this match Edrich was understandably low on confidence. Throughout his fledgling Test career Edrich had taken all the advice going in his preparation and whilst on Test duty had turned away from his usual party animal lifestyle, but the night before England began their chase he had been invited to a get together at the home of his old Middlesex teammate ‘Tuppy’ Owen-Smith who, a decade earlier, had been capped five times by South Africa.

It was a good party and alcohol flowed freely. Edrich did get to bed eventually, albeit not until long into the night and only then with some assistance. He was therefore somewhat the worse for wear when his captain Walter Hammond, not noted for his man-management skills, took him on one side next morning. Hammond told Edrich he was promoting him to number three and left him with the words; If you can get a couple of hundred we have a chance. Coming in on Hutton’s dismissal at 78 Edrich hit his first ball for four and proceeded to share a partnership of 280 with Paul Gibb, and then one of 87 with Hammond before being dismissed for 219. He had arrived at last.

Perversely Edrich lost his Test place after that double century. Fresh from a season with Arsenal Compton returned to the side for the visit of West Indies in 1939 and with him Joe Hardstaff came back into the team, so there was no place for Edrich. A summer with Middlesex brought him 2,000 runs again at almost fifty an innings.

In October of 1939 Edrich applied to join air crew, but heard nothing. In the end he decided to join the Physical Training Unit and worked his way to Flying School from there. Qualified as a pilot Edrich was posted home to Norfolk where he flew a Bristol Blenheim. Described as a ‘light bomber’ the Blenheim is nothing like so famous as the renowned heavy bomber, the Lancaster, and in truth was in many ways already obsolete by the time war broke out.

One advantage that the Blenheim did have, by virtue of its size, was the ability to fly low to the ground, and many of Edrich’s bombing runs involved maintain a flying height of less than 100 feet, the purpose being to avoid detection by German radar. Any pilot who could maintain those heights was a skilful one and Edrich survived to complete a full tour despite extensive attention from enemy fighters, anti-aircraft batteries and the perils of maintaining the correct altitude while, presumably, avoiding numerous obstacles. The Blenheims did however suffer heavy losses, and Edrich lost many friends and was never allowed to forget the fragility of life. Always a man who knew how to enjoy himself most who knew Edrich believed his war shaped the hedonistic lifestyle that he pursued for the rest of his days.

On 12 August 1941 Edrich, now an acting Squadron Leader, was the pilot of one of 54 Blenheims tasked with attacking two major power stations in Cologne, so it was 750 miles of low altitude flying. The success of the mission was tempered for those involved by the fact that only 42 of the Blenheims returned. Edrich was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts, the citation reading; Squadron Leader Edrich led his formation in at exactly the right height and time, all aircraft dropping the bombs in the centre of the target area. By carrying out his orders with the greatest exactitude and determination, he must be given credit for a large part of the success of the attack.

His tour concluded Edrich’s flying duties ended and his role changed, spending time teaching the next generation and eventually being heavily involved in the preparations for D-Day. He was allowed time away from his duties to play in the five ‘Victory Tests’ in 1945. Eventually demobbed in December 1945 Edrich was offered a permanent commission by the RAF, and a dispute with Middlesex that resulted in the offer of just a one year contract for 1946 mean that must have been tempting, but cricket won the battle in the end.

In that 1946 season Edrich missed out on 2,000 runs, although he still averaged almost fifty. With the ball he had by far his best return to that date and indeed it was to remain his best summer as a bowler as he took 73 wickets at 19.28. He missed out on selection for the first two Tests against the touring Indians, and although chosen for the rain ruined third Edrich didn’t get to the crease, although with 4-68 in India’s first innings he did secure his best Test bowling figures. He did do enough to earn selection for the 1946/47 Ashes party however, although only just as his name was the last to be announced. The selectors’ decision proved to be a sound one. Edrich proved to be one of the tour’s successes averaging 46.20 with the bat despite failing twice at the ‘Gabba when faced with a sticky wicket, and getting one of the worst lbw decisions in Test history at Melbourne when he was 89 and looking set for a century.

Whilst in Australia Edrich was offered the opportunity to join a financial consultancy, so faced decisions about his future again. This time he didn’t have to consider abandoning cricket, as his prospective employers were keen that he should continue to play for Middlesex, but that would involve changing his status from professional to amateur. The real issue was whether or not to give up the prospect of a lucrative benefit. His status as a popular player would have guaranteed a decent sum anyway, but add in Edrich’s war time exploits and it must have been likely that a well organised benefit would have raised a life changing sum.

On the other hand the switch to amateur status would have made the prospect of becoming England captain a real one, and there is no doubt that that would have been attractive to Edrich. In the end he chose to accept the offer and therefore from 1947 Edrich played as an amateur. He never did get the England captaincy, but led Middlesex from 1951 to 1957. As far as the financial consultancy work is concerned he was successful at that as well and enjoyed an income well in excess of that which a professional contract would have rewarded him with. His tendency to live life to the full did however mean that he got through that income, and in retirement he must have regretted not taking some of his own advice and making rather better provision for himself than he did.

In cricketing terms the change of status coincided with that glorious summer of cricket in England which brought such welcome relief from the austerity of the times. In addition to his runs Edrich also found the energy to take 67 inexpensive wickets.

The touring South Africans suffered at the hands of Compton and Edrich as much as the counties and, the post war attendance boom still at its height, many thousands had the pleasure of watching the ‘Middlesex Twins’ cementing their places in the nation’s affections.  Like his teammates Edrich found the 1948 Australians a challenge, but he did pretty well in attempting to blunt the twin threats of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. His employers wanting to see him in the office in the winters of 1947/48 and 1948/49 meant that Edrich was unavailable for the MCC tours to West Indies and South Africa but at home he was a fixture in the England side until 1950 when, in somewhat absurd circumstances he found himself, effectively, suspended for three years.

By the end of the 1950 summer a new power had appeared in the world game as West Indies comfortably beat England 3-1 in a four Test series. England’s victory came in the first Test on a poor wicket at Old Trafford. There had been an early collapse, but the day had been saved by wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans, who scored his first Test century. There was a party to celebrate the achievement and, as was his wont, Edrich had a fine time and plenty to drink. He did eventually get to bed, but had to be helped to his room by the hotel night porter.

So far so good, and despite his state of inebriation Edrich went out and top scored in the second England innings. The problem was that the occupant of the next door room to his in the hotel was Bob Wyatt, the Chairmen of Selectors, and Wyatt had been woken by the commotion that accompanied Edrich’s return to his room. In the morning Wyatt made it clear to Edrich that he found his conduct reprehensible, and that he would be reporting his behaviour to Lord’s. During the second Test a disciplinary meeting took place and Pelham Warner, a great admirer of Edrich, invited Edrich to withdraw his name for consideration for the forthcoming Ashes series in Australia.  Edrich of course refused, but that was that for three years. There was no stated outcome as such, merely non-selection. The decisive factor seems to have been that the England skipper, Freddie Brown, did not want Edrich in Australia.

Warner always maintained that had Brown wanted Edrich he would have been picked, so perhaps that is true, but in his 1954 autobiography Brown managed to avoid the subject altogether. In any event in 1953 it was, of all people, Brown and Wyatt who finally held out the olive branch and, England struggling to find a reliable opening partner for Len Hutton, picked Edrich for the third Ashes Test.

1953 was Coronation year. The Ashes had been held by Australia since 1934, but that summer the two sides were more closely matched than for years. Edrich did little more than see off the new ball in the rain ruined third Test, but in the fourth a second innings 64 was instrumental in England avoiding defeat. There was another half century in the second innings at the Oval when England finally recorded the victory that brought the Ashes home. Fittingly the winning runs were hit by Compton, with Edrich at the non-striker’s end.

In 1954 Edrich played just once against Pakistan as the selectors experimented with options for the 1954/55 Ashes series. One of the new players was Frank Tyson, who later played a major role in the Ashes being retained. In 1954 he broke Edrich’s cheek in a county match, forcing Edrich, who had scored just a single at the time, to retire hurt leaving a good deal of blood on the pitch. The close came soon after and next day Edrich, his head swathed in bandages, ignored all advice and came out to bat again and scored another 19 runs. Edrich, as befits a war hero, never lacked courage. In the return fixture at Northampton a week later he scored a century.

By now Edrich was 38 and not the batsman he had been and although he was selected for the touring party, and then for four of the Tests in 1954/55 he did not bat well, his one significant innings being a battling 88 in the second innings of England’s heavy defeat in the first Test. There was a duck in Edrich’s final Test innings, so hardly a fitting end to the Test career of man not too far short of the top rank of English batsmen. He ended up with 2,440 runs at an average of exactly 40.00. Disregard the poor start and poor end to his career and the average would have been not far short of fifty.

Edrich retired from First Class cricket in 1958. He was not the batsmen he had once been but he was certainly not lost to the game, picking up the threads of his Norfolk career and playing Minor Counties cricket. His last appearance for the county of his birth was as late as 1971, when he was 55. A year before that he had appeared in a competitive match at Lord’s for the last time, a first round Gillette Cup tie. It was, as such games usually were, a one sided one and Middlesex won by 147 runs, but the old warhorse was the top scorer against the side with whom he made his name, scoring 36 out of 117 including 22 in an over from seamer Keith Jones.

Altogether four Edrich brothers played First Class cricket in the years following the Second Word War. Bill was the only one to play at Test level but Geoff, who played for Lancashire, was a fine batsman and at his best must have been close to the England side. Wicketkeeper/batsman Eric played at Lancashire for a couple of seasons with Geoff, and scored a century against Yorkshire. Brian was an all-rounder  who played for Kent and Glamorgan, but without ever fully establishing himself with either. Cousin John, a few years younger, was to become the most successful Edrich of them all.

On the subject of family Edrich was married five times. He was 20 when he first tied the knot in 1936. That marriage ended in divorce in 1944 and straight away Edrich married again. This time the marriage lasted four years before another marriage a year later proved rather more enduring, for eleven years. When that relationship ended in 1960 he again married almost immediately, this time for thirteen years. After that marriage ended in 1973 Edrich waited ten years before marrying for the fifth and final time. Edrich had one son by each of the third and fourth marriages and whilst he doubtless sorely tried the patience of all his wives none of the divorces seem to have been acrimonious.

Three years after his fifth marriage, on St George’s Day in 1986 Edrich, who had recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, attended a lunch time celebration. Still a great bon viveur he enjoyed himself immensely amongst old friends, comrades and teammates and the champagne flowed. A chauffeur driven Rolls Royce owned by one of the wealthy industrialists who attended the function took Edrich home in the evening. He was in high spirits and enjoying telling his wife about his day when he went upstairs, for some reason overbalanced and fell back down. There was a fracture to the base of the skull and Edrich died soon afterwards.

It was a sudden and unexpected end to a life well lived, and further sadness was inflicted on the Edrich family a few months later when Bill’s widow was tragically killed in a road accident. A post mortem concluded that Edrich was a man in fine fettle who, but for his fall, might well have lived for many more years although in many ways, given the way he lived his life, growing old would not have suited Bill Edrich.

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