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The Life Of An Adventurer


One definition of extraordinary, and one that has always accorded my understanding of its usage, seems to be going beyond what is usual, regular, or customary. It is a word that those who write about the life of the South African pace bowler Bob Crisp cannot avoid using but having done so I cannot be the first to have wondered whether it is enough, and that Crisp’s life deserves a brand new adjective, all of its own.

Born in Calcutta in 1911 Crisp was, however, educated in Salisbury (now Harare in modern day Zimbabwe) at Prince Edward School. A talented cricketer he was still only 17 when picked to play for Mashonaland against Transvaal in the 1928/29 season but, unfortunately, no record of the play has come the way of this writer. A First Class debut came a year later, again against Transvaal, this time for Rhodesia in the Currie Cup at Bulawayo. Crisp and Rhodesia made a good start reducing their visitors to 15-2 with Crisp taking both wickets, but he got just one more, Herby Taylor and William Foley both making centuries and in the end Rhodesia lost by an innings.

A further year passed and Crisp appeared against the touring MCC side for Rhodesia. This time his side drew and there were four wickets for Crisp. Two days later he was in action again, this time for the MCC, having travelled with them to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) as cover for a number of injuries. A single wicket in three overs in an easy victory for the tourists was the Crisp contribution.

Having enjoyed his contact with the English players Crisp decided to go to England and, with a view to getting a working passage on a tramp steamer, he hitchhiked to Cape Town, a distance of more than 1,500 miles. In the end however he changed his mind, an offer of a job as a journalist with the Cape Times persuading him to remain in South Africa.

For the next three South African seasons Crisp was consistency itself taking a total of 86 wickets at 14.52, although in 1934 he might have been lost to the game. He decided to join a scientific expedition organised by a fellow Western Province sportsman, Theo de Klerck. The trip was to Central and East Africa and by the time Crisp returned at the end of the year he had climbed to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Legend has it that having reached the top once he then went back up again, having met a friend on the way back down who, having heard Crisp’s story, fancied the climb himself. The story goes on that near the top Crisp’s companion fell and broke his leg, so Crisp picked him up and carried him to the summit, before carrying him all the way down again.

Crisp did however return from his travels, and there was enough time left for him to take up his journalistic reins again before setting off with Herby Wade’s touring party to England in 1935, news of his selection for which had apparently reached him whilst he was on Kilimanjaro and might well have been the catalyst that brought the adventurer back to civilisation.

What sort of bowler was Crisp? Some report him as being genuinely quick, although fast medium seems likely to be a more accurate description. A tall man with a superb physique he made full use of his height and had exceptional stamina. An ability to move the ball both ways helped him as well and as he paid less than twenty runs each for his wickets over his First Class career, and twice managed the exceptional feat of taking four wickets in four balls he must have been a classy performer. His Test record however is less impressive, twenty wickets costing 37.35 apiece suggesting that at the highest level he was a good bowler rather than a great one.

The trip to England in 1935 was a historic one as not only did the South Africans win a Test in England for the first time, that victory was also enough to clinch the series. The win came at Lord’s and the South African hero was leg spinner Xen Balaskas, who did rather better at exploiting a helpful surface than England’s spinners. Having secured that victory South Africa’s batsmen were strong enough to hold off the England bowling in the remaining Tests, limited in that series to three days each. Crisp’s best day came on the first day at Old Trafford in the fourth match of the series when he made good use of helpful conditions to take 5-99. It might have been better had the South African slip fielders not put down a number of catches in the early stages of the match.

What was to ultimately prove to be the end of Crisp’s Test career followed with the visit of Vic Richardson’s Australians to South Africa in the home season of 1935/36. Crisp missed the fourth Test through injury and enjoyed limited success in the four matches in which he did play. His best performance was undoubtedly in the first Test where he took 3-87, and then pleased the crowd with innings of 35 and 16. Crisp never did make a First Class half century but he had a good eye for the ball and by all accounts was a better batsman than his career average of 13.05 suggests. After that there were just four more wickets and although the 35 was matched in the second Test, the only one of the five matches in which the home side avoided defeat, there were disappointing pairs in each of his last two Tests.

Amongst the many female contacts made by Crisp in England he also had some involvement with the very wealthy cricket loving businessman, Sir Julien Cahn, who ran his own team. At full strength Sir Julien’s eleven was a match for any county side, and they played a number of First Class fixtures. In 1936 Crisp agreed to join Cahn’s cricket stable although, unlike some of his better players, Cahn did not find him employment within his chain of furniture stores. Crisp did however have other interests, finding a post as a journalist with a newspaper in Worcester.

From Worcester Crisp ventured into Fleet Street, where he was able to find some freelance work and in particular an interview he conducted with Sir Abe Bailey, a South African businessman and cricketing philanthropist, was published in the Sunday Express. Overall however, and perhaps surprisingly, Crisp himself seems not to have been particularly enthused by London.

By 1938 Crisp’s involvement with Cahn seemed to have ended although he remained in Worcester and made a handful of appearances for the county side as an amateur. He also took up the position of private secretary to Francis Brett Young, at that time a well known novelist and, no doubt not coincidentally, a man with South African connections. In his eight starts for Worcestershire Crisp impressed, taking 44 wickets at 23.63, and according to some reports bowled faster than he had ever done before, but a shoulder injury, in Wisden’s words, limited his opportunities and he did not play for the county again after the end of June, although there must be a little more to that story as before July was out Crisp was turning out for Cahn again.

The job with Young cannot have been a particularly satisfying one for Crisp as by the end of the 1938 cricket season he was back off to South Africa. His main role was a journalistic one, following Walter Hammond’s England side. The Daily Mail paid his expenses and his copy was used by some South African newspapers as well but there certainly seems to have been a hope on Crisp’s part for a recall to the colours and he made himself available for the fourth and fifth Tests. Whether he would have actually enjoyed bowling on the excellent surfaces that were prepared for that series must be open to some doubt.

It is not clear whether at any point Crisp intended to return to England with the tourists but if he did he once against changed his mind as he got himself a job with the Natal Mercury. That didn’t last long however as the outbreak of War in 1939 caused Crisp to once again look towards England and this time he did end up travelling there by working his passage, together with forty other South Africans who were keen to fight in the War, all of whom signed up for a ship whose previous crew refused to make the trip.

After arriving back in England Crisp won a commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal Tank Regiment. His war was an interesting one to say the least and he wrote books about it in later life. Initially it was all, to use the parlance of the times, ‘a bit of a lark’. Crisp was stationed in Alexandria and he spent most of his evenings in night clubs, crooning professionally and making the most of the attractive ladies he encountered.

That period of rest and relaxation could not, of course, last and eventually Crisp was posted to Greece. This was a period of retreat for the Regiment, driven back through the country and eventually back to North Africa. Crisp’s greatest acts of gallantry were yet to come, but there were three occasions when his tanks were blown up under him and he had to make good his escape He also at one point stood and aimed his machine gun at a low flying bomber that was strafing his men. Totally exposed he succeeded in bringing down the Heinkel before it got him.

Forced back to North Africa Crisp was in Tobruk during the Germans’ siege of the city. On 22 November 1941 Crisp was one of those defending an airstrip at Sidi Rezagh. The point was reached in the battle when, with as many as seventy Panzers advancing, all the British had left was a single Stuart tank commanded by Crisp. The odds were, of course, insuperable and Crisp eventually had to make good an escape once again from another tank that had been blown up beneath him, but the precious time for which he and his crew held up the advance won him the Distinguished Service Order.

No doubt still running on adrenalin the following day Crisp decided to commandeer a signals tank, so one not designed to engage the enemy and with a crew unfamiliar with doing so. Under Crisp’s command these rookies launched a successful assault on a group of German anti-tank weapons. Perhaps surprisingly Crisp did survive, but not entirely unscathed. At one point he suffered an arm injury which was ultimately the cause of his being unable to resume his cricket career. He also at one point was struck on the head by shrapnel necessitating surgery. From that one he made a full recovery, always laughing the injury off by quoting his surgeon’s observation that a particularly thick skull had saved him.

Despite his courage and perceptive leadership Crisp was a headache for his superiors due to his frequent disregard for authority. Three times he was busted down to second lieutenant and each time promoted again. It is said that due to this awkward streak the famous Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery disliked Crisp intensely and that he prevented his being awarded a Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry award in the British Army. Nonetheless besides his Distinguished Service Order he was also awarded the Military Cross and was mentioned in dispatches as many as four times.

His cricket career over, with the armistice Crisp went back into journalism. In 1951 he was instrumental in founding Drum magazine, now a successful publication in South Africa. In truth Crisp was only at the magazine for a few months, and whilst it may have been intended to portray the black African as a noble savage it was in fact used by the Government that introduced apartheid as illustrative of its policies being successful, and soon after Crisp left the direction of the magazine changed significantly. Nonetheless its founding remains part of the Crisp legend.

Back in England again Crisp got a job with the Daily Express, later resigning when a story he had written on the subject of corruption in greyhound racing failed to get past the libel readers. From 1954 Crisp was doing a bit of freelancing for society magazine The Tatler and in September a piece appeared about the forthcoming Ashes series in Australia. Crisp was not impressed by the party the selectors gave Len Hutton, but was nonetheless confident England would succeed. He does not specify what his concern about the makeup of the party was, but it seems likely the omission of the young Fred Trueman, like Crisp a true maverick, was his main concern.

A month later Crisp was writing about his desire to buy a farm. The venture was one he went into with his wife, who had won money on the football pools. According to his piece in The Tatler Crisp fancied ducks as the subject of the project. In the end what was purchased however was a mink farm in East Anglia, the proceeds of the win being the source of the funds. In time it became a profitable business, but not until after Crisp had run it into the ground and left his wife to turn the business round on her own.

In 1955, presumably between mink commitments, Crisp found the time to write another piece about cricket, again for The Tatler, this time welcoming that summer’s South African tourists. It is an odd article which lavishes praise on the side’s fielding, and spots the potential of Neil Adcock, but amongst a number of summaries of the tourists which hindsight proved to be accurate he was critical of the great off spinner Hugh Tayfield and, rather surprisingly, rated Clive van Ryneveld (who had chosen to prioritise his legal career over touring) as one of the best three all-rounders in the world. At the time there was precious little evidence to support a contention that van Ryneveld was one of the best three all-rounders in South Africa let alone placing him on a par with the likes of Keith Miller, Trevor Bailey and Vinoo Mankad.

By 1956 Crisp, having abandoned the mink farm, had found employment as a leader writer with the East Anglian Daily Times. He also started writing for less ephemeral purposes and in the early 1960s three books appeared from him. The first two, in 1960 and 1961, Brazen Chariots and The Gods Were Neutral were, respectively, about his experience in tanks and the Greek campaign of 1941. Changing tack in 1964 Crisp published a book entitled The Outlanders, a history of Johannesburg. The book was generally well received and sold well, although there was some criticism about the lack of quoted sources for some of the incidents referred to, one or two errors, and a tendency to overdramatize some of the people and events that were portrayed. Ultimately however the book was further evidence that Crisp knew how to hold the attention of his audience.

It was December 1966 when Crisp began the last phase of his life. No doubt feeling stifled by his circumstances he decided a complete change was needed. His marriage over and his two sons no longer needing his support he decided to leave the UK to go and live in Greece. He left with £65 in his pocket, his war pension of £10 per month and nothing else other than the expectation, having spoken to the editor of the Sunday Express before he finalised the arrangements for his departure, of being able to derive some additional income from writing about what life had in store for him.

Everything began as Crisp no doubt hoped. He spent time hitchhiking round Yugoslavia, lived in a shack on a Greek beach that lacked any sort of modern convenience and grew his own food. It was just the existence he wanted until, after a year, he decided that a persistent stomach ache warranted a visit to a local GP. Immediately sent to Athens an x-ray confirmed a diagnosis of cancer. Crisp was prescribed chemotherapy, experimentally taken orally, and told he had a 50/50 chance of survival at the very best.

Crisp’s reaction to such a bombshell was never going to be conventional, and the decision he made was to, with only a donkey for company, walk around Crete and that, stopping periodically to write the articles that he sold to the Sunday Express (under the pseudonym Peter White) apart, was exactly what he did.

The walk around Crete was completed, and Crisp then decided to row a boat around Corfu. That was a rather less successful venture as the boat sank, but Crisp survived that, as indeed he did the cancer. At one point his doctors were so curious that he was shipped over to both the UK and the USA for investigations into exactly what had happened, and whether the retsina he had taken his medication with in order to mask its vile taste might be a miracle cure. It wasn’t, so Crisp’s recovery seems to have been a straightforward case of fortune favouring the brave.

Having got his life back Crisp returned to his primitive home and became a part of the local community. Ever popular with the ladies when his sons ‘rediscovered’ him in his 70s they found him holding court in a local hostelry surrounded by a bevy of adoring women of all ages. The boys re-established their relationship with their father but, unsurprisingly, were never blind to his faults. His son Jonathan described his father as a remarkable and extraordinary man, an absolute charmer and an absolute shit.

The depth of Jonathan’s fondness for his father is demonstrated by the gift he gave him in 1992 when he arranged for the 80 year old to travel to Australia for the World Cup. An incident from that trip is illuminating. In the course of the stay Jonathan bumped into the former Kent and England wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans. When ‘Godders’ learned that Crisp senior was also around his excitement was palpable, declaring that he was anxious to meet him and that he was his hero. Given that their cricket careers did not overlap, and the relative disparity between the pairs’ Test records Jonathan was surprised, the more so when ‘Godders’ declared that Crisp senior had been the first man ever to get to 100 on tour. Only when ‘Godders’ spelt out that in 1935 he had bedded 100 women in the course of the South Africans’ tour did the reason for his admiration become clear.

The writer in Crisp had had a last hurrah in 1989. That year there was a programme of events planned in South Africa to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the country’s inaugural Test. Crisp was invited and duly attended the celebrations where he met the then editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, David Frith. The result of the meeting was that Frith teased out of Crisp a final journalistic contribution, entirely fittingly on the subject of cricket and the seismic changes that South Africa was on the cusp of. Crisp commended his old country on the advances that had been made towards multi racial sport. He would, just, live to see South Africa’s readmission to the ICC but his article did make one wrong call. Rather than the rainbow nation we know today Crisp foresaw the new South Africa as being a group of semi-autonomous states.

The grim reaper finally caught up with Crisp two years after he got back from Australia and he died in England in March 1994. Apparently his estate consisted of just one investment, a betting slip for a £20 punt on the upcoming Grand National. The horse in question was not placed and, perhaps appropriately therefore, unlike many he had taken before, Crisp’s last gamble lost. He seems to have left nothing else behind him, other than a stated wish that no tears be shed for him, that his life be celebrated, and an expression of regret that he would not be able to be present. As Bob Crisp seems to have packed around half a dozen full lives into his 82 years that sentiment seems entirely appropriate.

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