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A Cricket Pro’s Lot

Fred Root only ever wrote a single cricket book, A Cricket Pro’s Lot, published in 1937. It wasn’t even a particularly good one, but it has stood the test of time and, the best part of a century after it was initially published has, unlike the majority of such books, become more interesting as it has aged.

Born in Derbyshire in 1890 Root’s family moved to nearby Leicestershire when he was a small child, his father securing the groundsman’s job at the Aylestone Road ground in Leicester. Root was therefore brought up with the game and his aim in life was always to play cricket professionally. A promising all-rounder he joined the Leicestershire ground staff at 15.

As events turned out however Root never played a First Class match for Leicestershire. He was promised one, on the basis that whoever was the highest scorer in a Club and Ground match would get a berth created by an injury. Top scorer by a distance in that match Root looked forward to his debut, only to have that snatched from him when the county gave his place to an amateur, a slight which sent Root into the arms of the county of his birth.

Aged 20 when he made his debut for Derbyshire Root did not manage to establish himself in the five seasons before the Great War brought the curtain down on the ‘Golden Age’. He was primarily a fast medium bowler, in those days distinctly sharp, as well as a useful lower order batsman. He began experiments with leg theory as he looked for ways to tame batsmen. He even managed to conjure up a victory against local rivals Notts in 1914, but his captain at Derbyshire did not approve.

Like many sportsmen Root joined the war effort and, again like many others, he was a casualty in France. It is not entirely clear what wounds he sustained, but he was invalided back to a hospital in Bradford and, at one stage, told by his doctors that he would not play cricket again. In that respect they were wrong, although Root never regained his pre war pace.

The Root recovery was such that following discharge from hospital he was able to join the professional ranks in the Bradford League, competing with the likes of Jack Hobbs and Sydney Barnes. After the war he moved to a rather weaker league, joining Dudley in the Birmingham League, whilst he served out a two year residential qualifying period to enable him to play for his third county, Worcestershire.

When Root joined Worcestershire his captain, Maurice Foster, did not have the same distaste for leg theory that Root had encountered at Derbyshire and, after a couple of modest seasons, in 1923 he came right to the fore with 170 wickets, and for the next eight summers he was amongst the leading bowlers in the country. In 1926 Root was capped three times by England in that summer’s Ashes and, whilst he only took eight wickets, in the first of those three appearances rain prevented Root getting on the field. In his other two Tests the price Root paid for his wickets was a very reasonable 24.25, and his economy rate was just 1.81 runs per over.

As indicated by now Root was certainly not fast, and he did not often bowl short, but he was certainly above medium pace and made the ball swing in to the right hander and was one of those bowlers whose deliveries seemed to gather pace of the pitch. His accuracy was such that batsmen found it difficult to get him away, and many were caught in his leg trap as they tried to escape the straitjacket he imposed on them.

In 1932 Root turned 42, and there was a marked deterioration in his returns when, in twenty matches that summer he managed just forty wickets at the relatively high cost of 30.75 runs each. It was his last summer of First Class cricket and although he did not want to retire Worcestershire decided not to renew his contract. At the time it was suggested that the sticking point was the £164 that Root wanted to cover his travelling expenses from his home in Dudley, although in later life he would claim that, following the ‘Bodyline’ tour, the county were concerned that leg theory would be outlawed.

His county career over Root went back to the leagues and played each summer with great success for Todmorden in the Lancashire League, his commitments to whom were such that he was also able to coach at his first county, Leicestershire.

During the Second World War Root’s league career continued, and he also served as an ARP Warden. In 1947 however he had a career change, in the sense that he applied to join and was accepted for the First Class umpires list. Root stood throughout the 1947 summer, but he did not stand after the first week in June of 1948. At the same time as going on the list he had started writing a column for the Sunday Pictorial (now the Sunday Mirror) and in the end he found coaching at Leicester and writing for the Pictorial to be rather more congenial than travelling the length and breadth of the country all summer.

But what of Root the writer? In the manner of the time no ghost writer is credited in A Cricket Pro’s Lot, although it seems likely that there must have been one. That said Root did, according to his editor at the Pictorial, write all his own copy for the paper. There is probably little to be read into that however as Root’s column was generally a collection of a few brief and pithy paragraphs rather than the sort of detailed analyses that modern day cricket journalists produce.

It will come as no surprise that Root was a man of firm views, and certainly no friend of ‘the establishment’. That is not to suggest that he was a rebel, but Root knew his worth, a story bearing that out being the tale of his benefit, the tax free gratuity that in his time kept long serving professionals tied to their counties. In those days the usual arrangement was that the beneficiary’s main source of funds were the proceeds of a match he was allocated. The rub was he had to pay all the expenses, so a wet and miserable few days could mean that he actually lost money.

Clearly not a gambler Root’s preferred course was to seek to agree a fixed sum of £500, which the club could then raise however they chose. The committee thought about the proposal and countered with an offer of £250 but, a league contract in his back pocket in case he needed it, Root stuck to his guns and the county gave way rather than risk losing their key bowler.

That of his benefit is just one of the stories from his life that Root tells in A Cricket Pro’s Lot, and another subject he unsurprisingly deals with at some length is his leg theory. Root’s version of leg theory was nothing like ‘Bodyline’, although he was happy to take credit for the development of the tactic that caused such a furore in 1932/33 even if, with all due respect to him, he does seem to rather overplay his hand on that one. There is however no doubt at all as to his views on Larwood and Voce’s controversial line of attack, his views on Larwood being:-     

No fairer bowler ever played the great game than ‘Lol’ – and possibly no better bowler…….. to suggest that he deliberately placed his leg side field to enable him the better to bowl at the batsman is a slander beyond forgiveness. Warming to his work Root continued; the tragedy of Larwood’s life was brought about by narrow minded ignorant critics and chicken-hearted, inept batsmen who not only ran away, ducked and dodged, but squealed even when they reached the safe security of the pavilion.

For a man whose own tactics were designed to stifle run scoring Root is surprisingly forthright about the problems brought about by what he perceived as negativity in the game in the 1930s, and particularly slow scoring rates and defensive batting. One of his suggestions was to penalise scoring at a rate of less than sixty runs an hour, although he does not express a view on what the sanction for failure to achieve that might be.

Root was also unhappy at the inequality in the county game and the dominance of the larger counties. Having been caught himself by the archaic qualification rules that hampered young professionals he also fired a broadside at those and advocated a transfer system to enable players to move freely between counties.

Most interesting is Root’s suggestion that the there should be a knock out cup competition for the counties to compete for. He was not the first to come up with that idea, but his suggestion that games be short and snappy, and played over a fixed number of overs was not something that had been articulated before. Several generations on Root’s ideas look rather more visionary than they perhaps did at the time they appeared, and in 2000 writer Les Hatton wrote that a copy of A Cricket Pro’s Lot was a book every modern day cricketer should keep in his ‘coffin’.

By the time he joined the Sunday Pictorial Root had not mellowed one jot, and indeed if anything he became even more cantankerous. In 1948 England lost heavily to Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’, a series about which Root was actually pretty even handed, but on the subject of England’s fast bowling prospects he was at his most irascible:-

Fast bowling is dying out in England. It has been killed and cremated by legislation, super groundsmen and “pandermonia” to officials and batsman.

Its death knell was sounded in the hullabaloo of the Australian defeat in 1932/33. Larwood – and his skipper, Jardine – were crowned with laurels during the flush of victory only to be crucified with thorns on the altar of diplomacy and public relations the following season.

The edict went forth from Lord’s that any sort of leg theory bowling was to be severely discouraged by County Executives.

Rules were made which barred persistent and systematic bowling of fast short pitched balls, and umpires were empowered to caution the offender, and request his captain to take him off forthwith.

Would you risk it as a fast bowler? 

Four years later, on the eve of the 1952 visit by India, the question of the England captaincy was high on the agenda of both MCC and the public. Root expressed his opinion in two concise sentences; I maintain that the practice of choosing a skipper first is all wrong. Select the team first – on merit – and do away with gilded, figurehead leadership. Someone was clearly listening, as Len Hutton got the job and became England’s first professional captain.

It will come as no surprise in light of his views that Root took much interest, through 1952 and 1953, in the development of the young tyro Freddie Trueman, although amongst the hope and praise he was always at pains to sound a note of caution about how the youngster should be handled.

In the winter of 1953 Root, still living in Dudley, fell ill and at the end of the year was admitted to hospital. It is indicative of his popularity that the local press in Birmingham carried regular short updates as to his progress, but the news was never very good and, sadly, Root died in his Wolverhampton hospital bed on 20 January 1954. He was 63.

Echoing the words of Les Hatton I would certainly recommend A Cricket Pro’s Lot to anyone interested in the history of the game and its politics. The book has never been reprinted, but it must have sold well as copies often appear on auction sites and in second hand bookshops and the book is not a costly one, particularly if the reader is not unduly concerned whether the original dust jacket has survived.

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