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AJ Evans: Kent, Hampshire, England and the Escaping Club

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If there were a contest to decide who, of all men who have appeared in Test cricket, had the most interesting life then John Evans would certainly be a contender. It is exactly a century ago now that Englishman Evans made his only Test appearance and, therefore, as good a time as any to revisit his remarkable story.

Evans had a cricketing background, his father Alfred, who had been born in Chennai (then Madras) in 1858 being an Oxford Blue. In 1888, having taught briefly at the great public school Winchester College, Evans senior, clearly an entrepreneurial type, had founded his own preparatory school in order to ‘prepare’ the sons of the wealthy for Winchester. The school he founded for that purpose, Horris Hill near Newbury, thrives to this day.

Unsurprisingly in the circumstances young Evans, and a younger brother Ralph who also enjoyed a brief First Class cricket career, followed the path of Horris Hill and Winchester. Evans himself then went to his father’s old college, Oriel, Oxford. Ralph instead went to Cambridge. Three cousins, all born in South Africa, another Alfred, William and Dudley also played First Class cricket, all for Hampshire in the Edwardian years of the first decade of the twentieth century and their father William, so Evans’ uncle, played for Somerset before the county achieved First Class status in 1882.

Evans was 19 when he made his debut for Hampshire in 1908. In 1909 he went up to Oriel, graduating three years later. His record over those years is unspectacular. He was primarily a right handed batsman albeit also a useful right arm bowler, a little above medium pace. He did not however record a century until 1912, when he did so for Oxford against the touring South Africans. This was the year of the ill fated Triangular Tournament, and the South Africans were not a particularly strong side.

Somebody clearly rated Evans however. His 1912 figures were modest, in that he scored 451 runs at 26.52 and took 25 wickets at 25.98. He was nonetheless invited to play for the Gentlemen against the Players at both The Oval and for the Lord’s showpiece, as well as being invited to play for an England XI against Australia and, in the end of season Scarborough Festival, for the MCC against Yorkshire. He recorded an unbeaten 64 in the Gentlemen’s second innings at the Oval, but otherwise his contributions in those games were modest.

Having graduated with a degree in history during that summer of 1912 Evans was promised a job at Eton College teaching History and French, although it was strongly suggested to him that to add another string to his bow he should spend a year in Germany becoming fluent in the German language. Happy to accept both the job and the advice as a result Evans was not seen on the cricket fields of England in 1913.

Whilst he was in Germany Evans was called back during a crisis to cover for a sick colleague at Eton, and was sorely tested by his charges so much so that he changed his career plans, later explaining; I came to the conclusion that schoolmastering was not for me – the truth being that I did not like small boys and the thought of teaching them and looking after them for the rest of my life was intolerable. He described Charles Law, the son of the Conservative politician Andrew Bonar Law who was to be, briefly (in 1922/23) Prime Minister, as the worst of his tormentors.

In the way of the circles in which Evans moved there was a family connection with Frank Lloyd, the owner of Lloyd’s Paper Mills, a substantial company, and not only were he and his company happy to employ Evans they were also content that he should remain in Germany to complete his planned sabbatical, and he only returned shortly before the start of the Great War.

Still effectively at this stage an intern with Frank Lloyd Evans sought his employer’s agreement, freely given, to leave his job and volunteer for active service. As soon as it became known that Evans had the ability to speak French and German he was, unsurprisingly, signed up for the newly formed Intelligence Corps.

Evans’ war was an eventful one, but the episode that brought him enduring fame came in 1916. By then he was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and was captured in July by the Germans, having been forced to land behind enemy lines.

The first escape came soon after capture, and Evans got as far as the Dutch border before being recaptured. Moved then to a, presumably, more secure facility Evans managed to get out several more times, without his hard won freedom lasting too long. He was eventually moved again, to a camp known as Zorndorf, but never got there. Evans and another officer managed to decamp from the train taking them to Zorndorf and, eighteen nights of walking later, the pair managed to get themselves to safety in Switzerland.

Also in Switzerland was Evans’ brother, who had been badly wounded on the Western Front and was being looked after by their sister. More fortunate than Ralph, Evans was keen to get back into action but, the rules then not allowing escaped POWs to return to the theatre of their original capture, he found himself with the choice of training pilots in Canada or in Palestine. He chose the latter and in time was moved into a similar role to that he had when originally captured and eventually was taken prisoner once more in not dissimilar circumstances to those that gave rise to his first period of incarceration.

This time Evans’ captors were the Turks, and he was taken to what was then Constantinople (Istanbul). The regime and conditions were harsh and squalid but Evans’ captors, it by now being clear which way the war was going, were not unfriendly. Freeing himself would have been easy, but there was nowhere to escape to, leaving Evans to wait until the opportunity arose to bribe Turkish medical staff to certify that he was sufficiently unwell to be eligible for a repatriation scheme.

With the end of the war Evans was finally able to devote his time to Frank Lloyd’s company and in 1919 he appeared just twice in First Class cricket. The first time was for Gentleman of England against the Australian Imperial Forces XI. The Gentlemen won easily, and Evans scored 68 against an attack that included the fast bowling all-rounder Jack Gregory. Evans other appearance was for the Gentlemen against the Players at Lord’s. In a drawn match he scored 0 and 63.

The paper mill where Evans was based was located in Sittingbourne, Kent, so a fair distance from Hampshire. The last match that Evans played for Hampshire was his only First Class match of 1920, against Kent at Canterbury. Hampshire were easily beaten and dismissed for 99 and 154 although Evans, with 22 and 47, did not disgrace himself.The match was to prove something of a crossroads for Evans who did not play for Hampshire again, switching his allegiance to Kent in what seem to have been entirely amicable circumstances.

There is no suggestion that Evans was ever considered for the ill-fated trip to Australia in 1920/21 when England were beaten 5-0 by Warwick Armstrong’s Australians. Armstrong’s men then followed their visitors back to England for the return series in 1921. Gregory had been a significant factor in the drubbing. His opening partner Ted McDonald had been less impressive in Australia, but in England in 1921 McDonald too was at his very best.

The by now 32 year old Evans began his 1921 season with an appearance for the MCC against Australia at Lord’s. It was certainly a baptism of fire as the tourists first choice attack were lined up against him, all of Gregory, McDonald, Mailey and Armstrong being selected. The Australians won, but with only two of the men who would appear for England in the first Test being included in the MCC side and the winning margin was just three wickets there must have been some hope that a full strength England would put up a better showing in the first Test than they had the previous winter.

That MCC pushed Australia as far as they did was largely down to Evans. Having won the toss and chosen to bat MCC were at 131-7 shortly after Evans arrived at the crease. From that unpromising position their eventual all out total became 284, in large part due to Evans’ unbeaten 69. Half a century later Ralph Barker described the innings as a performance of courage and skill very enthusiastically heralded in the pavilion by the authorities whose traditions he was so successfully vindicating.

In the second innings Evans scored just 3, but his contribution had been noted. A week later the first Test began. Any hopes of improvement after the humiliating reverse of a few months previously were soon dashed however as England were heavily beaten once again, Wisden observing that never in the history of Test Matches in this country has English cricket been made to look quite so poor.

Whilst England were being put to the sword Evans turned out in what was to be the first of only two appearances for Kent that summer, against Northamptonshire in the County Championship. The East Midlands county were not in 1921 the whipping boys they would become as the decade wore on, but they were still not a strong side. Nevertheless Evans could only play against the opposition that appeared and his 102 in the Kent first innings was the foundation on which a big win was built.

After the debacle that was the first Test it was no surprise that England made wholesale changes for the second Test at Lord’s. Equally it is possible to see why the selectors decided to include Evans, despite Barker’s comment fifty years later that; I can attribute his selection in the present situation to no traceable source but encroaching panic and an instinctive feeling that if civilisation were crumbling about our ears it would be reassuring to have a few familiar Club faces around in the last moments.

The Lord’s Test, which began on a Saturday, was played, according to The Cricketer, in beautiful weather and before an enormous crowd of spectators – certainly the largest that has ever been seen at Lord’s. The wicket was said to be in perfect order, the ball very seldom getting up even to fast bowlers like Gregory and McDonald.

England skipper Johnny Douglas won the toss, but the familiar procession began again, England’s much changed side slipping to 26-3. Douglas himself and Frank Woolley, who in this match played two of his finest innings, 95 and 93, steadied the ship, but after Douglas went a stuttering collapse followed. Evans was on 4 when, eleven minutes after he came in, he was bowled by McDonald.

Wisden referred to the occasion being perhaps rather too much for him. Neville Cardus, as would be expected, was rather more lyrical; the form of Evans suggested that he would not only enjoy himself but be the source of enjoyment to others – in a country house match. These tough Australians found easy game in him on Saturday.

All out for 187 England conceded a first innings lead to their visitors of 155. In the second innings they did rather better, although not well enough to prevent an Australian victory by seven wickets. This time Evans scored 14. In its report The Cricketer described him as, initially during his partnership with Lionel Tennyson that saw the pair add 33, not thoroughly comfortable. His one boundary was a nick between his legs to fine leg, although by the time of his dismissal he was said to be beginning to play well when McDonald had him lbw with a yorker on his toe.

It is said that, waiting for his turn to bat against Gregory and McDonald, Evans was sat in the Lord’s dressing room visibly trembling, the implication being that he was scared of what was to come. Of course Evans may well have been nervous, and indeed observed himself in 1960 that I doubt whether the war had left my nerves in a fit state for the strain of a Test match, but the idea that a man who was awarded the Military Cross for continuing his job of photographing a battlefield from a plane that was the subject of heavy enemy fire was frightened of fast bowling is surely ludicrous.

In time Evans’ escape attempts earned him a bar to add to that Military Cross. In addition to events on the cricket field 1921 was a momentous year for Evans elsewhere as he made his bow as an author as well. His book was entitled The Escaping Club and it contained the full story of his ultimately successful attempt to escape from the clutches of the Germans. It sold well and has been republished a number of times.

His business commitments meant that Evans played very little cricket after his single Test, and he seems to have largely confined his sporting activities to the golf course. On his own admission not quite in the front rank of amateur golfers he nonetheless played, effectively, off scratch and enjoyed a good deal of success. There were three Championship appearances for Kent in 1922, and one the following year, but he scored only 34 runs in total. It was therefore quite a surprise when, in 1926 it was announced that Evans had been appointed club captain for 1927. Having finished third in the table in 1926 expectations were high.

In the 1920s Kent’s problem was with their bowling. They had a reliable right arm seamer, Charlie Wright, and the prolific ‘Tich’ Freeman’s leg spin, but otherwise their resources were limited. Evans did well enough though with what he had, and whilst his attack was not as penetrative as the previous year’s, the county slipped just one place in the table to fourth. As for Evans himself he started well, his first 18 innings bringing 694 runs including three centuries. Sadly for him however the remaining 15 saw him add just 138 more.

Evans’ final First Class appearance came the following year, in 1928. He had not retained the captaincy but still turned out eight times for Kent, and did not let himself down. His final match was for the then well known wandering club, Harlequins, against that summer’s touring West Indians at the famous Saffrons ground in Eastbourne. The match was a comfortable win for the Harlequins and, in his final First Class innings, Evans scored 124. George Francis and Herman Griffith weren’t quite in the same league as Gregory and McDonald, but were a fiery pair nonetheless.

When Frank Lloyd died, in 1927, his business passed to a pair of brothers who had been associated with the company for some time. It would seem likely, although I have not been able to confirm this, that the change at the top was the reason why Evans was able to unexpectedly devote an entire summer to the game. Evans clearly did not fancy working under different management and left, deciding to try his luck on the stock exchange. Doing so as the Great Depression hit proved not to have been a wise idea as, to use his own words, I came out of the slump a good deal poorer than when I went in.

In 1939, by which time Evans was 50, war came again. Once more Evans found himself in demand and he joined MI9, lecturing on escape and related matters. In time his method of delivery evolved, and in 1944 he travelled to France to continue his teaching role in the field. As with last war he was demobilised at the earliest available opportunity, although this time he rather regretted the decision.

In 1919 Frank Lloyd welcomed Evans back to civilian life with open arms, but this time the company that he had worked for before joining MI9 had folded, and Evans found that being 56 counted against him in the job market. He therefore wrote another book, Escape and Liberation. Unlike The Escaping Club this one was not a bestseller, although Evans did describe it as a moderate success.

With no offers of employment coming through his door from the private sector Evans took the pragmatic decision to ‘join up’ again. The defeated Germany was in a state of some chaos, and assistance and support was need to enable the country, now fractured between east and west, to start to heal itself. With his experience and linguistic skills Evans was ideally qualified for such a role and spent the next three years in Germany working for the Foreign Office, helping with the rebuilding of West Germany.

On his return in 1950 Evans concentrated on creative matters. He wrote five published books, and also involved himself in a film company, although that one he lived to regret. His final employment, and it must have been a congenial one for a man of his background, was as a director of a sporting magazine.

One book that Evans never finished was an autobiography. He did start one however and, a year after his death at the age of 70 in 1960, a book entitled Heir to Adventure was privately published, by whom I am not entirely sure. The sub-title, Notes for an Autobiography, demonstrate that this was an unfinished item, although it is a well written and, it would seem, honest description of his life. There is virtually no cricket in the book. What there is is a decent reference to Evans’ first appearance for the Gentlemen against the Players back in 1912. His only Test appearance is dealt with in a couple of paragraphs.

Quite why biographers have left Evans alone I know not. In addition to his own story those of his father, brother, uncle and three cousins are all worth telling. It is not as if Evans does not have descendants. He had four children and one of those, son Michael, enjoyed a long career in the performing arts so at least there is cause to hope that at some point in the future a grandchild or great grandchild will decide to share with us the story of their distinguished family history.

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