Faces on a Wall

Published: 2024
Pages: 252
Author: Radd, Andrew
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 4 stars

This one is a very personal book, written by a man who has spent his entire adult life and much of his childhood watching Northamptonshire play cricket, and he has had the good fortune to make a living from doing so as writer, journalist and broadcaster.

Northants are not, of course, one of the big beasts of county cricket. Since joining the County Championship in 1895 the county have never won the title and, between the wars, were very weak. After the war they improved and, as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s they became a power in land for a number of years, and even though they have been less successful in recent years as one of the smaller counties they have often managed to punch above their weight.

With this book Radd has decided to take his reader through the lives of those who have captained the county, going as far back as 1878 when the county club was formed. Clearly the book is going to appeal to Northamptonshire supporters, but will it gain any traction beyond the county’s faithful?

One of the characteristics of lovers of the county game is that most of us regard ourselves as supporters of just a single county, but while we may have our partisan moments, as the ever growing support for County Cricket Matters shows the great majority of us harbour a genuine fondness for and interest in the other 17.

So the reality is that Faces on a Wall, provided it is decent read, will appeal to cricket lovers wherever the English county game is followed. And a decent read it most certainly is, and Radd is to be commended firstly for not merely producing a list of individual pen portraits, an approach that would have been by far the most straightforward. Instead he has separated the narrative into thirteen individual chapters that follow a chronological order, thus allowing Radd to link his subjects together, and give an idea of the history of the club that would not have been apparent from a series of profiles.

And there have been some remarkable characters who have captained Northants, more particularly in the early days, before the county was granted First Class status back in 1895. The Earl of Rosslyn was one such. A well connected peer of the realm who at one stage was a good friend of the future King Edward VII Rosslyn was to crash and burn in spectacular style. A man with a serious gambling problem he ended up bankrupt, divorced and earning a living as an actor.

One of the ‘problems’ caused by books like this is that they highlight the need for more information about some of the men featured. A few of Northamptonshire’s captains have been the subject of books, but others scream out for biographies, and not least of those is Vallance Jupp. Only the Yorkshire pair of Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst have more than Jupp’s ten doubles, but he was a controversial character as well as a fine cricketer, and missed part of his career whilst serving a prison sentence for manslaughter. Radd’s summary of Jupp’s life is a fascinating one, and I sincerely hope that one day he will construct a full biography around it.

Not far behind Jupp is Freddie Brown, albeit we do at least have a 1954 autobiography from the man who, at 21, was the youngest of Douglas Jardine’s ‘Bodyline’ tourists of 1932/33. 17 years later Brown was persuaded to move from Surrey to Northants as captain and led the county for five years during which time he also led his country in 15 Test matches. Very much his own man  and seldom far from controversy the headlines Brown was also a decent all-rounder and as with Jupp Radd’s writing reminded me that there must, in the right hands, be a compelling biography to be written.

Despite, as noted, Northants never having been county champions, they have been runners-up on four occasions. On each of those, save perhaps the last in 1976, the success had been unexpected and particularly in 1912 when, only seven years after the club joined the Championship, George ‘Tubby’ Vials’s side finished second only to a powerful Yorkshire side. Vials, a 25 year old, has a story that is told with relish, albeit it is sadly foreshortened by a combination of injury and the demands of his solicitor’s practice which effectively ended his career that summer.

The other captains of the runners-up sides are better known, the archetypal professional batsman Dennis Brookes in 1957, the wicketkeeper’s wicketkeeper Keith Andrew in 1965 and, in 1976, the Pakistani legend Mushtaq Mohammad. Radd has anecdotes aplenty about all of them, all the more interesting for being unfamiliar, and also enhanced by the fact that Radd, inevitably given his calling, knew them all well.

More recent events are not ignored either, and the final chapter of Faces on a Wall takes the story right up to the present day and current red ball captain Luke Procter. As a Lancastrian I was interested to read about Procter, presumably deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford at the close of the 2016 season, and who I wistfully note is, as I pen this review, averaging north of 60 for the current season.

In reality, given Radd’s previous ventures into print, I never doubted but that this look at Northamptonshire’s captains would be anything other than well worth reading. In fact though the book is much better than that, the stories of those involved being so much more revealing by virtue of Radd’s personal involvement with the county. If I had to find something to criticise I suppose I would have liked to have seen a chart of the county’s achievements and a note of the career statistics of those featured, but that is but a small grumble. Faces on a Wall is an excellent book as, I am confident, will be the yet to be written biographies of Brown and Jupp,

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