Rockley Wilson: Remarkable Cricketer, Singular ManMartin Chandler |
Author: Howe, Martin
Rating: 3.5 stars
Fifteen years ago this one was the fifth title rolled out in the ACS Lives in Cricket series. I purchased it at the time and, if I recall correctly, even indulged in some email correspondence with author Martin Howe. Then however I simply put it on the shelves and, until the January new title drought of 2023, never found the time to read it. This was a serious mistake, as this is one of the very best of a generally excellent series. Sadly for those who would now like to add the book to their collections on the strength of this review it is long out of print, but there is comfort for those who merely wish to read Rockley Wilson’s story, as this is one of a number of ACS titles that are available to buy in electronic form.
So what is it about a man with just a single Test cap to his name that leads to such a good book? Inevitably it is a combination of factors including, importantly of course, an author who is also a decent writer. Howe had much else going for him as well however. He chose a subject from an interesting background, about whose somewhat eccentric personality stories abound and, most important of all, he had the full of co-operation of Wilson’s extended family*, including access to a substantial family archive.
As to who Wilson was he was born into a large family in 1879. One of his brothers, Clem**, also played Test cricket, another briefly played at First Class level and two more to a decent club standard. Generally the male Wilsons were ordained ministers, with a smattering of lawyers in their midst, and Wilson himself went on to become a master at Winchester college, French and Greek being his subjects.
An outstanding schoolboy cricketer at Rugby Wilson, interestingly, missed his last year at school after cheating his way to a Latin prize by submitting someone else’s work. The only slight frustration with the book is that it is not clear where such detail that there is of that story came from. Wilson readily admitted his guilt but, not that it matters greatly in the scheme of things, presumably only after he was caught?
His job at Winchester meant that Wilson was never available to play full time for Yorkshire and indeed before he took a ten year sabbatical from the First Class game in the first decade of the twentieth century he had played only nine times for his county. He was nonetheless a decent all-rounder. When he came back to county cricket in 1913 he was primarily a bowler, and he bowled with such consistency throughout August of 1919 and 1920 that he won a late call up for the 1920/21 Ashes party where, at almost 42, he became the oldest England debutant since the inaugural Test match back in 1877.
It is as a man though that Wilson is so interesting. He is best known today, and always now will be, for his famous observation, on learning of the elevation of his former charge, Douglas Jardine, to the England captaincy in 1932 that we will probably win the Ashes, but may lose a dominion. There are however a vast collection of stories about a man who clearly had a razor sharp wit and was something of a polymath even if, in truth, he was much happier to bend his back on the cricket field than he was whilst studying himself or, in the course of his vocation, helping others to do so.
Howe’s account mixes an account of Wilson’s cricketing achievements with an analysis of his personality very well, drawing extensively on the family archive as well as the many references to his subject that have appeared in cricket literature over the years. Wilson himself did some cricket writing particularly, and controversially, on his tour of Australia. He was also a noted collector of cricketana, much of his collection finding its way to Lord’s after his death, at 78, in 1957
*Rockley himself never married
** Technically – Clem’s two appearances came in on tour in South Africa in 1888/89 in matches later upgraded to Tests, so in reality Clem doesn’t challenge Rockley for the title of the family’s best cricketer