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The CW Ancients XI

The earliest known cricketer's photograph - Silver Billy in his dotage.

It can be a disadvantage that there is as much information available about cricketing pre-history as there is. By using the expression pre-history I am referring to the period prior to 1864, the watershed year when overarm bowling was first legalised and, coincidentally, John Wisden’s Cricketer’s Almanack began what is now comfortably the longest innings the game has seen. In using the word disadvantage I am thinking about the fact that there is always something being unearthed which casts doubt on previously accepted ideas or, just occasionally, that completely disproves what has been believed for generations. This was brought sharply into focus only recently as I read a couple of most convincing contributions to the journal of the Association of Cricket Statisticians (ACS), which suggest that the old underarm bowlers started pitching the ball, rather than rolling it along the ground, much earlier than had previously been believed. I have not changed what I had already written in that respect of David Harris and “Lumpy” Stevens, but I am no longer confident that it is necessarily correct.

Exactly what was and was not First Class cricket before 1864 is something of a vexed question but at least, thanks to the ACS, we do now have a definitive list of such matches. There was however much cricket that took place that, while it could never fit any definition of being First Class, was still of a high standard. In particular the powerful wandering XI’s that played up and down the country in mid 18th century, played many of their matches against teams of more than eleven, and no games against odds are reckoned as First Class, so all these players played much more cricket than their First Class records suggest.

Another important factor that needs to be borne in mind is that batting was a much trickier occupation in pre-history than it is now, for a number of reasons. Firstly the batsman’s equipment was vastly inferior to what came later. Pads and gloves, in rudimentary form, were in use by the end of the period but had only recently come into vogue. Bats were, until 1835, generally unsprung, solid pieces of wood. Secondly wickets were nothing like the flat prepared pitches of today and offered bowlers many advantages. Finally there were generally no boundaries so all runs had, quite literally, to be run. It is true that the stumps were a little smaller, that wicketkeepers suffered with poor equipment too, and that the relatively poor fielding standards were exacerbated by the state of the outfields, but overall the balance between bat and ball was tilted firmly in favour of the bowler.

The point can be illustrated statistically – by 1772 the average number of runs per wicket was around 7.5. By 1820 it had risen to 11 and by the end of pre-history had got up beyond 15 (although it fell back in 1835 when round arm bowling was legalised). In 1895 the figure touched 24 and since then has risen slightly but remained constant around 25/26. Thus John Small’s 1775 innings of 138 was worth more than 400 in modern cricketing currency.

So selecting my Ancients XI was no easy task but here they are. I have set them out firstly in order of appearance on the First Class scene, and then reprised them in batting order. I have no specialist keeper, though there were such in pre-history, but that job goes to “Silver Billy”, whose bowling I don’t need, and in view of the number of stumpings in his career, he clearly knew how to guard the castle.

John Small Snr ( First Class career from 1772 – 1795)

According to the ACS criteria the First Class game began in 1772. John Small, who was already 35 by then, was by repute the finest batsman then playing and one who was a pioneer of the use of the straight bat which, from the 1750’s, gradually replaced the curved bats that had been used when the game was in its infancy. Small scored what is now recognised as the first century in First Class cricket in 1775. It is a measure of what a remarkable feat that was that in the remaining 23 years of his First Class career he did not repeat the feat. Small, unusually for the times, had a particularly sound defence and was also noted for taking quick singles and testing the fielding side in a manner that few of his peers would do. As to his main contribution to the game that was the wicket gaining a middle stump. His watchful defence meant that Small seldom “lost his castle”, so when, also in 1775, “Lumpy” Stevens beat his bat three times only to see the ball pass through the stumps, the bowler’s protests were taken heed of and a middle stump added.

Edward Stevens (1772 – 1789)

Like his great rival John Small, “Lumpy” Stevens, as he was known and referred to in contemporary records, was already, at 37, an established player when First Class cricket began. When he started playing bowlers would roll the ball along the ground or, occasionally, skim it at speed, the reason being the wide but short wicket would not be hit by a ball that rose more than a few inches. In 1744 the laws of the game were, for the first time, reduced into writing and 22 inches by 6 became the standard size, This new tall, but narrow target meant that the ball that pitched and moved became infinitely more productive for bowlers than the old grubbers. Lumpy became the first recognised master of the art of slow bowling, although, statistically speaking, we cannot know just how effective he was due to the inadequacies of the primitive scoring systems used in his day which generally recorded nothing more than the batsman’s score. There is no clear answer as to how he acquired his famous nickname but most accept it was as a result of his skill in choosing the most uneven pitch on which to bowl – in those days the pitch would be set up where the bowlers wanted it – there were no pre-prepared wickets.

David Harris (1782 – 1798)

The game’s historians tell us that over 17 seasons David Harris played in a total of 78 First Class matches, in which he took 328 wickets. Just over four wickets per match does not sound particularly remarkable, and as scorers did not in those days record the runs scored from bowlers, we cannot work out his average, but it must be borne in mind that it was not until around thirty years after his career ended that bowlers, as well as fielders, were first credited with catches, so those 328 were all occasions when Harris hit the stumps. From all the other evidence that is available he seems to have been a formidable bowler. Harris was a right armer at a time when only underarm bowling was permitted and, taking his lead from “Lumpy” Stevens, Harris adopted the technique of pitching the ball in front of the batsman. Unlike “Lumpy” however, Harris bowled fast and a combination of pace, spin and the rough wickets of the time made the ball leap at the batsman causing many hand and finger injuries to the gloveless batsmen of the day. We know what we do about Harris thanks to John Nyren and his publication “The Cricketers of my Time”, that appeared in 1832. He had no run up to speak of, according to Nyren he began from an erect stance, “like a soldier at drill”, and raised the ball to his forehead before stepping forward. In his delivery stride, he brought the ball from under his arm “by a twist”. Nyren described Harris’ speed as “extraordinary”.

William Beldham (1787 – 1821)

Aged 21 when he played his first First Class match, and 55 when he played his last, “Silver Billy” was, after John Small, the game’s second great batsman. He may only have scored three centuries over his long career, and averaged just over 21, but as already noted in his day batting was an infinitely more difficult art than it is today. Historians debate still whether or not Beldham introduced the whole concept of forward play into the game, whether he was the first to play the cut shot and to understand the importance to batting technique of a high left elbow and a sideways on stance. He may not have been the first, but he was certainly an early pioneer and did much to popularise these extensions to the technique of batting. “Silver Billy” was also a good enough bowler to bowl 213 batsmen. He was a true all-rounder credited with as many as 333 catches in his 189 First Class appearances as well as 49 stumpings, although whether he was a regular wicketkeeper as such is unclear. What is clear is that as a fielder he would generally stand in the slip area. Nyren said of Beldham that “…one of the most beautiful sights that can be imagined, and which would have delighted an artist, was to see him make himself up to hit a ball. It was the beau ideal (sic) of grace, animation, and concentrated energy”. A remarkable man in many ways “Silver Billy” lived to be 96 and, apparently, sired 39 children in his long life.

Fuller Pilch (1820 – 1854)

Fifteen years after Pilch made his First Class debut a major change in the laws of the game occurred as round arm bowling was legalised. Pilch was a great batsman both before and after this sea change and continued the development of forward play and the sort of strokes that might be recognised today, that Beldham and his contemporaries had begun. In all cricket Pilch reached his century on 10 occasions albeit only three of those were in matches now reckoned as First Class. He was a noted expert at single wicket competition, which in his time was extremely popular, and his slow round arm bowling was extremely effective in that form of the game. He also took wickets in the First Class game, albeit not on a scale or at such cost as to put him amongst the very best.

William Lillywhite (1825 – 1853)

Known as “The Nonpareil” (meaning unrivalled) Frederick William Lillywhite was the first, but by no means last, member of his family to make a major contribution to the development of the game. William was a bowler good enough to take more than 1,500 First Class wickets at just over 10 runs each. He took many others at lower cost in lesser matches. He was a slow to medium paced bowler who really came into his own with the legalisation of round arm bowling in 1835. He enjoyed a long career, his final First Class appearance coming when he was 61, just a year before his death. In his younger days William was also a useful batsman albeit he never did score a half century. William’s sons, Fred, James and John are best remembered for their significant contributions to cricket literature, although John in particular was a fine cricketer who enjoyed a long career at First Class level. Another James, this time William’s nephew, was a fine all rounder and captained England in the two matches in 1876/77 against Australia that are now recognised as the first two Test matches

William Clarke (1826 – 1855)

As founder, owner and captain of the first of the great peripatetic professional teams, The All England XI, William Clarke played a major role in the shaping of the game. He was also a fine bowler and one of the few who, after round arm bowling was finally fully authorised in 1835, persisted with underarm bowling. A slow leg spinner Clarke took almost 800 wickets at a cost of just a shade over 10 runs apiece in the 143 First Class matches he played in – 83 times he took five in an innings, and went on to take ten in a match on 26 occasions, although his contempories often remarked on an unwillingnes to take himself off. As a batsman Clarke was no better than moderate, an average of 10 and just seven half centuries being testament to that, but it is as a bowler that he made his name, and from what is written about him it also seems that he matured into a most astute captain, being one of the first to regularly change his field to take account of the idiosyncracies of individual batsmen. Clarke’s legacy to the game, which will doubtless last in perpetuity, is that it was he who originally bought and developed the Nottinghamshire County and England Test ground at Trent Bridge, where the William Clarke stand was opened in 1990.

Nicholas Felix (1830 – 1852)

A truly multi talented man Felix was a gifted musician, linguist, artist and writer as well as a very fine left handed batsman. His 1845 book, Felix on the Bat, is one of the early classics of cricket literature. No lesser man than his contemporary, Pilch, described him as the most attractive batsman in England. He stood at the crease with his knees slightly bent, had a high backlift and excelled in the cut and the drive. Felix came to the game relatively late in that he did not play First Class cricket until the age of 25. Even then for a number of years he did not play consistently as he was at that stage running a school, under his true name of Nicholas Wanostrocht, that he had inherited from his father. The amount Felix played gradually increased and by the end of his First Class career he had scored 4,556 runs at an average of 18. He had scored two centuries although his most famous innings was one of 88 that helped the Gentlemen to victory over the Players at Lords in 1842, their first victory on level terms for twenty years. Like his fellow amateur Mynn Felix did not enjoy financial security, but although it was necessary for a Testimonial match to be played for his benefit at Lords in 1846 he was never in as much difficulty as Mynn. It is perhaps surprising that this was so given Felix’s impressive array of talents but clearly a flair for business was not amongst his skills. In addition to his other achievements Felix invented a bowling machine (the Catapulta) and batting gloves, but in each case it was others and not him who enjoyed the fruits of his inspiration.

Alfred Mynn (1832 – 1859)

Had WG Grace not been born it is likely that the name of Alfred Mynn, “The Lion of Kent”, who John Woodcock of The Times ranked as the fourth greatest cricketer ever, would be much better known today than it actually is. Like Grace Mynn cut an imposing figure, standing well over six feet in height, and weighing more than 18 stones. It was just three years after Mynn began his First Class career that round arm bowling was legalised and he was one of its finest exponents. A famous 1871 description of Mynn the bowler was “a man who stands six foot two, of gigantic but symmetrical figure, standing up his full height, taking six stately steps to the wicket, and bringing his arm round well below the shoulder, and sending the ball down like a flash of lightning dead on the wicket”. Mynn’s overall First Class bowling record, as best it can be worked out, is over 1,000 wickets at just over 10 runs apiece. As a batsman Mynn’s record was, by the standards of the day, pretty good even though he averaged only 13. The best known story about Mynn relates to his one century, that he scored for the South against the North in 1836. An ankle injury prevented Mynn bowling in the match and in the South’s first innings he batted down the order and was left unbeaten on 21. In the second innings, batting with a runner, he scored a magnificent 125*, which was of course a quite exceptional score in those far off days. The North’s leading bowler was Samuel Redgate, who was just as fast as Mynn – following the innings he apparently said “It mattered not what length I bowled him – the better I bowled, the harder he hit me away.” Mynn paid a heavy price for his innings however. There were no leg guards in those days and after being repeatedly struck on the legs by Redgate during his innings he was in a bad way. A stagecoach was summoned to rush him back to London and the journey from Leicester (some 100 miles), during which Mynn had to lay on the roof as a combination of his bulk and his severely swollen leg would not permit him to get in the carriage, cannot have helped his condition. An amputation seemed likely, although in the end Mynn made a full recovery, albeit he missed the whole of the 1837 season and only appeared twice in the First Class game in 1838. As a cricketer Mynn’s best years were the 1840’s and early 1850’s. Always an amateur, finances were a continuing problem for him, and he was bankrupted more than once and, in days when English law permitted imprisonment for civil debt, he saw the inside of a prison cell as well.

George Parr (1844 – 1870)

Parr, who became known as “The Lion of the North”, had not long been in the First Class game before he was generally recognised as having taken over Fuller Pilch’s mantle as the finest batsman in England. Like all great batsmen his success was built on a sound defence but Parr also had a fine array of strokes, and was particularly strong on the leg side. With an average of only just over 20, and just one century in his long career, Parr’s figures are poor if judged by contemporary standards but by the standards of his time they were impressive. He was also a very consistent batsman scoring more than 30 half centuries and, unusually for the time, on several occasions averaging more than 30 for a season. Like John Small before him Parr also realised the importance of good running between the wickets. Unlike many at this time Parr did not bowl very much, taking just 29 First Class wickets in all, and he never bowled at all in a First Class match until 1856, but an average of 15, while unremarkable at the time, was still low enough to suggest real all round ability. In due course Parr became a business partner of John Wisden and together they arranged and led the first touring team that left English shores back in 1859, to North America. Parr also captained the second English team to visit Australia, in 1863/64, although only one of the matches his side played is reckoned as First Class, and even in that members of the touring party appeared in both teams.

John Wisden (1845 – 1863)

This year the Cricketers’ Almanack to which John Wisden gave his name has appeared for the 148th consecutive year. Its annual appearance ensures that the name of Wisden remains synonymous with the game he graced with distinction as a player. Just 5′ 4” in height, Wisden was known as “The Little Wonder”. As time passes his name is known only as a result of the Almanack, but he was a fine all round cricketer, and particularly a very quick, and very accurate, round arm bowler. His only cricketing achievements that the eponymous Almanack now records are the two occasions on which he took all 10 wickets in an innings, in 1850 (all bowled), and again in 1851. All told in his career Wisden took more than 1,100 First Class wickets. As with the other members of this eleven history does not record his full analysis on each and every occasion he bowled, but from what we do know it seems likely that his overall average was less than 10. In addition Wisden was a distinctly useful batsman, making his top score of 148 in 1855 in a game between Yorkshire and Sussex which marked the first ever First Class fixture at Sheffield’s Bramall Lane. To put that achievement in context it needs to be borne in mind that that innings was the only First Class century recorded in England in the entirety of that season. By the start of the 1863 season Wisden was still only 36, but he had been troubled by injury and weight gain since returning from the tour of North America in 1859, and that season saw his final First Class appearances. This was an era when 36 was no great age for a professional cricketer, but that in part was due to the lack of employment opportunities for former players and in that respect Wisden was the exception, having already taken steps to secure his future once his playing days were over.

..and in batting order

1.John Small
2.+William Beldham
3.Nicholas Felix
4.Fuller Pilch
5.George Parr
6.Alfred Mynn
7.John Wisden
8.*William Clarke
9.William Lillywhite
10.David Harris
11.Edward Stevens

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