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The Stories of England’s Captains, Part 1 of 4

On 8th July 2020 Ben Stokes became the 81st man to captain England in a Test match when he stood in for Joe Root to enable the latter to fulfill his paternal obligations. Root was back in time for the next Test, so having lost the only match in which he las led his country at the moment Stokes has a 100% failure rate. It could be worse. John Emburey lost his only two, and Allan Lamb his only three, but as Stokes is clearly next in line for the job when Joe Root decides that he would like to drop back into the ranks I am confident that, come the end of his career, Stokes record will be much, much better.

Amongst the 81 are many of the biggest names in English cricket, but there are some who are largely forgotten today, but by virtue of the office that they held or are interesting men and, for almost all of them there is either a biography or an autobiography out there and the purpose of this post and those that will follow on the same theme is to set out the books that are available or, in the case of a few giants of the game, a selection of what is around.

The first England captain was a member of a famous cricketing family, James Lillywhite. There is no full biography of Lillywhite, who led England in the two matches in 1876/77, although there is a volume in the ACS Famous Cricketers’ Series.

In Australia two years later England were led by Lord Harris, who also led England in 1880 in the first Test match in England and, altogether, four times. The renowned historian James D Coldham wrote a biography, Lord Harris, which was published in 1983.

Nottinghamshire professional Alfred Shaw was the captain in four Tests in Australia in 1881/82. There was what amounts to a ghosted autobiography of Shaw published as long ago as 1902, written by “Old Ebor”, the nom de plume of AW Pullin. The title is Alfred Shaw, Cricketer: His Career and Reminiscences. The only later Shaw publication came five years later and was a booklet written by WF Grundy on the twins subjects of Shaw and his long time Notts and England teammate Arthur Shrewsbury, A Memento of Two Great Notts Cricketers. Shaw was an interesting man any would certainly be a good subject for a modern historian to try and tackle.

There was a home Test in England in each of the summers 1882 and 1884. On both occasions Lancashire skipper AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby led England. In 2013 AN Hornby: The Boss appeared in the ACS Lives in Cricket series. Prior to that there had also been a little known biography by WH Hoole, who published The Cricketing Squire in 1991. A further book, dealing more with Hornby’s life outside cricket is expected in the not too distant future from Max Books.

In 1882/83 it was, following ‘Spofforth’s Match’, that the Honourable Ivo Bligh led England to Australia in order recover ‘The Ashes’. Bligh is the subject of a volume the ACS Famous Cricketers Series and in addition, whilst not strictly a biography, Cricket’s Burning Passion by Scyld Berry and Rupert Peploe contains much new material the subject of Bligh and his life beyond cricket.

As a professional Shaw’s partner Shrewsbury led England sides in Australia twice, in 1884/85 and 1886/87, and was successful in both series. As well as being featured in the Grundy booklet already mentioned A Biographical Sketch of Arthur Shrewsbury the Famous Notts Cricketer was put together by SW Hitching in 1890. In 1985 a retrospective biography, Give Me Arthur, appeared from the well known historian Peter Wynne-Thomas whose breadth of knowledge of cricket history in general and Nottinghamshire cricket in particular made him the ideal man to write it.

Allan Steel was England captain in 1886, and he deputised once in 1888, so for four Tests in all. He has yet to be the subject of a book. There are a number of books that touch upon Steel and his life and a particularly good one is The Cricket Captains of England by Alan Gibson, published in 1979.

The Surrey amateur Walter Read was next, leading England in the only Test in Australia in 1887/88 and, four years later, once in South Africa. In 2011 Walter Read: A Class Act appeared from Keith Booth in the ACS Lives in Cricket series. Read’s own book, Annals of Cricket, was published in 1896. There is a very attractive contemporary limited edition, but the content of the book is, shall we say disappointing.

The next England captain who falls to be considered has no shortage of books on the subject of his life. WG Grace led England in 13 of his 22 Tests. He was the winning skipper in four series in England and lost only once, on his visit to Australia in 1891/92. There are many books, ancient and modern, on the subject of WG.

For the purposes of this post I will put forward three books I am familiar with. One is Simon Rae’s monumental 1998 WG Grace – A Life and is a fine effort, as is the more recent Amazing Grace by Richard Tomlinson that appeared to mark the centenary of Grace’s death in 2015. Of the older books the Memorial Biography that appeared in 1919 is recommended. Many contributed to a book which credited Lords Hawke and Harris as well as writer Home Gordon as editors, but in reality the hard yards were put in by Gordon.

The next two men to be considered each led England only once, in South Africa in 1888/89, not that either realised at the time just what they were doing. The first, Charles Aubrey ‘Round the Corner’ Smith found greater fame in Hollywood. He missed the second Test through injury giving the other, Monty Bowden, his chance. At 23 England’s youngest ever captain Bowden stayed in South Africa after the tour and four years later was dead. It is no surprise that there is a biography of Smith, Sir Aubrey by David Rayvern Allen and published in 1982 with a second edition in 2005. Rather more unexpected is the existence of a biography of Bowden, England’s Youngest Captain by Jonty Winch, which was published in 2003.

Andrew Stoddart first took over as captain in 1893 when WG missed the first Test of that Ashes summer, and he then took sides to Australia in 1894/95 and 1897/98. Stoddart, also an England captain on the Rugby field, was largely forgotten until David Frith took up his cause. AE Stoddart appeared in 1970 and a revised edition appeared in 1977 with the title My Dear Victorious Stod. In 2015 Stoddy – England’s Finest Sportsman, more than two decades of further research later, became a third edition.

The trips to South Africa in 1895/96 and 1898/99 both, like their two predecessors, attract much criticism for being classified as Tests at all, but they are not going to be down graded so need to be considered. One of the captains, Sir Timothy O’Brien, an Irishman who later skippered Ireland in First Class cricket, did also play against Australia, but there is no biography of him. The second was Lord Hawke who, of course, led Yorkshire for many years.

In 1924 Hawke published an autobiography, Recollections and Reminiscences, written for him by Pullin. Later in 1990 James P Coldham, the son of the renowned historian James D, published a biography entitled simply Lord Hawke.

Stoddart missed three of the Tests in the 1897/98 series and those marked the first three of the 22 occasions on which the autocratic Lancastrian Archie MacLaren led England. Of those 22 England won only four, so MacLaren has a poor record, but he did not have a lot of luck, and some decent ideas didn’t come off. Michael Down’s 1981 published Archie is an excellent biography. There is also a monograph, Archie Remembered, that was published by Malcom Larimer in 2004.

Another famous name is that of Pelham Warner, who got the nod over MacLaren to take England to Australia in 1903/04. ‘Plum’ justified the selectors faith in him, but then became the first England captain to lose a Test and then a series to a side other than Australia when a pack of South African googly bowlers took the 1905/06 series 4-1. A prolific author Warner’s Cricket Reminiscences in 1920 and My Cricketing Life in 1921 are both largely autobiographical, and eventually a full autobiography, Long Innings appeared in 1951. That latter year also saw a short biography from Laurence Meynell, and a much fuller one from Gerald Howat, entitled simply Pelham Warner, was published in 1987.

Another Honourable, this time Stanley Jackson, led England with great success in 1905. He was one of the few cricketers of this era who was the subject of a contemporary biography, FS Jackson by Percy Cross Standing in 1907. Much later, in 1989, the same title was used by James P Coldham, putting into print one of his late father’s unfinished projects.

The next England captain was tasked with bringing the 1907 South Africans back down to earth, and RE ‘Tip’ Foster did win the three match series 1-0. Like Stoddart a double international Foster had to wait until 2018 for Anthony Collis to publish Fostershire, a ‘joint’ biography of him and his six brothers, all of whom played First Class cricket.

With Foster and Jackson unavailable to go to Australia in 1907/08 the captaincy passed to Nottinghamshire’s Arthur Jones. Unable to play in three of the Tests due to ill-health Jones only two Test appearances came on this tour. He died of tuberculosis in 1914 and no biography has ever appeared although Jones was the subject of volume 63 of the ACS Famous Cricketers series in 2001. In the three Tests that Jones missed England were led by the Essex batsman Frederick Fane, like O’Brien an Irishman. Fane also led England twice in South Africa in 1909/10. He has never been the subject of a book.

The appointed captain on that 1909/10 South African tour was the vertically challenged HDG ‘Shrimp’ Leveson-Gower. By no means a poor batsman Leveson-Gower was, despite only playing in the three Tests, well known in the game as he was an administrator for many years, but nonetheless he has never been the subject of a biography. Part of the reason for that may be that in 1953 he did produce an autobiography, On and Off the Field.

There were to be two more England captains before the Great War brought the so called ‘Golden Age’ of the game to a close. One of them, CB Fry, was one of the great names of that period even if his Test record is a little disappointing in the light of his dominance of the First Class game. Fry led England in each of their six Tests is the Triangular Tournament of 1912. There are many books that concern aspects of his life. Iain Wilton’s CB Fry – An English Hero is a comprehensive biography that was published in 1999. Fry’s autobiography was published in 1939. Life Worth Living is, unusually for a book of its type, a lively and entertaining read albeit one that did not deal as fully as it might have with some of the more controversial aspects of its author’s life. Another good biography of Fry, that pre-dated Wilton’s by 15 years is CB – The Life of Charles Burgess Fry, by Clive Ellis.

England’s final pre-war skipper was the Essex amateur JWHT Douglas. In 1911/12 Douglas led England to an Ashes victory as a result of the incapacity of the appointed captain, Warner. Subsequently as captain in his own right he led England to a handsome 4-1 win in South Africa in 1913/14. Still around after the war Douglas had the misfortune to lead the 1920/21 side that was beaten 5-0 by Warwick Armstrong’s Australians. He suffered two more defeats in 1921 to the same opposition. An interesting man his life went unrecorded until 1983  when David Lemmon’s biography, Johnny Won’t Hit Today, appeared.

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