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Loony shades by Benny Green

The Spectator, 17th September 1977, page 21

Carr's Dictionary of extraordinary English Cricketers (J. L. Carr, 20p).

Most of the world's great ideas are simple ones, and Mr Carr is to be congratulated for having come up with one of the greatest, and one of the simplest of them all, a compendium of cricketing screwballs. Having brushed aside all the frivolities of cricket, the Test matches and the technique, Carr has fought his way back to the Eden of cricketing contemplation, that garden wherein resides the quiddity of the game as expressed by those who cared more for cricket than they did for the figure they were cutting before others. We read for instance of Lord Howe, b.1726, whose father died of drinking coconut milk in Barbados, gave his name to a Pacific island of 150 souls yet fielding two elevens, compelled only to have fixtures with one another and on a ground so contiguous with the ocean that wickets could be pitched only at one end, the batsmen swapping places for the strike.

Reading on, we are further delighted to discover that for once we hold in the palm of our hand (Mr Carr's pearl measures five inches by four) a cricket book embracing both sexes: 'Mrs Emma Locksley, landlady of the New Lord's Tavern, in a fit of despair, blew up her house, her sister-in-law, and herself.'

Already the dangers of reviewing Mr Carr's book become apparent. The enthusiastic writer, revelling in the idiosyncracies of dotty cricketers, wants to quote this and that and, before he looks round, finds he has quoted the entire volume. So I will gouge out no more plums from this pie consisting of plums in its entirety, and go on to do what no other reviewer of Carr's extraordinary Dictionary has done so far, and that is to complain about its shortcomings instead of abasing myself before its beauty.

For example, we read of the Reverend Francis Cornford, who wins his niche in the pantheon, most deservedly so, for making a hit worth 18 runs. This seems to me an irrestible argument for inclusion in the dictionary of Hemingway, George Edward, who once hit a ball into some stinging nettles during a single-wicket match and ran 250. Would it not also have been wise to include Charles Francis Buller, said to be 'the handsomest man the cricket field has ever known'? And how in all conscience can any dictionary of extraordinary cricketers ignore the curious case of Mr Thomas Arthur Fison, who once scored 264 for Hendon against Highgate School and whose mode of dismissal in that innings was 'Retired to Catch a Train for the Continent'? I am tempted also to nominate for inclusion Mr John Francis, who played in a game which degenerated into a snowball fight.

My case begins to emerge; it is that Mr Carr might, without diluting the intensity of his brew, have extended his slim volume to the point where it ceased to be a pamphlet and grew into a book. That he is the first in the field is a fact which ought, in a purer world than this one, to have earned him multifarious honours. But now that he has shown his hand, I do believe he should extend it. The history of cricket is graced (perhaps I should say Graced) with more eccentricity than the casual reader of Carr's dictionary would ever dream of, and its compiler now owes it to himself as well as to us who hunger after such significant trivia to enlarge his book without necessarily inflating it. I think also he might expunge from the title the word 'English', if only to render eligible for inclusion the gentleman from Melbourne who left instructions that he be buried with a piece of turf from the local cricket ground at his side.

Even as I write these lines, the clamour from the shades of loony old cricketers who have been left out of Carr's dictionary is putting me off my stroke, as Old Ebor would have reported it. How, for example, can we ignore the pathetic figure of Harry Bagshaw who, according to Wisden, 'was buried in his umpire's coat and with a cricket ball in his hand'? Are we to allow to drift into oblivion the great William Yardley, the only man since the Creation to score two centuries for Cambridge against Oxford and write a successful burlesque for the Gaiety Theatre? And can we not find a modest corner for Dr Arthur Abraham, who looked so like his own twin that when he went into bat, the opposition would complain that he had already been in and out again? What of William Justice Ford, who played in a match at Torquay, hitting a ball out of the ground, across a road and into a field, where it 'put up a brace of partridges', although whether out of season we are not told.

There are records of men who were caught off their own skull, men who hit their own feet so hard as to break a bone, men who admitted dropping vital catches because they had 'been watching a pretty lady getting out of a brake'. Men have been killed while playing cricket; men have died while walking from pitch to pavilion, and even, on one occasion, dropped dead in the slips after taking a wicket in the previous over. One Edwardian patrician whose name escapes me for the moment had the honour of captaining Germany in a cricket match against France; does he not deserve a place somewhere? And what of the amazing Charlie Absolon, who in his seventy-second year scored a thousand runs and took a hundred wickets, who did the hat-trick twice aged seventy-eight, and took a hundred wickets in a season at the age of eighty. If that doesn't qualify as eccentricity, then cricket is a girl's game. Mr Carr has arrived with what S. J. Perelman would call a seedling of desire; what I now ask is that by patient tending and diligent research he nurtures that seedling till it grows, if not to a mighty oak, at least to a thriving sapling. Just to remind us all of what is at stake, I close with a further gesture from Carr's Dictionary: Arthur Courcey, Epsom, a stockbroker, a spectator of the 1882 Oval Test which England lost by 7 runs. Whilst enduring 13 successive maiden overs he gnawed off the handle of his brother-in-law's umbrella.

Mr Carr's book is obtainable from the author, 27 Mill Dale Road, Kettering.