The county’s Chief Constable – no less – came up with the very quotable quote in question: “Everyone in Northamptonshire is talking cricket these days.”
And he had a point – although the fact that he said it 70 years ago (almost to the day) removes a little of the gloss.
Captain ‘Bertie’ Bolton was speaking at the opening of British Timken’s new ground in Northampton. No fewer than 6,000 people turned up
to watch the celebration match with, according to the local press, queues in the town centre for buses out to Duston.
On a Sunday to boot.
So who or what was the catalyst for this cricketing fervour in a county (and as a native myself I’m allowed to say this) not immediately associated with fervour for anything much?
Look no further than a Peruvian-born ex-Prisoner of War, fond of his pipe and a ‘W-and-W’ (not ‘whisky and water’ but ‘whisky and whisky’), who dragged Northamptonshire cricket up by its bootstraps after being appointed captain in 1949.
Freddie Brown wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea – or glass of scotch. His somewhat brusque man-management methods might have fallen foul of a 21st century employment tribunal.
But without him it’s not inconceivable that the County’s first-class status might have been lost well before 2019.
The connection between ‘FRB’ and Timken (manufacturers of roller bearings) is key to the story.
The big incentive for Brown – a pre-war Test cricketer – to take charge at Wantage Road was a guaranteed winter job with the company, courtesy of its cricket-mad Managing Director, John Pascoe.
In fact if you’re listing the unsung heroes of NCCC history then Pascoe – later knighted – must feature for his willingness to employ some of the club’s top cricketers in the days before 12-month contracts, thus making Northamptonshire an altogether more attractive proposition.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Brown’s arrival at the County Ground happened in the same week as shop and display lighting was turned on again in Northampton after the dark years of wartime and austerity.
The Savoy Cinema, the New Theatre and Coldham’s toy shop were just some of the buildings being seen – literally – in a new light.
‘Can he weld the wooden spoonists of the Championship into a more formidable combination?’ asked Charles Bray in the Daily Herald. ‘If he cannot, I doubt whether anyone can.’
Brown had lost five stone in weight during his three years as a POW and now set about getting his players fit for cricket, taking them into the gym for physical training and basketball.
Then outdoor nets interspersed with regular and rigorous sessions of fielding practice.
So far, so good. But convincing the Northamptonshire professionals of the need for thorough preparation was an absolute doddle compared to getting the club hierarchy on side.
The scene was set for probably Northamptonshire’s most momentous selection committee meeting ever.
Brown’s version of events – both in his autobiography and interviewed for the official history of the club shortly before his death in 1991 – had the committee’s chairman, former skipper ‘Tubby’ Vials, producing a list of all the players available for the opening Championship match against Somerset at Taunton.
It included several amateurs who fancied a game but hadn’t turned up to any pre-season practices.
Freddie was having none of it. “I’m sorry but I’m the only one, with (senior pro) Dennis Brookes and (coach) Jack Mercer, who has attended all the net sessions and this is the team I want,” he said.
“Tubby could see I meant business and said ‘I think you’re right.’ Mind you, it’s lucky I won the first match.”
He very nearly didn’t. Needing just 64 to win after making Somerset follow on, the County slumped to 27 for six and 52 for eight before Brown himself and Gordon Garlick saw us home.
The captain’s personal contribution was relatively modest in bald statistics – 11, 22 not out and six wickets in the match for 111.
But the tone had been set, even though some punters remained (as you would expect in Northamptonshire) deeply sceptical.
A lovely opinion piece in the Northampton Independent – under the headline ‘Churlish Local Sportsmen’ – berated ‘those people who are moaning because eight wickets were lost in getting 64.
‘If the men wearing the town’s (sic) colours are not continually knocking centuries, getting wickets and scoring goals…there is always a big moan or outbursts of sarcastic derision.’
The carping seemed to fade away, though, as the County went on to win ten Championship matches and finish sixth in the table – the highest placing since 1913. Brown did the ‘double’ of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets and ended the summer as England’s captain.
‘W-and-Ws’ all round, chaps.
Moreover, he became an outspoken champion of local cricket – setting the wheels in motion for the creation of the Northants County League in 1951.
Dominated in its early years, of course, by British Timken…
Recently I came across a report of a talk Brown gave at Wellingborough’s Salem Hall in August 1949. He clearly had a way with an audience.
“What has happened this year is beyond what I would have expected. I thought it would take at least three years to make this into a really good side, which I think we are now,” he told them.
“We are flat out to find local people to play the game.”
And commenting on the huge success of that summer’s fixture against Yorkshire at Wellingborough School: “It was a record gate and when I had the figures I went straight to Colonel Coldwell (NCCC’s Secretary) and said ‘why not arrange TWO matches there?’”
Sentiments greeted with applause, as you might expect.
But still he craved a genuine paceman. “I don’t think a fast bowler, unless he gets into the black market and buys steaks, can build himself up to bowl really fast through a county season.”
Meanwhile, a 19-year-old up in Lancashire was aiming to do just that – with or without the aid of his friendly neighbourhood Private Walker.
A lad by the name of Tyson….