The links between cricket and organised religion have always been strong – even to the extent that some of us view the former as a branch of the latter.
It would have been fun, for example, to see the Reverend Hugh Hodgson Gillett – Oxford blue and curate at both Finedon and Wadenhoe – battling it out on the pitch with the Reverend Robert Russell Cobbold, believed to be the only Chinese-born captain of Oundle Town and subsequently a pillar of the game in Earls Barton.
Did Victorian clergymen indulge in a spot of sledging, I wonder?
“Give him a church organ and see if he can play that!” Or maybe “I hope you can say Grace because you don’t bat like him…”
The writer Herbert Farjeon claimed that, as a boy, he would pray every night for every single member of his beloved Surrey team.
Beginning “God bless Abel, God bless Hayward, God bless Mr Shuter” young Herbert took no chances and made sure to finish with “God bless leg-byes.”
Even the great Neville Cardus admitted asking the Almighty to flatten the middle stump of any batsman standing in Lancashire’s or England’s way.
By making the request so specific he reckoned that even a slight error on God’s part might result in the off or leg pole going for a walk.
And those of us weaned on Arlott, Johnston, Swanton, Gibson, CMJ, Blofeld and the rest of the Test Match Special team owe a considerable debt of gratitude to another gentleman of the cloth.
The Reverend – later Canon – Frank Hay Gillingham played first-class cricket for Essex and served as an army chaplain during the First World War.
But in 1927 he answered the call from almost as high an authority – the British Broadcasting Corporation.
‘Auntie’ wanted to try a live cricket broadcast for the first time, and the match chosen was Essex against the touring New Zealanders at Leyton.
‘Cricket is one of the slowest games in the world,’ stated an article in the Radio Times. ‘A running commentary by the method used for rugger internationals, the Boat Race or the Grand National would be impossible.
‘What will be done is this. A microphone will be installed in the pavilion and the BBC’s narrator will watch the whole of Saturday’s play from there.
‘At fixed times – between dance band music – he will broadcast an account of the state of the game.
‘In this way, listeners will be given the gist (without) having to sit through descriptions of maiden overs…’
Yes, it DOES sound a tad like ECB’s latest wheeze for cutting out the boring bits, doesn’t it?
Anyhow, the ‘narrator’ chosen for the task was the aforementioned Frank Gillingham, future chaplain to the Royal Household.
And the Northampton Mercury’s ‘Wireless for the Weekend’ column shows this historic broadcast starting at 2.10pm on May 14, 1927 – interspersed with tunes from the London Radio Dance Band.
Saturday night entertainment for ‘listeners-in’ included the Daventry Quartet, a talk on the artist Thomas Gainsborough, Sandy Rowan (‘Scotch comedian’) and comedy conjuror Cyril Shields.
How ‘comedy conjuring’ came across on the radio, I’ve no idea.
Gillingham’s efforts at Leyton divided opinion. Some liked it, but others – including the Western Daily Press correspondent – were not impressed: ‘To those particularly interested in either team the experiment might have had some interest. To the general body of listeners, however, it was deadly dull.’
The BBC persisted with Frank until, some time later, he found himself stuck in front of a microphone when rain stopped play.
Instead of handing back to the studio, sharing a few cricketing anecdotes or just trying out Sunday’s sermon, he decided to ‘fill’ by commenting on the advertising boards around the boundary.
Then, as now, this was a serious no-no at the Beeb. His career as a cricket commentator suffered accordingly.
You may be wondering why the Reverend Gillingham figures so prominently in this week’s column. The answer has everything to do with the weather.
During the visit from the ‘Beast from the East’ – not to be confused with last weekend’s ‘Mini-Beast from the East’ – I tried to keep warm with accounts of some of the cricket matches I would most liked to have watched.
At Lord’s in 1919 an all-amateur team – under the banner ‘Gentlemen of England’ – tackled the strong Australian Imperial Forces side, and biffed the colonials by an innings and plenty.
The runs were shared around in the Gents’ 402 all out, but their top-scorer (with 83 at the top of the order) was, you’ve guessed it, the man destined to be the BBC’s first cricket commentator.
And not an advertising board in sight.
Completing the County’s Kiwi collective
As England prepare to take on New Zealand in the First Test at Auckland it’s possible to pick a decidedly decent XI of Black Caps with Northamptonshire connections.
By my reckoning, Doug Bracewell will be the eighth New Zealander to appear in first-class cricket for the County when he fills in for Rory Kleinveldt next month.
So we have Bracewell, a trio of specialist batsmen – Peter Arnold, John Guy and Frank O’Brien – wicketkeeper Ken James, leg-spinner Bill Merritt plus pace bowlers Neil Wagner and Ian Butler.
But coach Bob Carter’s Kiwi connections brought a host of other top-liners to Wantage Road on scholarships and/or club placements.
Opener Blair Hartland and seamer Willie Watson (whose incredulous reaction to bowling on the County Ground’s ill-fated artificial strip in 1986 will live with me forever) would strengthen our team.
And the final place can only belong to Stephen Fleming – 111 Tests, 80 of them as skipper, after spending the 1993 season (as a 20-year-old) here in Northamptonshire.
In the course of which he played against future England stars Michael Vaughan and Darren Gough in a Second XI match at Wellingborough School, and furthered his cricketing education – on and off the field – with Isham in the County League.
That gives us Hartland, Guy, Arnold, Fleming (captain), O’Brien, James (wkt), Merritt, Bracewell, Butler, Wagner and Watson.
Some decent cricketers there – and some good chaps, too.