The Cricket Writers' Club History by Alex J. Bannister - Daily Mail 1947-79 and Chairman of The Cricket Writers' Club in 1960
More than fifty years after its inception in June 1947, the Cricket Writers’ Club remains splendidly virile in its maturity, and proud to be the forerunner of other sporting clubs of its kind. Membership, open to recognised correspondents of newspapers and periodicals and on radio and television, exceeds 200: some 90 per cent of those eligible to join.
The inspiration for its formation came from the rather grandly named Empire Cricket Writers’ Club, which itself came about merely to fill a two-week gap before Hammond’s MCC party began its first fixture of the 1946-7 tour. The team had arrived at Fremantle on the Stirling Castle, accompanied by fourteen English correspondents – barely a forum compared with today’s jet-setting successors – and six hundred war brides, to find that the opening match had been put back owing to ‘a late emergency’ caused by a disruption of transport schedules, which might have meant something to somebody.
It was Arthur Mailey, once Australia’s master spinner, who proposed that the spare time could be spent playing cricket; and play they did, all the way to Brisbane, against schools, clubs, charitable institutions and, at Melbourne, before 15,000 spectators, opposing a Victoria Past and Present XI. To the Australian players of Fingleton, O’Reilly, Grimmett, Richardson, Oldfield and Mailey were added Bowes, the Yorkshire captain Sellers, Duckworth and Lyn Wellings, an Oxford Blue and Surrey off-spinner who, on retirement after thirty-six years with the London Evening News, received a letter from his management addressed to Mrs. Evelyn Wellings.
The success of the ECWC soon caught the approving eye of E W Swanton, Charles Bray, Bruce Harris and other elders of the Press Box and in due course their two objectives – to promote and play cricket, and to facilitate their own undertakings – were adopted by the CWC. In recognition of their legacy the CWC back-dated their own formation to that of their parent club. The only snag was that the ECWC had no idea of the precise date of its coming into being and that's how it is today. It matters not, the thought was there.
Within months of establishment, the CWC achieved a spectacular success by entertaining Bradman and his Australian side to a black-tie dinner at the Skinners’ Hall, London. The Duke of Edinburgh was a guest and the first speeches by Lord Birkett, the eminent advocate and Bradman were broadcast by the BBC, and were so captivating that the 9 O’clock News was delayed. The humour of Canon F H Gillingham, who claimed to be the only cleric able to attract a ‘gate’ and of R C Robertson-Glasgow, or ‘Crusoe’ as he was affectionately known, completed an unforgettable occasion. At the end Ian Johnson, a future Test captain, rose from his seat and uttered the ultimate Australian compliment – ‘Cripes!’ And ‘Cripes’ it was.
‘Crusoe’ had a laugh like the eruption of a volcano. Once at Worcester it tested the composure of the great Victorian icon C B Fry then contributing a column in the London Evening Standard. The column was entitled ‘C B Fry Says’. Usually quite a lot.
On this occasion Fry was reporting a tourist match and his telephonist returned to say, with all due deference, that he had altered two facts in his copy. It was not the South Africans who were playing there but the New Zealanders, and the river running by the ground was the Severn and not the Trent. ‘Crusoe’ savoured the moment. Fry, first-class honours in Classical Mods at Wadham, turned on his tormentor and icily observed: ‘Even Homer nodded.’ That brought the response from a fellow Oxford classicist, ‘In this case he had a blooming good snooze.’
The prestigious dinners of the CWC were held amid the splendour of City halls and in the provinces. The tradition, however, of entertaining visiting touring sides was broken by the advent of the back-to-back Test series and by single-wicket tournaments. CWC dinners, though, lost little of their appeal when, in the era of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy at Lord’s, they began to be held in London hotels and the more especially as ladies were welcomed. In the organisation of splendid recent dinners much has been owed to the meticulous planning of Wendy Wimbush, the treasurer and assistant to the secretary Derek Hodgson. Derek is the sixth holder of the office and perhaps the busiest of all as his consultations with the powers of the game are held on an almost weekly basis.
Nowadays, features of the annual function are the CWC awards which carry the memories of past and respected members. In 1950, the Manchester-based Archie Ledbrooke, the first treasurer, had the idea of a Young Cricketer of the Year award based on the voting of members. The number of young hopefuls who have subsequently been awarded England caps is now approaching some two hundred.
Archie further suggested that a book should be written by members to swell the club coffers. The subject was to be Cricket Heroes. Early in February 1958 I met him in Leicester to discuss the response. As we parted he said that he was off to Belgrade with Manchester United and I remember saying that it was likely to be an interesting experience. He died on the 6th of that month when the team’s plane crashed at Munich Airport. He would have been gratified to know that the book was dedicated to him and to those who lost their lives with him; and he would have been amused that writers who had some reputation for being dilatory, like Neville Cardus and John Arlott, produced their articles on time.
The Peter Smith Award is for Outstanding Services to Cricket. The word ‘outstanding’ is also appropriate to describe Peter’s ability as both a newspaper correspondent and the first Press Officer at Lord’s. This was a post that had long been urged by the CWC. It was sad that a heart attack cut short Peter’s contribution in his prime.
From the first chairman, Jim Swanton, to today’s long-serving and indefatigable president John Woodcock; from the first secretary Bruce Harris to Derek Hodgson the club has been singularly well served by its officers. In the early days the working conditions were Victorian, austere and uncomfortable (some would use stronger words) and there existed a touch of icy suspicion between some of those who ruled the game and those who wrote about it. Gradually the way ahead became clear. There was the appointment of the official Press Officer. Procedures were established. There were the expected interviews with Test captains and statements from the chairman of selectors. In all, the working of the CWC settled to a formal and helpful pattern. Always there was the quest for insights and quotations. These were golden years for the Cricket Writers when the future of Cricket seemed assured and its guardians and exponents took the field with wisdom and wit.
Important milestones were reached. At the request of Lord’s, a memorandum was drawn up by Jim Swanton and John Bapty of the Yorkshire Evening Post. This led to an invitation from the MCC President H S Altham to the CWC for a delegation to join the Joint Advisory Committee for Press Liaison and Public Publications. J M Kilburn, who had wielded an educated pen for the Yorkshire Post and with a loving distinguished service for the CWC, Brian Johnston and myself duly faced a full committee at Lord’s. To have Altham as an honorary member of the club was not a disadvantage. A former master at Winchester and a county batsman, he was the co-author with Swanton of A History of Cricket. Kilburn and Altham happily shared their common and scholarly wickets of discussion. As we left for lunch a well-known and mischievous voice said: ‘Not much in the way of brains, is there?’ Through the banter, respect and understanding were created and that day a door of suspicion that had long been ajar was held open to the light of trust. Powerful allies in S C Griffith, ‘Gubby’ Allen and R W V Robins were won to the CWC cause.
Members of the club exercised great influence on the game because of their insights. John Kay, secretary from 1969 to 1977, is one who should not go unsung. As correspondent of the Manchester Evening News and a noted batsman for Middleton in the Central Lancashire League, he recommended both Frank Tyson and Basil D’Oliveira, the famous Cape Town export, to Lancashire. Tyson was not at first rated for he was said to bend his knee after a six-ball trial in the Old Trafford nets, and D’Oliveira was the innocent victim of South Africa's apartheid era, before he won 44 England caps as an all-rounder.
Kay had the satisfaction of reporting on the Ashes-winning side in 1954-5 when Tyson produced the fastest bowling I have seen. What a pity there were no speedometers in his day to record just how fast he was, particularly in the second Test at Sydney when he bowled with a strong wind from Botany Bay behind him. Sir Don, my partner for the Daily Mail during the home series of 1953 and 1956, always used to say to me: ‘Don’t forget Statham’s at the other end.’ This was the ultimate in cricket experience, going hand in hand with cricket writing.
Tyson’s success came after he had cut down his run – by how much my memory fails me – but as he used to recite Wordsworth and Longfellow as he went back to his mark, it could have been by a couple of stanzas. He bowled a whizzer in the air; it fell the Aussies knew not where.
Cricket writers have always had an entertaining relationship with those in Show Biz. Trevor Howard, film star and cricket buff, once asked me to nominate him for membership of the CWC. He was taken by the green and black tie. An agreement between his studio and the Daily Mail was reached for him to accompany me on the circuit and write ‘a little piece’. We met at Victoria and went to Maidstone where he left me at the ground. He reappeared at the close of play, by which time I had already sent off his ‘little piece’. At Victoria he said to me: ‘Same time tomorrow, same place?’ There was no sign of him the next day. I did see him again in the foyer of the Windsor Hotel, Melbourne, during Ray Illingworth’s tour of 1970. Our association was what might be called A Brief Encounter.
In the life of the CWC there have been profound changes. I remember on the MCC tour of South Africa in 1948-9 that the four amateurs sat apart from the pros on the liner to Cape Town. Then, the Gentlemen played the Players and the Varsity Match was a feature of the season. The county championship was not dominated by expensive imports and the scene was not dominated by single wicket competitions.
Whatever course cricket should take in this new century, one certainty is that the Cricket Writers’ Club will, in its field, remain the Club of clubs.