Thursday, 30 March 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 2: the fast bowlers of Hartley Wintney





This lightning tree stands in the fields between Elvetham and Hartley Wintney, at the North-East tip of Hampshire. Across the same fields, long before the tree was seeded, strode a cricketing thunderbolt, a man who would change the fabric of the game. His name was David Harris, and he bowled fast. Here's what it was like to face him:

'He left fingers ground to dust against bat, bones pulverised, and blood scattered over the field.'

He was born in Elvetham in 1755, and he emerged into a changing world. In 1744, the two stumps that made up a wicket had been raised to twenty-two inches in height. In 1775, when Harris was twenty years old, came the match at the Artillery Ground when Lumpy Stevens 'bowled' John Small three times, leading to the addition of the middle peg. The target suitably established, David Harris went to work.

 Elvetham was listed in the Domesday book with a yearly rent of thirty shillings and enough woodland to support ten swine. The Seymour family arrived in 1426, and in 1535 Edward Seymour entertained his brother-in-law Henry VIII there. Elizabeth I visited in 1591 as the guest of the Earl of Hertford, and brought an entourage of 500 with her. The fields and woodland around the hall were unchanged by the time of David Harris and some have barely changed now. Harris happened to be born in exactly the right place, as well as the right time.

Hartley Wintney cricket green, viewed from the Elvetham side

Cricket was played on this green in 1770, when David Harris was fifteen years old, and it has taken place there every season since, making it one of the oldest continuously used grounds in England. Although the name David Harris appeared on a scorecard for the first time on 27 May 1782 in a game at Odiham between Arlesford & Odiham and a Hampshire County XI, the case that he was bowling here, a mile or so from his home, some years before that is irresistible.


Looking from the square towards Elvetham


Harris' method, the ball raised to the height of his forehead 'like a soldier at drill' before he delivered, produced a spearing underarm delivery that kicked up from the pitch, a new and apocalyptic development for batsmen used to a ball that stayed low or ran across the ground. 'Length', as it became known, forced through the new style of bat and a new style of batting, the one being refined by Billy Beldham a few miles to the south in Farnham.

But Harris did something more important than that. He introduced a psychological dimension to the game that wasn't there before, he broadened its hinterland. He brought in the notion of fear, of peril. He reinforced the idea of the batsman as being alone in a hostile universe. It was the other half of Silver Billy's model of batting as something beautiful, the aesthetic heart of the game, and together they formed something modern and new.

Here is the playwright Frederick Reynolds on how it was to face David Harris: 'I felt almost as if taking my ground in a duel... and my terrors were so much increased by the mock pity and sympathy of Hammond, Beldham and others round the wicket, that when this mighty bowler, this Jupiter Tonans, hurled his bolt at me, I shut my eyes in the intensity of my panic and gave a random, desperate blow'.

David Harris and Billy Beldham first faced one another in 1784, when Farnham played Hambledon, and they would appear as both team-mates and opponents from then on, two shaping forces, flip-sides of the same coin. A third man linked them, another archetype, this time of the autocratic administrator. His name was Lord Frederick Beauclerk, and he lived in Winchfield, the next village along from Hartley Wintney, in Winchfield House, a glorious pile that still stands.

Beauclerk's crib, Winchfield House

Ostensibly a cleric with a parish in St Albans, where, when he appeared his sermons were legendarily dull, Beauclerk made his money from playing and betting on cricket, and he was one of the game's great enigmas: courageous on the field but malicious too, a bearer of epic grudges, priggish, disdainful, haughty, both a maker and bender of rules and a man who had no problem with saying one thing and doing another. His betting came mainly in small-sided games, into which Billy Beldham was often co-opted.

Beauclerk would have loved to have hold of David Harris too, but his star shone briefly. He was a quiet country boy, with, as Nyren recorded, 'a remarkably kind and gentle expression', a potter by trade who never married and who would be dead at 45. Gout afflicted him so badly that he used crutches to walk and had to sit down between overs, and after his last games in 1798, 'was latterly a cripple'. He's buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Crondall, not far from his home in Crookham.

As John Major wrote in his book More Than A Game, 'The name of David Harris does not convey the magic of a Sydney Barnes, a Harold Larwood or a Shane Warne, but his role in changing the face of cricket was greater than any of theirs'. 

Harris had a reputation for being incorruptible, 'a man of so strict a principal', not pragmatic enough for Beauclerk. Instead, Hartley Wintney was to throw up another rapid-fire merchant for him, Thomas Howard, born in the village in 1781, a man who would take part in a contest of such infamy it would lead to a radical change in rules, and to a feud that cost careers and lasted a lifetime.

It involved Beauclerk of course, who could not believe his luck when he found a left-arm length bowler of Howard's talent emerging just up the road from his country house. Howard appeared in the inaugural Gentleman versus Players matches at Lord's Dorset Square gound in 1806, where Beauclerk captained the Gentlemen and recruited Silver Billy and William Lambert as 'given men' [Billy swapped sides for the second encounter, during which Howard dismissed Beauclerk for an ultimately decisive 58 in the Gentlemen's first innings].

By 1810, when Beauclerk asked Howard to play with him in a money match against William Lambert and George Osbaldeston, Howard was established as a leading player of the day. The bet was for £100, and it was a gamble - Lambert was to vye with Billy as the premier batsman of the age, and Osbaldeston was a skilled all-rounder, a swashbuckler known as the 'Squire of England'. When Osbaldeston fell ill at the toss, Beauclerk saw his chance and refused Lambert's request to postpone the game. He told Lambert to play or pay up and Lambert responded by bowling so wide of the wicket that Beauclerk's hair-trigger temper duly went off and the match was lost.

Beauclerk's vengeance was lifelong. A year later his hand was behind the institution of a Law declaring a one-run penalty for a wide delivery. In 1817, Lambert was accused of trying to fix a match between Nottingham and Beauclerk's All England XI. Beauclerk was struck on the finger during that ill-tempered game and almost died after the wound became infected. When Lambert became embroiled in a row during a match at Lord's the following season, Beauclerk called him in front of the MCC committee and had him banned from playing for a year. For Osbaldeston he had to wait a little longer, but revenge came when he resigned from MCC in protest after an argument during another single-wicket game and Beauclerk refused to readmit him. The Squire's cricket career fell terminally away.

Here have stood giants...

Hartley Wintney is a thriving club [and a ground I conquered myself once or twice] and each year they host a charity game, generally with Hampshire's beneficiary, so the great and the good continue to stand on earth that connects them to cricket's deepest history. It's quite something to be a part of.


The dastardly Lord forever remembered in Winchfield

Next time, to London for more from Beauclerk, and then Tilford, for the last days of Silver Billy...





Friday, 17 February 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 1: Holt Pound


It's the morning of 23 August 1791. In the field behind this gate, George Finch, the ninth Earl of Winchilsea, has been dismissed hit wicket for four while batting for Surrey against Hampshire. His opening partner Charles Anguish is out for nought. Harbord, the number three, goes for a duck too, and Louch at number four manages nine. Two of the three Walker brothers, Tommy and Harry, fall quickly, for nought and two. By the side of the pitch, among the crowds, William Beldham, 25 years old and perhaps already the greatest batsman in the land, awaits his turn. He's down at number eleven, the last man in.

The bowling is underarm, each over consists of four deliveries. On Holt Pound's rudimentary wicket, staying in is hard, making runs harder. When he gets to the crease, Billy Beldham scores nine in the first innings and 17 in the second - and Surrey win by 17 runs. In the first-class season of 1791, Billy finishes with 532 runs, the most in England and almost 150 more than anyone else. Despite being run out for a duck in the second innings and completing a pair, George Finch is third with 345.

Billy came from Wrecclesham, a hillside village to the south of Farnham and a community that was said to spend its sundays 'in scenes of profanity and vice', drinking and gambling on games of marbles and pitch-and-toss, no doubt a terrifying sight to the metropolitan elite. William was a handsome country lad, tall and with long fair hair that won him the nickname 'Silver Billy'. He lived in Yew Tree Cottage on The Street, Wrecclesham's main thoroughfair, a winding strip that boasted five pubs along it and another three nearby. The Holt Pound ground lay behind one of those, an establishment currently known as the Forest Inn, at the top of Wrecclesham hill.

The Forest Inn, glimpsed from the far side of the ground

In the spring of 1791, Lord Stawel, the ranger of Alice Holt forest and the captain of Farnham Cricket Club, had employed Billy and his brother John to create a newer, more permanent ground behind the pub to cash in on the growing interest in cricket. Land in the forest was being cleared to produce wood for the Royal Navy, and the arena that  Billy and John produced was described by Charles Grover in his book My Native Village: 'It was banked and level and free to all parties, and as the game is considered a most manly one, all classes engaged in it most extensively.  At this time few counties or towns could cope with Farnham and more particularly the little village of Wrecclesham, which could boast some of the most clever and celebrated at the game, as well as one of the best grounds. Matches would often last three or four days and when there, would assemble thousands of spectators, and carriages very numerous'.

Silver Billy's vision

Billy was schooled in the game by Harry Hall, a gingerbread maker from Farnham, and the Walker brothers of Churt - Harry Walker is usually credited with creating the cut shot. Farnham were a powerhouse of a team, and Billy debuted in their first recorded match, on the field he'd turn into Holt Pound, on 13 August 1782. They played Odiham, and Billy Beldham was 16 years old. Between that debut and the summer of 1791, Billy became a giant, one of the first men to play forward with a high front elbow, a style that demanded a new shape of bat and a response from bewildered bowlers.

George Finch first saw him play when Billy scored 43 for Farnham against Hambledon in 1784, and the following Spring visited him in Wrecclesham with an offer to become his patron. From then on, and for the rest of his playing career, Billy earned good money from cricket, and what's more, invented the notion of batting as something beautiful, an aesthetic pleasure. He made the batsman, rather than the bowler, the lone existential hero of the game.

John Nyren, son of the great yeoman Richard, landlord of the Bat and Ball at Broadhalfpenny Down, and from whom we know most of what we know, would write of Silver Billy in his pomp: 'It was a study for Phidias to see Beldham rise to strike, the grandeur of the attitude, the settled composure of the look, the piercing lightning of the eye, the rapid glance of the bat, were electrical. Men's hearts throbbed within them, their cheeks turned pale and red. Michael Angelo [sic] should have painted him...'

Imagine it's a sightscreen...

Billy struck one of the first hundreds on Thomas Lord's ground at Dorset Square, and appeared in both of the other first-class games played on Holt Pound, Surrey's two famous wins over Lord Frederick Beauclerk's All England side in 1808 and 1809 - turning out for Surrey in the first and England in the second. It's easy to imagine how he felt, a boy from nowhere who drew thronging crowds and the patronage of lords to the ground outside of his village, setting men's hearts athrob as he went...

Billy wasn't the only shaping force to appear at Holt Pound. George Finch, ninth Earl of Winchilsea, began playing at the age of 33 and thereafter 'would go anywhere for a game of cricket'. His bat was reputed to weigh 4lbs 2oz, which perhaps contributed to his erratic form. It was away from the pitch that his presence was felt. He was a founder of MCC, the club that would soon become the focus of the game, and he offered Thomas Lord the patronage that helped him construct Dorset Square, shifting cricket from country to city.

The lane beside Holt Pound

To find Holt Pound today, drive through Wrecclesham, past Yew Tree Cottage, which still stands on the Street, and on up the hill, where you'll pass a garden centre and a sawmill and then cross the border from Surrey back into Hampshire before you reach the Forest Inn, and the tumbledown little laneway beside it that leads to the ground. It's a prosaic place now, administered by Binstead council, a bare and unloved field with just a dog-walkers' track across the middle. Farnham left it behind after 1851 for their existing ground on Folly Hill, and save for a brief revival after the first World War, Billy's oval at Holt Pound receded into history, unknown now to the cars that fly by on the A325.

There should be a blue plaque, at least, if you could bolt one to the gate...

A view from the middle

We'll return to the story of Silver Billy when we visit Tilford, but next in the series it's Hartley Wintney, for a meeting with a demon bowler who Billy often battled, and the oddball Lord who seized hold of the Laws of the game...