Frank Woolley : The Artist Before The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction

Frank Woolley

“So, what was Woolley like?“, as I used to ask my Grandfather (to be answered, usually, with an enigmatic smile) …

Well, he was like this …

“Cricket belongs entirely to summer every time that Woolley bats an innings.  His cricket is compounded of soft airs and fresh flavours.  The bloom of the year is on it, making for sweetness.  And the brevity of summer is in it too, making for loveliness.  Woolley, so the statisticians tell us, often plays a long innings.  But Time’s a cheat, as the old song sings.  Fleeter he seems in his stay than in his flight.  The brevity in Woolley’s batting is a thing of pulse or spirit, not to be checked by clocks, but only to be apprehended by imagination.  He is always about to lose his wicket; his runs are thin-spun.  His bat is charmed, and most of us, being reasonable, do not believe in charms … but for that matter, all the loveliness of the world seems no more lasting than the dew on the grass, seems no more than the perfume and suppliance of a minute.  Yet the miracle of renewal goes on, and all the east winds in the world may blow in vain.  So with Woolley’s cricket; the lease of it is in the hands of the special Providence which looks after the things that will not look after themselves.”

and like this

Woolley and Fielder

but then

“The score-board does not get anywhere near the secret of Woolley.  It can tell us only about Bloggs; for him runs and results are the only justification … An innings by Woolley begins from the raw material of cricket, and goes far beyond.  We remember it long after we have forgotten the competitive occasion which prompted the making of it; it remains in the mind;  an evocative memory which stirs in us a sense of a bygone day’s poise and fragrance, of a mood and a delectable shape seen quickly, but for good and all.  Some of Woolley’s innings stay with us until they become like poetry which can be told over again and again; we see the shapeliness of his cricket with our minds and we feel its beauty with our hearts.  I can think of cricket by Woolley which has inexplicably found me murmuring to myself (that I might get the best out of it)

Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping

Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star.

I admit, O reader, than an innings by Woolley has nothing to do with owls and dusk and starlight.  I am trying to describe an experience of the fancy; I am talking of cadences, of dying falls common to all the beauty of the world.  My argument, in a word, is concerned not with Woolley the Kent cricketer, but with that essence of his batsmanship which will live on, after his cricket is done with, after his runs and his averages have been totted up and found much the same as those of many other players.”

A Dying Fall

or then again

“Frank Woolley was easy to watch, difficult to bowl to, and impossible to write about.  When you bowled to him there weren’t enough fielders; when you wrote about him there weren’t enough words.  In describing a great innings by Woolley, and few of them were not great in artistry, you had to go careful with your adjectives and stack them in little rows, like pats of butter or razor-blades.  In the first over of his innings, perhaps, there had been an exquisite off-drive, followed by a perfect cut, then an effortless leg-glide.  In the second over the same sort of thing happened; and your superlatives have already gone.  The best thing to do was to presume that your readers knew how Frank Woolley batted and use no adjectives at all …

Woolley Driving

“I have tried to avoid metaphor and rhapsody; but there was all summer in a stroke by Woolley, and he batted as is sometimes shown in dreams.”

Cricketers survive their deaths (or their cricketing deaths) in different ways.  The only monument Bradman requires are his statistics. There are those who can read equations (to me quite meaningless) and conjure up whole new worlds in their mind’s eye or for whom reading a musical score is as good as hearing it performed and there may be differently gifted people who can read Woolley’s statistics and sniff the “essence of his batsmanship”, but I doubt it.  

It was Woolley’s good fortune to live before it was routinely, if subconsciously, assumed that every great innings would be perfectly and completely recorded on film.  Cardus believes that he is preserving experiences that are unique and unrepeatable and which would be lost for ever without the aspic of his words: Robertson-Glasgow conveys Woolley’s greatness by implying that it lies beyond his powers of description (or Cardus’s).

No-one asking what Kevin Pietersen (in some things a modern Woolley) was like in years to come will think of looking for the answer in writing (and if they do, much of it will tell them more about the history of hysteria than batsmanship).  Every moment of his batting (in internationals and the IPL at least) must have been recorded and may in time be made available, to be watched again and again until, like all endlessly repeatable things, whatever of his aura has survived the transition to film will fade to quaint shadows, form without substance.

For anyone who feels this is getting unacceptably high-flown, rest assured that the season is soon to resume and I shall be back to writing about the quality of the pies at Grace Road.  A subject upon which Neville Cardus was unaccountably silent.

The first two blocks of text are by Neville Cardus, the second two by R.C. Robertson-Glasgow.  The pictures are filched from Woolley’s book “The King of Games”.

“This Gay Conception Died Far Too Young” : Robertson-Glasgow Looks Backwards And Forwards

There are people – let us, for the sake of argument, call them me – who dislike music at cricket matches.  Some of them dislike not only the sudden blasts that accompany boundaries and wickets at televised one dayers, but even the playing of  ‘Jerusalem’ before the start of international matches.  How much more dignified it would be if the players took the field to a polite ripple of applause and the faint susurrus of flicked-through Playfairs, they think.  Would anyone who remembered those days have hankered after musical accompaniment?

Well, apparently, yes.  This is from a collection of ‘lighter pieces’ from the Observer  by R.C. Robertson-Glasgow (writing in 1946).     

“Alas, for our decline from romance to utility.  When eight-five years ago, H.H. Stephenson took the first England cricket team to Australia, the band at Melbourne played their guests into the field to the strains of ‘God Save the Queen.’  Imagine a band at a modern Test Match.  I suppose it is conceivable, if they played ‘Rock of Ages’ and the ‘Dead March in Saul.‘  

Those same people are rather inclined to regret the advent of coloured clothing, and the numbering and naming of shirts.  I – I mean they – are also inclined (not entirely consistently) to complain that the wearing of helmets makes it difficult to tell which player is which.  But surely no-one with an ounce of poetry in their souls would, in the days when players were uniformly turned-out in crisp white flannels and severely classical caps, have wished it any different?  Well again, apparently, yes.     

‘With what finery, too, that first team cheered and enlightened the spectators.  Each English player wore a very light helmet-shaped hat, with a sash and hat-ribbon of a distinctive hue, corresponding to colours set down in the score-card against each man’s name.  This gay conception died far too young.  I like to fancy Hendren in heliotrope and Sutcliffe in sea-green.  Douglas Jardine did his best with his Harlequin cap, but by then most of the Australian spectators were beyond the emollient influence of bright colours.

England and most of the Counties have settled to the uniformity of the darker blues, though Surrey struggle on with chocolate brown, Worcestershire with green. It is left to the Schools and clubs to illuminate the darkness.  Rugby still take the field against Marlborough in light-blue shirts, and the I Zingari cap shines like a beacon in the mist.  But it must be admitted that, in modern cricket, versicolority is apt to be rated as a sign of incompetence, until the contrary is proved.’ 

It’s possible that Robertson-Glasgow – had he lived long enough – would have been an enthusiast for the astonishing versicolority and the dancing girls of the IPL.  Or, perhaps, there are those who will always be inclined to hanker after something better than what they have, and who will – if hankering after the future seems too hopeful –  hanker after the past.

H.H. Stephenson was the first man to be awarded a hat for taking three wickets in three balls, and ended his days as a coach at Uppingham School.  He died in Rutland.

This is the side he took on England’s first overseas tour, en route to the United States in 1859 (a couple of years before they first toured Australia).  Stephenson is fifth from the left.  They do look appealingly raffish – particularly, I suppose, when seen from the point of view of austerity-frozen 1946.

Who Invented the Dilshan Scoop?

“If the cricketers of A.D. 2000 have any time to read of their forerunners, it is not likely that T.B. Mitchell, the little Derbyshire leg-break bowler, will long detain their interest or much excite their wonder.”  – R.C. Robertson-Glasgow in Cricket Prints.

Back, for a moment, to our Wantaway (or possibly Not-really-wantaway) Starlet, James Taylor.

This is Paul Jones, writing in Monday’s Leicester Mercury about the T20 game against Derbyshire –

“A stroke of pure genius sealed Leicestershire Foxes’ third consecutive away win … by the end of the 19th over, the points were as good as in the bag as Taylor showed why is such an incredible talent … he took Leicestershire to within two runs of victory with a shot which was as outrageous as it was brilliant.

The England Lions man struck a sweet, straight six over his own head as he incredibly scooped the ball beyond wicket-keeper Luke Sutton and into the sightscreen.  It was breathtaking”. 

The invention of this shot – the so-called Dilshan Scoop – is usually credited to the Sri Lankan Dilshan.  But I have uncovered evidence that a prototype was being trialled as early as the 1930s by the Derbyshire leg-spinner Tommy Mitchell.

This is from a letter to the Times by one F.B. Singleton, dated 20 August 1975.  The main point of his letter was to complain about the size of Tony Greig’s batting gloves, but he goes on to say –

Even in the late thirties many a No. 10 or No. 11 showed as little concern for his shins as for his knuckles and sported only one pad.  I never saw Tom Mitchell, the old England bowler, quite totally equipped.  Old hands at Chesterfield and Buxton used to say that his single pad, which he buckled up so imperfectly that it inevitably fell off during his brief outing to the wicket, was the result of a detested compromise with the Derbyshire committee and that his real preference was for bicycle clips.

My own impression was that any sort of attachment to his legs got in the way of his very effective scoop, the high point of his reputation as a batsman.  It was a deceptively simple shot played from an almost kneeling position.  In essence the blade of the bat was placed horizontal on the pitch and lifted briskly as the ball came into line with it: rather as one tosses a pancake.  The object of course was to propel the ball sufficiently far in the direction of the sky as to allow Mitchell and his partner  … to cross at least three times before its collection on the downward flight by the nearest of the 11 men keenly following its progress.”

Now, admittedly, the shot required further development – so that it resulted in runs being scored, for instance (Mitchell’s career average was 7.97 ) – but I’d say the elements were there.

Originally a miner from Bolsover, Mitchell defied convention by bowling leg-spin rather than fast.  According to Cricinfo, he was “discovered by the then Derbyshire captain and coal owner, Guy Jackson, when he took, during the General Strike of 1926, a bridge-building county team to play the local colliery”.

He played a supporting role  in the Bodyline series, replacing an injured Voce in the fourth Test and dismissing Woodfull twice.  His Test career came to an end when he failed to take wickets on a “leatherjacket-infested” wicket at Lord’s in 1935, and is said to have informed his captain Bob Wyatt that he “couldn’t captain a team of bloody lead soldiers”.

His last first-class match was against Leicestershire on 30th August 1939.  He refused to play again after the war, so was denied the benefit he had been due in 1940.  He went back down the pit, and took engagements in the Leagues, including one at Blackpool, where, I suppose, he could have patronised his old pal Larwood’s sweet shop.

He died in 1996, having just outlived Wyatt and taken his title of the oldest living England cricketer, a fact which, apparently, gave him some satisfaction.

Robertson-Glasgow again –

“Mostly he argues with intangible enemies, with leg-breaks that have spun too much, catches that have defied instructions, puffs of wind that have interfered with his own private theories of ballistics.  There is something of Donald Duck about him.  No cricketer so conveys to the spectators the perplexities and frustrations of man at the mercy of malignant fate.  He has much in common with that golfer who missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadow. He is the comedian of tragedy.” 

Tommy Mitchell



“An old —– I thought was dead two thousand years ago” still writing for the Observer, apparently

Look on Amazon to see whether any of R.C. Robertson-Glasgow’s books are currently in print.  Cricket Prints and More Cricket Prints appear to be, which is encouraging.

According to the “synopsis”,  Crusoe  is the “former Oxford University and Somerset cricketer and now correspondent for the Observer”.  Sadly, with all due to regard to Vic Marks, not so – this most generous and life-enhancing of writers actually took an overdose of barbiturates in a snowstorm in 1965.

Cricinfo has Gordon Ross’s obituary from Playfair Cricket Monthly –

Everyone who knew R. C. Robertson-Glasgow well will have suffered distress to think that this man of infectious laughter had taken his own life. We had all known for many years that he had suffered from melancholic depression, though this was never apparent on the surface. `Crusoe’, as he was universally known (a batsman who lost his wicket to him described the bowler as some bloke called ‘Robinson Crusoe’, a term of endearment which remained throughout his life), was a man of incessant good humour. I recall with affection an evening I spent with him many years ago at The Castle Hotel, Taunton. It was his birthday and we dined together; this was an auspicious occasion, rather more for me than for Crusoe. I can hear now his laughter and his fund of anecdotes. It was said that when he played for Somerset the Amateurs always took a dictionary to dinner. On average, Crusoe would use three words a night the authenticity of which was challenged by his colleagues. Often they were right as Crusoe loved coining new words. Robertson-Glasgow was born on July 15th, 1901. He was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford, and his cricket career as a fast bowler for the University and for Somerset spanned the years from 1920 to 1935. He subsequently won acclaim for his writings, principally, of course, on cricket, though his horizons were perceptibly wider. He retired from regular cricket writing in 1953, a loss which cricket could ill afford to sustain in an age when pure writing of charm and distinction and humour are subordinated to the needs of the competitive newspaper world. Crusoe saw the best in the game and converted the scene to print with authority, skill, and immense good nature. Many a young and insignificant cricket writer has warmed to Crusoe’s kindly attention to him-the world at large was his friend: the cricket world, indeed, will miss this joyous man and colleague.

 And this from Gideon Haigh.

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