County File: Gloucestershire’s past glories can return under stewardship of Richard Dawson

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This is part five of Scyld Berry’s life and times of county cricket. You can read parts one to four here: Derbyshire; Durham; Essex; Glamorgan. Part six will be published next week.

Gloucestershire, like Kent, are celebrating – or would be celebrating – their 150th anniversary. The difference is that Kent rose to the front rank of counties because their club cricket was so strong. Gloucestershire were made into a leading county by a single family.

In the first week of June 1870, Gloucestershire began with a bang. What other noise would accompany the arrival of the boisterous Grace brothers from the unvarnished outskirts of Bristol, spearheaded by the most famous sportsman there had ever been, William Gilbert Grace, and some would say ever has? 

So no question who was top of the bill for Gloucestershire’s inaugural game against Surrey, even though one of Surrey’s players, H H Stephenson, had captained one of the two English tours to Australia, with all the mystique involved. Still only 21, WG was averaging over 50 with the bat in first-class cricket – when pitches were so rough a total of 100 gave you a chance – and 13 with the ball.

Let us first adjourn to the tavern where Surrey’s players are holding their team meeting on the eve of this game. All except one are professionals, so they are more likely to have lodged near the docks and railway station – Brunel’s line from London to Bristol having made this fixture possible – than in genteel Clifton, where the three-day match was to be staged on the Downs.

“Listen up, lads,” says Surrey’s team analyst. “This is Gloucester’s first game so we haven’t got much data, but basically WG opens the batting with one brother, then opens the bowling with another, so nobody else gets much of a game. They haven’t got any professionals either, just jazz-hat amateurs. So we should be done and dusted in a couple of days.”

And Surrey had four of the world’s finest cricketers, including two who were to be selected for England’s first Test in Australia in six years’ time – three, except their ace wicketkeeper Ed Pooley had been arrested for gambling earlier in the tour.

We know the sun came out, after the 1 pm start, from the report in the Western Daily Press on the Clifton Flower Show, which was taking place at the Zoo, less than a mile from this game on Durdham Down: “One was rejoiced to see that all the costly and elegant attire on which milliners and dressmakers have been engaged for weeks was not doomed to blush unseen,” their correspondent wrote, no less flowerily. Some people appear to have attended both events: “There were probably more than 3,000 present, including a good many ladies,” the Bristol Times and Mirror reported on the match, with several tents, “one of them a very commodious one for the convenience of the ladies.” Gloucestershire’s manhood was in full bloom like the azaleas, for all their players were younger than 30.

Once the sun emerged over Durdham Down the view would have been magnificent. The ground was next to Avon Gorge, which would have looked – well, gorgeous, punctuated with its unique flora of yellows, whites and purples. Bristol’s wealth was then based on the tobacco and wine trades, so ships were still sailing up the river beneath Brunel’s majestic Clifton suspension bridge.

A pity the ground was never used for another county match: an Act of Parliament forbade any area of the Downs being fenced in, or admission charged, so Gloucestershire moved to Clifton College and, in 1889, to their new Nevil Road.

WG opened the batting for Gloucestershire with his elder brother Edward or “EM”, and top-scored with 26, batting “very carefully”, in their total of 106. All the bowling in this game was over-arm except for a few lobs by EM, and Surrey’s opening bowler James Southerton, an old sweat who bowled round-arm offspin – which sounds sloggable on a true pitch, the opposite on a rough one. The Durdham ground was used by Clifton Cricket Club – and by Clifton Rugby Club. Lawnmowers had been invented up the road near Stroud in 1830, but I doubt whether much rolling was done.

WG opened the bowling as well, of course, this time with his younger brother Fred, both medium-pace to judge by the reports and very accurate. Of the first ten overs bowled by the brothers, nine were maidens. The over consisted of only four balls but even so this was pressure. The Grace brothers reduced Surrey to 82 for eight by the end of day one.

Left-handed batsmen were rare in this era of Victorian conformity. No left-handed batsman was to make a Test century for England until 1912 (Frank Woolley). But their value was illustrated by Surrey’s left-hander George Griffith who rallied the tail, hit an unbeaten 41, and took Surrey to 134, a first innings lead of 28. 

Interesting to note, WG was taken off by Gloucestershire’s captain after Griffith hit him a couple of times. Nobody else would have dared, except his elder brother EM. In his obituary Wisden said that EM would have been the greatest cricketer but for WG, and he must have had some strength of character. But after Gloucestershire’s inaugural match, WG took over as captain – for the next 28 years, until he fell out with them in 1899 when trying to play simultaneously for the new London County (for £600 a year, decent wedge for an amateur). WG played 359 first-class games for Gloucestershire and was captain in 358 of them.

Soon WG’s force of personality was again manifested. He shared an opening stand with EM that cleared the arrears and was then given out, caught behind. He walked off and told the press reporters, and no doubt everyone listening, he had not hit it: “according to the batsman’s statement he did not touch the ball,” the Western Daily Press reported. It was Gloucestershire’s umpire too that WG was undermining: each county supplied an umpire, and Charles Pullen, the Clifton Club pro, stood for the home side.

For this inaugural game and years afterwards the Gloucestershire team consisted of three Graces, a few other Bristol amateurs like “Frizzie” Bush who represented England at rugby, and a couple of chaps from Cheltenham. A young Irishman just out of Cheltenham College, Charles Filgate, took charge after WG had been given out: he hit 48 not out, including a five. No sixes in those days, or rather only all-run sixes: even when the ball was hit onto the roof of one of the tents, it only counted four.

Surrey were set 140 to win. Old sweat Southerton had bowled throughout – 90 four-ball overs unchanged – for his 13 wickets. By the close of day two, the visitors had reached 30 for one against the bowling of WG and Fred Grace.

To illustrate how difficult batting could be before the heavy roller, Surrey batted for 101 overs in their second innings – and were dismissed for 88. Harry Jupp, who would be in England’s first Test team, opened and “carried out his bat for 50, which occupied him nearly four hours” according to the Morning Post. It added: “The wicket ‘kicked’ a good deal towards the end of the game.”

Surrey had been getting close, reaching 76 for six, when WG was taken off. Did that seal the end of EM’s captaincy? You can still hear mutterings through bearded whiskers. But it worked and a slow left-arm spinner, Fenton Miles, mopped up while Fred Grace plugged away at the other end for 50 consecutive overs. Fred was only 19, and seems to have had the most attractive personality of all the Graces, only to die of pneumonia less than a month after making his Test debut in 1880 alongside his two brothers.

In the return match against Surrey at the Oval, now captain, WG was back to his normal self, scoring 143, then bowling almost throughout as Gloucestershire won by an innings and plenty. He was so many streets ahead of his contemporaries – even more than Don Bradman was – by scoring three times as many runs as the next man, and taking twice as many wickets, that surely he has to be rated, still, the greatest cricketer.

Gloucestershire were up and running as a first-class county. Indeed they were the county of the 1870s, thanks to their Grace triumvirate (while their eldest brother became club secretary). Wisden stated Gloucestershire were “the champion county” in 1874, 1876 and 1877, and shared the title with Nottinghamshire in 1873. Almost everyone in cricket agreed. It was left to newspapers and periodicals to work out their own method of scoring – fewest games lost/most games won – but, whatever the points system, Gloucestershire were the strongest shire.

Saying the county championship did not start until 1890 is a convenient fiction, imposed after the event, once there was a central body, a forerunner of the ECB. Unlike Northamptonshire and Somerset, Gloucestershire have won the championship – and perhaps that very knowledge made them rest upon their laurels. They became used to having a world-class cricketer, forgetting about grassroot structures; for, amazing to relate, starting with WG, Gloucestershire carried on producing great cricketers of their own for a hundred years.

WG’s successor as “The Champion” was not one of his sons – not the poor boy christened William Gilbert Grace junior, who predeceased him, with appendicitis. It was Gilbert Jessop: the cricketer most suited to T20 who never played that format, but still the sensation of the Edwardian era.

The clue lies in Jessop’s nickname: “the Croucher”. Every elite cricketer has worked out a technique that has been ahead of its time, and Jessop had at least two. One was that he lowered his eyes to the height of the stumps as the bowler delivered, and this crouching enabled him to get under the ball to hit it out of the ground. His second idiosyncrasy was that he varied his grip on the handle (a long one) of his bat. If he sensed the ball would be full, he held his hands at the top of the blade to drive; if short, he gripped the bat lower down to cut or pull. Not very academic – four years at Cambridge without taking a degree – Jessop had a cricket brain: I have a letter from his biographer, Gerald Brodribb, which says Jessop designed and made his own batting gloves, out of rubber garden hose stuck on an ordinary glove. (“Only once did he break a finger!”)

Had Jessop had been playing now, in his prime, he could have been the biggest English cricketer yet in the IPL, bigger than Jos Buttler or Ben Stokes, for besides his hitting he was a fast bowler – he won his first Test cap in 1899 as a fast bowler with a penchant for bowling bouncers round the wicket, a century ahead of its time – and a “gun fielder” at cover: in every role his pantherish physique enabled him to coil then unleash. But mainly he was a hitter, and you only have to look at the photographs – no film alas – to appreciate that what he was doing then, most white-ball batsmen do now.

Here Jessop runs down the pitch like Kevin Pietersen to drive with his back leg in the air like a flamingo. Here he swipes a full-length ball outside offstump over square-leg (the 11th child of a Cheltenham doctor, he was brought up in a small garden, with the surgery windows on the offside, hence this legside repertoire). Here he is slog-sweeping. Jessop did not ramp, from what we know, but he did upper-cut, so he would have had to learn a trick or two before making his debut for Kanpur Super Kings or Lucknow Lancers; but he was still a century ahead of his time.

CB Fry, the first real analyst, observed that Jessop’s power came from several sources: “precision in timing, an extraordinary freedom and quickness of arm-swing, aided and accelerated by a very full use of the wrists, and a knack of hurling every ounce of his body-weight into his strokes.”

The trouble is that scorers in Jessop’s era recorded a batsman’s innings in terms of minutes, only seldom adding the number of balls. But we know he hit 61 off 24 balls for Gloucestershire v Somerset, and 72 off 29 against Warwickshire – in three-day championship games, when no great need to hurry. In his two finest Test innings he scored 93 off 69 balls against South Africa in 1907, and 102 off 79 against Australia at the Oval in 1902, in “Jessop’s Match”. His Test average was not worthy but in this, the most famous innings for England pre-Botham, Jessop later wrote that he was determined not to hit across the line against the brisk offbreaks of Hugh Trumble.

Jessop reached 100 in less than an hour 15 times in first-class cricket, and 200 in exactly two hours against Sussex. Against the West Indians on their first tour of England in 1900, he hit 157 in one hour, to their utter astonishment. The Bristol Times and Mirror reported: “One of them (the West Indian fielders) would lie down and literally shake with laughter after a big hit.” 

And he was robbed. Until 1910 the ball had to be hit out of the ground in England to count as six. Hundreds, or thousands, of Jessop’s fours in his 26,000 first-class runs would have counted as six nowadays. But he would not have played much red-ball, for Gloucestershire, or anyone else, as he would have been raking it in for Hobart Hurricanes, Jamaica Tallawahs and Barisal Burners, as well as the MVP in the IPL.

No county has been so influenced by its past as Gloucestershire, except perhaps the other county celebrating its 150th anniversary, Kent. So often in British life, the Victorian past and its massive infrastructure dictate. No starting with a clean sheet. 

Like an oil-rich country, Gloucestershire had little need to be pro-active. They could sit back and wait for the next great batsman to come along. First WG Grace, then Gilbert Jessop, then Wally Hammond and, when he retired in 1947, along came Tom Graveney, though he had to leave for Worcestershire and acquire some steel in his soul before being fulfilled as a great batsman. Why bother creating pathways when you have such talent on tap in the county?

All that Gloucestershire’s administration had to do was ensure that 1) the pitches at Nevil Road turned and 2) the Cheltenham Festival was an annual success, keeping members and supporters happy.

Of the 50 leading wicket-takers in first-class cricket of all time, five have been Gloucestershire spinners, while a sixth, WG, was his inimitable self, taking wickets with pace in his youth and non-turning offbreaks in his dotage (plus plenty of chat to the batsman and a little pressure on the umpire). The secret was simple: sand. Loads of sand was spread over the square at Nevil Road each spring, and their spinners waxed. 

None of these spinners did much for England: of their left-armers George Dennett did not play a Test, Sam Cook one; of their offspinners, Tom Goddard and John Mortimore played a handful. The pick was Charlie Parker, but man-handling Sir Pelham Warner in a lift – when the most influential man in English cricket – was not a great career move. If ever there was a bowler to pit against Don Bradman, it was surely Parker, a relentlessly accurate left-arm spinner, turning the ball away from the bat, bowling a fullish length, and tempting the batsman to offdrive on the front foot  – a shot Bradman was as loath to play as Steve Smith, being equally bottom-handed. But Parker was restricted to one Test (28 overs, two for 32), and to dismissing Bradman twice cheaply for Gloucestershire in 1930 (the game ended in a tie) while he romped round the rest of Britain unimpeded.

No fast bowler, however: Gloucestershire could not produce one of those. Hence, for all their great batsmen, and their spinners who took wickets by the thousand, they have never won the championship since the 1870s, although they have come second six times. WG, Jessop and Hammond had to do much of the pace bowling themselves, as well as bat, field and captain.

The county’s second asset was their Cheltenham Festival. Back in 1876 at the College Ground WG had scored the first triple-century in the championship, an unbeaten 318 against Yorkshire, when one local newspaper suggested WG had placed a bet on doing so: not misplaced confidence, nor contrary to the laws of the day. He had scored 344 for MCC against Kent, and 177 against Nottinghamshire, in his two previous innings: just 839 first-class runs in ten days!

Ever since, the Cheltenham Festival has been a highlight of the social calendar. Wine flows in the tents, cider in the temporary stands; the summer is its hottest as the Festival is held in the College holidays; and splendid is the view of the surrounding Cotswolds, where colonels and nabobs retired after making their fortune in India. If Gloucestershire have been having a poor season but win at Cheltenham, jolly good show! And just the same if they have been having a poor season then lose at Cheltenham. The occasion is the thing.

My father always claimed he had seen the most prolific week of any cricketer at first-class level: Wally Hammond’s at Cheltenham in 1928. Against Surrey, in a game of otherwise lowish scores, Hammond scored 139 and 143, and took ten catches at slip – mostly off Parker – and dismissed Jack Hobbs for 96. Against Worcestershire (the game starting next day) he bowled throughout, taking 15 wickets for 128, and scored 80 as Gloucestershire won by an innings. 

My father was star-struck for life. He said the two greatest people who ever lived were Shakespeare and Hammond. He obtained his autograph – the latter’s unfortunately – or rather he persuaded his twin sister to ask him, and Wally was far more inclined to respond to a female request. 

A later Cheltenham Festival gave me an inkling of Hammond on the go. Zaheer Abbas – the only Asian batsman to make 100 first-class centuries – was batting for Gloucestershire against Essex’s David Acfield, a fine offspinner turning the ball down the slope. Zaheer, at the Chapel end, had the most gorgeous cover-drive, wristier than Hammond’s but no less silky, and he kept cover-driving and piercing the field even when Acfield speared in at his toes. The crowd, drunk already on the beauty of the setting and batting, went delirious.

When you walked into Nevil Road until a couple of years ago, photographs of some eminent Gloucestershire cricketers were posted on either side of a passage-way leading to the pavilion. No sign of the county’s most successful captain, Mark Alleyne, who originally came from Barbados, or of Courtney Walsh, from Jamaica, who was great value as an overseas signing, taking over 800 championship wickets at 20.01 runs each: when he and David Lawrence were steaming in at hard and bouncy Cheltenham, batting was a lot easier in Tests on bland pitches. One overseas player who was accorded a photograph was Jonty Rhodes, of South Africa, who played one season, unexceptionally.

Alleyne led Gloucestershire to two limited-overs trophies in 1999, and all three in 2000. He, and the Kiwi coach John Bracewell, worked out a formula. The county had no star players – still don’t because they cannot afford one – but they had loads of allrounders, including Alleyne, and great teamwork. On a dry grudging pitch at Nevil Road they would assemble a total of sorts, then squeeze the life out of opponents with two offspinners and a battery of medium-pacers taking pace off. Run down the wicket? What, with Jack Russell standing up?

Middlesex had been the home of Afro-Caribbean cricket, not least because it had Haringey Cricket College, which had nurtured Alleyne and more than a dozen other county players. Then it became Bristol, when Alleyne and Walsh were local heroes, and Bristol West Indians had their own ground and a pro from Barbados. Now it is nowhere, unless it is Hove.

The only drawback to this strategy of winning white-ball trophies was that Gloucestershire’s championship cricket was de-prioritised. They were demoted in 2005, and stayed in the second division until promoted last September. No great batsman or other star players, no budget, no sand to be spread on pitches any more, just an arrangement whereby private school cricketers from Oxfordshire would join those from Gloucestershire. A difficult gig for Richard Dawson when he became head coach in early 2015, aged 34.

Yet Dawson has worked wonders in red- and white-ball to make the most of limited resources. Like England’s head coach Chris Silverwood, and the head coach who led Essex to the championship and T20 titles last season Anthony McGrath, Dawson was born and brought up in Yorkshire, played for the county, and had a few Tests for England, without cracking it at that level. 

“He is very, very detailed with his tactics,” says the Gloucestershire allrounder Benny Howell about Dawson. “He doesn’t sleep much because he spends so much time in going into detail – like at Cheltenham he worked out that so many runs went to the third man boundary that we don’t bother with a gully and always start with a third man. Yet he is old-school in that he keeps it simple for us, and he is always ready to throw balls at you in the nets.”

From 1998, when Gloucestershire jettisoned Courtney Walsh, to 2014, Gloucestershire won three championship matches at Cheltenham College. Since Dawson took charge, they have won seven of 11 matches – and the last couple have been tight finishes, wherein that third-man tactic could have made the difference.

Winning on the result pitches at Cheltenham, and a few on the road, while batting deep to secure high-scoring draws with plenty of bonus points at Nevil Road, has taken the county back to the first division.

“He has also installed a belief in us that we are good enough to be up with the best, as for a while we had been very timid as a club and as players,” Howell adds about Dawson. “Now guys believe they are good enough to play for England and beat any team on any given day.” 

Dawson, though he made a decent Test debut at Mohali in 2001-2, was not that much cop as an offspinner – his arm went beyond the vertical – but he was ever an enthusiast and started coaching as a sparky student at Exeter university. Never timid either: he got behind Brett Lee in Australia in 2002-3, when not everyone in the England team did that.

Thrifty, as a Yorkshireman, Dawson has renovated his house near the ground, and he can spot a bargain by seeing something in players that other counties have not. Ryan Higgins – from Zimbabwe via Middlesex – was the leading allrounder in the second division last season. Had there been a proper championship this summer, it would have been fascinating to see how the young Afghan legspinner Qais Ahmed fared under Dawson.

Head coach of England Lions last winter when they whopped Australia A in the ‘Test’ in Melbourne – a fine statement ahead of the next Ashes – Dawson is destined for the top: Silverwood’s successor but one? And he could bring with him James Bracey, either as a wicketkeeper-batsman as he was with the Lions, or as a compact and patient lefthanded Test number 3.

Chris Broad represented England as soon as he left Gloucestershire for Nottinghamshire, but Bracey would be the first Bristol-born cricketer to make his Test debut for England – while playing for Gloucestershire – since David Smith in 1961, almost 60 years ago. Such has been the absence of pathways in the county since grammar schools produced Jessop, Hammond, Graveney, Mortimore and two other stalwarts in Arthur Milton and David Allen.

One of the county’s initiatives to celebrate their 150th birthday was inviting 150 schools to visit Nevil Road, or the Cheltenham Festival, which might make the start of a future pathway. Another initiative, which will be even more valuable if matches are staged behind closed doors, is to live-stream with six cameras at Bristol, covering every blade of grass, not the two which has been the national norm. The celebrations will be rolled over to next year.

Nevil Road itself has never looked lovelier than it did when locked down – or at least the nearest it has been to handsome, against the background of the new apartments. Why an exposed field beside such Dickensian buildings as the Muller Orphanage was ever chosen is inexplicable – unless there is truth in the rumour that WG was a big mate of the developer. Was there something in it for WG when he declared Nevil Road to be “one of the best grounds in the world”? Wouldn’t put it past him.

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