A propos of nothing in particular, I thought I’d resort to the traditional Winter pastime of assembling imaginary XIs. The aim here is to put together a side who could perform equally well as a large band (or small orchestra), or a cricket team.
To begin with, looking it at first from the musical perspective, three very competent musicians.
Ewart Astill (Leicestershire and England) : piano, backing vocals
Alongside fellow all-rounder George Geary, Astill formed the backbone of Leicestershire’s side between the wars. Although he never played a Test in England, or toured Australia, he was taken on several other England tours, to South Africa and the West Indies. His medium pace off-breaks and cutters, competent middle order batting, and uncomplaining nature made him a handy man to have around, but so, in the days when touring teams had to make their own entertainment, did his ability as a professional-quality pianist and singer, specialising in jazz and ragtime styles. He will also act as our band-leader.
Frank Parr (Lancashire) : trombone
The only member of this side (to my knowledge) to have been both a professional musician and cricketer, Parr kept wicket for Lancashire between 1951 and 1954, was described by Herbert Strudwick as “the most promising ‘keeper I’ve seen in years”, and was tipped for an England place, but his career came to an abrupt end when he was dropped by the newly appointed professional Captain, Cyril Washbrook, who also wrote to Worcestershire, suggesting that they should not employ him either, on the grounds that he was “a grave social risk”. Parr said later said that his sacking was “the reason I took up serious drinking”.
Parr had been playing jazz trombone part-time alongside his cricket, and, after his sacking, joined the Mick Mulligan Band, which featured George Melly as lead vocalist. Melly described him as “An extreme social risk, a complicated rebel whose world swarmed with demons and Jack O’Lanterns” and that he “concealed a formidable and well-read intelligence behind a stylised oafishness”. Clearly, anyone whose behaviour struck Melly as excessive was unlikely to appeal to the disciplinarian Washbrook, but his dual talents mean selecting him is an “extreme risk” I am prepared to take, even if it means propping him up on stage to play.
Neville Knox (Surrey and England) : lead vocals
Knox, who had opened the bowling for Dulwich College with P.G. Wodehouse, was a tearaway amateur fast bowler of the Edwardian era, described by Jack Hobbs as “the best of my time”. His star blazed briefly, but brightly, enjoying two very good seasons in 1905 and 1906, the high point of which was taking 12 wickets for Gentleman v Players at Lord’s in 1906 (this was the game in which one of the professionals, seeing the speed at which Knox and Brearley were bowling, allowed himself to be bowled and walked off, saying “I’m sorry, Sir, but I’ve got a wife and family to think about”).
Knox always bowled flat out, off a long and winding run, with an “unusual” action. Most observers thought he would not be able to keep this up for long, and so it proved. He developed severe problems with his shins, which left him permanently lame, and played only irregularly after 1906. After this he devoted himself to his career as a professional “concert singer”. I have not been able to discover exactly what it was that he sang, or whether he was any good, but I am prepared to take a gamble by choosing him as my lead vocalist.
Curtly Ambrose (Northamptonshire and West Indies) : bass guitar
Richie Richardson (West Indies) : rhythm guitar
As cricketers, these two need no introduction : as musicians, they play together in the band “Spirited”, specialising in reggae and soca. It is fair to describe their playing style as “minimalist”, but I hope they will provide a solid rhythmic bedrock for some of my more extravagant soloists to stretch out and wail.
Lionel Tennyson (Hampshire and England) : drums
There is no getting away from it that who is to occupy the drummer’s seat is a bit of a conundrum. I think I remember once seeing Vivian Richards playing the bongos, but I doubt if that is enough to propel a band of this size. So, I shall have to gamble on offering the sticks to Lionel (later Lord) Tennyson, grandson of the Laureate, and sometime captain of Hampshire and England.
Tennyson undoubtedly fancied himself as a jazz drummer. On a tour of New York, with Mayor Jimmy Walker, he visited Harlem and “insisted on studying the great jazz drummer Arthur “Monk” Hazel from close quarters”. On the boat out to South Africa in 1924, he sat in on the ship’s band on the voyage out. During the trip to the West Indies in 1925, he formed the touring party into a band (led by Ewart Astill), with himself on drums, which apparently went down well with those on board.
However, not everyone was as appreciative of his playing. On the tour to South Africa, Charlie Parker (the spin bowler, not the saxophonist) grew so tired of Tennyson’s inability to “follow even the simplest tempo” that he joined with Tour Manager Archie MacLaren in throwing his drum kit overboard. In Port of Spain, Tennyson’s band were booked as top of the bill in a variety theatre, but were, unfortunately, forced to beat a retreat under a hail of missiles before the end of their first number.
I will admit to some misgivings about his ability to “mesh” with his rhythm partner, Ambrose, but I feel that enthusiasm counts for a good deal, and that, if the worst came to the worst, we could always pass his playing off as “avant-garde”.
At this point, we have the makings of a decent side, and a decent band : two fast bowlers, a wicket-keeper, two middle-order batsmen and an all-rounder ; or, a singer, a rhythm section and two lead instrumentalists. All we need to do now is to flesh out the bones a little.
Chuck Fleetwood-Smith (Australia) : vocals and bird impressions
I feel we need a specialist spinner in the side. Graeme Swann does sing, of course, but I have heard his singing. George Macaulay (the irascible Yorkshire wet wicket specialist of the 1920s) used to give recitals of songs by Gilbert and Sullivan, but I fear his habit of viciously abusing his team-mates for dropped catches might extend to dropped notes and missed cues, and the band is already something of a combustible mixture.
So, instead, I have opted for “Chuck” Fleetwood-Smith, the Australian slow left-armer of the inter-war years. He was not a concert performer, but did a wide range of bird impressions : when coming in to bowl he would make “the loud cacking noise of a magpie or the whoop of the whipbird”, and once defused a tense situation at Northampton, following a disputed dismissal, by performing an impression of a kookaburra on heat, “complete with flapping wings and frenzied hops”. When he was not impersonating birds, he would “stroll along the boundary singing “I’m in the Mood for Love” and other romantic numbers”.
Philip Sharpe (Yorkshire and England) : vocals
Perhaps my band is lacking a little solidity, but who better to add that quality than the late Phil Sharpe? In addition to his batting and impeccable slip-fielding, he was a keen amateur singer with the York Light Opera Society, specialising in songs by Gilbert and Sullivan, and I think he will harmonise nicely with Neville Knox.
Harold Gilligan (Sussex and England) : water whistle and tenor saxophone
The brother of A.E.R. Gilligan, Harold captained England on an early tour to New Zealand, but was a player of modest ability, whose major achievements were scoring 1,000 runs in a season at the lowest ever average of 17.70, and being Peter May’s Father-in-Law.
He did, however, join Tennyson in sitting in with the ship’s band on the tour to South Africa, and is described as being “superb on water whistle and tenor saxophone”. As the musical direction of the band is tending inexorably in the direction of jazz, I think he has to go in, and can share solo spots with Astill and Parr.
Walter Hammond (Gloucestershire and England) : flexatone
An all-time great as a batsman, of course, a more than useful fast-medium bowler, and a star of Tennyson’s band on the trip to the West Indies, playing the flexatone, a device comprising two pieces of bent steel with two clappers. It produces a sound that is a cross between a musical saw and a theremin, and will provide some pleasing tonal colouring.
Joe Root (Yorkshire and England) : ukulele
OK, so his playing may be a little on the rudimentary side, but the lad can bat.
So, in batting order, that gives us :
I have made Astill the Captain. Tennyson won’t like it, but he made a popular and successful professional Captain of Leicestershire in 1934, and it will reinforce his authority as band leader.
This looks like a pretty powerful team to me. Knox and Ambrose will form a formidable new ball partnership, with plenty of support from Astill, Hammond and Fleetwood-Smith. Parr was a quality wicket-keeper, and Hammond and Sharpe an unbeatable slip cordon. The top order batting is very strong.
Musically, although there is plenty of individual talent on show, I am a little concerned about their ability to “gel”. A lot, I think, will depend on Ambrose and Richardson’s ability to adapt their style, and provide a solid foundation for what threatens to descend into a series of free-jazz improvisations on themes by Gilbert and Sullivan. But I am confident that no-one will be asking for their money back, and, if all else fails, there are always Fleetwood-Smith’s bird impressions.