Fifty Years On

I have never been much of a collector, but I am something of an accumulator.  ‘Collector’ implies to me that building the collection, with its implication of organisation and completeness, is the primary point of an acquisition, whereas we accumulators acquire objects for their use-value, and build a collection as a by-product, simply because we have not discarded them.  In the world of cricket, I’d say ‘Wisden’ (though far from useless, of course) is attractive to collectors, whereas the ‘Playfair Cricket Annual’ attracts accumulators, of whom I am one.  

I have recently acquired this season’s ‘Playfair’ online, with some regret.  If I can wait, I prefer to buy it from the Friends of Grace Road shop, but, I have regretfully concluded, the season will be almost over before I see that again, if I ever do.  It occurred to me that it is now fifty years since I possessed my first copy of the annual, bought for me by my Father, partly, I now realise, though I did not at the time, to distract me while he attended to his own Father, who was seriously ill.

Fifty years is a considerable period of time, an observation which may seem a statement of the obvious to anyone who has not lived that long.  Although 1970 and 2020 seem to me to be part of the same era in the world of cricket, if we take it back another fifty we are in the immediate aftermath of the First War, and fifty years before that we are at the dawn of the modern age in cricket (Grace’s first year with Gloucestershire, before Test matches or a formal County Championship, and not long after the legalisation of overarm bowling).  So, I find that I have been watching cricket for, at least, a third of the time that the game has existed in its current form.

I can trace the history of my relationship with cricket by looking through my accumulation of ‘Playfair’s.  I originally owned the editions from 1970 to (I think) 1975, by which time it had been superseded as my most-browsed reference book of choice by ‘The NME Book of Rock’, which shared its suggestive, gnomic, abbreviations (bs, vcl rather than LHB, RFM), and ability to make artists (or cricketers) whom I had never seen or heard appear more interesting than they probably were.  I don’t think that I ever saw Billy Blenkiron bowl, but I could have once given you a potted resume of his life and career (he played football for Spennymoor United, you know), in the same way that I could have named all of the albums by Grand Funk (Railroad), though I had never heard their music, and would not have liked it much if I had.

After that, my interest waned, and all the editions between 1976 and 2001 (the year he died) were inherited from my Dad.  I had bought the 1988 and 1990 editions, in a period when there had been a twitch on the thread and I was being drawn back to cricket, but then nothing until 2002, the year I became a member at Leicestershire.  Since then, the fluctuations in my preoccupation with cricket can be gauged by the tattiness of the ‘Playfair’, the tattiest of the lot being 2015, the last year I was at work, the result of my carrying it with me in the overstuffed bag I lugged around on my commute.  I very much did not want to be on that train, or in that office, and lost myself in thumbing through the fixture list, plotting my periodic escapes to Radlett or Finedon. 

The essence of ‘Playfair’ is that, being genuinely pocket-sized, it is designed to accompany a day at the cricket, and, specifically, a day of Championship cricket (as opposed to ‘Wisden’, which I imagine is best read on a Winter’s evening, in an overstuffed armchair, accompanied by a glass or two of port).  Although it does contain scorecards of the previous year’s Tests, international averages and records, the heart of it is the ‘County Register’, which gives the details of all players contracted to a county, and the fixtures, including those of the 2nd XIs and the Minor Counties (these last were omitted one year, in a rare misjudgement, but hastily restored).  At any county ground you can observe the regulars consulting it, enabling them to inform their neighbours that so-and-so’s 37 means that he only needs another 23 for his highest first-class score, or that Snooks and Bloggs are only five away from equalling the record for their county’s eighth wicket (if you hear an outbreak of apparently random applause, ‘Playfair’ will probably be at the root of it).

Both prefaces found the Editors in apprehensive mood.  Gordon Ross’s preface to the 1970 annual is entitled ‘This Difficult Summer’, the cause of the difficulty being the then still imminent tour by the South Africans (pen-pictures of the tourists are provided), and the threat of its disruption by protestors.  As he put it ‘we face one of the gravest situations in the history of the Noble Game … few watchers of the first-class game are counting the days before the first ball is bowled with the relish of summers gone by’.  In his foreword to the 2020 edition, dated 16th March, Editor Ian Marshall writes that ‘Things are expected to get worse before they get any better, so I fear that the fixture list at the back of the book could prove to be a case of wishful thinking’.

In the event, 1970 turned into one of the best Summers of sport I can remember, even allowing for the aurifying distortions of memory.  The South African tour was, of course, called off by order of the Government, to be replaced by a five-match series against a Rest of the World XI under the captaincy of Gary Sobers.  This allowed English audiences to see the South African stars, and enabled them to demonstrate that they were happy to play in a multi-racial team.  There may have been better bowling sides in Test cricket, but I can think of fewer stronger batting line-ups than Barlow, Richards, Kanhai, Pollock (R.G.),  Mushtaq Mohammed, Sobers, Lloyd, Procter, Murray, Intikhab Alam, McKenzie.  Even they, though, were in the shade of the Mexico World Cup, which is generally thought to have featured the best side (Brazil) and the best game (Italy v West Germany) in footballing history.  If only there were a chance that this Summer might turn out to be as ‘difficult’!

A part of ‘Playfair‘’s appeal is that its format is unchanging, conveying a sense of continuity.  Players appear in the Register when they are ‘awaiting First XI’ debut, the length of their entry swells as they reach their prime, before they shuffle off into the ranks of the ‘Released/retired’ in the addendum to their County’s listings, to be replaced by a new generation, in their turn ‘awaiting First XI debut’.  The great cycle of existence unfolds before your eyes, with full career records.

Fifty years is enough for time’s tide to wash away a generation : there is no-one who appears in both the 1970 and 2020 editions.  The oldest Umpire to have played first-class cricket, Jeremy Lloyds (born November 1954) did not make his debut until 1979, Ian Gould, though slightly younger, first played in 1975.  The oldest player in 1970 was Derek Shackleton (born 1924), and the youngest Richard Lumb (1950) : the oldest now is Darren Stevens (born 1976), the youngest Blake Cullen of Middlesex (born 2002).  There is nothing logically surprising in this, of course, but it acquires significance if viewed from the fixed perspective of one born in 1960, having the illusion of standing still while the cavalcade passes by.  In 1970 the oldest Umpire (‘Lofty’ Herman, born 1907) was two years younger than my Grandfather : now, Leicestershire have ten players younger than my Daughter.  In 1970 the youngest player was ten years’ older than me, now there are only six Umpires older.  And so it goes.

The game has not, of course, stood still in the course of fifty years, and ‘Playfair’ has gamely strained to accommodate those changes.  The 1970 edition was 224 pages long, now stretched to 351 (if it carries on expanding like this, it will be shaped like a cube and fit only for the pockets of a poacher) : the ‘County Register’ alone has grown from 83 to 121 pages .  It is true that there is now an extra County (Durham), the details of the Irish men’s team are provided, as are those of the England women’s squad (who last appeared in the large format version in the 1950s).  The county squads have grown (in 1970 Yorkshire made do with 18 contracted players, they now have 31), as have their lists of officials.  In 1970 a Secretary and Captain seemed enough, in 2020 Surrey have a Chief Executive, a Director of Cricket, a Head Coach, two Assistant Coaches and two Captains.  In 1970 there was no need to specify how many Twitter followers a County’s account had (I’m not entirely convinced there is now).

The biggest change that has had to be accommodated is, of course, the proliferation of limited overs cricket.  1970 ‘Playfair’ reported on the previous year’s Gillette Cup, and the first season of the John Player League (which ‘in games affected by the weather reduced cricket to an absurdity’), but did not include any statistics or records relating to limited overs games.  In 2020, there are two sets of career averages for county players and international cricket, and each player’s details are swollen by their best performances in three types of cricket.  As if recognising that a line has to be drawn somewhere, only England’s T20 averages are included, and only the bare figures for the players’ best performances in T20, rather than against whom they were achieved.  And, spying where madness lies, the Editor notes that :

‘For both men’s and women’s IT20 records sections, I have taken the decision to limit the records listed to those games that feature at least one side that has appeared in an official LOI.  While I welcome the ICC’s efforts to broaden the game’s profile, when Uganda’s women can beat Mali’s by 304 runs (after scoring 314-2 – including a run out), you wonder who really benefits here.  Or when Turkey’s men set the three lowest scores on record on successive days, do they deserve to be shamed three times over?’ 

Space has also had to be found for the ‘The Hundred Register’, though not as much as you might think (as the Editor notes, all but eleven of the players are already contracted to one of the Counties, and can be dealt with by a cross-reference).  It does, though, contain the unlovely details of how much they are being paid.  We shall have to see whether this register becomes a recurring feature, or whether its presence makes 2020 a collector’s item.

Not much has been dispensed with to make room for all these statistics.  The University Match has gone, as have the Minor Counties and 2nd XI tables.  There are no advertisements, as there is no room even for the little box adverts that sometimes provided an inadvertent commentary on the text, such as one offering to cure your inferiority complex next to England’s record against Australia, or this, from the 1969 edition (who could have foreseen that outcome?)

In the ‘Register’, the players’ details have boiled down into data, with any hint of subjectivity, embroidery, or narrative eliminated, which is rather a pity.  In the old large format ‘Playfair’, the Editors had room to convey some idea of the players’ styles.  In the 1954 edition, Denis Compton is described as ‘at his best, a genius still’, and Alec Bedser as the ‘greatest RFM in the world today’.  The most common terms are ‘sound’ (defensive) or ‘forcing’ (attacking) RHB, but sometimes a more vivid description slips in : Fred Ridgway (of Kent) is a ‘bucolic RHB’, Reg Perks (Worcestershire) is an ‘antagonistic LHB’, and Eric Hollies an ‘unambitious RHB’.  Occasionally, there is a hint of Julian and Sandy : Haydn Davies (Glamorgan) is a ‘virile RHB’, Tom Hall (Somerset) has a ‘splendid physique’, Doug Wright is the ‘most highly endowed of all … LBG bowlers’, and John Deighton (Lancashire) was an ‘RFM’, who ‘swings both ways’.

By 1970, this practice only applied to fielding (Gary Sobers alone is allowed the additional epithet – ‘outstanding all-rounder’) : players are described variously as ‘useful’, ‘good’, ‘fine’, ‘very fine’, ‘outstanding’, or, in the case of Clive Lloyd, ‘brilliant’ fields.  No-one, disappointingly, is described as ‘slow’, ‘unreliable’, or ‘butter-fingered’.  In 2020, I imagine, it is simply assumed that they are all, at least, ‘useful’ fieldsmen.  Nicknames and diminutives, too, have generally been culled (I think during the Editorship of Bill Frindall, who have may tired of them during his stint on TMS).  I’m not sure Kenneth ‘Ken’ Shuttleworth ever added much, but Norman George ‘Smokey’ Featherstone and David William ‘Butch’ White added a little colour.  At least Edmund John Holden Eckersley is granted his ‘Ned’, though there is no mention of his impressive array of alternative nicknames.

Gone too are the little vignettes of serious injury which used to intrigue me as a child.  As is well-known, Fred Titmus left the 1967/8 tour of the West Indies early ‘through loss of four toes in an accident’, but less well-remembered are William James ‘Jim’ Stewart of Warwickshire who, mysteriously, ‘had big toe of left foot amputated during 1962-63 winter’ (I had always imagined this was the result of frostbite in the cold Winter, but apparently it was not), and Michael Eric John Charles ‘Mick’ Norman (by then of Leicestershire) who ‘missed first month of 1965 season owing to hands being burnt by scalding fat’.  Perhaps improved awareness of health and safety has eliminated such hazards from the lives of our cricketers.  

Other space-fillers to have disappeared are the details of benefits (W.E. Russell’s realised £7,975 in 1967) and occupations outside cricket (Richard Hutton ‘is a chartered accountant’), including other sports (predominantly association football).  Sometimes there is a simple note ‘plays soccer’ (or, more rarely ‘rugger’), but a significant proportion played at least semi-professionally : five members of the Gloucestershire squad had played for either Bristol Rovers or Bristol City, and Barrie Meyer had played for both.  Apart from the lengthening seasons in both sports, I presume 12-month contracts now mean that there is no need to earn a living in the Winter.  More exotically,  David Acfield had fenced for Britain in the Olympics, Don Wilson was a ‘good badminton player’ and George Sharp was an ‘England Boys table tennis player’.

There have been additions, as well as subtractions.  All players now have their schools and universities listed after their name ; in 1970, only a minority.  I would have guessed that it was only those educated at public schools, but that does not seem to have been the case : John D. Gray is listed as having been educated at ‘Woodlands Comprehensive School, Coventry’, for instance.  He was also a pioneer, in being a ‘student at Loughborough College of Physical Education’.  In 1970, the small number of the university-educated had almost all been to Oxford or Cambridge, now a much larger number have attended one of the MCC Universities.  In a similarly egalitarian spirit, all players now have their height noted, whereas in 1970 it was only the ‘very tall’ : we learn that Anthony John Stockley (of Surrey) was 6 ft. 7½ inches, but Harry Pilling’s height is passed over in silence.

Some of the additions have been useful.  The players’ squad numbers are now listed (particularly useful, I find, at second team games, where you cannot always locate a scorecard), and the letters NQ are used to indicate when a player is not qualified to play for England, sometimes with an explanation of why they are not counted as an overseas player either (Grant Stewart, for instance, is ‘UK qualified due to Italian mother’).  Less useful, perhaps, but unavoidable to save space, are the 61 abbreviations of the names of overseas teams listed in the glossary : I don’t know how many of the players have represented the Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL), or the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), but, unabbreviated, the teams’ names would make the entries for some of the more-travelled T20 specialists longer than Gary Sobers’ in 1970.

The 1970 edition did not pack quite the Proustian kick I was expecting it to (the height of my ‘Playfair’ addiction came a little later, I think), but it still possesses the not inconsiderable ability to bring back to life a Summer, and in some ways a world, long gone, even if its original purpose was less elevated.  (‘Wisden‘ is self-consciously a journal of record, with one eye always on posterity ; ‘Playfair‘ achieves it by accident.) My copy of the 2020 edition seems fated to remain a melancholy and neglected object, largely unthumbed, other than for the purpose of writing this article, which, in its own way, will make it a potent memento of a lost season.

Whether there will be anyone who will revisit 2020 ‘Playfair’ in fifty years’ time and compare it to the 2070 edition, I am afraid I doubt.  It is possible that some indulgent father will gift his child a copy, who may have their attention snagged by names such as Felix Spencer Organ, as mine was by John Devereux Dubricious (‘dubious’? ‘lubricious’?) Pember, or be as fascinated by the absurdity of Turkey losing to the Czech Republic by 257 runs in a T20 game as I once was by Victoria’s 1107 against New South Wales, but it is as likely that our child would be puzzled by the notion of paying money for a little book, when the information it contains can all be found for nothing on their ‘phone.

And even if our putative child were to have become an addict, there is no guarantee that there will be a ‘Playfair’ to feed their addiction in 2070.  For all its attempts to accommodate the world of T20, ‘Playfair’’s reason for being is as a good companion to Championship games, and, as I may have mentioned before, that competition seems unlikely to survive another half-century in a form that would have been recognisable to Gordon Ross. But then, as I may have also said before, somebody will have been saying that for the last fifty years, and I am aware that it has probably been me.

4 thoughts on “Fifty Years On

  1. That’s a delightful celebration of the little book. I haven’t bought a copy for years, but it was, as you explain, far more practical than Wisden as a companion for cricket watching – in flesh or on TV. I remember, for several years (early 80s) updating in pencil each player’s best performances as they were surpassed (HS JPL, BBGC, etc), with the Telegraph’s sports pages my source.
    My other memory is one of embarrassment, not wanting to mention its title, which was a conflation of two well known top-shelf publications. Thanks BW

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    • Many thanks, Chris. I don’t think I was ever quite that assiduous about the stats. Must admit that in 50 years of reading Playfair the similarity of its name to the other publications had never occurred to me, but it’s certainly in my mind now. The Playboy Cricket Monthly would have been an interesting read, I imagine.

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  2. Yes, great post. I have every Playfair since 1976 so I made the effort to get one this year even though there may not be any cricket. One thing I miss from the 1970s is the geographic diversity of birthplaces, as most people are born in hospitals now. I still remember that Jim Yardley was born in Chaddesley Corbett and John Augustine Snow in Peopleton, for example.

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  3. Thanks very much. A good point about the birthplaces – it can give the impression that cricket is a more urban game than it actually is. Mike ‘Pasty’ Harris being born in St. Just-in-Roseland, Cornwall is one that stuck in my mind.

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