In 2007, Wisden introduced a new award: the Schools Cricketer of the Year. The selectors had clear eyes: the first winner was Jonny Bairstow, the second James Taylor, the third Jos Buttler. It had long been known that serious cricket talent tended to reveal itself at a young age. Here was proof.
In the Covid-hit season of 2020, the Almanack decided to delve into its archive and compile a list of those who might have been earlier winners, from 1900 on. There followed much sifting, weighing, debating and selecting. Clearly, future glories were irrelevant. But how to cope with so many variables - the weather, the strength of a fixture list, the quality of the square, changes in format, the shifting nature of the game itself? What was the balance between runs and wickets? A century ago, 80 wickets might equate to 1,000 runs; today, with bowling restrictions, especially for seamers, a 50-wicket season is a rare beast. And what should be made of eye-witness testimony?
In the end, the judges relied chiefly on numbers, given the impracticality of juggling those considerations. Of course, a match-winning 40 in harsh conditions might be a greater achievement than a patient century on a tame surface; a series of maidens against a fierce attack greater than a blizzard of sixes against declaration lobs. And how should wicketkeeping be quantified? But the figures could not be ignored: they spoke for themselves.
The list reminds us that schooldays play a part in any sporting biography, and that cricket has survived many storms. In marking the game's return after the war, Wisden 1919 barely mentioned the raging flu pandemic that would kill 228,000 Britons. Instead the editor noted a silver lining for schoolboys looking to graduate to the first-class game: "The demand for fresh talent is almost certain to exceed the supply."
At the going down of the sun, Wisden kept its eye firmly on the ball. On August 12, 1939, as shadows lengthened over the two-day Young Amateurs v Young Professionals fixture at Lord's, the game stood on a knife-edge. With three minutes remaining, the Professionals needed three runs, the Amateurs one wicket. The bowler was George Knight, and the match had started on his 19th birthday. That season, he had hit 1,250 runs at 59 and taken 89 wickets at nine for Victoria College, Jersey. His coach, the Surrey professional Bert Geary, thought him exceptional. Knight later called it the highlight of his life: "To play at Lord's - it doesn't come much better than that." But it did. With war casting a dark cloud over the summer, Knight claimed the final scalp: Young Amateurs won by two runs.
It is impossible to judge the value of runs scored so long ago. The pitch at Victoria College is not the biggest: for a strong batsman, it is a friendly venue. But Knight, as we have seen, had another string to his bow: his "medium-pace off-spinners". He claimed a pair of hat-tricks, and against an All-Island XI pulled off one of cricket's golden feats (achieved by John Wisden himself) by bagging all ten wickets - in ten overs, for 24 runs. Who can say what sort of career he might have enjoyed had war not broken out? Hampshire were interested, but Knight was stranded in the German-occupied Channel Islands, before becoming - according to the Jersey Evening Post in a 100th-birthday tribute last August - "the most outstanding all-round cricketer this island has produced". More than 80 years on, sheltering from the 2020 pandemic in a Jersey care home, he pronounces himself "delighted" to have his glory days remembered.
In 1953, a schoolboy named Robert Barber went one better. In a record-breaking season for Ruthin School, in Denbighshire, Barber achieved the grand double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets. As the only person on the list opposite to accomplish this, he could claim to be the leading schools cricketer of the 20th century. He could, but he doesn't. From his home in Switzerland, Bob Barber - who in January 1966 would score a masterly 185 for England against Australia in Sydney - is quick to point out that this exclusive club has two other members. One, Mike Taylor, was an older boy at Ruthin when Barber arrived: "My inspiration, actually." The other, back in 1929, was John Rogers of Birkenhead School. Neither Ruthin nor Birkenhead submitted records to Wisden for the relevant years, but - proof it could scent eminence in the mist - the summary in the 1930 Almanack did record that Rogers "took 100 wickets and scored 1,000 runs the second season in succession".
While noting that "he played in many matches and the opposition was not always strong", Wisden believed this was a record "likely to last for many years". (There is a fourth known to have done the double: in 1895, Gilbert Jessop combined 1,058 runs at 132 with 100 wickets at 2.44 for Beccles College. He was, however, aged 21, and a teacher.) Barber recalls his schooldays with palpable affection. "Cricket mattered more back then. It really was the national game. In the evenings, the fields were full of us all just playing cricket until it got dark." The fixture list was the usual blend of rival schools and wandering men's sides. "It wasn't an unbeaten season: we lost to Ruthin Cricket Club. I don't think the headmaster was too pleased."
Thanks to Taylor, Barber knew of the precious double, though it didn't cross his mind until "right at the end" - those last few wickets were hard-earned. The highlight? In another year it might have been taking all ten for 27 against Llandovery. But in 1953 it was trumped by the day he scored 136 not out against Rydal (a tense local derby), then picked up nine for 40. A busy afternoon.
Yet it isn't these spectacular figures - "irrelevant numerals", says Barber - that make him smile. Nor is it the fact that this was his penultimate year; the following season he broke his foot, leaving him free to focus on the A-Levels (chemistry, physics and biology) that took him to Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences. "It was happy cricket, that was the thing. I strongly believe that if you want people to play well they've got to be happy, and we were. I don't remember any stress. That big green field at Ruthin - it's always sunny when you're young, isn't it?" The schools section of the Almanack strikes some as an anachronism. In the meritocratic and professional-minded modern world, it seems odd there should be any call to record the performances of schoolboys - especially since, in practice, this usually means public schoolboys.
Yet stories such as Knight and Barber confirm that, far from being a nostalgic indulgence, the schools section is rich in cricket history. The roll call of famous names whose youthful exploits it has preserved reminds us that this is not a matter of opinion, preference, or even tradition. The schools have long been a substantial component of England's cricket heritage. Nor does it follow (to gloss the most common argument) that the public schools are exercising an unjust grip on English cricket.
Many recent international regulars - such as Bairstow, Buttler, Rory Burns, Tom and Sam Curran, Chris Jordan, Joe Root and Dom Sibley - attended public school on sports scholarships. It could be claimed that the schools they went to were not embedding privilege so much as operating a de facto national cricket academy. The opacity of post-war education policy makes it hard to be sure, but it is telling that of the schools listed opposite, all bar two or three are privately funded. It is also striking that of the England XI who faced Pakistan in the Second Test in 2020, all but James Anderson and Chris Woakes went to independent schools.
This cannot be put down to a blinkered selection policy: the national sorting hat had already done its work. If there is scandal here, it lies in the paucity of facilities - and the culture that goes with them - available to state pupils. This is a political policy matter, not an editorial oversight. Wisden issues frequent appeals for state and girls' schools to submit averages, but few can maintain the infrastructure or fixture list required. When Liam Plunkett helped launch an ECB cricket-in-schools initiative in 2019, he revealed that in his own school career he "probably only ever played two games".
It is common knowledge that public schools possess enviable cricket grounds. Yet the real problem lies where they are absent. London's East End, home to hundreds of thousands of fervent cricket lovers of Asian descent, does not boast a single high-quality pitch. We can be dismayed, or angered; but it is hardly a false picture of English cricket's class-conscious heritage.
In some ways the list hides as much as it reveals. The following names, for instance, shone within Wisden's pages - Percy Chapman, Douglas Jardine, Gubby Allen, Freddie Brown, David Sheppard, Ted Dexter, M. J. K. Smith, Tom Graveney, Mike Brearley, David Gower, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Andrew Strauss and Joe Root - yet none did well enough to win a retrospective award. And this is to name only future England captains. Many modern stars also missed out. In 2016, Ollie Pope scored 904 runs for Cranleigh, and Zak Crawley 897 for Tonbridge; both were pipped by A. J. Woodland, who amassed 1,026 for St Edward's, Oxford.
Many have been good enough to play county cricket while still in school uniform: Barber, for example, pulled on a Lancashire sweater. But only one represented his country. In 1971, the 18-year-old Imran Khan made his Test debut for Pakistan at Edgbaston before spending winter in the nets at Worcester Royal Grammar, developing the scorching action that brought so much glory. Wisden described him as an "unusual schoolboy" who "understandably monopolised the batting and the bowling". Yet this was not enough to make him 1972's leading player. Instead, Chris Tavare´ won the first of his two awards for hitting 794 runs for Sevenoaks.
The fact that a further 11 England captains (Gilligan, Stevens, Robins, Yardley, May, Cowdrey, Cowdrey, Atherton, Cook, plus Buttler and Taylor in ODIs), as well as 28 Test and 79 county players do appear opposite underlines the value of schools cricket in the national game (not just the English game, since the Nawab of Pataudi jnr is a notable presence).
There is equal pleasure to be had foraging in the small print. In 1984, we find a remarkable bowling effort by a young Nasser Hussain (Forest School), who took six for five against Westminster in a season that yielded 48 wickets and 1,070 runs. But that was arguably bettered by Michael Atherton of Manchester Grammar School, who collected 61 wickets (with what Wisden called his "all-conquering" leg-spin) and 1,013 runs. The pair met in the Southern Schools v The Rest match too: Atherton was snared twice by Hussain, while Hussain was caught behind off what may have been Atherton's mystery ball. Yet here is the thing. Both these outstanding schoolboys were outshone by Neil Lenham of Brighton College, whose 50 wickets and 1,534 runs (then an all-time English schools record) made him that year's top performer.
There are even smaller nuggets. At Wrekin College, in 2000, a "South African exchange student" named Jean-Paul Duminy "made an immediate impact when he dropped a skyer off the first ball of the season"; he made a more lasting impact with a batting average of 150. At Bedford School, Alastair Cook "hinted at impressive powers of concentration" in 2002, while two years later a not-so-young touring New Zealander in search of match practice turned out for King's, Macclesfield. Daniel Vettori, aged 25, bowled a tidy if unpenetrating ten overs, and impressed spectators by helping shove the sightscreens to and fro.
Peter Johnson of Nottingham High, winner in 1968 and 1969, has the astonishing distinction of appearing in the Wisden schools section for eight editions. Johnson - who reportedly never missed a match - left with a jaw-dropping haul of 473 wickets, seeing off John Cameron's 425 (for Taunton School in seven seasons between 1927 and 1933). There are other astonishing tales: "Fowler's match" of 1910, when Eton captain Robert Fowler scored 64 in the follow-on to set Harrow 55 to win, then took eight for 23 to seize victory by nine runs; or the Tonbridge v Clifton clash of 1946, when the 13-year-old Colin Cowdrey - "reputed to be the youngest player to appear in a match at Lord's", said Wisden (who also called him "Michael") - steered Tonbridge to a two-run win with match tallies of 119 runs and eight wickets.
Overseas tours feature, too - as in 1987, when the English schoolboys competing in the Sir Garfield Sobers International Schools Tournament came up against a diminutive but promising batsman from Trinidad's Fatima College: Brian Lara. The list trembles with more solemn echoes. The 1901 winner, John Raphael, scored five first-class centuries, stood as a Liberal candidate in 1909 and, a year later, led a British representative rugby team to Argentina, before falling, like hundreds of others in Wisden's pre-war schools' pages, on the Western Front. He is buried in a military cemetery in Belgium, the country of his birth.
And the Lancelot Hingley who scored 741 runs for Rugby in 1940 cropped up again in 1941, when he played for MCC against his old school. Wisden ran a photograph of the teams, explaining Hingley's absence by saying he "arrived late after bombing German factories up to 5am". He made a final entry, in Wisden 1944, in the obituaries - aged 21.
Of all the near misses, two stand out. The unluckiest bowler was Roderick Riley, who in 1913 took an extraordinary 103 wickets for Stonyhurst (where Arthur Conan Doyle had learned the game). But he was outdone by a team-mate, Francis Farrelly, who took 134 - an amazing figure, even if Stonyhurst cricket was sometimes 13-a-side. The most unfortunate batsman, meanwhile, must be Glyn Treagus, who in 1993 totted up 1,613 runs for King Edward VI, Southampton, only to find that Iain Sutcliffe had scored ten more for Leeds Grammar. These are the only two to have topped 1,600 - and both did it in the same school season.
Cricket, eh? But no one ever said luck wasn't part of the game. John Barclay, who enjoyed a long career with Sussex, had cause to groan after taking nine for 57 for Public Schools at Lord's in 1970, only for the English Schools Cricket Association to ruin what Wisden called a "once-in-a-lifetime chance" by a "somewhat unchivalrous" declaration. There are plenty of signs that cricket runs in families. David Gower's father, Richard (King's, Canterbury), was a strong contender in 1935, while Frederick Nicholas (grandfather of Mark, and "an exceptionally good bat") did stand out in 1912. Liam Botham scored 774 runs and took 54 wickets for Rossall in 1994, before deciding to shun his father's footsteps and play rugby. Mark Crawley (1986) and brother John (1989) followed Mike Atherton's (1985) example at Manchester GS. And Bazid Khan, the 1999 winner for a superlative season comprising 1,481 runs and 50 wickets for Brighton College, had more than just a famous father (Majid Khan) as inspiration: uncle Imran may also have been a useful role model.
The list throws up two father-and-son pairings (the Cowdreys of Tonbridge and the Leipers of Chigwell), and nearly a third. In 1970, the "schoolboy cricketer of the year," in the words of E. M. Wellings, Wisden's hard-to-impress reviewer, "was undoubtedly Bairstow". This was David Bairstow, father of Jonny and a brilliant wicketkeeper for Hanson Grammar in Bradford. He caught the eye playing at Lord's for England Young Cricketers against their West Indian counterparts, though by then he had already made a splash. Having been given dispensation to take his English literature A-level at 7am, he made his debut for Yorkshire against Gloucestershire that morning, and took five catches in the game. But Hanson did not appear in Wisden's list of schools, so he registered only a distant blip on the schoolboy-of-the-year radar.
Fittingly, Wisden often adopted a schoolmasterly tone with its annual crop of youngsters, chiding them for "bad eating and sleeping habits", or for having the "wrong attitude" in "this lazy modern age". Bairstow had not been the only young player to catch the Wellings eye at Lord's. Of Richard Brown, son of England captain Freddie, he wrote: "Brown's approach to the job of batting was splendidly uncomplicated. But why must he handicap himself by sporting his hair so long? A hairnet might have been more useful to him than his cap, which perched on top of the shrub without any permanence… Such luxuriant growth of hair is as much a handicap to a cricketer as long fingernails."
Wisden - and from 1945 until 1972 that meant Wellings - also handed out tips: "He could with advantage study the action of Trueman." And he grumbled about the weather: "It has been an apology for a summer… atrocious… even by Scottish standards it was unusually wet." Wisden, in the guise of Captain W. J. Seton, was also capable of handing out its end-of-year prizes in Latin. The Leys XI, who included the 1904 winner, were loftily chided as being "Tebbutt et praeterea nihil" (Tebbutt and no one else). It certainly required a striking effort on Herbert Tebbutt's part to edge out Jack Crawford of Repton (the 1905 winner), who came third in the first-class bowling averages that year. In 1932, the Cambridge police, summoned to a house by the sound of shots, found that Tebbutt (perhaps upset by alimony, perhaps by the death of a beloved dog) had turned a gun on his partner and their two sons, her daughter from another relationship, and himself.
There is tragedy in these pages. But happiness too. Growing up in Afghanistan, Mumtaz Habib spoke no English and had never slept in a bed. And then, aged 12, he was smuggled to Britain to escape the Taliban; a few years later, he was spotted by a cricket master in some indoor nets and offered a bursary to Harrow. Though not the star of the team, Habib scored 675 runs and took 22 wickets during his two seasons, and progressed to Durham University, where he became the first Afghan to play first-class cricket in England. Happiest days of our lives? Sometimes they really can be.
Robert Winder is the author of The Little Wonder: The Remarkable History of Wisden (2013).