50 years of cricket societies, 1995

Talking a good game

It is odd that it took the English so many years after they invented cricket to devise an organisation in which people could talk about the game, or just listen to others talking about it for them. But now it is anniversary time. The Cricket Society, based in London and the most senior of the 40 or so societies now flourishing worldwide, celebrates its half-century this year; the umbrella organisation, the Council of Cricket Societies, turned 25 in 1994.

There was a forerunner. The Cricketana Society was launched in London on October 21, 1929 for collectors of cricket literature, prints, records, trophies etc. and to assist members in their hobby. It was too esoteric for its own good, and withered away in the 1930s.

But during the war many servicemen abroad thought wistfully of the summer game and in The Cricketer Spring Annual in 1945, Antony Weigall, an accountant and Kent supporter, suggested that statisticians should link up. A meeting that November at 15 Great Scotland Yard drew just eight enthusiasts. They went ahead, again on the elitist track, forming the Society of Cricket Statisticians, with membership limited to cricket statisticians and collectors of cricketana. Weigall was elected chairman, with the writer S. C. Caple as secretary and the BBC scorer Roy Webber as his assistant.

A prime object of the new society was a bibliography of cricket: a start was made in 1947 - the project ebbed and flowed, until Tim Padwick of Guildhall Library masterminded the invaluable reference book that was finally published by the Library Association in 1977.

The group was soon renamed the Cricket Society, to underline its widening interests, but it still found problems in gaining recognition. Then, in September 1950, Sir Pelham Warner, the MCC President, spoke at a dinner: this seal of approval set the society on its way. Just as the North-South divide exists in English culture, politics and cricket, it has been a feature of the cricket society movement: for years there was a frosty relationship between London and Yorkshire. The Cricket Society, as a London-based organisation with a worldwide membership and a metropolitan flavour, saw itself as the keystone. But in Leeds, the society's northern branch had made a unilateral declaration of independence as the Northern Cricket Society in January 1948, months before their southern cousins adopted a similar name. They therefore claimed to be the senior society, and strong characters on each side argued the respective cases.

This led to The Curious Incident Of The Widen Report, when the 1979 Almanack ran an article on the society movement, written by Ron Yeomans, a Yorkshireman with a Truemanesque belief that the White Rose county came first in all things. A year later, Wisden recorded with some embarrassment that Yeomans had devoted his entire article, with the exception of a single paragraph, to societies north of the Trent: the new edition paid belated tribute to London.

Relations are warm today, but the movement in England, like brass bands, flourishes particularly north of Watford, as the list of societies on page 1289 will confirm. Yorkshire remains the heartland, with at least eight different societies. But it is the Cricket Society which sums up the reasoning behind the entire movement with its stated aim: To support the game of cricket at all levels wherever it is played, regardless of race, colour or creed. With a worldwide membership of 2,000-plus, it draws hundreds to spring and autumn dinners addressed by anyone from MPs to showbiz stars; the society runs its own team, has built an extensive library, and produces a journal twice yearly contributing substantially to research and discourse on the game.

Since 1970 the society, whose president is the former Test batsman and MCC Treasurer Hubert Doggart, has provided Lord's Easter coaching places for promising youngsters, and it awards trophies to outstanding young players. The society team has developed from amateurish beginnings to lively elevens fielded regularly: the first tour was Paris in 1954, and others have gone as far as Hong Kong, Australia, Barbados and Philadelphia. Strange team members have surfaced now and then: cricket secretary Jeremy Burford recalls Garfield Hambly playing at 82, and the anonymous Belgian boy of 16 who was 'given' to our team in Brussels and made top score. The most newsworthy activity of the Northern Cricket Society has been its annual Boxing Day match, begun in 1949, and played mostly at Alwoodley. Most games have beaten the weather, even snow.

The venues of the different societies range from the echoes-of-empire splendour of the National Liberal Club and the Royal Overseas League (The Cricket Society), and the tradition-rich atmosphere of the Trent Bridge Long Room (Nottingham Cricket Lovers' Society), to the spartan canteen of Ross Sports Club at Grimsby (Lincolnshire CLS). Speakers run the gamut of the game. Current Test players (when they can be persuaded) are most highly prized; former players, often happy to recall days in the limelight, are regulars. Umpires and groundsmen, scorers and statisticians, broadcasters and journalists, administrators and collectors of cricketana all cheer the faithful. Attendances can top three hundred at the Essex Society and the Lancashire and Cheshire, in the Chelmsford and Old Trafford pavilions, down to a dozen or so at the smaller outposts.

In the 1960s, the National Cricket Association suggested a linking body, to be represented on the NCA: the Council of Cricket Societies was set up in 1969 with Ron Yeomans as founder chairman. The council seat on the NCA has allowed it to put the case for members' concerns: grassroots cricket, the highest standards of sportsmanship - and maximum BBC broadcast coverage.

The council is eager to encourage new societies, especially those involving the young, such as the groups at Oxford and Cambridge plus several public schools. These are the butterflies of the movement: for a time there can be enthusiasm sparked by an individual or a small band of devotees, but it is sometimes hard to guarantee speakers an audience, especially in institutions where a lecture is hardly a novelty. One cricket writer was disappointed to get just 15 for his talk at Oxford only to be reassured: We got nine for Colin Cowdrey.

Australia is the overseas hub of the movement, today's societies having had a short-lived forerunner in the Victorian city of Geelong. In 1950 local cricketers Roy Brown and David Shaw (his brother John later played for Victoria) formed the Geelong Cricketers' Club. The first speaker was Lindsay Hassett - a Geelong man, also a cousin of the Shaws, and at that time leading Australia against Freddie Brown's England tourists. Six hundred people packed Geelong West Town Hall to hear Hassett - with Ian Johnson - speak and answer questions, including the topic of the day: Was Sid Barnes being deliberately excluded from the Australian team? The next meeting, addressed by Bodyline series umpire George Hele, drew an audience of ten - a reminder that cricket history as distinct from current cricket is the interest of a minority.

The club lapsed, but in 1967 Melbourne solicitor Andrew Joseph contacted local subscribers to the late Rowland Bowen's Cricket Quarterly in the hope they might get together, and the Australian Cricket Society was the result. This has sparked active societies in the other major Australian cities. Melbourne remains the busiest, with a hyperactive president, Colin Barnes, who is able to charm/cajole/bribe/intimidate a flow of Test and Sheffield Shield players into addressing meetings. Societies have been increasingly active in South Africa, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and India, all guaranteeing hospitality to overseas visitors.

But for a society that epitomises the character of the movement, it is impossible to go beyond Wombwell, founded in 1950 by one of the personalities of the cricket society world. This is the extraordinary Jack Sokell, who has given a small Yorkshire mining village on the outskirts of Barnsley its own unique fame. Sokell, who was made an MBE in 1994, is tireless in organisation. Most societies meet once a month in the winter; Wombwell meets and has a speaker once a week.

Sokell is Wombwell born and bred: his society is a major influence in the community, running everything from fashion shows and beauty contests to jazz nights and dances, as well as cricket coaching sessions. He still voices mock resentment that his committee in the 1960s talked him out of hiring a rock group. Members felt the £50 fee was far too much for a group no one knew, nor ever would. Silly name, too - the Beatles.

Johnny Wardle was Wombwell's first speaker, followed by Yardley, Hutton, Bowes, Trueman, Duckworth, Hendren, George Pope, Leyland, Close and the Bedsers. Any society speakers' secretary in the 1990s would gasp at such a galaxy, wondering at the cost (in fact no more than bare expenses at most), because it is a rare star today who agrees to shine except at a price. Many society members are retired, with limited funds, and subscriptions are kept to a few pounds a year, which does not allow for heavy fees to guest speakers. This has become one of the most pragmatic functions of the Council of Cricket Societies - to provide a forum where officers exchange information on which names talk well and come cheap. The game lost its innocence for many organisers when they discovered that even youngsters not yet awarded a county cap would insist their agents negotiable a fee for their services. The council has more than once reminded the Cricketers' Association that society members are often the most hardworking of county supporters and help to organise benefits - so players might in return look kindly on requests to speak.

Great names have commended the movement. Sir Donald Bradman, when accepting life membership of the Australian Society, declared: The great thing about this society is that it is working in the interests of the game of cricket. And John Arlott said that the Cricket Society has never sought to do more than to serve and enjoy the game, which is the reason for its existence.

But true to the tradition of cricket that behind a serene, ordered exterior often lie dark depths and unexplained mysteries, the veteran collector and statistician Geoffrey Copinger just once lifted the protective veil. Recording that he did not take part in the Cricket Society team's first overseas tour, to Paris, Copinger commented: Perhaps this is just as well, for I understand that one member never really recovered. What on earth, one asks, could have happened on that legendary excursion in this simple, innocent, sporting, dedicated world of cricket society movement?

Murray Hedgcock has been a London columnist of The Australian since 1971. He has been a member of both the Cricket Society and the Australian Cricket Society for even longer.

© John Wisden & Co