6 JUNE 1992, Page 63


Hold the back page

Frank Keating

WHEN HILARY, wife of my good friend (and new editor of Wisden) Matthew Engel, gave birth to a son and heir last week, I at once took down the old primrose bible to see whether Master Laurence Gabriel (they are great fans of Hardy T., Dorset and Eng- land) shared a birthday with any of the gen- uine all-time giants of the game.

Not quite. But it can't be bad to have a birthday two days after Frank Woolley and one before George Headley, in the same week as Denis Charles Scott Compton. One you begin browsing over the Births and Deaths the results can be rather satis- factory.

Okay, name me the 25 best English bats- men in the history of the game? Not easy — sentiment and the general style of the man must play a part in the final selection, give or take an Abel or an Ames, a Hen- dren or a Hayward or a Mead. Here's my list, now free of crossings-out and final-final additions, in roughly alphabetical order: Amiss, Barrington, Boycott, Compton, Cowdrey, Dexter, J. Edrich, Fry, Grace, Gooch, Gower, Graveney, Gunn, Ham- mond, Hardstaff, Hutton, Hobbs, Jessop, Leyland, May, Ranjitsinhji, Sandham, Shrewsbury, Sutcliffe, and Wyatt.

A formidable batting order and, I would say, difficult to argue with. Now here's a phenomenal thing — four-fifths of them, 20 out of 25, were actually born in the cricket season. My six-month summer rule was strict — from April and the waft of linseed- oil and freshly mown grass to October when the villagers of England catch up on their fixtures lost to haymaking. Additionally striking is the fact that as many as 18 of the 25 were born in just the four sparkling sum- mer months between April and July. Could it really be that they formed their love of, and talent for, the game (literally with their mothers' milk) by being laid in their cradles at the boundary's edge, hearing the com- forting plick and plock of bat on ball on bee-buzzing, butterfly-bobbing, blue- canopied midsummer days? Here are the birthday boys of English summer: April: Amiss, Fry, Gower, Shrewsbury, Wyatt; May: Compton, Dexter, Jessop; June: Edrich, Graveney, Gunn, Hutton; July: Gooch, Grace, Hammond, Hardstaff, Ley- land, Sandham; August: nil; September: Ranji; October: Boycott.

Even the five birthday batsmen of winter — Barrington and Sutcliffe (November) and Cowdrey, Hobbs and May (December)

— should only be a hand of four because Cowdrey, of course, was born at Ootaca- mund in the Nilgiri Hills on Christmas Eve in the middle of an actual Indian summer.

So there is a very decent chance that the tot, L.G. Engel (I would have gone for three initials myself: well, a P.B. May or R.E. Wyatt wouldn't have got anywhere, would they?), will grow up to be a batsman.

Ah yes, but does it work the other way round? It sure does; with knobs on. Soccer history is pretty turgid, so when it comes to all-time hall-of-famers I could only write down, after hours of fretting, the very best English 25 of my time since I began watch- ing the winter game in the late 1950s: Barnes, Ball, Banks, Bell, Beardsley, Butch- er, Channon, R. Charlton, Edwards, Finney, Francis, Greaves, Haynes, Hoddle, Hurst, Keegan, Lineker, Matthews, Mullery, Peters, B. Robson, Shilton, Wilkins, Wilson, and Billy Wright.

Even more incredible, only one of that list — Alan Ball (May) — was born in the summer; 24 of the 25 were born inside the six months of winter between October and April. Might they have gone on to play for England only because their first waking months of life were spent in the evocative, muddy, mittened mists of winter with dads and uncles hurrying home from the match to hear Sports Report at Saturday teatime?

All I do know is that this piece represents my first ever scoop. Hold the back page.