Tuesday, May 06, 2014

“A Half-Forgotten triumph, The Story of Kent’s County Championship Title of 1913”

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To Kent fans of a certain age, like me, the "Golden Age" of Kent cricket means the glorious 1970s when the County Championship was won three times and there were no fewer than seven trophies in the various limited overs competitions. But earlier in the century, when the County Championship was the only game in town, Kent won it four times in eight years - 1906, 1909, 1901 and 1913. This book tells the story of the last of these triumphs - what was, as it turned out, to be Kent's last win in any competition for fifty-four years.

In 2014 we are looking back a hundred years to the start of the Great War and as we do so we will also be telling the story of 1913 - a year that was the end of an epoch in more ways than just at Kent cricket. The Edwardian era ended not with the death of Edward VII in 1910 but with the outbreak of the War in July 1914. Few among the thousands who cheered Kent's Championship win could have had any premonition that life for all was to change irrevocably less than a year later. Of those who played for or against Kent in 1913 twenty were to perish in the Great War - including Colin Blythe, one of the main architects of the victory, at Passchendaele in 1917. 1913 was, as Florian Illies called it in his extraordinary best-seller the "year before the Storm" and it is surely with this in the back of our minds that we read Moseling and Quarrington's excellent book.

The format of "A Half-Forgotten Triumph" is to take Kent's games chronologically - match by match. The research is comprehensive and there are copious quotes from contemporary reports - all of which are meticulously referenced. Along the way there are a few digressions which add colour to the text and are interesting in their own right. For example the (eventually) sad story of Albert Trott an umpire in Kent's match against the MCC, and one of the five cricketers to play Test cricket for both England and Australia in the nineteenth century, is told in a long footnote.

Just how important County cricket was at the time shines through almost every page. There were no tourists in 1913 so not only was public attention only on the County game but all of the star players took part in every match if they were fit to do so. Frank Woolley played 28 matches for Kent that season and Colin Blythe 31 - bowling 1043.1 overs and taking 160 wickets at 15.48. The opening Day ("Ladies Day") of the match versus Nottinghamshire in Canterbury Week had an attendance of over 13,000 at the St Lawrence Ground. And there were stars on view as well. Percy Fender, JWHT Douglas, Wilfred Rhodes, Gilbert Jessop, Jack Hobbs, Sydney Barnes, Herbert Strudwick, Plum Warner, Patsy Hendren... Oh for a time machine to go and see some of these in their prime! On the boundary edge there were a few great cricketing names as well - Lord Harris, the formidable Chairman of Kent's Committee, Arthur Conan Doyle a member of Tunbridge Wells CC, W.G. Grace (who needs no introduction) all make fleeting appearances.

Well we may not have a time machine but this marvellous book is the next best thing. The authors in a separate chapter called "The Social Scene" describe the cricket weeks, the wandering clubs like the Band of Brothers, the Club Balls and the many grounds at which Kent cricket was played. Did you know that there was talk in the MCC of playing a Test match at Dover? Me neither! The authors do not dig too much into the changing and problematic cricket scene that was underway at the end of that Golden Age. Derek Birley in his "A Social History of English Cricket" said that "By 1914 pressure to turn what was a gentlemen's pastime into a business had exposed the weaknesses of the [county] system" and once the nasty affair of the Great War was over this was to be revisited and eventually we were to arrive at where we are today where Mammon calls every tune. But why not slip back a century and wallow a bit in Kent's triumphant year. Were those the days? Well maybe they were - but all too briefly!

This review by Paddy Briggs first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of "The Journal of the Cricket Society"

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