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Wednesday, 20th August 2008
Giants Ashes.
W henever you talk about sport it is not long before someone poses the question of exactly who was the greatest?
Extract from a Punch cartoon

It's an impossible question but that has never put us off trying to answer it and long may that continue. This is my fantasy English cricket team and the way England have played recently it hardly matters I have limited myself to those faces which appear on cards.

It is difficult to describe the appeal of cricket and I am going to make no effort to do so, it is boring enough if you don't like it without some tedious swine trying to tell you how wonderful it is.

I am only guessing but I suspect there have been more words written about cricketing cigarette cards than any other subject on cards (and that includes football). It is only a guess but I suspect a pretty fair one.

Like a lot of sports in England we have a problem with youngsters coming into the game, schools just do not play cricket. Our national side is not all that good when it really boils down to it and very few people are inspired by failure so getting talent into the game is very difficult.

The MCC has finally decided to open its membership to women (they say the pressure of having lottery monies withdrawn from various projects was not a deciding factor in this and I am not going to disbelieve them. I mean 200 years without women then a few million pounds is waived about and women are allowed membership. Makes sense.)

It is good women get to go into the Long Room etc because they can see a most wonderful collection of cricketing cigarette cards.

Contrast this rather staid attitude with the wonderful architecture experimented so successfully at Lords Cricket ground. In such an 'old' sport to discover some of the most futuristic looking designs is quite amazing and fantastic to see.

I am straying from the point which is English cricket. Hardly ever has it been in worse shape is the usual claim. Truth is we were never as good as we thought we were and perhaps we are not as bad as we think we are.

Almost single-handedly he created the game of modern cricket and became the first superstar of the game

Now indulge me in my daydream. I have been elevated to the god-like role of cricketing selector for the national side. In fact it is god-like because I get to choose my cricketers from a vast selection of past faces as depicted on cigarette cards, be they alive or dead. Quite literally the side is heaven sent for the most part.

So below is my attempt at creating the greatest English cricketing 11 of the cigarette card era.

DR WG Grace (1848-1915)

The first fellow I am going to drag out of retirement is Dr W(illiam) G(ilbert) Grace. He played for Gloucester at the turn of the twentieth century and was a giant of a man in any measure you care to judge. With his trade mark beard he could also be the most recognised face in English cricket.

An elderly Grace on Sarony.

When Grace at the age of 16 scored 170 and 56 not out against Sussex Gentleman cricket was in a rather different state to how he left it. In his career he was the first to score 100 hundreds ending up with 126. The year of his 16th birthday was 1864, Glos. had no ground or regular side and the MCC regularly hired Lords out for circus events, roller skating and baseball.

Almost single-handedly he created the game of modern cricket and became the first superstar of the game and a sporting hero by the time he left the game in 1908 when he was almost 60 years old. He commanded huge appearance fees at the time and scaled up represents the sort of money most professional sportsmen dream about. Grace certainly is a man you would wish to have wielding the willow for you, regarded by many as the greatest English cricketer of them all.

It could be a bit of a reach but WG might not really have been much good in the modern game. Why? Coz he had a big bushy beard and a surprisingly high-pitched voice (in fact he had a marriage proposal turned down because of his voice) probably not the sort of person that would make a good TV personality. You could certainly say the same about some of the greatest leaders in history and when you look about at some of the media grabbing grins and hairstyles today you wonder what they are really capable of. May the best grin win.

He appears on a great many cricketing cards but I take his likeness from Sarony, Celebrities and their Autographs, because that was what he was.

Sir Leonard Hutton (1916-1990)

is another batsman which could never be omitted from the side, born a year after WG's death. Another member of the century of centuries club (129 centuries in total) and also had the honour of being England Captain. He was in fact the first professional player to be Captain at the surprisingly late date of 1953 and won back 'the Ashes' after 19 years in the hands of the 'enemy'. Again this is a fellow which appears in a good many cricket cards. It is only fitting I chose his likeness from Players, Cricketers, 1938 (previous sets being 1930, 1934, which along with 1938 were printed to commemorate the Australian touring side in England.) this being the year he hit the Aussies for 364 at The Oval, a record which remains on the books.

Sir John Berry Hobbs (1882-1963)
Wills, Crickeeters 1928 [1928] Jack Hobbs

Better known as Jack. He was knighted in 1953 the first time a professional cricketer had been so bestowed. 61237 first class runs, a record, which befits a fellow with more centuries to his name than anyone else, 197 of them. He played for Surrey and England and really is a fellow which should be in an all England eleven even when the pyramids have turned to dust. He had a long and very distinguished career so allow me too chose a relatively youthful Jack from the Wills, Cricketers, 1928, 1928 set, striding out to the crease (at least I don't imagine he is striding to the pavillion). No helmet, no arm protectors, those gloves are not going to stop a lot.

Harold Gimblett
Ogdens, Prominent Cricketers of 1938 H.Gimblett

All of the above are good solid batsmen and are capable of putting together a winning innings given enough time. There are occasions when a quick hitter is required and for this function you may not need to look a lot further than Harold Gimblett (Somerset). In his debut he scored 100 in 63 minutes against my favoured side, Essex. It also gives me a chance to get away from the Players/Wills strangle hold on cricket cards by introducing us to Ogdens, Prominent Cricketers of 1938 [1938], printed a few years after that stunning debut. So Harold is in there to flash that willow when it becomes necessary. Unfortunately the Second World war ensured he did not play against Australia but did do wonders against India and the West Indies.

Gilbert Laird Jessop (1874-1955)

If Gimblett was having an off day I would be able to rely on Gilbert Jessop (Gloucestershire). When this fellow hit a ball it was in no hurry to come back. A prolific hitter with a mastery of a bewildering array of strokes he scored 191 runs off 234 deliveries in 99 minutes. Not just a one off he scored 101 off 118 balls in forty minutes. Nicknamed 'the croucher.' Handy chap as he was a brilliant fielder, that's when he wasn't being used as a fast bowler. More like him please.

Whilst some players buckle under the pressure of international competition Jessop was not of that hue. In 1902 at The Oval all appeared lost. England were 48 for five wickets and most certainly on the losing side of the equation. Seventy-seven minutes later Jessop had put another 104 runs on the board and steered England to an unlikely victory. His likeness can be found in Wills, Cricketers 1901.

So there are my first strike batsman.

Leslie Ames

My wicket-keeper is going to be Leslie Ames (Kent). Arguably the best wicket keeper with the bat there has been. He appears on Ardath, Cricket, Tennis & Golf Celebrities, 1935.

Batsman are only half the story of a cricket side, many selectors have forgotten the importance of bowling. A rather indifferent strike force has been the undoing the England squad for quite a few years. So bring on the bowlers.

Maurice Tate

Maurice Tate, a fast medium bowler with an ability to make the ball hurry off the wicket, who also made 1000 runs with the bat in three successive seasons in the early 1920's. He took over 200 wickets in each of those seasons also. He appears in Players, Cricketers, 1930 and should grace any side as quite some all-rounder.

The modern game has developed to the extent that a side without a fast bowler is a losing side (hideous generalisation but good enough).

Stuart Francis Barnes (1873-1967)
SF BArnes, Wills, Cricketers 1908.

SF Barnes. Probably the greatest fast bowler England ever produced (lets face it he would not be in my line up if I did not believe that.) In 1912 he destroyed the Australian side, taking four wickets for one run off five overs, an opening spell which would make anyones eyes sparkle. It was not unusual for him to dismiss half the Australian side single-handedly. He appears in Wills, Cricketers [1908]. If looks could get the bails of the stumps then this is the man that could do it. Mind you if he had not been such a fearsome bowler he might well have been remembered for his antics with the bat.

Harold Larwood (1904-1995)

If you wanted a bowler with fearsome single-mindedness then you could do worse than Harold Larwood. Probably forever associated in the cricketing public's mind with the bodyline series, certainly in Australia where the series caused such controversy there was a threat they would actually leave the Empire. He was a fantastic bowler of the fast pace which could put the fear of God into any batting side. A working-class man that may well have been used as a scapegoat to the more upper-class mix in the England team at the time. He appears in Players, Cricketers, 1930

Those I suppose would make up my strike bowlers but as anyone that has played cricket in England knows fast bowling is not always that practical, finding a dry wicket can be quite a trick for most of the season. So a bit of guile might well be in order.

JC White

JC White, a slow bowler who had an ability to just bowl batsmen out simple as that. In 1921 he bowled the entire Worcester side. Earlier in 1919 he took 16 wickets in a day. In 1928 he worked his magic on Australia, taking four wickets for seven runs over a period of six overs. This fellows portrait appears on Players, Cricketers 1934 which has quite a fan club as possibly the best cricketing set of them all.

M Leyland
Wills, Cricketers (2nd series) 1929 M Leyland

M. Leyland, a great all rounder. He appears in Wills, Cricketers (2nd series) [1929].

So there you have it my cricketing greats of the cigarette card era. That much individual talent packed into one side might not have made a team but perhaps death has mellowed Grace sufficiently to become a team player.

Anyone with any knowledge of the cricketing game will probably be protesting the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others but I never said I would make a good selector. Quite who the Captain of the side would be I dare not say, I leave that to better cricketing minds than mine.

If there is anyone out there with any firm views of a cricketing 11 then let me know. Perhaps even an all-time Australian eleven to match against this side.