February can be the cruellest of months for the English cricket fan. Usually by this stage of the winter, I have almost lost hope that there might be such a thing as summer or a cricket season in England ever again. Sometimes, the only refuge for cricketing geeks of a certain age- especially when they have had enough of contemplating the return of war to Europe- is to hunker down indoors, take up their copy of Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ Who’s Who of Test Cricketers and select a favourite XI. This week, we will be looking at some of the finest bespectacled male cricketers to ever play the game.
The first rule of cricket geekery when selecting an XI is to avoid selections that are too obvious. So on that basis, Geoffrey Boycott, who famously began his England career in glasses, will not be opening the batting. Perhaps he can commentate instead and in particular, I think he will enjoy the joie de vivre and enthusiasm- if not necessarily the defensive techniques -of our tailenders? Instead our openers will be Imam-ul-Haq, currently the only international batter that I can think of with the chutzpah, to proudly wear a pair of glasses on the field of play. Go on my son! For no good reason other than it reminds me of Vaughan and Trescothick and a lost golden era of English top order batting, I am a fan of left-hand- right-hand opening combinations. As a left-handed opener, Imam will be paired with a doughty right hander from Australia’s bad old days, Dirk Wellham. Notable for scoring a hundred on Test debut against England in 1981, his scholarly bearing was always an interesting contrast to the gum-chewing hard-as-nails stereotype of the typical Aussie batter. I must also admit to a bit of bias in my selection as Wellham went on to a career as a teacher. Given my own background in the profession, that is an obvious plus and proves what I have always suspected; that teachers really do make great cricketers.
The middle-order features two all-time greats and a player who more than any other embodies a certain unobtrusive kind of Englishness. Walking out to bat at number three is the classical Pakistani stylist, Zaheer Abbas; the only Asian player to score over 100 first-class centuries, the maker of two test match double centuries against England in England- and a legend of Gloucestershire cricket. Captain, number four and arguably the only world-class fielder in our XI is Clive Lloyd, one of the towering figures of West Indian cricket; and it should not be forgotten, a great batter in his own right- combative, determined and just a thrilling player to watch in full flow. Imagine a Zaheer- Lloyd partnership on a sunny afternoon, as the bespectacled eleven carry all before them! Our number five, David Steele, is perhaps not quite worthy of being bracketed alongside Zaheer and Lloyd, but as the ‘bank clerk that went to war’, his glasses actually became part of the sporting persona of a quietly determined player, plucked from the wilds of Northamptonshire to battle against the seemingly irresistible forces of Lillee and Thomson. Steele was an unlikely hero and also an unassuming one; thus, almost guaranteeing that he would enter English cricketing folklore; 365 runs at an average of 60.83 earned him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in 1975. For what it’s worth, I have several thinly substantiated theories as to why we are so devoted to our cricketing underdogs in this country. The world wars created a powerful narrative of ordinary citizens ‘doing their bit’ against a mighty foe and Steele trying to repel the Australian fast bowlers in 1975 fits this powerful national story. Even more intangibly, I think that sitting uncomfortably alongside the bombast and braggadocio of a people who ( semi-) happily conquered and kept an empire for centuries, is a more laudable strand of Englishness which prizes modesty; and where the ego is hidden beneath many layers of politeness. To risk a historical and political analogy, there is thus a side to the English that is more Attleesque than Churchillian. The former feeds into our empathy for the cricketing underdog whilst the latter rarely seems to appear in an English cricket team these days, unless perhaps one of our all-rounders is trying to win the Ashes single handedly…
Eddie Barlow is probably the most obvious selection for an all rounder to bat at six and operate as a third seamer; but as I am a maverick, our all rounder will be the Surrey and England’s Percy Fender; surely the finest captain that England never had. Crucially, he wore glasses with great panache and elan whilst scoring his runs; most notably a century in 35 minutes against Northamptonshire in 1920. As a bowler, he had a varied box-of-tricks, including leg breaks and googlies; and against Middlesex in 1927, he took 6-1 in 11 balls! In ( yet another ) disastrous English tour to Australia in 1920-1, he was England’s most successful bowler with 12 wickets in the test matches at 34.16. Above all, he embodies the attacking, positive ethos that is the very essence of the bespectacled XI.
I must admit to having a lot of difficulty in finding a wicket-keeper for our XI. I have a vague memory of Paul Downton, England’s keeper when the Ashes were regained in 1985, occasionally wearing glasses; but I may be mistaken? What is certainly true is that very few wicket keepers in the history of the game seem to have worn glasses; probably because the position demands particularly keen eyesight and alert reflexes. Or maybe it is just that nobody ever spotted Alan Knott in a pair of reading glasses at Canterbury in 1975 or Farokh Engineer visiting the opticians in Manchester in 1969? If any readers have glasses-related anecdotes linked to wicket-keepers ( I know that this is becoming quite niche! ), please do let me know.In the end, I read that Paul Gibb, a wicket-keeper who played briefly for England either side of World War Two, wore glasses on occasions; and that was enough for me. He will bat at seven and do his best to shepherd what has the potential to be a truly shambolic tail. His test record of 581 runs ar 44.69 including 2 centuries against South Africa at Durban and Johannesburg respectively in the 1938-9 series, places him statistically in the company of Glilchrist and Pant in the modern age. After the end of his cricket career, he became a bus driver in Guildford.
What was the high point for the bespectacled cricketer? Some may argue for the era of Zaheer Abbas and Clive Lloyd in the mid 1970s when world-class batting and a pair of glasses seemed synonymous for a time but I would make a case for the Third Test at the Oval in 1990 between England and India. This was a time when our next selection, Narendra HIrwani, was enjoying his brief reign as India’s premier spinner. He never quite managed to recapture the glory of taking 16 West Indian wickets on debut at Madras but he nobly flew the flag for cricket’s greatest art until the baton was ready to be passed onto a certain Australian. I never saw Warne play but I did see Hirwani. Over thirty years later, almost the only memory I have of that day at the Oval is of Graham Gooch sweeping Hirwani- who was rocking a frankly legendary glasses and headband combo redolent of a young Bjorn Borg- for single after single on a dry August pitch. It was gritty Test cricket but not edge-of-the-seat stuff and by late afternoon the crowd was becoming beery and there was even some heretical talk amongst my family of leaving early to beat the crowds at Vauxhall. Even I, the devoted teenaged cricket fan, was sulking because Anil Kumble had been dropped in favour of the Delhi medium-pacer, Atul Wassan. I had thus been denied the unique opportunity of watching two bespectacled leg-spinners operating in tandem, surely a sight to gladden the hearts of all short-sighted, spin-bowling, cricket-loving youths of Indian heritage. Of course, little did I know that what I was witnessing in this series was the last hurrah of the cricketer in glasses; at least until Jack Leach and his little cleaning cloth revived this most noble of cricketing sub-cultures. Narendra Hirwani would soon fade from the scene, Anil Kumble would switch to contact lenses, leaving only Daniel Vettori to fly the flag for the bespectacled spinner as the Millennium approached. Incidentally, the fact that both Devon Malcolm and Eddie Hemmings played for England in this series, may mark out the England-India series of 1990 as that with the highest BBASPITC ( bespectacled bowlers at some point in their careers…) ratio of any series ever played, a statistic that seems to have eluded Wisden.
Partnering Hirwani in an all-Indian spin attack is slow left armer Dilip Doshi, who while not quite having the balletic grace of Bishan Bedi, was still undeniably an artist with the ball; and ensured that the golden age of Indian spin continued into the 1980s. Looking at some of the old footage, he really seems to have flighted the ball, a skill that has arguably become rather unfashionable in the modern game. He took 114 Test wickets at 30.71 and a batting average of 4.60 means that he will have to bat below Hirwani, whose mighty average of 5.40 qualifies him for the job of a bowling all-rounder at number eight in our XI ! Interestingly, Dilip’s son, Nayan, was also a slow left armer and enjoyed a successful county career with Surrey in particular.
Opening the bowling is a Yorksire and England stalwart, Bill Bowes, who certainly deserves to be better known. A great exponent of that most English of bowling traditions- indefatigable fast-medium seam- he took 1639 wickets for Yorkshire and 68 wickets for England, including Bradman bowled for 0 at Melbourne during the Bodyline series of 1932-3. Captured at Tobruk in 1942, he was a prisoner-of-war for three years during World War Two; but still had enough fire left for two more seasons of county cricket after the war. In retirement he was a perceptive writer on the game. His test batting average of 4.66 means that he can more than hold his own in what is fast becoming a team of number elevens.
Last man in, is Devon Malcolm, without doubt one of my favourite cricketers, and along with Paul Allott, one of the very few modern players who has dared to combine wearing spectacles with pace bowling. Let me at this point also make the case that our tailend quartet of Hirwani, Doshi, Bowes and Malcolm will be gloriously inept enough to challenge even the legendary Mullally-Tufnell-Giddins combination of 1999; one senses that with this particular XI, the end could come with great rapidity. However, in my mind’s eye I can’t help seeing Doshi bravely blocking; while at the other end, Devon tees off and smashes a hundred in twenty minutes. It would be glorious.
Anyway, Malcolm was first summoned by the England selectors from the spiritual home of neglected pace bowlers- Derbyshire- in 1989. One of my most joyful Oval memories is of a Devon Malcolm six but despite his gloriously optimistic- but only occasionally successful- hitting, he is of course in the side to bowl and to bowl seriously quickly, in a pair of thick Clark Kent-style glasses. I first saw him open the bowling for England on his debut against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1989. At first glance, he lacked the stealthy grace of a Holding, a Donald or a Steyn. Instead, he rumbled in laboriously- but with purpose- from near the boundary rope, all jutting elbows and pumping knees. The end product on this particular day was the cricket ball being propelled at high velocity towards Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor; but unfortunately, to no great effect. Malcolm ended up with figures of 1-166 for the innings. I learned many important lessons on 10th August 1989, as the English bowlers toiled for an entire day without taking a wicket. It made for grim viewing, especially in the final session as all hope disappeared; but life and cricket don’t always go your way and sometimes you just have to make the best of things. And on a positive note, the English bowlers did beat the bat occasionally and Angus Fraser managed to bowl 18 maidens, so it wasn’t all bad.
And better days lay ahead, especially for Devon Malcolm. Sometimes, our ( cricketing ) lives can have true turning points and on 26th February 1990, still at the very start of his international career, a rocket-propelled throw from Malcolm in the deep ran out Gordon Greenidge for 32. Beginning to gain in confidence, Malcolm soon had Viv Richards lbw and he went on to take 5 wickets in the match and 19 wickets in the series; and England had a proper fast bowler at last. Malcolm’s bowling in the early 1990s was inspirational. He went on to have a good international career, taking 128 Test wickets and providing England’s attack with a much-needed cutting edge and always challenging the opposition’s best batsmen. What more need be said of his 9-57, which to my lasting regret I did not listen to on the radio or see on TV? I was spending the summer with Indian relatives in the Punjab; and it was only via a careful perusal of a day-old copy of the Chandigarh Tribune, that I learned of Malcolm’s exploits. Without a mobile phone and with the internet in its infancy, in terms of mass communication it may as well have been August 1894 rather than August 1994! And yet trying to make sense of the scorecard and to picture Malcolm’s furious spell in my mind’s eye, somehow made it all the more wondrous and other-worldly. He must have been bowling rockets! But all the same, I was sorry to have missed his greatest day. Arguably, there would have been more great days if he had been treated with greater tact and sensitivity. In and out of the side, and increasingly undervalued after the tour of South Africa in 1995-6, the end came at the Oval in 1997, once again against Australia. As on his debut back in 1989, he took only one wicket. He bowled fourteen overs in the match and he also recorded a pair; cricket can be a cruel game.
So, there you have it, an XI for the ages! If I can risk ending what has been a rather frivolous blog with a semi-serious point, what all the players in our XI prove is that you don’t always have to be tall, strong or even have particularly good vision in order to be a great cricketer. It is one of the glories of cricket that intelligence, resilience and guile are as important as sheer athleticism, in shaping a great cricketer’s career. Brawn on its own is never enough. Nevertheless, as T20- exerts ever more of a hold, this is perhaps beginning to change. However, if cricket ever stops being a game for people of all shapes, sizes and physical attributes, it would have lost one of the things that makes it special; and this myopic, undeniably unfit 46 year old will finally lose all hope of gaining a central contract…
If you have any suggestions about glasses-wearing cricketers that I have missed or omitted please do get in touch.
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