A friend, a particularly mordant romantic, reckons the saddest thing about first-class cricket’s frantic attempts to ‘get with it’ — and appeal to everybody except those who love it dearly already — is that each team’s scorer is now ordered by Lord’s to use computer laptops to notch the runs and wickets. Leisurely, lovingly inking-into the summer’s book the ones and twos, the dots and dashes, the w’s, the c’s and b’s, the lb’s and st’s are all now strictly banned by St John’s Wood decree. Not only that; this summer, by all accounts, is the first in which not one of the 18 county sides employs a scorer who was once a player himself. All press-button boffins now.
Just before Christmas the sudden death of good Mike Smith signalled the end of the touching and timeless ritual of the stalwart county pro who soldiers on for the love of the cause by notching every run, wicket and leg-bye in the county’s almost sacred scorebook. Between 1959 and 1980 Mike’s batsmanship fashioned close to 20,000 trim and tidy runs for Middlesex. He then extended his constancy by logging for them, even more neatly, many hundreds of thousands more in the incontrovertible book. Cosily, Middlesex tradition nurtured this craft-versed retirement perk and lineage. Inking-in the county’s book, home and away, meant membership of a noble dynasty. Mike had followed such as Patsy Hendren, one-time cheerily beloved welterweight champion of those very same creases, who’d always fill his fountain-pen afresh each happy morning ‘just to be on the safe side, m’boy’. Then long, lugubrious jokesmith Jim Sims whose right hand would all the time be flickeringly a’twitch and a’quiver as, involuntarily, his fingers reprised the disguised top-spinner which for so many summers down there had baffled his visiting victims. Next, nice Harry Sharp, groundstaff mentor to Botham and sage confidant of Brearley — Surrey, too, put its pre-eminent pensioners straight into the Oval scorebox — and four-square true-great Strudwick would lour over the book as he had done over the bails for all those Kennington decades, then dainty Sandham, as generously deferential to one and all as he had been, year after year, to Hobbs.
Only a generation ago every old-hand accountant of county scorebox eyries had themselves once been fabled and flannelled autograph-signing gods out there on the grass. All gone now. There was Yorkie Ted Lester, genial pixie and deadly raindays’ rival at bridge to Illy and Close; Kent’s kindly Claude Lewis, left-arm spin, who’d taken tremulous Tonbridge schoolboy Colin Cowdrey on the train to his first 2nd XI match at Norwich in 1951 and belovedly uncled him ever after; jovial tale-teller and conjuror of Northampton Jack Mercer; Edgbaston’s peppery Charlie Grove, once ‘ferocious’ military-medium, who could explosively, humiliatingly demolish a pressman’s query with a disdainful curl of an eyebrow; or my own childhood’s unruffled confessor, Gloucester’s Bernie Bloodworth, reserve county keeper and occasional spin bowler who, as well as scoring and tending the Bristol wicket was also swooningly proud to be Walter Hammond’s personal cricketing valet. After marking the creases Bernie would saunter up to his box, open the book, unscrew his fountain-pen and nod to the umps to begin: he was ready. Bernie’s idea of groundsmanship was simply to roll sand into the pitch. All through the 1950s Test tyros Milton and Graveney would complain that it made decent batting impossible. Bernie’s withering reply never varied: ‘Wally could bat on it.’