Although it was a miracle that he survived until a few weeks before his 95th birthday, the death of John Woodcock, the unrivalled cricket correspondent of the Times from 1954 to 1988, has left an enormous hole in many people’s lives, not least my own. I first met Wooders, as he was known to one and all, at a party at the old Hyde Park hotel in Knightsbridge in May 1962. Two days later as a result of our conversation, I found myself at the Bat and Ball ground in Gravesend on behalf of the Times, without ever before having written a word in anger, trying to put together 500 words about the first day of Kent’s game with Somerset. I had been working in the City and hating it. I told Wooders I wanted to write about cricket and at once he told me with a twinkle that he was not sure he would advise it. We kept talking and the next evening when I returned from the City, I found a telegram asking me to ring him. One of the Times cricket writers was ill and they needed someone to go to Gravesend for the next two days. What about it? I jumped at the chance, drove, there and then, to the Times offices in Printing House Square, picked up my first press ticket, rang my City office the next morning and told them I was ill, and set off for Gravesend. Amazingly they printed almost every word I wrote. And this was how it all began and it was thanks to Wooders.
He was aptly christened the Sage of Longparish by Alan Gibson, himself an eminent cricket writer and broadcaster. But there was so much more to Woodcock than just cricket. He was a great countryman, a most able fisherman, utterly charming, with a wonderful sense of humour, always interesting and, above all, he hated humbug.
In 1976, he and I decided we were going to drive from London to Bombay for Tony Greig’s England tour of India. There were five of us in two cars, one of which was a 1921 Rolls-Royce. The journey took us 46 days and nights and it embraced adventure, fun, laughter and fear. The driving in some parts of Asia was hairy in the extreme and the Khyber Pass bristled with weaponry — all of it friendly as it turned out. And at every border crossing it was Wooders’s charm which made the difference.
I am a great collector of Norfolk cricketing memorabilia and, happily, I have just come by an unusually evocative team photograph of Warwick Armstrong’s Australians when they played at Old Buckenham near Attleborough in 1921. Old Buckenham Hall and the surrounding land was bought before the first world war by Lionel Robinson, a rich Australian businessman, one of whose aims was to buy social acceptance through his cricket ground. He employed Archie MacLaren, the old England captain, as his cricket manager and although the war severely interfered with his plans, six first-class matches were played at Old Buckenham before Robinson died in 1922. Jack Hobbs made 85 in the 1921 game in what he always felt was one of the best innings he ever played.
Norfolk was also home to the Edrich family who lived, farmed and played cricket around the village of South Walsham. After the last war, they would bring a team most years to play Norfolk at the old county ground of Lakenham. The ground and its lovely thatched pavilion have sadly fallen victim to property developers. Going through old papers I came across a scorecard from the 1955 game. In the first innings, W.J. ‘Bill’ Edrich, Denis Compton’s prolific partner for Middlesex, made 124 out of 222/9. His three brothers were all county cricketers. What an extraordinary family they were.
While living in the past like this, I have also been girding my loins for the game’s latest incarnation which has burst upon us this week: The Hundred. It is, in effect, a souped up version of T20 cricket designed as yet another financial palliative in an already overcrowded marketplace. It is so nearly T20 that, in order to sell it, the inventors have rewritten some of the language and made it more politically correct. The two big questions are: will these two instant forms of the game be able to prosper alongside each other? Will The Hundred attract armies of football supporters and persuade them to change their colours? After recent events at Wembley, I rather hope not. But I wish The Hundred luck, for the game is always short of money.
Incidently, last week, a few miles from South Walsham at the Bure River Cottage restaurant in Horning, I had the best grilled lobster I’ve ever eaten.