Sir Alec, a gentle knight of sound common sense (A tribute)

By Trevor Chesterfield | April 07, 2010

Lord Kitchener sings "Alec Bedser Calypso."

When it was known that Len Hutton – ‘Our Len’ to the cognoscenti devoted to Yorkshire glory – had been invalided back to England and was not going to be in New Zealand with Walter Hammond’s side of 1946/47 for that first obligatory flag waving Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) tour of the shaky isles post World War II, I was so upset they had to bribe me to go and watch the game in Wellington.

It was my Uncle Cliff, who fought in World War II and knew Alec Bedser from those years, who felt meeting him would suffice for any twelve year-old denied the privilege and honour of meeting his hero. Just as one Hutton photo adorned my bedroom wall at home, another did likewise the locker at school; both lifted from the local newspaper, displaying the precision of an immaculate cover drive. The caption it is recalled said an action shot (sent by wire) from Sydney.

Recalling that photo years later on seeing it again in a book on batting styles and stylists, the same wire photo was reproduced with the caption repeating it was taken in Sydney when in fact, part of the background shows it was at Adelaide Oval when scoring 94 in his first innings. The point is that in those days, as I later discovered, the cost of a wire photo was heavy and the art department forgot to ‘touch up’ (‘airbrush’ in today’s terminology) the picture when it was repeated weeks later explaining why Hutton was returning to England.

Having cricket as a passion in a country where rugby rules with the same tyrannical indifference to soccer in England, although for this I blame the MCC for their arrogance and elitism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when they could have made it more open to all (if you check law one and how it is written is explains what I mean), meeting any cricketer of stature was a moment to be treasured.

First years of the post-war era in New Zealand with its rationing also meant watching foreign fast bowlers. In 1946 there were Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, a terrifying duo devastating New Zealand on a pitch that was so juicy, water seeped over the instep of a batsman’s boot. Tricky all right.

Being introduced to Bedser though, was an awesome moment, a giant with massive hands who when he held it loving gave the big red ball the appearance of being no larger than a golf ball: a bullying troll who blocked the bridge in the Three Billy Goats Gruff story and terrorised a young naïve mind.

As the uncle kindly explained my unhappiness at the absence of Hutton, the Surrey man beamed and patted my head. I barely came up to his waist. Bedser later gave me a signed photo; not one of those facsimiles but a genuine one. It partly mollified my distress over the absence of Hutton.

Newsreel shots inspired imagery of bravery from trench-type battles against the ‘bayonet charges’ led by Lindwall, Miller and other bronzed battle-hardened troops. They were of Hutton waging a lone Horatio role confirmed what I had been reading since I could remember: here was hero number one. Forget the innings of 364, the weekly newsreel scenes from across the Tasman showed reality: not the romantic views of Neville Cardus-style prose.

Bedser though cut a different figure. Just as prosaic as Hutton was in his language when talking cricket, but also had a wonderful memory as I was to discover more than once. He had made a promise and to a twelve year-old, such are sacrosanct. It was that he would have Hutton write me a letter. In early May postage arrived from England, and on sheet of paper with Yorkshire County Cricket Club crest, was a letter from ‘Our Len’ expressing his disappointment at not being able to tour New Zealand on that occasion but hoped to do so next tour. More importantly, Bedser had kept his promise.

In 1950-51, with my uncle and grandfather as part of the entourage, we met Bedser again and the introduction was made with Hutton. It was all so brief, but satisfying. Just as were those hours spent during the nights and early mornings listening to Rex Aston, John Arlott, EW Swanton and others of the BBC’s Test Match Special team of that 1953 Coronation series and the fizzing, crackling shortwave commentaries. Hearing how Bedser was decimating the Aussies was like imagining the great Barbirolli conducting a Vaughn Williams or Elgar composition at the Prom concerts; full of melody and fun as the ancient foe were made to suffer for a change.

Bedser’s 14 wickets in that Trent Bridge Test was as delightful as are the themes of The Wasps incidental music Vaughan Williams conjured; or the fortune telling opening bars of Elgar’s cello concerto. There was something so very sublime in his bowling and style as well as ability to wreck partnerships throughout his career. After all, anyone who dismissed Don Bradman more times than anyone else had to be special and his perfected leg-cutter a delivery as spiteful as a wasp’s sting, even on a balmy day such was its bite off the pitch. The limited-overs game would be batting carnage without it in a bowler’s artillery.

Do not forget, the New Zealander’s credo: ‘We support New Zealand any anyone who plays Australia’; so why not support Bedser?

‘Bowling was never hard work,’ he once explained with that famed genial smile. ‘It was case of examining the batsman’s defence and figuring a strategy to get his wicket and setting him up for the dismissal. You might work at it for an hour, but you knew how at some stage there was a chance.’

In 1959, making my way to report on my first county game at The Oval, I went into the bookshop to see what they had that was new worth buying. I was in the middle of this engrossing exercise when a big hand was clamped on my shoulder and words, ‘Ay lad, how’s the uncle?’ Turning and looking at him and the smile was amazing. He had to leave as the game was soon to start and it wouldn’t do for him to be missing when it did. But he had seen me walking into the bookstall and couldn’t believe it and came to check.

Many months later, during an interview in 1961, he told of how he had experimented with not only the leg cutter, but how to get an lbw around the wicket. He had an umpire stand next to him and bowled at a sheet of white paper covering the stumps. Such was his precision, he hit the stumps ten times out of twelve during what was part of an on-going experiment, and the Welshman Dai Davies, who was the umpire, wrote a report on it. From that, it is understood, although never confirmed, the plan to add a fourth stump and widen the wicket was dropped.

Great? Well, war and illness robbed him of becoming the first bowler to take 300 Test wickets; but he would bowl himself to fitness and deliver more overs in a season than most do nowadays in five years. A smooth action with style and grace and dignity. It was why going to The Oval in those last two years of his career left memories to treasure.

A second last meeting in March 1989 in South Africa, when friend Jackie McGlew took me across to speak to him, was interesting. The big hand came out and the smile with it, as he said to, McGlew, ‘His uncle and I were in the war together.’

Uncle Cliff had died in 1979, an old war wound finally incapacitating him and as he could no longer really walk, it was possibly as well. But that first meeting with Sir Alec is still an etched moment to treasure as at the going down of the sun, we shall remember him.

©: Copyright – Trevor Chesterfield.
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