The sheer unlikeliness of CB Fry

‘His party trick was to jump backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing position’. Jon Hotten salutes the incomparable sporting Renaissance man, CB Fry…

John Arlott called him ‘the most variously gifted Englishman of any age,’ and Arlott, conjuring his musty magic from an old typewriter set next a glass of something good and red, was probably right. The sheer unlikeliness of CB Fry continues to astonish, more than half a century after his death.

Had he confined himself to the cricket field, his 30,000 first class runs, made from 1892 to 1921, would still have secured his legend. On the bombshell pitches of the Victorian era, Fry averaged 50.22, a mark that today would make him a high-class player but back then, as the modern game was beginning to appear, made him a genius. Only his great friend Ranjitsinhji averaged more, and he was a Prince. England did not lose under Fry’s captaincy, and the six consecutive first class hundreds that he hit in 1901 has never been surpassed – The Don and Mike Proctor have equalled it, but it is a feat of batsmanship that has eluded everyone else from Boycott to Tendulkar.

Yet cricket was a sidebar to the rest of his life, which reads as if it was invented by Monty Python. He was a golden god long before the phrase was thought of, and in his golden youth he was known not just by his initials, which were as recognisable as WG’s, but as ‘Charles III’ (after a cartoon of him that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1894), ‘Lord Oxford’ and simply ‘Almighty’. He was physically beautiful enough to be described as ‘the handsomest man in England’ and academically gifted too – his ‘gentleman’s fourth’ in Classics from Wadham College Oxford came only after his first mental breakdown. And then there was everything else: He equalled the world long jump record, appeared in the 1902 FA Cup Final, played rugby for the Barbarians, stood as an MP, became an advisor to the League of Nations (where he may or may not have been offered the throne of Albania), launched and edited two magazines, invented the concept of the sporting star’s newspaper column, was the fifth person to appear on This Is Your Life (when his guests included Jack Hobbs and SF Barnes), taught at Charterhouse and became a captain in the navy reserve.

His party trick was to jump backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing position.

He engaged in a bizarre marriage, probably for money, to a terrifying woman named Beatrice who was 10 years older than him and who’d had a lover called Charles Hoare since the age of 15. Mental illness shadowed his limitless gifts. He first endured it at university, but the real horrors descended later in life, when he fell in thrall to Hitler. He tried to persuade von Ribbontrop that Germany would produce ‘a blond Grace’ should the Reich take up cricket, and developed an irrational fear of Indians despite his lifelong friendship with Ranji. He dressed eccentrically, suffered paranoid episodes and was once found running naked on Brighton beach.

It was an epic life with a great sad sweep to it. A long time ago, my dad and I found a copy of Ranjitsinhji’s Jubilee Book Of Cricket in a junk shop. It’s a beautiful thing, one of those childhood objects that, when I pick it up, immediately transports me. It was only a few years back that I discovered that Fry probably wrote most of it. CB seems almost as distant as that book now. Life and sport have become atomised, and you just can’t do everything any more.

Fry died in Hampstead in 1956. In his obituary, Neville Cardus had these last words:

‘Fry must be counted among the most fully developed and representative Englishmen of his period; and the question arises whether, had fortune allowed him to concentrate on the things of the mind, not distracted by the lure of cricket, a lure intensified by his increasing mastery over the game, he would not have reached a high altitude in politics or critical literature. But he belonged – and it was his glory – to an age not obsessed by specialism; he was one of the last of the English tradition of the amateur, the connoisseur, and, in the most delightful sense of the word, the dilettante.’

Jon is the author of Muscle and The Years of the Locust and also has a fine cricket blog called The Old Batsman.

World Cup Preview

Famous former foopball player Jurgen Klinsmann

Famous former foopball player Jurgen Klinsmann

Word Cup fever has reached The Dabbler! Here’s Frank’s complete guide to the foopball tournament…

Next week sees the beginning of the 2014 World Cup foopball tournament, What this consists of, for the uninitiated, is a few weeks during which men in shorts run around grassy fields, huffing and puffing and occasionally falling over. The focus of their attention is a ball – the foopball – which is about the size of a pig’s head. There are various arcane rules governing their chasing around of the ball, but you do not really need to know them to enjoy the spectacle.

The grassy field is known as a pitch. It has several lines drawn on it with whitewash. These are applied by a chap known as the groundsman, but he is nowhere to be seen while the men are running around. At least, he is not readily identifiable. He may well be among the teeming thousands of spectators, but then again he is just as likely to be sat in his potting shed puffing on a rollup and smearing grease on to his whitewash-applicator, readying it for the next application of whitewash to the grass. He is, in a sense, the unsung hero of the tournament, for without his whitewash application skills, without the markings on the grass, the men running around in pursuit of the foopball would run around in a completely haphazard fashion. Some of them are already haphazard enough, but at least with the whitewashed lines they are given some idea of where they are.

In the potting shed, while smoking a gasper and greasing his whitewashing contraption, the groundsman will probably be listening to a transistor radio. He will have it tuned in to a station broadcasting what is called a “commentary” on the foopball match. This is where a man among the teeming thousands of spectators, in a special box, and armed with a microphone, babbles his observations of what is happening on the pitch. He will say things like: “Here we are in the field of dreams, surrounded by fields of cows” and “For a moment there, he looked like a baby gazelle who’d just plopped out of the womb”. Such aperçus can actually be more entertaining than the foopball game itself, long stretches of which are often pointless and enervating.

If you find your mind wandering and do not have a transistor radio, you can pass the time by counting the persons on the pitch. Generally speaking, there ought to be twenty-one people running around, two standing at either end looking a bit disconsolate, and a further two running up and down the whitewashed lines on either side. Those latter two have whistles and flags. One of the men on the pitch also has a whistle, but no flag. Instead, he carries a couple of cards in his breast pocket. Every now and again he will take one of the cards and brandish it in the air, as if it were some kind of talisman of great import. He will always blow his whistle shortly beforehand. In addition to these… er, let me add the numbers quickly… these twenty-five persons, there is a twenty-sixth, a shadowy figure rarely if ever seen, known as “the fourth official”. You don’t need to worry your little pointy head about him.

Another thing you can do to pass the time is to keep a beady eye on the men in shorts who are nowhere near the foopball. They will occupy themselves in various ways, chief among them being standing with their hands on their hips, kneeling to retie their bootlaces, spitting, and darting about in brief little runs in every direction to no apparent purpose. Sometimes they might punch each other.

If, like Charles Babbage, you are neurasthenically sensitive to noise, you should be warned that the “soundtrack” to a foopball match, apart from dirge-like singing from the teeming thousands of spectators, is the blaring of hooters and klaxons. This blaring appears to be entirely gratuitous, a din for din’s sake. In olden times, before the hooter, spectators liked to hold aloft wooden rattles. They made less of a din, and were only ever seen or heard at foopball matches, unlike the hooter and klaxon which can be deployed in various other contexts. Nobody is quite sure what became of the common wooden rattle, not even the groundsman, who in his time probably collected a fair number of discarded ones from the grounds. One assumes they must have been discarded, otherwise they would still be being rattled, by spectators, in place of the hooting of hooters and the blaring of klaxons.

Certain more unruly spectators like to set off burning flares, as if they were lost at sea. You cannot play foopball in the sea. The nearest thing to it is water polo, and even this is more likely to be played in indoor pools rather than in the vast and pitiless ocean. But whitewash cannot be applied, in straight lines, to water, whether fresh or salt, pool or sea, so there is no role for the groundsman. That is why you will not find him listening, in his potting shed, on his transistor radio, to the commentaries babbled by spectators in special boxes with microphones at water polo matches. He has no personal investment in water polo, whereas with foopball he knows that in every moment of the game his whitewashed lines have significance. His work has heft.

Throughout the tournament you would be advised to keep a tally of the results. I realise I have not explained the scoring system, but that is something else you need not fret about, as there are big scoreboards next to the pitches which display numbers on them. At the end of each match you can copy the numbers into your World Cup 2014 Foopball Tournament Tally Ledger. One of these will almost certainly fall out of your daily newspaper before next week.


By Aerostat to Hooting Yard: A Frank Key Reader is available to buy for Kindle from Amazon now.

David Ivon Gower – Gifted Dilettante, or English Great?


With his lazy, effortless elegance, few would dispute that David Gower was the most stylish batsman English cricket has produced. But does he count as a great?…

In a recent post on my blog The Old Batsman, I argued that the last indisputably great batsmen that England had managed to produce were Graham Gooch (debut 1975) and Geoff Boycott (debut 1964).

My reasoning went as follows:

Who was the last great batsman that England produced? The simple answer would be Kevin Pietersen, except that England didn’t produce him. So if not KP, then who? Ian Bell has a technique comparable to Virat Kohli or AB de Villiers, but not that extra gear that gives them such edge, such life. Michael Vaughan was a classicist too, and touched the heights until his knee gave way and the captaincy came along. Alastair Cook’s volume of runs will brook little argument once his Test career is complete, and yet his batting doesn’t reach across formats.

England produced great teams under Fletcher and Flower, but, Pietersen aside, there was no dominant player in the way that Australia had Ponting, India Sachin, South Africa Kallis, West Indies Lara, Pakistan Inzamam and so on. The fractured 90s gave us men of grit cast against overwhelming odds: Atherton, Stewart and Thorpe played great innings but it’s hard to set them amongst the gods.

For all of their faith and investment, England may have to go back to Graham Gooch and to Geoff Boycott to find batsmen of unequivocal, home-grown greatness.

There were some tremendous tweets and comments in response and one name came up repeatedly: that of David Ivon Gower.

To digress briefly, the point of a blog (to me at least) is that it’s written quickly, a sort of instant repository for a passing thought. Admittedly, the lack of research is a good get-out for whatever glaring omissions come along but when I wrote the post in question I’d thought of Gower, and had an undeniable flicker as I went to type his name alongside those of Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch – and then didn’t.

I’ve had to question why. Statistically, Gower’s Test match average of 44.25 sits perfectly between those of Gooch and Boycott, as does his total of  8,231 runs. Many England fans, perhaps a majority, would pick Gower ahead of both in a heartbeat, and it’s easy to understand that. His languid, trippy batting was hardly difficult to love.

Gower’s Test career (1978-1992) was the first that I saw from start to end. I can clearly recall watching his first delivery, a pirouette pull for four from Liaqat Ali, a seamer who bowled left-arm over. It remains the one thing anyone remembers Liaqat for: from the beginning Gower was sprinkling stardust from his hem.

His batting lives in the memory as something shimmering and ephemeral. He used a wafer of a bat, the Gray-Nicolls GN400, a four-scoop version of the legendary GN100, and he hardly seemed to swing it, yet the ball whispered to the boundary. Watching him live, his pick-up and follow-through both felt late: the gods had given him time, and he understood how to use it. He was a dream.

This drives at the heart of the arguments about him. I’ve always been fascinated by the role that aesthetics play in sport. Who can objectively know whether Gower found the game easier than Boycott? It’s like trying to discover whether we all see colours the same. What’s possible to perceive is that Gower made it appear easier. By physiological fluke, through the notions of art and beauty, he looked better.

Once this was established a whole series of prejudices begin to apply. Gower’s public persona as the gifted dilettante was set. Like Kevin Pietersen, he didn’t seem overly bothered by getting out. Like generations of gentry, he appeared to regard cricket as a diverting way to pass the time, rather than an all-consuming obsession. Last in the nets and first out, that was David.

His county career pales when compared to Boycott’s or Gooch’s. He was apparently dropped from his school rugby team for ‘lack of effort’. In his long-standing role as a TV presenter, he conveys the impression that the gig is another extension of an enviable lifestyle. As with his batting, charm is persuasive.

And yet… You don’t score all of those runs without wanting to. No-one goes 119 Test innings without a duck by not being switched on from ball one.

Gower faced some fearsome attacks. His average and hundred count against Australia compares well with Boycott and Gooch, but against West Indies he made just one century and averaged 32, compared to Gooch’s 44.83 and five hundreds, and Boycott’s 45.93 and five tons. They both opened, too. It’s here, against the best of all, that perhaps Gower falls short.

What is greatness anyway? It’s easy to grasp when a player is considerably superior in terms of stats and longevity and success, less so when they play for a weaker side or burn bright and short. Ultimately, Gower’s batting spread joy and grew a love for the game in those who watched, and that is an enduring legacy.

It’s the best answer I’ve got, too…

Jon is the author of The Years of the Locust and Muscle, and is also the proprietor of the web’s finest cricket blog.

Ghost grounds


Jon Hotten on memory, dreams and cricket pitches…

It’s hard to write about a feeling as elusive as this one, yet it’s that elusiveness that makes it both rare and worthwhile. It happened the other day, for the first time in a couple of years. I was driving through a town somewhere when the road became familiar in a way that might have been real or imagined. On one side was a high wooden fence with another chain-linked one behind it, reaching even higher. Ivy was growing up through its gaps. The traffic slowed, caught by a set of pedestrian lights just ahead. Through a couple of fence panels that had warped and come apart from one another I caught sight of a blade-width of green field and a fragment of a two-story pavilion, then, in the next gap, a section of scoreboard.

It felt right away like I had played there. I could even recall a fragment of the game, fielding second while their opening bat, a big lad with black hair and a Gray-Nicolls, started belting the bowling indiscriminately over mid-on and midwicket, not slogging exactly but swinging, the ball falling just out of reach of the fielders who, in true club style, were being carefully positioned to stop the delivery just gone. I don’t remember much more: he hit quite a few, but got out eventually. They probably won. What really came back was the cast of the ground – its shape, its size – and the weather, which was warm but overcast, the sky full of darkening summer clouds with no wind to move them.

The traffic eased, and the ground was gone. There was an old painted sign with the name of the club on it, but I couldn’t quite read it in the rear-view mirror. It probably wouldn’t have helped. The feeling was almost dream-like in the way it refused to become clearer or more solid in the memory. It certainly happened, but did it happen there?

I’ve played a lot of cricket in a lot of places, and lots of it was a long time ago now. Where do they go, those games and those places… If I had to sit down with a piece of paper, I’m not sure how many I’d remember. It seems to take something more than just effort to bring them back; it needs a sense memory or a chance encounter that trips some kind of synapse. It’s the odd and ethereal familiarity that you have been somewhere before.

Sometimes I dream about playing on unknown grounds too, so perhaps a place occasionally makes something imaginary seem slightly more real.

It’s a strange sensation, and it’s not one that needs a definite answer even if that answer existed. These are the ghost grounds of half-remembered games, and it’s good when they appear.

Jon is the author of The Years of the Locust and Muscle, and is also the proprietor of the web’s finest cricket blog.

The Spinner’s Web


Amongst the most shocking moments of England’s shocking Ashes series this winter was the sudden mid-tour retirement of Graeme Swann, one of the country’s greatest ever spin bowlers. Here, Jon Hotten examines the mysteries of the spinner’s art, and what Swanny leaves behind…

Decades ago on a Saturday afternoon in winter at Alf Gover’s cricket school, a kid came to bowl in one of the nets. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15; he looked younger than that. To right handers, he came left arm around the wicket, which at Alf’s was no mean feat in itself because the run ups weren’t exactly what you’d call extensive.

He was a wrist spinner. His stock ball turned into the right-hander, and it turned miles. With the angle he was creating and the loop, balls pitching outside off would have cleared leg stump. He dropped a lot of deliveries short, and he got hit hard and often but every now and again he bowled something completely unplayable, a ball that dipped alarmingly and then ripped upwards off the seam and through the gate or onto the gloves.

For the next few years, I half-expected to see him debuting for a county, or at least hear about him. He had something remarkable. Perhaps he didn’t make it through the most important stage for a kid like him, when he’d get slogged everywhere by bigger, older players and he’d need a captain and a coach who could tell him how to handle it.

The reason I remember him is because spin bowling, unlike pace or swing, has the properties to be unique. The very best spinners can’t be directly compared to one another; it is the loosest of generic terms. Warne, Murali, Ajmal, Harbhajan, Saqlain, Afridi, Kumble, McGill… they can be bracketed only in the broadest sense. When one comes along, they shift the imaginative framework of the game.

Graeme Swann emerged when conventional off-spin was consigned to the dustbin of history, sent there by the mystery of the Doosra; the twist imparted on its traditions by Murali’s mad-ass wrist; by flat pitches and giant bats. In his way, Swann reinterpreted a dying thing. From the new age he took revs, imparting them in huge number on every ball except his slider. And from the ages he brought back the off-spinner’s classic line, that drew the drive and opened the gate. Around the wicket to the left-hander he bowled at the stumps, and as soon as DRS began to show that he was almost always hitting them, old-style off-spin was back in the big time.

The magic of spin is in its distorting effect. The spinner has nothing to defend himself except the intrinsic deceit of what he does. Everything rests on the casting of doubt. When someone does it well it seems obvious, like a magician revealing the inner mechanisms of a trick, and yet they must have imagined it first.

Graeme Swann brought off-spin back from somewhere. It has had a distorting effect on England’s thinking. His ability to rip revs onto the ball has led the spin department at Loughborough to center their development pathways on bowlers who can get above a certain number. They may be right too – another Swann would be welcome anytime.

Spin, though, resists rigid thinking. It’s about imagination. Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine, for example, rely on moving the ball by the width of the bat just as Warne and Murali spun it across the crease. The next great spinner may do something else entirely. He might be a left arm wrist merchant, or he could be the new Jack Iverson. The one thing he’s not likely to do is come up a pathway and knock on the door.

Swann’s legacy will be the kid who has sat at home and watched the ball drift and dip and turn and has figured out a way to do something like it themselves. It’s why all of the innovation in spin has come from outside of coaching centres, from someone who’s stared down those 22 yards and let their imagination rip.

Dabbler Diary – Janus Face

Happy New Year!” we say to one another, but do we say it in optimistic expectation or in fearful hopes: beseeching Fate that 2014 is not the year when one’s ordained calamity strikes? A bit of both, but increasingly the latter as we accumulate more new years, I suppose. We must doublethink and be Janus-faced about this and many other things; anyway we don’t have much choice in the matter, 2014 is here and already churning away. New Year’s Eves were fun for me around the turn of the millennium, with added spice in December 1999 because we all thought the Y2K bug might destroy civilisation. Boy, what a letdown that was, but it taught me a lot about humankind’s capacity for prognostication, particularly of the millennial kind. I prognosticate that in 2014 many unplanned events will occur, some of them with notable consequences and some without. Happy New Year!


We have a leaky roof so for the Christmas period our house has been adorned with festive scaffolding. It took us the best part of a year to find someone who was actually prepared to do both quote for and then turn up to do the job, and what we eventually found was John. The salient facts about John are: (1) he grew up amongst working-class white mining folk in what is now Zambia but was then Northern Rhodesia, (2) he has done every kind of building and construction work it is possible to do, (3) he is able to talk at quite some length about points (1) and (2), and also about the technical elements of fixing our roof (there being a staggering quantity of these. Despite it being mid-terrace and therefore very small there are apparently all sorts of coping stones and something-something-ridges and whatnots up there), and (4) he looks really old, moves like someone who ought to have been long retired from manual labour by now, and has an enormous white beard. Every time I watch him clamber painstakingly up the ladder I feel a wrinkle of concern creep o’er my brow. Should be really be on top of a roof at his age? It wouldn’t be very nice for some child to come skipping along the pavement on Christmas Eve, full of the joys of the season, only to trip over the splattered and bloody corpse of Santa, now would it?


I had to chuckle when I read Nick Cohen venting about the ‘racketeers’ of Mumsnet, who invited him to do an unpaid broadcast.

A finer example of a man pissing in the wind would be hard to find. Racketeers? To put it in the simplest economic terms, Nick has greatly overestimated the Ricardian rent value to the owners of Mumsnet of his eloquent opining ( i.e. how much more valuable an hour of Nick’s eloquent opining is than an hour of opining by the best available ‘marginal’ or free opiner) – that value being precisely zero, which is the offer they fairly and openly made to him.

In wider terms, Nick seems to think that Mumsnet had a strategy to gain large audiences by somehow tricking contributors into supplying free content. But the truth is bottom-up, not top-down: the internet has just allowed curious niche entities like Mumsnet (and, to a much lesser degree, The Dabbler) to gain large audiences even though they have no money to spend on content, by giving a platform to those who either can’t sell their work or who want to write more than just what they can sell. (Those audiences, I can tell you, do not translate into cash.)

But you know all that. An interesting question here is what the future holds for people of Nick’s profession – that is, people who express moral outrage in return for money – in the face of competition from people prepared to express moral outrage for free. Nick is pessimistic, but in fact, I think the future is quite bright. Twitter and blogs have provided an opportunity for the best pundits to cement reputations, find their natural audiences and gain large personal followings, and to be valued in themselves rather than being, essentially, salaried commentjockeys paid to fill the pages between the tittle-tattle in the front and the stuff in the back that used to actually sell newspapers (i.e. the horseracing, the crossword, the horoscopes and the telly). This new-found status might or might not lead to financial rewards – that will probably depend on the individuals being clever about using their platforms to flog books and talks to their online constituencies – but anyway, presumably nobody ever went into the moral outrage profession purely because they want money, even if that’s where they end up.


On Christmas Eve I was in the girls’ bedroom, trying to convince E that the world would be a more felicific place if only she would submit to her afternoon nap, when C came scuttling up the stairs to say that she had posted her letter to Father Christmas ‘up the chimbley’. ‘Ah, well done’, I said, carefully. ‘Can you show me exactly where you put the letter, just so I can make sure he’ll get it?’

After they’d gone to bed it took poor Mrs Brit an age of fiddling with a pair of extra-long barbecue tongs to fish it out from behind the electric fire.


Just before Christmas I was sitting at the hospital bedside of a dear friend, jabbering away, when we were approached by a sizzling Latina with dark eyes and cascading brunette curls and an outrageous accent. She reminded me of Sofia Vergara’s Colombian trophy wife character in the US sitcom Modern Family (Google her if you dare). So warm and tactile was this lady’s greeting that for a brief, impressed moment I took her for my friend’s mistress. But then she said (lasciviously) that my friend could ‘spend Chreeestmas at hhhhome’ and I realised that she was, in fact, the doctor.

‘Well there’s one bit of luck for you, at least,’ I remarked after Doctor Sanchez had left. ‘God bless the NHS and all who immigrate to work in her.’ 2014 is of course the year when we fling open our doors and heartily welcome our comrades from Romania and Bulgaria. On immigration I find myself once again Janus-faced. It is a democratic disgrace that the EU governments allowed migration to so rapidly transform towns and neighbourhoods without consulting electorates. But on the other hand, we need plentiful young immigrants for the good of our economic health and long dotages. The ideal would a steady flow, spread evenly around the country and gradually absorbed, rather than flash floods and spring-up ghettos. We don’t live in an ideal world, of course, but we could live in a slightly better one.

(Incidentally, I’ve sometimes seen much made of the theory that in the US people identify as ‘African-Americans’ or ‘Italian-Americans’ etc, whereas we have ‘British Asians’, and this nomenclature is supposed to reveal a healthier attitude to integration and patriotic priority on the other side of the Pond. But if that’s the case, why aren’t there ‘Mexican-Americans’ or ‘Colombian-Americans’ – they all just seem to get lumped together as ‘Hispanics’.  The theory sounds like yet another load of cobblers to me.)


Cricket produces great sports writing, even occasionally on the anodyne BBC website. Four-fifths of the way through the horrorshow Tom Fordyce did a good job of capturing the particular agonies inflicted on the England cricket team Down Under:

No other sport extends the torture like Test cricket. If a big-name tennis player had blown his Australian Open chances so comprehensively at the adjacent Rod Laver Arena he would have been gone in half a day. If a top-ranked golfer falls apart at a major, he is spared further humiliation by the quick mercy of the cut.

England’s agony has gone on, day after day, like that same golfer being forced to play round after failing round, an Open every week, duffing drives and missing putts, swing in pieces, galleries guffawing.

As a rule we don’t appreciate Golden Ages until they’re over, but I have honestly cherished every moment of the Vaughan-Strauss-Cook ride which finally conked out in such spectacular fashion this winter. All things reach an end, though I didn’t expect this one to be brought about by Mitchell Johnson…Wasn’t the mind-scrambling demon fast bowler supposed to be a thing of the past?

The special cruelty of cricket is that it is a team game made up of individual games, so it burdens its players with the worst pressures from both worlds: batsmen play alone, yet each also carries the weight of the team (this nearly unique feature might be one of the reasons for the apparently disproportionate number of cases of mental health problems in the game). Perhaps that’s also why, like boxing, it produces such good sports writing – it attracts good writers, aka voyeurs, who are gripped by watching men doing things they’re rather glad they don’t have to do themselves.

(One other point to take from this Ashes catastrophe: the importance of good timing when it comes to retirement. Graeme Swann is one of England’s greats but his rat/sinking ship act has tainted his glory and you’re a very long time retired from a professional sporting career.)


The indispensable Dave Lull points me to this article which quite rightly calls for science and industry to ‘bring the Dabblers back’. In it we learn that:

the Girl Scouts once offered a fascinating merit badge: the Dabbler badge. This allowed a young scout who wanted to do a little bit of everything to not only generalize, but to be recognized for that achievement. Perhaps it’s time for the academic and business equivalent of the Dabbler badge: a way to acknowledge and foster those dabbling in different ideas, all the way from gradeschool to late career.

The Dabbler badge apparently looked like this. If anybody fancies having a go at designing an updated Dabbler badge for proper use here on The Dabbler itself, please do send to the usual address

Brought to you by Dabbler Editions – original e-books for Kindle. Buy Blogmanship: The Art of Winning Arguments on the Internet Without Really Knowing What You Are Talking About now, and look out for more exciting titles in 2014.

The All Time Top One Hundred Best Lists in History

masterly batting

Our cricket correspondent Jon Hotten reveals why magazines – and readers – are obsessed with lists…

Back in the mad, bad old days when I worked on magazines for a company that seemed invincible but no longer exists, I had a theory, probably rubbish, that most mags had a maximum of about six people at any one time that they could put on the cover and get a guaranteed sale. It was based on the notion that in any specialist area – musical genres, blockbuster movies, football – that was about the number of acts that the entire readership would have an interest in. It was a rolling cast and as some dropped out, others arrived, but six was roughly the number.

If you strayed outside of the six, you were taking a risk with a commercial property. Yet the frequency of most magazines meant there were more covers than there were guaranteed bankers to put on them without resorting to the kind of trivial repetition that you see so often now (token bitchy comment, but nonetheless true).

One way around it was to come up with a ‘list feature’ – the hundred best this, the twenty sexiest that and so on. It was particularly popular at Christmas when there was nothing else going on, and if you gave it enough of a spin, it was pretty failsafe, especially if it was compiled by some sort of reader vote on the winner.

This week has proven the concept retains its catnip qualities, with Wisden announcing an ‘All-Time Text XI’ and Patrick Ferriday publishing Masterly Batting, a book that ranks the best Test hundreds ever made.

Admit it, if you’re at all into cricket then you need to know who’s there, don’t you… I did, and there’s something about human nature that wants to see a list and then disagree with it (the first thing you learn about the list feature is that it is made to be disagreed with – it’s the only way that it will achieve any sort of traction with the reader).

The point is, it’s a trick, it’s a trap… you’re joining in a zero-sum game when you take up the argument. The Wisden All-Time Test team picks eleven from more than 2,600 people to have appeared in a Test match across 150 years of the Almanack’s life. Masterly Batting selects 100 centuries from 3,649 scored by 697 players. The mathematical chances of agreeing with them are approaching those of winning the lottery, and that’s before the emotional arena is approached.

Even the act of typing out the Test XI – Hobbs, Grace, Bradman (c), Tendulkar, Richards, Sobers, Knott (wk), Akram, Warne, Marshall, Barnes – has the fingers creeping towards other keys… (Hobbs – really? and Bradman, well he was no captain was he, and it’s great that Richards is in but for me it’s the wrong one because my love for B.A. is irrational, and does anyone still think Sobers was a better all-rounder than Kallis, and where are all the South Africans and New Zealanders and Sri Lankans, because surely Hadlee’s a good shout isn’t he and old Murali took a wicket or two, and what sort of conditions are these teams playing in anyway? Are Wisden seriously trying to contend that any judge worth their salt would pick Alan Knott over Adam Gilchrist, and as for Barnes with his dibbly dobblers on a modern track – cannon fodder, and even if he bowled on a greentop, well everyone on earth would rather face him than Thomson or Holding wouldn’t they? And who was it that left out the man who made both the highest Test and first-class scores?) and so on, ad infinitum.

In Masterly Batting, Patrick Ferriday measures each hundred in ten categories: size, percentage of team score, speed, bowlers faced, the pitch, chances offered, match impact, series impact, compatibility of attack and conditions, and finally intangibles (a get out of jail card if ever there was one), and these are worthy measures. It’s just that my favourite hundreds have little to do with any of those criteria, or at least they’re tangential and not at the core of their appeal.

Would I have enjoyed Boycott’s hundredth hundred any less if England hadn’t won (at least I think they won – it doesn’t matter now), or KP’s 158 in 2005 any more had it been less manic and flukey and chanceless? What about all of those Steve Waugh tons when I loved him and hated him at the same time, and why did I get a lump in my throat when he hit that boundary from the last ball of the day at the SCG?

And yet none of those thoughts really detract from the nature of the Test XI or the best centuries, because they brought them back to me. I felt them once again, and that’s a nice thing. In Masterly Batting, choosing the hundreds is actually secondary to the chance to write well about cricket and stand out a little on the shelves. Wisden had a couple of days’ worth of headlines and they’re always useful if the noble name is to survive and prosper for another century and a half.

But c’mon, really, did they even consider the fall-out if Bradman tried telling Grace where to stand…

The end of the season


Cricket is a cruel game, and then you get too old to play it. So why do old cricketers keep going, despite it all? Jon Hotten explains…

The end of the season is almost here, with its rain and with its retirements, with its shadows that fall longways across the ground and the inevitable melancholy that it brings. It is a cliche of sorts to acknowledge the feeling, yet it’s always there and always the same, a kind of longing that cannot be fulfilled. It’s always worse before the last game too. Afterwards it seems to run away quite quickly.

As the seasons tick by, it’s heightened by the realisation that they too are finite. One of the geniuses of the game is that it is complex enough to offer a different face to each age of the player.

Once you pass the point at which professionals retire, it takes on a new hue. Before that moment, however delusionally, you can convince yourself you’re playing the same game that you always have. You’re not yet entirely divorced from the young kids who come in to thrash their 60-ball hundreds or mark out their 20-yard runs. Soon though, there’s something different in the way that they look at you, and you realise that they are occupying a psychological terrain that you have surrendered.

It’s not the death of ambition, more the adaptation of ambition to circumstance. You still play because you want to do well. What’s changed is your definition of ‘well’. The elements of the game that you take pleasure from have shifted.

Matthew Hoggard is pulling off the bowling boots for the final time in a week or so. When he was dropped by England in the brutal way that sometimes happens, Hoggy, understandably, had a difficult time accepting it. The cruelest thing, though, was that it was fair. The real bad guy was sport, where one day you are at your peak, and the next the slow descent has begun.

Yet there are some sunlit uplands here, too, on this plateau of the old fart. If you carry on putting yourself into the game, it sometimes gives you something back. Cricket can seem like a capricious sport, especially for batsmen, but in reality it’s just implacable, neither for you or against.

My friend and team-mate Tony has, like most of us, had his moments. He played a lot of his early cricket in the unforgiving North, and, back in ’86, once made 99 in a league game somewhere in the shadow of the Satanic Mills. He thought that maybe the chance of a hundred had passed him by forever on that day.

In one of our last games of the season, on a golden afternoon at a wonderful ground, he got himself in and past fifty. The runs kept coming, and he had 80-odd by the time I went in to join him. He hit a couple more boundaries away and came down the wicket.

‘Eleven more,’ he said.

‘It’s just a number mate,’ I replied, but we both knew it wasn’t.

We batted on. He went to 95 and then got a long hop, which he pulled for four.

For once in my life, I was genuinely prepared to make any run he called, even if it ran me out, but I didn’t have to. The next ball was a full toss that he hit hard to boundary. In a little speech he made in the bar afterwards, he admitted that he’d thought of that 99 almost every night before he went to sleep. Well he doesn’t have to think of it any more.

That is what the game sometimes gives you. It’s why we miss it as it slips away for another year.

The Edwardian Football Hooligans

Football fan violence was far from an invention of the 1980s…

It’s one of the most extraordinary and tantalizing facts of our time. Take out all the estimated-to-be-drug-related activity out of the crime figures, and what you are left with are the gentle, pacific, Marpleian levels of fair-cop crime enjoyed in 1920s and 1930s Britain.

They didn’t enjoy them in the Edwardian period! Here’s Bolton v Glossop, Division Two of the Football League, 1908:

“No fewer than three players were sent off the field during the game, which was admittedly very vigorous indeed. Cuffe was the first sent off, and then a stand-up fight took place, with the result that Marsh and Hofton were ordered off. The referee was Mr. W. Gilgryst, and he reported the clubs to the Association, and also the players. He says, too, that the spectators were most rowdy and threatening during the greater part of the game. Mr. Gilgryst had to be escorted from the field to the dressing-room by the police and others, and was struck a severe blow from behind, the offender being taken in to custody. Furthermore, an official of the club was reported for using filthy language and for abusive conduct, while Bolton players complained of rough treatment. I am afraid there is serious trouble.”
(John Cameron writing for the Penny Illustrated Paper)

The best early stories of this kind always seem to involve fans of Preston North End. They knock railway officials unconscious at Wigan station in 1881. In 1884, they attack Bolton Wanderers players and fans at the end of the game. In 1885, they are involved in a stave fight with their colleagues from Aston Villa. In 1886, they take on Queens Park (Glasgow) fans at an unnamed railway station and two years later, there are tales of a hail of bottles..

In the 1890s, Preston step to one side and leave the field free for West Brom, who, at an away match with Nottingham Forest, invade the pitch and attack their own players!

It’s very hard to know exactly what is going on in stories like this. Part of the problem is that, contrary to what many might assume, we don’t really know much about who it was that was going to football matches. What evidence there is, is contradictory. One early Mitchell and Kenyon film of Nottingham Forest’s ground, scene of the Baggies triumph I’ve just described, shows a seated stand full of what are very obviously well-dressed, prosperous gentlemen and ladies. Other grounds that Mitchell and Kenyon feature really are all flat-capped, but most crowds are more varied and more difficult to judge. Ibrox was built in a genteel area and hoped to attract a loyal local following.

We do know that football clubs and authorities took measures to restrain crowd violence and regarded it as a problem – the “two-headed hydra” of the game, as one Victorian observer put it. Troubled grounds could be ordered closed, and matches moved. The Football League imposed a minimum entrance fee of 7d, pricing out the poorest (and, it was assumed, the most unruly). Most clubs charged even higher entrance fees for certain of their enclosures. Some seats at Old Trafford when it opened in 1910 were at a price point of several shillings.

It’s interesting to note that off-duty soldiers and naval men were granted free admission, on the premise that they would intervene to help out if trouble arose. That speaks of a belief in a cooperative, people’s policing in which the responsibility for order and control was more widely spread than it has become.

We also know that in common with all Edwardian crime measures, the amount of crowd violence declined in the years up to 1914. The climax seems to have been the great Hampden riot of 1909, in which 6,000 people participated, the pitch was destroyed and many parts of the stadium badly damaged by fire.

We’d see nothing like that again for another sixty years. It’s been said that the crime rates of interwar Britain are both the best any comparable country has ever enjoyed, and the hardest for any comparable culture to explain. So it was with football. Fan violence went away for forty years after 1919. And we’ve no real idea why.

Dabbler Diary – The Annual Golfer

An advantage the Annual Golfer has over the more frequent player is that for 364 days of the year he can completely empty his mind of any thoughts about golf. Not only is this excellent preparation for the annual round itself (it has been proven that practising golf doesn’t make you any better at it, while thinking about it in a serious way makes you worse), but the mental and physical health benefits of not thinking about golf for a year are rich and multifarious.

All sports are ridiculous when viewed in a certain cold light or summarised in a reductive quip: tennis is two grown men batting a ball over a net; football is twenty-two grown men chasing an inflated pig’s bladder around a patch of grass, etc etc. But no other sport shoves its ridiculousness and futility in your face quite so rudely as the sport of hitting a little ball into a faraway hole with a variety of sticks. And whereas other sports mask their fundamental silliness with mano-a-mano competitiveness, athleticism or team camaraderie, only golf affords the player so much time and space – vast, manicured acres of space – in which to contemplate the full extent to which he is frittering away his life.

Snooker comes quite close, at least at the professional level, but again golf trumps with its two extra dimensions of absurdity: merchandise and clubbiness. The golf shop, with its special trousers and thousand-pound drivers and tinted binoculars for finding balls in the rough; shelves of stocking-filler gadgetry to solve ever more infinitesimal golfing problems. And milling around in the shop, the golf men. Men who talk very loudly and stand with their elbows angled behind their backs, hands clasped on love-handles. Tone-deaf men. Men who hate each other’s small successes and take barbecues very seriously. Men who play because it makes them unhappy in a specific way. There are golfclubby women too but their motivations are unfathomable to me.


Such are the people who patronise the Thornbury Golf Club on a roasting hot Saturday, along with, once a year, me and four of my old school friends.

The Annual Golfer’s day begins with a trip to the garage to dig out his clubs. Yes, there they are, exactly where he left them a year ago, but buried under three more cardboard boxes and many cobwebs. My half-set is a mixed one – one might say bespoke – comprised of irons of many different brands bought or possibly accidentally stolen over the years, a 3-wood which I can’t use, an umbrella, and the same bargain-basement putter I’ve had since the sixth-form. Of my fellow players, Ben and Martin have no clubs at all, Al has some sort of Argos set, while the sole proper golfer in our group, Andrew, turns up with a new, shockingly expensive set every year, which he doesn’t need because we only play the Low Course, a glorified pitch-and-putt with no dress code.

We begin with lunch and a pint, before heading out to the first tee. There is a very big queue because some sort of children’s tournament is taking place. The eight year-olds teeing off are noticeably better than us. So we head off to the putting green where a golf man, rightly aware of the importance of sucking all joy out of the game from an early age, is berating his tiny grandson’s technique. Don’t you dare hit the ball with your feet pointing that way! he growls at one point. We go for another pint and then try for the first tee again. It’s clear, and so the horrorshow begins.


How Andrew, who has a single figure handicap, tolerates playing with us I do not know. He has the patience of a Gove. We Annuals play in two teams to speed things up – best ball, then alternate putts when on the green. Putting is especially painful, and can consist of the team-mates standing on either side of the hole batting back and forth in a long sequence of to-you-to-me overhits.

Our iron shots, strangely, often start quite well (we aspire to a level just below mediocrity, and achieving it is generally sufficient to win the hole), but fatigue and frustration soon set in, and by the tenth we’re amusing ourselves by coming up with new verbs to describe our mishits. Established terms like ‘hooking’, ‘slicing’ and ‘topping’ don’t really capture the full range and originality of our incompetence, so we resort to coinage: grubbing, baffing, squelching, doffing, flubbing, guffing. There are subtle shades too, ‘That one was a guffer with a hint of late squelch.’ Compounding the farce is the ritual of debating and painstakingly selecting the ‘right’ club at each tee. Hmmm…given the distance, the wind and the gradient of the fairway, should one use a six or a seven iron to boff the ball fifteen yards along the ground and into the bushes?


At the showcase twelfth, a plunging downhill par three with magnificent views over South Gloucestershire, we switch Martin’s ball for a novelty exploding one that Ben has brought back from Canada (exploding golf balls being a major Canadian export, as is well known). Ben raises his phone’s video camera as Martin, unsuspecting, addresses the tee. We hold our breath, he swings hard, swings true. A fresh air shot. Assuming that our stifled hysteria is caused by his missing the ball, Martin good-naturedly joins in, then composes himself, and swings again. Another fresh air shot. It is a purest torture of anticipation. But the third time is lucky, he catches the ball with a mighty crack and it instantly bursts in a shower of white powder. As we are picking ourselves up from the floor, a course official appears in his wee little buggy. Apparently there have been complaints from behind about slow play and he wants us to split into a pair and a three. Instantly Andrew takes over and, with calm authority and patience explains that we’re fully conversant with golfing etiquette, always let faster groups through and that the hold up was caused by children in front. “I am A Golfer,” he says, as the last specks of exploding ball powder settle innocently around us, thus providing the catchphrase for the evening’s pub crawl.


I heartily recommend the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man. In case you haven’t seen it, it tells the story of Detroit musician Rodriguez, who made two albums of startlingly direct, Dylanesque songs in 1970 and 1971, both of which flopped with sales of, effectively, zero. However, some copies of his records found their way to South Africa, where via word-of-mouth and bootlegging they became immensely popular with young whites, particularly in the anti-Apartheid movement. ‘Popular’ is an understatement – Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis and the Beatles, and his records became a cornerstone of music culture in South Africa . He was assumed dead, with legends abounding of gruesome on-stage suicide. In the mid-90s a couple of South Africans who’d grown up with Rodriguez’s music independently decided to try and find out the truth about his death. But, after various twists and turns and coincidences, one of them came across his original producer who told him that in fact Sixto Rodriguez was alive and well in Detroit where he’d been working as a construction labourer for the previous quarter of a century. Astonishingly, no hint whatsoever of his South African music god status had ever filtered across to him in America, and nor had any of the proceeds of the estimated half a million records he’d sold there.

The footage of the aged but still lithe Rodriguez walking out onto the stage for his first gig in South Africa in 1996 will stay with you. Until that moment, neither he nor his public can really believe the other is real. His daughter says that she’d expected maybe 20 people to turn up. He walks out in front of ten thousand disbelieving, near-hysterical South Africans of all ages for whom this is like Elvis, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix turning up for a gig at Glastonbury. The band try to start playing but give up and for the first ten minutes he just stands there and waves as the fans scream. Then he walks up to the microphone and utters the perfect, perhaps the only possible, five word sentence.


Here’s to Chris Froome, who would right now be a national superstar after winning the Tour de France if it wasn’t for (a) Bradley Wiggins winning it last year, (b) Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, (c) England thrashing Australia in the Ashes, and (d) him being only British by convenience. (d) wouldn’t really matter were it not for the other factors.


Via Unbound, the crowdsourcing site, comes this email:

Hooray! You made a book happen

Well hooray and hurrah – you backed a winner! Thanks to your help, my project Pidgin Snaps – A Boxette has reached its target. As soon as the manuscript is finished the Unbounders will get to work and before you know it your book will be in your hands.

You can check out the project page and my shed here for progress updates and upgrade your pledge for more wonderful goodies. ..

Thank you for helping to turn my idea into a beautiful book; it couldn’t have happened without you.

Jonathan Meades.

So, who thinks Jonathan Meades wrote a single word of this email? “Hooray and hurrah”?. “check out”?.. “Wonderful goodies”? …“Thank you”?  Do these really sound like the writings of the man behind Abroad in Britain?

The ‘Unbounders’ could at least have attempted to Meades-up their template a bit. For example, his imaginary ‘shed’ should surely be an imaginary bungalow faced in ginger-nut pebble-dash in an unnamed non-place near Swindon, where bales of rusting barbed wire have shreds of polythene flying from them like grimy bunting in the tepid wind.


“Thanks for keeping me alive,” says Rodriguez to his fans. The odd thing is, he doesn’t move to South Africa to live as a star but opts instead for a bizarrely dualistic life in which he works as a manual labourer in Detroit most of the time, living in the same humble house, interspersed with the occasional massive gig in South Africa, the proceeds of which he doles out to family and friends. This behaviour surely places him among the great secular saints, along with the Doge Leonardo Loredan, Ayrton Senna, Jonathan Meades, Nige and, which is the greatest of them all, St Michael de Gove.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.