Cyril Washbrook, born December 6, 1914, was an attractive and gutsy opening batsman who teamed up with the legendary Len Hutton to form one of the greatest combinations at the top of the order. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who made a fairytale comeback to the England team at the age of 41.
The Barnes appreciation
As the 18-year-old got off the train, he was slightly confused about his bearings. It was after all going to be only his second visit to Old Trafford. A tall elderly man, erect, carrying a big bag and looking every day of his 60 years, was getting off the train as well. The young man asked him for directions to the main entrance of Old Trafford.
The answer was gruff. The man said he was going there and would show him the way.
As they walked, the elderly man ascertained that his companion was the latest ground staff recruit of the Lancashire County Cricket Club.
“What are you, a batsman or a bowler?” he asked.
“A batsman,” answered the lad.
The man scoffed, “There’s not much chance for batsmen here.”
The comment carried a lot of weight. The older man was none other than Sydney Barnes, perhaps the greatest bowler to ever play for England. During that season in 1933, he was engaged as the bowling coach for the county.
However, young Cyril Washbrook was not intimidated. Playing in the opening game of the Second XI that season, he scored an unbeaten 202. The effort saw him pitchforked into the first team and he made his First-Class debut against Sussex. Sent in as an opener in the second innings, he hit an accomplished unbeaten 40.
In the following match, Washbrook opened against Surrey and scored 152 against an attack consisting of Alf Gover, Freddie Brown and Percy Fender. As he sat in the junior players’ dressing room after the innings, the gaunt form of Barnes was seen making his way through the door. The great man patted him on the shoulder, pointed at the wicket and simply said, “Well played.” It was the best compliment that the youngster could get.
Another man who saw him bat that day was characteristically far less restrained in his accolades. Writing for the Manchester Guardian, Neville Cardus penned, “He looks like a cricketer, has a cricketer’s face and wears his flannels like a cricketer … For a lad of 18, this was cricket radiant with promise. Unless somebody spoils Washbrook, he will go a long way.”
He did. With time, Washbrook flourished as an opening batsman for Lancashire and England. His best years, as with so many others of his generation, were scooped away by the War, but whatever remained was a considerable structure in the landscape of English cricket.
Hutton and Washbrook
He partnered the great Len Hutton, and did so with enough distinction to be paired eternally in cricketing history with the legendary Yorkshireman. Post-War England saw two supreme pairings of the Roses-rivals —and Hutton-Washbrook were the celebrated batting openers, while, a few years later, Freddie Trueman and Brian Statham formed the legendary pair sharing the new ball.
Hutton and Washbrook batted together 53 times, scored 2,900 runs together at 58.00. On 51 of these occasions, they opened the innings, and combined to score 2,880 in the partnerships at 60.00. Among opening duos who have batted more than 30 times, their record stands fourth after associations Jack Hobbs had with Herbert Sutcliffe and Wilfred Rhodes and the celebrated combination between Bill Lawry and Bobby Simpson.
What makes it even more remarkable is that Hutton and Washbrook opened during a phase when England went through one of their all-time lows after the War. In the Australian summer of 1946-47, a band of men under Wally Hammond, having gone through the devastation of War and the travails of rationing, arrived for the Ashes series. They were terrorised by the hostile pace bowling of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. Hutton and Washbrook withstood the shelling, standing tall, adding 138 in the second innings at Melbourne, and following it up with courageous stands of 137 and 100 in the two innings at Adelaide. Hutton was unparalleled in the series with over 500 runs at an average over 50 even as England batting crumbled around him. Washbrook held his own as well, scoring 363 at 36.30, scoring 41, 62, 112, 65 and 39 in five successive innings of impeccable guts and glory across Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
And through all the grit and determination of his knocks, his cap stayed perched at his head at a jaunty angle, and his stroke-play always remained a thing of joy.
Yes, he was a fighter to the core, hooking and pulling with contempt and control, and unleashing a fierce square cut if offered width and length on the off-side. Always aggressive, he was resolute as “concrete” against pace, and heroic to the core. In the covers he was a superb fielder of quick feet, eagle like pick-ups and fast returns. And aptly, his career ended in a tale of romantic valour that has gone down as folklore in the annals of English cricket.
The young man before the War
Washbrook was born in Barrow, near Clitheroe. He was still a young lad when his family moved to Shropshire. At Bridgnorth Grammar School, he excelled as much at football as at cricket. And he had the choice of turning out for Warwickshire or Worcestershire, or even the Wolves or West Bromwich Albion. He opted for the willow, and played for Warwickshire Second XI in 1931 and 1932.
Indeed, had he gone to the Birmingham University, he would have joined Warwickshire as an amateur. He failed to get in for a degree in brewing because he did not submit a paper in art. After some thought, he bargained with his father for another year to try his luck at the Lancashire County Cricket Club.
In 1933, the summer after the Bodyline drama in Australia, the 18-year-old Washbrook arrived at Old Trafford. Former opening batsman Harry Makepeace was the coach and he immediately spotted the bristling talent.
After the superb start against Surrey, inexperience took its toll. He did score an attractive 95 against Manny Martindale when Lancashire played the visiting West Indians, but there was a series of low scores punctuating his successes. He played just ten innings for the first XI in the championship winning side of1934 and managed only one half century.
The next year, 1935, saw him get among the runs in a big way. He started with 228 against Oxford University and amassed two more centuries that season to finish with 1724 runs at 45.36. It placed him fifth in the national averages.
When the selectors dropped him in late 1936, somewhat justifiably, for lack of consistency, Cardus bristled. Already an ardent admirer of his sparkling approach to batting, the doyen of cricket correspondents made his unhappiness well known in print.
In 1937, as England took on New Zealand for the third Test at The Oval, his Lancashire senior Eddie Paynter withdrew because of injury. Washbrook played in his place, batting at No 3. Len Hutton, playing in his third Test, opened the innings with Charlie Barnett. Another young man making his debut in the Test was Denis Compton.
Washbrook scored only nine and eight not out in a rain truncated match, and was not selected for the Tests when Don Bradman’s Australians came along the following year. He did score five centuries that season, including an unbeaten 219 against Gloucestershire. But, it did not get him the opportunity to play another Test match before the Second World War brought cricket to a grinding halt.
The Post-War Hero
Washbrook spent the War as a PT instructor in the Royal Air Force (RAF). And as the turmoil came to an end, he played in all the five Victory ‘Tests’, scoring a splendid 112 and sharing a memorable 157 run stand with Wally Hammond.
When Test cricket restarted, the 31-year-old Washbrook was the first choice to partner Len Hutton at the top of the England innings. The pair opened together for the first time against India at Lord’s in 1946. Although the Tests did not really see Washbrook blazing the turf, a scintillating summer producing 2400 runs at 68.57 with nine hundreds cemented his place.
Next came the show of resistance in Australia. Along with being one of the few bright spots in a gloomy tour, it also reconnected Washbrook with long-time admirer Cardus. Charmed by his spirited batting and lively fielding in the covers, the great cricket writer dipped his pen in the sentiments of the recently concluded War to write: “The chin, always square and thrust out a little, the square shoulders, the pouting chest, the cock of cricket cap, his easy loose movement, his wonderful swoop at cover and the deadly velocity of his throw in. The tensing of his shoulders as he prepared to face the bowling, the preliminary champing of his feet – every sign of determined awareness, every sign of combined attack and defence, his mind ready to signal swiftly either to infantry, cavalry, or for cover behind the sand bags.”
The 112 at Melbourne was a pitched battle of six hours. And when “The Invincibles” toured England in 1948, Washbrook scored 143 in the great Test match at Leeds, adding 168 with Hutton and 100 with Bill Edrich. Wisden called the innings ‘almost faultless’. He amassed 65 more in the second innings, but still ended on the losing side.
When England travelled to South Africa in the winter, Hutton and Washbrook added 359 in 290 minutes on the first day at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. England ended the first day at 387 for two, with Washbrook hitting a chanceless195. In that series he scored 542 runs at 60.22.
Back home, he once again excelled at Leeds, scoring 103 not out against New Zealand. The hundred was notched in spite of pulling a muscle early in the innings which restricted his strokeplay and forced him to bat with a runner. And when West Indies emerged triumphant in the summer of 1950, Washbrook could play only two Tests due to injuries. He scored defiant second innings hundreds in both the matches, demonstrating that he could tackle the spin of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine with as much aplomb as the pace of Miller and Lindwall.
At this point, Washbrook had 2234 runs from 28 Tests with six hundreds, averaging 48. In a team which lost dismally to Australia and West Indies and struggled to beat South Africa, he was a pillar of strength at the top of the order alongside Hutton.
The decline and the return
Rumours were rife that he was reluctant to tour Australia in 1950-51. The tentativeness reflected in his game, and he had a torrid time against mystery spinner Jack Iverson, Lindwall, Bill Johnston and the others. His tally was just 173 runs from the five Tests at an average of 34. After a half century at Christchurch in the New Zealand leg of the tour, he was no longer a member of the Test side. It is again rumoured that Hutton was insistent on having him back in the team when he became captain in 1952, but in spite of that Washbrook was ignored.
The veteran batsman continued to turn out for Lancashire and scored steadily. And in 1954 he became the county’s first professional captain. Two years later, in the summer of 1956, he became a Test selector.
This was when the tale of Washrbook’s life touched the kingdom of fantasies. England was in the rebuilding phase with Hutton having called it a day and Compton engaged in a painful tussle with his kneecap. Australia had won by a big margin in the second Test at Lord’s.
While discussing the team for the next Test at Leeds, Gubby Allen, the chairman of the selectors, asked Washbrook to go and order the beer. When the Lancashire pro returned to the meeting, he was told that he had been chosen to play. “Surely the situation isn’t as desperate as all that,” was his bemused reaction. However, it was sheer delight to be recalled at the age of 41.
He walked in after England had lost Peter Richardson, Colin Cowdrey and Alan Oakman with 17 on the board. Peter May, the batsman at the other end, later recalled his reaction at the sight of Washbrook: “I’ve never felt so glad in life as when I saw who was coming in.”
Washbrook made 98 in five and half hours. With May he added 187. As Jim Laker and Tony Lock spun the Australians out, England won the game by an innings.
After Richie Benaud had trapped him leg-before two short of a remarkable hundred, Washbrook observed, “Another two wouldn’t have done any harm. But I was pleased not to have let my co-selectors down.”
He played the remaining Tests of the series. Although he didn’t score many more, he watched Laker perform his magic at Manchester and celebrated as England triumphed in the series.
The Lancashire man
Washbrook played three more seasons for Lancashire, and retired in 1959. His collection of 34,101 runs at 42.67 from 592 matches reads impressive, although he maintained that had he not been made captain he would have taken his tally of 76 centuries beyond 100. As skipper he often had to come lower down the order to support the middle order. He later said, “I was very proud to be captain of Lancashire, but it was a position I never coveted. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t have been happier just to have continued opening and scoring more runs.”
Of course, if he had not lost those six years to War, we could have seen his figures standing shoulder to shoulder with the all-time greats.
He remained one of the most popular players of Lancashire for long. In 1948, his benefit year grossed £ 14,000. According to Wisden, “it remained a record for more than two decades before inflation rendered comparisons meaningless.”
His numbers in Test matches did suffer due to the poor series in Australia in 1950-51, but 2569 runs at 42.81 in 317 Tests with six hundreds are quite impressive returns. Alongside, he was a magnificent fielder in the covers.
Washbrook remained associated with Lancashire as a member of the county committee from 1961 to 1988 and became a cricket manager from 1964.
As captain and manager, he was a strict disciplinarian, although he really had to work on his diffidence to emerge with a strict persona. When touring with Lancashire as a manager he could often be seen standing outside the nearest pub, making sure that none of his players sneaked in for a drink. He could come across as a forbidding unapproachable character. However, according to long serving Lancashire scorer Mac Taylor, it was more to do with shyness.
There remained one great regret; having been a part of the championship winning side of 1934, he did not witness another triumphant year for the county till his death in 1999.
In 1971, Washbrook became an England selector once again. This time he was not called upon to bat for England, but it perhaps would not have been that bad an idea. Age seemed to have little effect on him. In 1964, at the age of nearly 50, he scored 85 for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) against his county side whose bowling included Brian Statham and Ken Higgs.
When cricket-loving John Major became the Prime Minister of England in 1991, Washbrook was belatedly awarded a CBE.
Cyril Washbrook passed away in April 1999.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix
Also on cricketcountry.com