George Geary. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
George Geary. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Despite playing a mere seven seasons for them, Leicestershire gave George Geary a benefit in 1924. It turned out to be a wet summer, and Geary had to wait till 1936 for another benefit, at Ashby Road, Hinckley. On May 25, 1936, on a rain-affected pitch, Geary wrecked Warwickshire to finish with match figures of 13 for 43. While Leicestershire won the thriller, the contest did not do a lot for Geary’s pockets — and he had nobody to blame barring himself for that. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a day when a man won a match but ended up losing out on a hefty purse.

Though Ewart Astill had more wickets, it will not be an exaggeration to call George Geary the first great cricketer in the history of Leicestershire. Despite his imposing frame, Geary did not bowl fast, though he could be brisk at times. He delivered them off a short run-up, relying more on line and length than tearaway pace, swinging the new ball and bowling that lethal leg-cutter every now and then as the shine wore off. The leg-cutter became famous when Geary found the edge of a certain Don Bradman in the Trent Bridge Test of 1934.

While most mentioned Maurice Tate as the spiritual predecessor to Alec Bedser, Bob Wyatt thought otherwise: “I always felt that the experts were wrong to compare Alec Bedser to Maurice Tate: for me, Alec’s model was George Geary.”

Geary was one of those annoyingly nagging bowlers who toiled for hours, refusing to bowl a single loose ball. Never was his stamina more tested than at MCG in 1928-29, where he bowled 81 overs to take 5 for 105 — after having his nose fractured in a tour match at Perth. There was no stretcher ready at WACA, so he had to be carried away on a door.

He was also a gritty batsman and a fantastic slip fielder. Unfortunately, his most famous all-round effort (122, 4 for 35, and 4 for 26) against Kent in 1925 went in vain. The next season he took 14 for 86 and 14 for 98 in consecutive matches.

Three seasons after that he took 6 for 78 against Glamorgan, and improved on it with 10 for 18 in the second innings. The figures have been bettered by only Hedley Verity.

Along with Astill, Geary carried the Leicestershire bowling attack on his shoulders throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s. He went about his job without a fuss. If anything, he was one of the best-tempered fast bowlers the world has seen. He mentored a young Eddie Dawson (“looked after him like a father,” wrote Wisden) when the latter was appointed captain.

Unfortunately, he was never fortunate when it came to financial matters. The eldest of sixteen children of a shoemaker, Geary never had what can be termed a privileged childhood.

He joined The Army, but met with an accident when a propeller ripped open his left shoulder and thigh. He had contemplated giving up on cricket to focus on an alternative career in Canada, but decided to stay otherwise in the end. Barely fit after The War, he had a stint in Lancashire League for Nelson.

Leicestershire gave him a benefit in 1924. The match was rained off.

Geary played a role in England’s famous win the 1926 Ashes Test at The Oval. True, the last innings was dominated by some excellent bowling from Harold Larwood and Wilfred Rhodes, but Geary took two excellent slip catches, both off Larwood, to dismiss Bill Woodfull and Charles Macartney. He also took the last wicket. Remarkably, he did this after a thief had invaded his hotel room that morning, doing away with a reasonable sum of money.

Leicestershire finally gave him a second benefit match, in 1936. Given his popularity and stature, it was only natural that the locals at Hinckley would flock to the match, against Warwickshire at Ashby Road.

A word about benefit matches

Before delving into the match, let us see how benefit matches worked. In a gesture shown towards long-serving professionals, teams forewent their profits for one or more predetermined matches.

However, the professional had to bear the expenses. While he typically did not have to pay for his teammates, he had to pay for the travel cost of the touring side. Additionally, he also had to dish out money for umpires, scorers, gatemen, the law, and anyone remotely related to the match. He was allowed to take whatever surplus he was left with.

Despite that, cricketers typically made decent profits out of their benefit matches. Of course, there were exceptions. Consider the case of poor Bertie Buse of Somerset, for example, whose benefit match, against Lancashire at Bath Recreation Ground in 1953, was over in one day, with Brian Statham and Roy Tattersall blowing away Somerset for 55 and 79. Buse actually incurred a loss, though Somerset CCC were gracious enough to waive Buse’s expenses. Not only that, they actually raised a fund for Buse that amounted to a handsome £2,800.

And then, there was the other lot, who were impractical enough to pick benefit matches to settle old vendetta. Adelaide Oval had a massive turnout in 1936-37 for the benefit match of Vic Richardson and Clarrie Grimmett. Neither man was on excellent terms with Don Bradman, who was easily the greatest crowd-puller, but they obviously had to include him to make their benefit successful. Unlike the more practical Richardson, Grimmett was still fuming over Bradman accusing him of the “losing the leg-break”.

Sure enough, Grimmett bowled Bradman for 17 — with a leg-break and exclaimed at Richardson “that’ll teach him I can still bowl a leg break,” with Bradman still within earshot. “I suppose you know you’ve bowled us out of a thousand pounds?” responded Richardson wryly.

However, it was crucial that the benefit match was against a major side filled with big stars at a large ground. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, counties were reluctant to miss out on the profit from high-profile matches for their professionals.

Thus, Geary was not given a match against one of the glamorous sides (Yorkshire, Lancashire, Surrey, Kent, Middlesex, or Nottinghamshire, for example — or even Derbyshire, who would go on to win their maiden title that season). Warwickshire had come fourth in 1934, but they did not possess the ‘market-value’ of some of the other sides.

Neither did Ashby Road, Hinckley, the venue of the match. Let alone Grace Road (Leicester), the home of Leicestershire cricket, Geary did not get a match in Aylestone Road (also in Leicester). Ashby Road would not host a single First-Class match after 1937. In fact, it would be only the third Leicestershire ground to stop hosting matches.

The other aspect was the time of the match. May in Hinckley was seriously cold. To add to Geary’s woes, it must be remembered that the first month of the summer was typically the hardest to get runs, which meant that there was a high chance of his benefit match not lasting the full three days.

It was, thus, not going to be one of the highest profit-yielding benefit matches, but Geary could always bank on the weather and his immense popularity. While Ashby Road was not exactly Lord’s or The Oval, it still seated five thousand people. Surely nothing could go wrong?

Rain, rain, go away…

It was bitterly cold at Hinckley that day in end-May. To make things worse, there was a persistent drizzle that made play possible for a mere 80 minutes. A mere two hundred people braved the weather to show up.

Leading Leicestershire was Stewie Dempster, that outstanding New Zealand batsman (he averaged 65.72 from his 10 Tests). He had no hesitation in putting the tourists in.

Haydon Smith began proceedings. Smith is unfairly remembered for an anecdote (in all probability, untrue) where he was so terrified of Harold Larwood that he had walked away despite not being caught cleanly. The less-recounted bit is the fact that Larwood was actually retaliating after Smith had shaken up Nottinghamshire.

Tall and strong, Smith could make the ball bounce off a length, something he put to great use on the truncated first day. Geary got the first wicket, having Norman Kilner caught (by Smith), but it was really Smith who did the damage, trapping William Hill leg-before and clean-bowling captain Wyatt and Frederick Santall.

Francis Prentice, the young off-spinner, got Horace Dollery just when the fifth-wicket stand started to look dangerous. The umpires broke for stumps at that Dollery’s wicket, at 60 for 5. Warwickshire were held together by opener Alfred Croom, who remained unbeaten on 21 at the end of the day’s play. Geary had taken 1 for 25 that day.

The dirty dozen

Dempster took no chances when play resumed after the stipulated rest day, on Monday. Smith and Geary opened bowling. Croom dug in, he really never found anyone to provide him any support, and he ran out of partners in the end.

A stylish batsman, Croom was a constant presence in the Warwickshire line-up between The Wars. Though he was not good enough to be considered at national level, his solid presence at the top made him a permanent fixture for his county.

On this day he batted brilliantly, eventually carrying his bat (for the fourth time in his career) with 69 out of a total of 133. He got 48 of these runs on Day Two alone, out of a team total of 73. Barring Kilner (14) and Dollery (17), nobody else in the side went past 5.

Geary was at his best on this day. Bowling from the Pavilion End, he had found a patch at the other end and kept hitting it relentlessly throughout the morning and taking all 5 Warwickshire wickets — four bowled, one leg-before. He conceded a mere 11 to finish with remarkable figures of 25.5-12-36-6.

Leicestershire fared no better. Wyatt got Eric Hollies (yes, the Eric Hollies) to bowl his leg-breaks from the end where Geary did all the damage. Danny Mayer kept a steady line and length at the other end, and the score soon read 22 for 4.

Geary found himself in the middle at 41 for 5. As the wicket deteriorated and Hollies and Mayer became more and more difficult to cope with, Geary decided to counterattack, lofting off-spinner Bill Fantham for two sixes and adding a four for good measure. Unfortunately, he did not last long after that, and fell to Hollies for 25. It turned out to be the top score in the Leicestershire innings.

Hollies finished with 4 for 19 and Mayer with 5 for 19 as Leicestershire crashed to 108, conceding a vital 25-run lead. The innings had lasted a mere 95 minutes.

Spare a thought for poor Geary, who was left with little choice at this stage. If he ran through the innings, the match would be over in no time irrespective of the result, which would mean there would be no turnover. On the other hand, if he failed with ball in the second innings, it would mean that Warwickshire would gain a sizeable lead on a deteriorating pitch, virtually batting Leicestershire out of the match. Not many were likely to pay to watch a home team lose.

In other words, Geary’s benefit match had been doomed already.

As things turned out, Warwickshire were shot out for 78 in about 100 minutes of cricket. Things did not look that bad at 58 for 3 (there was already a stand of 30 and another of 20), but Geary was simply unplayable during this phase.

Bowling from the same end, Geary kept hitting the same spot. He finished with astonishing figures of 13.3-8-7-7. Only two of these involved a fielder (William Marlow took both catches). This gave Geary match figures of 13 for 43 including 12 for 18 on Day Two.

The drama was far from over. There were only 50 minutes left in the day when Leicestershire began their chase of 104, but they were reduced to 41 for 4 by stumps. Wyatt removed Alan Shipman early, Mayer got a pair, and Hollies added one more.

With Hollies hitting the spot with astonishing accuracy and Mayer not giving an inch away, it would have been Warwickshire’s match to lose. True, Dempster’s presence at the crease complicated things a bit, but would his efforts be enough?

As for Geary, the attendance was better than on the previous day. About 2,000 showed up, making up for his loss on the first day — but there was no way there would be a reasonable crowd next day; and he had only his spectacular bowling to blame for that.

Patrick Murphy wrote in Fifty Incredible Cricket Matches: “His brilliance had scuppered his chance of a bumper crowd on the third day … Judged by the irregularity of dismissals so far, the game would be all over by lunch the following day. The canny folk around this mining town would not be throwing good brass away for an hour or so of cricket.”

The Dempster show

As expected, the turnover for the third day was feeble. One cannot blame the fans in those trouble days of Depression. To make things worse, Leicestershire kept losing wickets, their fifth at 49, sixth at 69, seventh at 69…

The seventh wicket was Geary’s. He was trapped leg-before by Hollies first ball. On the previous day he had taken 12 for 18, had top-scored in the first innings, and had earned a reasonable amount from the gate money.

This, unfortunately, was not his day. His show with the bat was perfectly in synchronisation with his earnings from the day.

But let us shift our focus from Geary for now, for there was still a match to be won for both sides. And Dempster took centrestage.

Dempster was durable and solid, but more importantly, he had a crucial quality that singles out the truly great batsmen from the very good ones: he knew exactly what he could do and exactly what was beyond him, and planned his innings according to that.

He had been recruited by Sir Julian Cahn, a millionaire whose quirks were matched by few others. Cahn built his own side of champions that travelled all over the world, eventually losing a mere 19 out of 621 matches. On the other hand, he insisted on playing despite having zero cricket talent, batting in humongous air-inflated pads with strict instructions against giving him leg-before.

While Dempster was a regular feature in Cahn’s side, Cahn also made sure Dempster had a career with Leicestershire (he was, after all, the greatest patron the county had at that point). He even appointed Dempster as his store manager at Leicester so that he could play as an amateur and lead the county.

This was Dempster’s first season as Leicestershire captain. He had set out to make it special.

On this day, however, Dempster decided to see his side through. With 35 to be scored, Smith took charge at the other end, biffing his way to 14 valuable runs in a stand of 18 before Hollies claimed him. Leicestershire still needed 17.

Out walked Marlow. He pulled the first ball he first ball he faced for four and got two singles, off Hollies and Mayer. They needed 11 when Marlow hit one back to Hollies — who spilled the chance.

It did not matter. Marlow — perhaps suffering from nerves, perhaps backing his instincts, perhaps deciding that there was no point in trying to hang around, went for an almighty heave; he missed the ball completely and was bowled.

Percy Corrall was an excellent wicketkeeper, but a solitary fifty in a 288-match career was not good advertisement for his batting skills. In this season, however, he was in decent form: against Surrey he had scored 14, helping Astill add 37 for the last wicket; then came an unbeaten 19 against Lancashire that involved a last-wicket stand of unbeaten 62, this time with Smith; and against the touring Indians he got another 19. An average of 26 was remarkable for a No. 11 batsman in any form of the sport. Even here, in the first innings, he had remained unbeaten — albeit without scoring a run.

Perhaps buoyed by his ‘form’, he managed to survive that over from Hollies — something probably nobody had backed him to do.

It all came down to Dempster now. He knew it was finally time to go for the kill; so he nonchalantly drove Mayer — who had been bowling with metronomic precision till then — for a straight six.

It would probably have been detrimental for a lesser batsman to attempt the same, but Dempster was no ordinary batsman, and he proved his stature as the over went on. A deft cut off Mayer got him two runs, and a touch-and-run single helped him retain strike.

After conceding 26 from 18 overs, Mayer went for 9 runs in his 19th.

Dempster had the option to steal another single, but he chose otherwise. He on-drove the first ball (it must be remembered here that Hollies was a leg-spinner); Corrall put those legs — strengthened by hours of getting down on his haunches against Astill and Geary — to great use, sprinting the two runs they needed to pull off a remarkable victory.

Hollies finished with 6 for 39. Dempster remained unbeaten on 32, the last 11 of which came in 7 balls. His first 21 runs had come out of 55 scored by Leicestershire during his stay at the crease.

Unfortunately, there was not much for Geary to rejoice. The third day’s turnover had ruined his benefit. His profit from the match amounted to a ridiculous £10.

No, Leicestershire did not come in support of their hero.

This was in stark contrast to the generosity displayed by Warwickshire in Croom’s benefit match, later that year in July. Incessant rain ruled out any play on Day One and a chunk of Day Two. Sussex declared as late as on the third day, ruling out any chance of a result. The county backed Croom to the hilt with fundraisers, and he ended up being richer by £679 by the end of the season.

Of course, none of this mattered to Geary, who found a steady source of income after retirement. He coached school students, first at Charterhouse, then at Rugby. At Charterhouse he mentored an child prodigy called Peter May, guiding him in every possible way.

But that is another story.

Brief scores:

Warwickshire 133 (Alfred Croom 69*; Haydon Smith 3 for 57, George Geary 6 for 36) and 78 (George Geary 7 for 7) lost to Leicestershire 108 (Francis Prentice 23, George Geary 25; Joseph Meyer 5 for 19, Eric Hollies 4 for 19) and 104 for 9 (Stewie Dempster 32*; Eric Hollies 6 for 39) by 1 wicket.