Gerald Brodribb (courtesy open.edu)
Gerald Brodribb (courtesy open.edu)

Gerald Brodribb, born May 21, 1915, was one of the most assiduous researchers and a prolific writer on cricket. Arunabha Sengupta pays homage to the man on his birthday.

The chronicler and the charlatan

The inimitable Croucher plays a role in both these tales.

Gilbert Jessop’s crouching stance at the wicket, his incredible rate of scoring, huge hits and especially the heroics during the 1902 Test Match at The Oval have become part and parcel of cricketing legend.

And he had a role to play in the initiation into the noble game of two cricket writers. Two cricket writers with unsurpassed influence in the history of the game, albeit in two different directions.

Let us start with the ‘recollections’ of Neville Cardus.

“I can remember the first time I ever went to Old Trafford, on a June morning in 1899, Lancashire were playing Gloucestershire … I saw a refreshment room. As I was thirsty, as only a boy of nine can be on a  hot summer day, I stood on tiptoe and reaching up at the counter asking for a glass of lemonade. There was a sudden explosion of mirrors and bottles and other hardware… As I shrank from flying splinters a cheerful Lancashire voice reassured me “It’s alright sonny,” said a man in a cloth cap. “Don’t worrit thiself, it’s only Jessop just coom in.” Jessop did not score many runs at Old Trafford that day … Tom Lancaster was one of the Lancashire eleven and I think Jack Sharp scored 60, and at the day’s end HEB Champain and Wrathall began Gloucestershire innings.”

This was what Cardus wrote in Manchester Guardian in 1945. Suggests an excellent memory of events that took place 46 years earlier.

Only, very few of the things actually took place. Gloucestershire did not visit Old Trafford till July that year. Jessop did bat and score 30, but Jack Sharp scored just 9. The Gloucestershire innings was started by FH Bateman-Champain (not HEB Champain) and Harry Wrathall, but they did not start batting at the end of any day. The visiting county side batted first, and they were 135 for 5 in their second innings at the end of the second day. So, there is no way that the openers could have started the innings at the end of a particular day.

But then, Cardus would seldom refer to the scorecard, the irritant he had dubbed an ‘ass’. Unless, of course, he had to write match reports after spending the playing hours sauntering around the streets of Manchester.

Again, memory lapses are normal. But there needs to be a semblance of consistency. In Autobiography, still referred to as a veritable Bible by some respected names in cricket, the lemonade had become ginger beer.

In the 1951 Wisden, the month had changed to July and the day had suddenly become dull. In this version, Jessop had left no impression on the young Cardus and he was also confused as to why he was at the cricket ground at all because his passion at that time was supposedly football.

In Cricket all the Year written in 1952, it was back to June.

In the Guardian, 1957, the month shifted back to July, and Cardus turned hungry rather than thirsty, and it was neither lemonade nor ginger beer that he was after, but a halfpenny bun.

In Play Resumed with Cardus, Jessop, who had left no impression on him that day, was busy cutting good length balls and hitting perfectly pitched off-breaks for six in front of his fascinated young eyes.  

The match, as explained, was actually played from July 24, 1899. The day, we find out, was sunny with a slight breeze.

There were no off-break bowlers in the Lancashire side.

So much for Cardus and his ‘chronicles’.

Now let us turn to Gerald Brodribb.

“My first visit to a county match was almost my last. As I entered the Hastings ground I saw a ball soaring in the air in my direction; it passed overhead, crashed on the Town Hall, and brought down a shower of slates around me. It was the most exciting moment of my nine years’ life. All about me everyone was buzzing and laughing, and an old man kept murmuring happily, ‘Just like Jessop, sonny, just like Jessop.’”

It was Maurice Tate who was hitting the ball that day. The scorecard reveals Hampshire playing Sussex starting 6th August, 1924. Tate, after capturing 5 for 114, scored 164 in two and a half hours with 21 fours and 4 sixes.

Brodribb’s reaction was to get hooked on to cricket for life, and to find out all about Jessop from cricket books and magazines.

In 1974, fifty years down the line, he published The Croucher, the long-deserved biography of this excellent all-round cricketer Gilbert Jessop. The excerpt above is from the prologue of this magnificent piece of work.

Brodribb researched painstakingly to get every fact correct, every detail accurate.

By the way, he also wrote the biography of Maurice Tate. As also a detailed study of Cricket at Hastings. He made it a point to document facts, study figures and turn them into invaluable accounts of what actually took place.

Not multiple contradicting accounts of what did not.

That made him one of the luminaries in the curious cohort of cricket historians under Roland Bowen, who produced that informative and short-lived periodical Cricket Quarterly.

Cardus did write about Jessop too, time and again, in lazy pen-sketches, as usual covering up the enormous gaps in substance with flourishes of style. Or at least trying to. He wrote no biography. Not of a single cricketer.

He almost worshipped Archie MacLaren, but it was Michael Down who had to fill that long lasting gap in cricket literature by penning the biography of the man Cardus called The Noblest Roman.

Cardus never went beyond short essays full of poetic sound and fury, signifying factual nothingness. Biographies are hard work. He did write the musical memoir of Kathleen Ferrier, but that was because, one suspects, he found her ‘one of the most wonderful and beautiful creatures who has ever been born into this world’. His words, not mine.

This is Brodribb’s story, not that of Cardus. But without the contrast, it is rather difficult to explain how important Brodribb’s work was, and how the habitually careless recreation seeking human minds, eager to be elated with tales of imagination and seldom too keen on actual facts, have almost forgotten the remarkable historian with a zeal for truth and continue to lionise the charlatan who misrepresented the world of cricket and music to multiple generations.

Note: The variations of the Cardus chronicles have been listed with considerable rigour by Christopher O’Brien in his excellent book Neville Cardus: The Truth, the Untruth and the Higher Truth.

We will now put charlatans aside and dwell on this remarkable man.

Teacher, archaeologist, cricket writer, researcher

Brodribb did not just pen the biographies of Jessop, Tate and the story of Hastings. His work was prolific, especially given the depth of research involved in each of them.

Perhaps the best of them all was the brilliant Felix on the Bat. It contains the treatise of Nicholas Felix on the art of batting, the immortal work of the great polymath who was also one of the premier cricketers of his era. The bit written by Felix, including the drawings and the documentation of his bowling machine Catapulta, is preceded by a detailed account of the life of this fascinating man by Brodribb himself.

And that too is not all.

Arthur Gerald Norcott Brodribb was born in St Leonar’s on Sea, Sussex in 1915.

Educated at Eastbourne and University College, Oxford, he did not obtain a place in the school or university teams. However, he was a useful club cricketer, and did turn out for MCC and the Jesters.

After graduating, he became a teacher at Repton, Christ’s Hospital and Canford, before becoming the Headmaster of a Sussex Preparatory School.

And apart from his interest in cricket, he was a keen archaeologist, a member of the Society of Antiquaries.

Brodribb started writing for Roy Webber’s Cricket Book Society. The first publication was Some Memorable Innings, in the foreword of which he thanked county secretaries for permission to inspect county scorebooks. This is the very point that distinguishes him as a class apart. He actually checked facts and scorebooks.

In 1951 he published All Round the Wicket, a collection of 36 essays, some of which previously published in The Cricketer and The Field. The essays stretched from Charles Dickens in cricketing context, to an analysis of how often batsmen were out in each manner of dismissal. In a word, it was delightful.

After this Brodribb published his first major work, one of his books that became a commercial success. Next Man In was a survey of cricket laws and customs, and the way it is written with its veritable platter of delicious incidents and anecdotes is testimony to the author’s extraordinary attention to detail and depth of forays into cricket literature.

Next, Brodribb produced another superb collection of essays, this time on big hits. Hit for Six was compiled painstakingly, and the author visited many cricket grounds in England in order to check the facts he had obtained from match reports.

Stephen Green, the Lord’s archivist, recalled: “One was always excited by the prospect of visit from Gerald. He was such an engaging character. But one was also a trifle apprehensive. To be interrogated by him was like an extensive session of Mastermind. Questions were asked at an alarming speed on a vast range of topics. It was impossible to keep up with such a human dynamo.”

A founder member of Cricket Society, Brodribb later, as already indicated, wrote studious but extremely readable accounts of the lives of Jessop and Felix. In fact, Patrick Morrah borrowed heavily from his research when he wrote his book on Alfred Mynn, published one year after Felix.

A regular contributor to a host of cricket magazines, one wonders whether Brodribb was always credited with a byline for some of his works. For example, Weber’s Cricket Book Society had a series of Miscellany columns which had very evident Brodribb touch.

It was little surprise that Bowen would be attracted by a man with such scrupulous approach to historical accuracy. Much of his rigour was utilised in the articles of Cricket Quarterly.

Besides, his diverse interests in things cricketing went further.

In 1948 he published a collection of writings on cricket as an anthology, titled The English Game.

1953 he produced an anthology titled A Book of Cricket Verse.

And then, in 1956, there was the fantastic account of Henry Sayen. This Yankee gentleman became England’s Good Mascot in 1953 as Len Hutton’s team successfully regained The Ashes. Brodribb produced A Yankee Looks at Cricket after several discussions with Sayen.

His researches were not limited to cricket, though. This report from The Times dated September 23, 2007, underlines the depth with which he pursued each of his interests: “A Roman bath house with remains of plunge pools, steam rooms and clothes lockers is for sale in the town of Battle, East Sussex. Built for officers of the Roman navy in about AD90, the baths are on the market for a modest £300,000. The baths were excavated in 1970 by Gerald Brodribb, an amateur archaeologist who identified the remains with divining rods and set about digging with a team of 40 enthusiasts. Brodribb found remnants of two steam rooms, three plunge pools and two changing rooms with lockers.”

In 1987, Brodribb published Roman Brick and Tile, which remains a key work on the subject.

By the 1990s, he was getting on in years. But that did not stop him from producing a primer on underarm bowling in 1997. The Lost Art remains one of the important books on the subject and was a key source for this series. However, produced when he was 82, it lacks the meticulous depth of his other books.

He was also encouraging to other writers. In the mid-1990s, Barry Phillips, a Somerset supporter, approached him after reading his account of Arthur Wellard in Hit for Six. Brodribb had no reservations in sharing with Phillips all the interviews he took of Wellard. Phillips used this material to produce a very readable biography of the Somerset fast bowler and hitter.

Brodribb passed away in 1999.

As early as 1710, Jonathan Swift analysed human nature accurately enough to state: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

Hence, less than two decades after his death, hardly anyone remembers Brodribb. However, the Cardus version of the facts are often treated as gospel, with the same disdain for scorecards as demonstrated by that patron saint of careless reportage.

“His work in cricket was painstaking — but alas almost unrecognised now, in this frantic age,” is what David Frith has to say about Brodribb.

Yet, for the ones to whom cricket matters in its diligent details, as verifiable chronicles of a sport rather than mythical creations of fertile imagination, Gerald Brodribb is a name to be celebrated.