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April 5, 1928. Roy Kilner, the Yorkshire and England all-rounder, passed away from enteric fever at the age of just 37.Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was one of the favourite cricketers of Neville Cardus.
Cricket and Charm
“It is sad for a cricketer to die in the fullness of life, sadder still when he passes away at the spring of the year.”
Thus wrote Neville Cardus when Roy Kilner passed away at the age of just 37 just as call of a new season was gladdening the ears of the cricketing community. The Yorkshire cricketer was not only an all-rounder who played nine Tests for England, he was the most charming of cricketers — admired for his skills, famed for his mannerisms and loved for his wit.
In a county full of sterling cricketers who played the game hard, with relentless zeal to win, Kilner’s contributions could be as pivotal as any of his colleagues — but ‘in a team of Ironsides he remained the jolly Cavalier’.
In the 1920s, he was a regular feature on the county grounds, the cap cocked jauntily on his head, slightly askew; face wide and bland, wise with war-enriched experience; his figure compact and rotund, the posterior instantly recognisable with its perfectly rounded curves.
With the bat, he could essay some of the most stinging extra cover drive, and was reliable even though mostly unorthodox. When the situation demanded, he could leave ball after ball as they tempted outside the off-stump, his spirit drawn to the deliveries even as his willow was checked by iron will. When the restraint no longer worked, the bat could flash with unbridled thrill, and the ball could race past the covers. Equally probable was his being snapped up in the slips and departing in his cheery manner. Apart from his drives, for much of his career he also pulled with ease and command.
His initial years as a batsman earned him a regular place in the Yorkshire side before World War I intervened. He returned in 1919, nursing a war wound, walking back into a side short of bowlers. And to compensate he ran in to bowl his left arm slows, becoming one of the best in the land. His run up to the wicket was short, his left arm going over in the classical mould of a Wilfred Rhodes or a Johnny Briggs. On a helpful wicket, the ball was prone to spin away from the middle stump across the face of the bat. On a sticky he could be a real handful, as he was in the Adelaide Test of 1925. He spun more than any English bowler of his day and that included fellow-Yorkshireman Rhodes. However, unlike his famed teammate, Kilner often preferred to bowl over the wicket. He was not averse from experimenting with wrist spin as well, and bowled some deliveries of the variety that has gone down to be known as Chinaman.
Towards the latter years, though, he tended to bowl more and more over the wicket, with just one slip in position, drying runs up with a leg side field. His effectiveness had been reduced, and on good wickets success was difficult to come by.
In any case, Kilner scored more than 1,000 runs in 10 seasons, and took more than 100 wickets five times. On four occasions he did this together, thus completing the double. In all he scored 14,707 runs at 30.01, and took 1,003 wickets at 18.45. He was a top notch all-rounder.
The short Test career
His Test career was brief, but not without its moments. Kilner came into contention with excellent bowling performances in the early 1920s. He played against South Africa in 1924, making a half century on debut at Birmingham.
Some superb batting displays towards the end of 1924 ensured a trip to Australia in the winter with Arthur Gilligan’s men. He made 103 against Western Australia in the first match and remained a consistent performer with both bat and ball all through the tour.
In the first Test at Adelaide, Kilner captured four wickets in each innings. This included a spell of four for 14 on a sticky in the second innings. He went on to take four more in the first innings at Sydney. Kilner also scored 74 from number eight at Melbourne in England’s only victory in the Tests.
Kilner finished the series with 129 runs and averaged 29.80 and 17 wickets at an average of 23.47.He emerged as the second most successful bowler after Maurice Tate. Wisden noted that no-one but Kilner could take wickets to support Tate.
After this tour Kilner’s performances with the ball declined. He went on the trip of West Indies in 1925-26, but did not really shine with either bat or ball.
Nevertheless, he was still in contention when the Australians visited in 1926. Kilner did take four for 70 in the Lord’s Test, but did little more with bat or ball and was not able to hold on to his place in the England side for the final match at The Oval. He ended his Test career with 233 runs at 33.28 and 24 wickets at 30.58.
The short life
Born in Wombwell, Barnsley, in October 1890, Kilner was the second among 11 siblings. Cricket was in his blood, his uncle Irving Washington was a former Yorkshire cricketer. Kilner first turned out for the local colliery team Mitchell Main. Among his brothers, Norman Kilner was a solid right-handed batsman who played for Yorkshire after the First World War, and subsequently represented Warwickshire.
Runs for Mitchell Main saw Roy Kilner moving into the Yorkshire Second XI in 1910. He was sent to play for Harrogate Cricket Club in 1911 — intended as his finishing school in the art of cricket. The same year saw him make his First-Class debut for Yorkshire.
When the War broke out, Kilner served in the West Yorkshire Regiment. He trained as a mechanic before being stationed at Colsterdale in North Yorkshire as a Corporal. Later he was posted with his battalion in Egypt but an injury resulted in his being sent home. After recovery, Kilner was sent to the Western Front in France. It was during the Battle of the Somme that he was wounded again, receiving a shrapnel wound on his wrist. He recovered in a military hospital near Blackpool before being assigned to Preston Garrison as a mechanic. The War claimed one of his brothers, Bernard, killed at Ypres in 1917.
During the War, Kilner also played football as a right back for Preston North End FC in the Second Division. For some obscure reason, he often played under the pseudonym Smith.
When cricket resumed after the War in 1919, Yorkshire was woefully short of bowlers. Major William Booth, a close friend of Kilner, had perished in the War. Alonzo Drake had died from illness. George Hirst was getting on in years. The onus thus fell on Kilner to bowl more and more, and he responded. Soon, he was one of the major bowlers of the side, and subsequently of the country.
Several winters saw Kilner spend his time coaching in India — at the invitation of the Maharaja of Patiala. In 1927-28, he was as usual invited to play and coach in the country. Mollie Kilner, his sister, later said that the all-rounder was reluctant to make the trip from the very outset.
He finally went in tragic circumstances. His uncle Irving Washington passed away the day after he sailed away. Evidence suggests that Kilner was depressed during most of the days that he spent in India that year. He still managed to score big in some of the matches he played, including a huge innings of 283. But, soon he started suffering from a nagging fever. Yorkshire teammates Arthur Dolphin and Maurice Leyland, also in India during that time, thought he had contracted some infection from eating oysters.
During the journey home, Kilner began to have shivering attacks and perspiration from the time the ship reached Marseilles. When he arrived at Southampton he was critically ill. He passed away from enteric fever in Kendray Fever Hospital near Barnsley on April 5, 1928. He was just 37.
The death shocked many, both at home and around the cricketing world. As many as 100,000 people gathered, most from far off places, to pay their last respects. Over a thousand were at the cemetery while the Yorkshire cricketers carried the coffin. At the funeral the rector said, “A Yorkshire wicket has fallen and one of Yorkshire’s best men is out; and we lament his loss; not merely because it is the loss of a great cricketer, but because it is the loss of such a cricketer as Roy Kilner was.” Two years later, Bill Woodfull’s Australian team of 1930 visited Kilner’s grave in Wombwell to lay a wreath.
Kilner’s place in the cricketing chronicles was secure by virtue of being one of the favourite cricketers of Neville Cardus. The doyen of cricket writers revelled in memories of Kilner’s quotes that sparkled with charm and wit. Of course, it being Cardus we cannot often vouch for authenticity. However, some of the words attributed to Kilner have become legendary. About the Roses battles between Yorkshire and Lancashire, he was supposed to have said: “What we want is no umpires and fair cheating all round … We say good morning and then we never speaks again for three days.”
Cardus supposedly spoke to Kilner at length about the game of the 1920s, the perfect pitches, tall scores, slow batting and poor bowling. Should the rules of county cricket be altered? According to Cardus, Kilner was emphatic in his response, “T’ game’s all right. It’s crowd that’s wrong — it wants educating up to t’ game.”
As Cardus wrote, “Men of humour never ought to die anywhere or anyhow. The death of Roy Kilner at the age of 37 is as outrageous as it is sorrowful.”
(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)
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