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Walter Keeton: A Nottinghamshire giant lost in a generation of England’s openers

Walter Keeton © Getty Images
Walter Keeton amassed 57 runs in two Tests for England. Photo Courtesy: Player’s Cigarettes

Nottinghamshire giant Walter Keeton was born on April 30, 1905. A solid opening batsman, Keeton missed out on a long Test career mainly because his career coincided with the likes of some of the finest openers England has produced. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a man born at the wrong place in the wrong time.

Few people have served Nottinghamshire better than William Walter Keeton (for some reason mentioned as William Wallace Keeton in his Wisden obituary): in a First-Class career — albeit not entirely for Notts — that lasted for over a quarter of a century, Keeton emerged as one of the leading English opening batsmen of the 1930s.

His career did not coincide with Jack Hobbs’s, but he had at least four men in the Test circuit who were difficult to displace by most batsmen; he was fortunate in the sense that Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton had a very small overlap, but Bob Wyatt and Charlie Barnett were no mean batsmen either; a series of injuries did not help Keeton’s cause, either. Wisden, on the other hand, wrote: “Probably most people would reckon that the selectors were right, that he (Keeton) was a good county player but not quite Test class.”

Keeton “had a sound defence, was a fine cutter and also had a good cover-drive”, but he is generally remembered for his leg-side stroke-play. He had mastered that stroke which few have throughout the course of history: the on-drive. John Arlott called Keeton “immaculate”, which was probably the most appropriate word to describe him. He was all about perfection; right from the back-lift to the follow-through, from the crease of the shirt to the well-positioned cap, everything about Keeton was flawless.

With Charlie Harris Keeton formed a formidable opening pair for Nottinghamshire — one that Wisden compared to Jack Brown and John Tunnicliffe of Yorkshire, Hobbs and Andy Sandham of Surrey, and Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes of Yorkshire. Keeton and Harris put together 45 century-stands, five of which were in excess of 200.

Comparing the two, RC Robertson-Glasgow wrote: “He [Harris] is a strange addition to Walter Keeton as they walk out to open an innings; Keeton strung up, concentrated, quick-glancing; Harris serenely distrait, revolving idealistic strokes against an attack that will not occur; lagging sometimes a pace or two behind, like a boy with parent on an unwilling Sunday walk.”

From 397 First-Class matches Keeton finished with a tally of 24,276 runs at 39.53 with 54 hundreds. For Nottinghamshire alone he scored 23,744 runs and 54 hundreds, finishing fourth on both counts in the history of the county. He also scored hundreds against all counties he played against. Despite his success he played only two Tests, mostly due to injuries and the fierce competition at the top of the England batting order. He was also an excellent fielder at the deep.

Early days

Shirebrook is a mining community to the south-east of Chesterfield, Derbyshire. It is here that Keeton was born to William and Mary Ann; Walter also had an elder sister called Doris. By 1911 Keeton had found a job as a Stallman in a mine at Forest Town, another mining community in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.

Walter played for Mansfield Colliery Cricket Club, attended the Nottinghamshire trials, and took up a job as a Nottinghamshire staff. He was certainly not the only Test cricketer who would emerge from a Nottinghamshire mining community.

Keeton was a competent footballer (which was perhaps the reason for his being a good outfielder) who played for Sunderland and Nottingham Forest, but his real competence and passion lay in cricket. He made his debut for Nottinghamshire Second XI in 1925, and made it to Championship cricket the next season, scoring one against Hampshire at Trent Bridge. He scored three and five not out from the only other opportunity he got that season, and was shelved for two seasons.

Breaking through to the Nottinghamshire side in the late 1920s was not an easy task: with George Gunn and “Dodger” Whysall going strong at the top of the order it was almost impossible for a youngster to break through. Keeton’s years passed by as he reached an age of 25 with a mere nine matches under his belt: 151 runs at 15.10 was not really something one would be proud of after a career of five years.

Then, suddenly, Whysall passed away of septicaemia at an age of 43, opening a doorway for Keeton in a way he would possibly not have preferred; with Gunn also quitting after two more seasons, Keeton suddenly found himself as the main opener for Nottinghamshire. Harris would take some time to arrive.

The ascent begins

Keeton got his Nottinghamshire cap in 1931. That season also saw him register 100 not out — his maiden First-Class hundred — against Essex at Trent Bridge, and he followed it soon afterwards with 131 against Hampshire at Bournemouth, adding 119 with Gunn. That was merely an appetiser, since he started 1932 with 142 against Sussex at Trent Bridge, and went on a run-scoring spree.

He finished the season with 2,062 runs with seven hundreds, and scored 2,258 at 42.60 with six more hundreds in 1933 (after he was kept out for two matches following a blow on the head against Yorkshire). The selectors called him up for two trial matches at Old Trafford and Cardiff, but unfortunately for Keeton he received an injury in the first match and was forced to retire.

Then came 1934, which, if anything, was an improvement: in less than a month’s span Keeton scored 261 against Gloucestershire and 64 and 114 against Kent (both at Trent Bridge) and 223 against Worcestershire at Worksop. Given his sublime form Keeton was drafted into the fourth Test of the 1934 Ashes as Sutcliffe had stood down with a strained leg.

Test debut

Keeton opened with Cyril Walters after Wyatt decided to bat; he batted patiently for a 62-ball 25, helping add 43 in 55 minutes for the opening stand before Bill O’Reilly had him caught-behind: he impressed Headingley with his stroke-play, especially the two cuts and the square-drive. Walters top-scored with 44, and England were bowled out for a round 200 against the wiles of O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett.

 

A triple-blow from Bill Bowes then reduced the tourists to 39 for three, but Bill Ponsford (181) and Don Bradman (304) ended up adding 388 for the fourth wicket; Bradman added 90 more with Stan McCabe, but the rest collapsed in a heap, leaving England over five sessions to bat out against O’Reilly and Grimmett.

Trailing by 384, Walters and Keeton started aggressively, adding 28 in 25 minutes before Grimmett ran through Keeton’s defence. England finished the day on 188 for four, but a heavy downpour resulted in the match being drawn with England six wickets down.

With Sutcliffe fit again Keeton was dropped for the final Test at The Oval; Australia won by a mammoth 562 runs, regained the Ashes, and did not relinquish it for close to two decades.

Tying the Notts again

The winter of 1934 witnessed Keeton being knocked down by a lorry, but not only did he to survive, he also managed to get back to cricket soon. The incident restricted his appearances to a mere 14 in 1935, but he soon found his way back. Wisden wrote: “The mental as well as the physical effects of this (the accident) proved stubborn to overcome, and it speaks volumes for Walter) Keeton’s pluck that he fought his way back to his best form.”

He was back at his best soon, crossed the 2,000-mark in 1937. Against Kent that season at home, Nottinghamshire were up against a huge 467 for five on a turning track against Doug Wright; Keeton carried his bat through the innings, putting up an exemplary display of footwork and technique and shielding his partners, remaining unbeaten on 99 as Nottinghamshire collapsed for 190.

The rise, the comeback, and the break

Keeton was down with appendicitis in 1938 (he underwent a surgery in October), but recovered in time for the next season, which was certainly the peak of his career. The crown jewel was the epic against Middlesex at The Oval (Lord’s was hosting an Eton vs Harrow encounter at that time).

True, there were chances: but that did not stop Keeton from scoring the only triple-hundred by a Nottinghamshire batsman till date. His unbeaten 312 lasted 435 minutes (he almost carried his bat again, but George Hearne declared the innings with Notts nine wickets down) before unleashing Bill Voce on the hosts: Middlesex lost by an innings and plenty.

With England 1-0 up in the home series the selectors decided to bring Keeton in for the third Test against West Indies at The Oval. Hammond decided to bat, and Keeton, opening with Hutton, was bowled for a duck by debutant Tyrell Johnson (it remained his only Test).

West Indies led by 146 and Keeton added 39 with Hutton before Learie Constantine ran through his defence. England saved the Test, but it remained his last Test innings. Keeton finished the season with 1,765 runs at 51.91, and was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

Unfortunately for Keeton, he broke the middle-finger of his right hand against Essex at Clacton-on-Sea in August, and did not play in the season again. The War broke out after the season.

Post-War

Keeton played cricket during World War II, representing the National Police XI against The Army in 1943. He resumed his First-Class career in 1946, and crossed the 2,000-mark in his comeback season. After an ordinary 1948 it seemed that he would fade away with age, but he ended up proving everyone wrong. Wisden later wrote that he “showed no sign of the advancing years.”

In 1949, at an age of 44, Keeton came back with a vengeance. He had an amazing run, scoring 210 against Yorkshire at Bramall Lane, 64 and 109 not out against Hampshire at home, 208 against Glamorgan at home, and 134 against Lancashire at Old Trafford in consecutive innings. He finished the season with 2,049 runs at 55.37 with six hundreds.

He went on for two more seasons, but he was hardly the same batsman. He quit in 1951, only to make a solitary comeback the next season against Yorkshire at Bradford, where he scored five and a duck and Nottinghamshire lost by ten wickets.

Later days

Keeton had married Florence E Russell at Mansfield in 1929, and remained almost detached from the sport in his later days. He owned a sports goods shop and worked as a clerk at the National Coal Board.

Keeton passed away on October 10, 1980 at Forest Town, Nottinghamshire. He was 75.

 

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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