Bill Edrich: One of the pillars of English batting in a bygone era © Getty Images
Bill Edrich: One of the pillars of English batting in a bygone era © Getty Images

March 26, 1916. The birth of Bill Edrich, one of the pillars of English batting during the difficult phase immediately after the Second World War. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the Middlesex batsman who formed a supreme batting partnership with Denis Compton.

Before the ship sails

Bill Edrich walked out to bat on the morning of the seventh day of the Durban Test. Chasing a ridiculous 696 to win, the tourists had just lost Len Hutton with the score on 78.

It was a Timeless Test, but time was fast running out for this Middlesex batsman. He had gained a regular place in the Test side in the summer of 1938, after an act of exemplary generosity by Don Bradman. But, since then this was his eighth Test, and he had a tally of 88 runs at an average of 8, with a highest of 28. Captain Wally Hammond had promoted him from No. 6 to No. 3 in the second innings with the slightly taunting words, “You’re going No. 3, because if you get a couple of hundred we might have a chance.”

By the time play was over that day, Edrich was unbeaten on 107.

It rained through the second weekend of the Test. Yes, the second weekend. After the two-day break, Edrich resumed on Monday and continued to bat till tea. A few minutes before the break, he duly completed his double century.

During the interval, Flight Lieutenant AJ Holmes, the manager of the English team, poured the hero a glass of champagne with the words, “I hear you train on the stuff.” An exhausted Edrich downed a second glass as well, hoping that ‘the champagne would get me going again’. He was caught by his great drinking buddy Norman Gordon at short-leg in the first over after tea — if it can be called tea under the circumstances. Edrich had spent seven hours and 40 minutes on the crease for his 219. It was 447 for 3.

England were on 654 for 5 on the 10th day when rain started pelting down. The teams decided they had had enough. England could not afford to play another day and miss the mail-ship bound for Southampton. The match went down as a draw with ‘by arrangement’ in parenthesis. South African middle-order batsman Ken Viljoen later remembered it as the only time he needed two haircuts during a match!

Well, the lead up to the Test and what happened in it forms a defining snapshot of Bill Edrich’s career — broadly categorised into failure, success and drink.

The Bradman benevolence

Edrich started as an opening batsman for Middlesex and made it to the Test side based on a fantastic milestone achieved due to the largesse of Don Bradman.

The feat of one thousand First-Class runs before the end of May has been achieved only nine times in the history of English seasons, by eight batsmen. Of course Bradman did it twice — that’s the sort of thing he revelled in. WG Grace was the first in 1895 and Graeme Hick the last in 1988.

Bradman started off his exploits in England with his first quick thousand before the May of 1930, a few days after setting foot in the country for the first time. By the time he did it again in 1938, headlines would have blared bigger and louder if by some quirk of nature he had failed to achieve the landmark. He duly reached it on May 27, the earliest date ever for this milestone.

Two days earlier, playing his penultimate match in May against Worcestershire, Edrich had started on 981. And on a sticky Lord’s wicket, he had fallen for a second-ball duck.

The final match in May for the young batsman was against Bradman’s Australian side. The first day, May 28, was washed out. And on the second afternoon following Sunday’s rest, Bill O’Reilly turned a googly past Edrich’s bat to bowl him for nine. The Daily Telegraph observed: “It was this ball which whipped back to rob him of what appeared to be his last chance of completing his 1,000.”

The final day was played under dark London skies, and frequent appeals against the light by the Australian batsmen made the crowd boo and jeer in frustration. Bradman refused to go on if Middlesex’s fast bowlers were used after tea.

At 5:09 pm, suddenly Bradman, at the crease with Stan McCabe, turned to Edrich and said with a smile, “See if you can get those 10, Bill.” He declared the innings, giving the youngster 11 minutes to knock off the required runs.

“I felt I just could not let him down,” Edrich recalled later.

Edrich opened the innings, and accompanying him to the wicket was a new partner — Denis Compton. Australia bowled their overs quickly — 6 in those few minutes. Bradman brought his field in, preventing easy singles. With five minutes remaining, Edrich steered Mervyn Waite to the boundary past second slip to reach the milestone. Bradman was the first to congratulate him. Edrich remains the only one to achieve this on the same ground, Lord’s.

Incidentally, in recent times with much fewer matches, the feat has become almost obsolete. The last modern batsman to get within a whisker of the landmark was Nick Compton, [he was stranded 50 short of the rare feat in 2012 when rain brought an early end to Somerset’s match against Worcestershire] the grandson of Edrich’s partner that day.

Ten days later, Bill Edrich made his Test debut at Nottingham, scoring five before being bowled by O’Reilly yet again. In the Ashes series he played all the Tests, managing just 67.

As stated earlier, he came good in his eighth Test with 219 at Durban, and it was incidentally his last innings before the Second World War. The selectors, having persisted with him during that atrocious few matches, decided to drop him after the double hundred. He did not play a Test against the touring West Indians of 1939. In that year, Jack Robertson and Sid Brown formed a hugely successful partnership at the top of the order for Middlesex. Bill Edrich vacated his opener’s slot and started coming in at No. 3.

Len Hutton (left) and Bill Edrich come out to bat for England against Australia at The Oval in 1938 © Getty Images
Len Hutton (left) and Bill Edrich come out to bat for England against Australia at The Oval in 1938 © Getty Images

Australian summer

Edrich hailed from Norfolk farming stock — a family good enough in the cricketing sense to often field their own playing eleven. Brother Eric played 35 matches for Lancashire, brother Brian 181 for Glamorgan and Kent, brother Geoff 339 for Lancashire and cousin John, born a year before Bill’s century in May, played 77 Tests for England.

During the War Edrich served with distinction with the RAF, winning the DFC as a bomber pilot.

When cricket was resumed after the War, Edrich, a professional till 1939, became an amateur. The tale of curious selections continued — and he played just one Test match against the touring Indians of 1946, and did not get a chance to bat. However, he did bowl in the match and obtained his career-best figures of four for 68.

A late choice for the Australian tour under Hammond, Edrich finally became a force to reckon with on that nightmarish series.

In the first Test at Brisbane, Bradman famously stood his ground after Jack Ikin had claimed his catch at slip off Bill Voce. The great man, on 28 at that time, went on to score 187. Responding to Australia’s 645, England was caught on a hideous wicket with Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Ernie Toshack running in with almost unplayable hostility. Eyewitnesses swore that the Middlesex batsman was struck at least 10 times on the body. He stood there for almost hundred minutes, scoring 16. Wisden called it one of the most skilful batting displays.

England were routed 0-3, losing a couple of Test matches by an innings. Edrich scored 462 runs at 46.20, including 71 and 119 at Sydney, 89 at Melbourne and 60 in the final Test again at Sydney. During the tour, before Hutton, Cyril Washbrook and Compton ran into some sort of form, Edrich was the backbone of English batting. According to Neville Cardus, “Not only did he render it vertebrae, but he almost supplied the red corpuscles alone.”

Edrich’s value was also enhanced by his ability to charge in from a short run-up and throw the entire weight of his five foot six inch frame into a low, slinging action — and produce genuine pace for a few overs. England’s bowling woes of the late forties did contribute to his sometimes opening the attack.

The golden summer

It was in the summer of 1947 that golden sunshine bathed England, and runs sparkled on the cricket grounds. The name of Edrich was traced by the unstoppable flow. The Middlesex man scored 3,539 runs at 80.43, beating Tom Hayward’s 41-year old season aggregate. However, batting alongside him for most of the season, Compton beat it as well and went further — finishing with 3,816 at 90.85.

It was the season when the partnership of Compton and Edrich grew into a legend. Against Leicestershire, Edrich scored 257, putting on 277 with Compton in 131 minutes.  Against Northamptonshire he scored 267. It was a tragedy that a strained arm kept him from bowling in the latter part of the season. Edrich had to remain satisfied with just 67 wickets.

The duo revelled in the Tests as well. South Africa visited and Edrich plundered 552 runs off them, scoring 189 at Lord’s adding 370 with Compton, and 191 at Old Trafford while putting on 228 in 196 minutes with his mate.

The fall

Yet, when Bradman brought his Invincibles along for his final Test series, Edrich started off poorly against Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Toshack and Bill Johnston. It was in the famous fourth Test match at Leeds that he finally came good with 111 and 54. He was instrumental in setting the 400 plus target for Australia, overcome by Bradman and Arthur Morris on the fifth afternoon.

The following summer New Zealand visited and Edrich scored 324 runs at 54, inclusive of a hundred. This was the zenith of his career, after which it went steadily downhill.

The strong West Indians, with their three Ws, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, arrived in 1950. At Manchester, England gained a 202 run victory and Edrich scored 71 in the second innings. However, it was the very Test match that spelled disaster for his career.

When he was dropped after a heavy defeat at Lord’s — a Test made immortal by Lord Kitchener’s calypso — people concluded that it because of his identical scores of eight in each innings. Indeed he had looked absolutely hapless against Ramadhin. Although, it is only fair to add that Clyde Walcott would not have scored 168 if he had not been dropped off Edrich in the slips when on nine. The actual reason for his omission stemmed from what had transpired in Manchester.

After Godfrey Evans had scored a valiant century at Old Trafford, Edrich had taken him out to celebrate on the Saturday evening of the Test match. The next morning he turned up for breakfast right on time. However, the fact that he was still dressed in his dinner jacket raised some eyebrows. He had just come back from his nocturnal adventures.

He might have got away with it, given that it was the rest day. But, Edrich decided on an encore that evening. He was sensible enough to come back in the early hours, but was by his own admission “rather noisy” when he was being helped to his room by the night porter. Later he noted, “It wouldn’t have mattered had not the chairman of selectors, Bob Wyatt, been occupying the next room.”

He had scored 71 in the match, but that was not enough. A disciplinary committee was assembled for a hearing at Lord’s. It was doubly embarrassing for Edrich, the captain of Middlesex.

It did not help that Edrich led a rather macabre lifestyle. His drinking exploits were legendary, he did not hesitate to stand up to authority. Additionally, his favourite pastime was getting married and divorced with metronomic regularity. His final number of divorces was challenged only by Hugh Tayfield. Finally, although an amateur after World War II, many of the important decision makers still considered him as a worker rather than a gentleman.

Denis Compton followed by Bill Edrich and other players make their way through the vast crowd at the conclusion of the final Ashes Test at The Oval, 1953 © Getty Images
Denis Compton followed by Bill Edrich and other players make their way through the vast crowd at the conclusion of the final Ashes Test at The Oval, 1953 © Getty Images

Hence, Edrich found himself in front of Plum Warner, that self-important pillar of English cricket with often dubious priorities. Edrich was used to having his escapades tolerated as long as he performed. Now he was shocked when Warner asked him: “Would you like to withdraw your name from the list of possibles for the tour of Australia?” Edrich refused, but the decision had been made. Freddie Brown was appointed captain and according to him Edrich was expendable: “I’ve enough on my plate without taking him,”

England went to Australia without Edrich and lost 1-4. The double-faced nature of Warner was again apparent when, at a dinner in London, the novelist CP Snow asked him about Brown’s captaincy. Warner replied: “He made one very costly error by refusing to allow the selectors to take Edrich. He would probably have tilted the series in our favour.”

The ban lasted three years. Edrich was not recalled until midway through the 1953 Ashes series. Opening with Hutton, he played the last three Tests, scoring 64 at Headingley and 55 not out at The Oval where the Ashes were regained.

He made only four in the Test he played against Pakistan in 1954, but was nevertheless chosen to tour Australia. The series started promisingly enough with 88 in the second innings at Brisbane. However, thereafter the scores were low, and ultimately he bowed out of Test cricket with a duck in the fourth Test at Adelaide.

He continued to play for Middlesex till 1958, and after that turned out for Norfolk till 1972, batting in his customary fashion and bowling slow off-breaks.

The people’s cricketer

Edrich was never a noble, fluent batsman like his famed batting partner Denis Compton. If Compton approached batting like a dashing knight, propelled by the generous touch of genius, Edrich was the more street-smart. His bat did not swing in that arc of the greats, and neither did he revel in hitting down the ground. He relied on his physical courage and doggedness, a batsman the crowd would have identified with as one of their own, someone worthy of clasping to the bosom rather than worshipping on a hallowed pedestal. His grip was bottom handed, relying on the cut, hook and pull-drive to score his runs.  Possessing a wonderful eye, he was an asset against fast bowling and on bad wickets. Yet, quick as he might score on his day, he could not forget the humble roots of his batsmanship, and was prone to be watchful even while giving the ball a hearty thwack.

During his early days Edrich was a brilliant outfielder, but later his superb reflexes and quick movements were used in the slips.

Till the injury of 1947, he was a more than useful fast bowler as well, his action reminiscent of the amateurs of village green, but the output often quick and disconcerting. “He hurled the ball down as hard as he could, the energy of his action carrying him halfway down the pitch, as though drawn in the draught caused by his velocity,” wrote Cardus.

A superb all-round sportsman, Edrich played football for Norwich City and later Tottenham Hotspur. His comrade-in-arms, Denis Compton, turned out for Arsenal.

For Middlesex his final tally stood at 25,738 runs at 43.40 and 328 wickets at 30.41.For England his career had been a saga of ups and downs, sudden highs and absolute lows. It got him 2,440 runs at an average of exactly 40.00 in 39 Tests. He also claimed 41 wickets at 41.29.

Convivial, hearty and much loved by his fellow players, Edrich passed away after a fall at his Chesham, Buckinghamshire home in the summer of 1986.

The Denis Compton and Bill Edrich Stands are located side by side at the Nursery End of Lord’s Cricket Ground. They stand as a living testimony to the service rendered to English and Middlesex cricket by these two wonderful cricketers. According to Colin Bateman, of Daily Express the stands constitute: “A dull, practical structure which does little justice to their mercurial talents and indomitable spirits”

(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)