Godfrey Evans © Getty Images
Godfrey Evans © Getty Images

The charismatic yet perfectionist Godfrey Evans was born on August 18, 1920. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the ‘keeper of England’s destiny for a decade and a half.

“In a rain-ruined match on a difficult Oval pitch [1946], India scored 331 in their only innings — and Godfrey let through a solitary bye. He would remember it to his dying day 53 years later: ‘Do you know, I still wake up sometimes cursing myself for that wretched, idiotic little bye. Jim Langridge, twirly left-arm, Sussex, remember him? He floated down this silly little blighter outside off stump; it might have kept a bit low, but I took my eye off it for a fraction and it scuttled through. I didn’t half swear at myself. Still do.’” Thus wrote Frank Keating in Godfrey Evans’ obituary.

Nothing epitomises Thomas Godfrey Evans’ fetish for fastidiousness than this incident. There have been the Alan Knotts and Bob Taylors and Jack Russells with various tales of obsession for faultlessness, but they would have all been paled in a battle of fastidiousness if Evans had been in the pack.

And yet, Evans was one of the more handsome cricketers around —with or without his trademark mutton-chops. When one talks of Brylcreem, it’s usually Denis Compton’s attractive face that comes to the mind — but Evans, in his heydays, had been a Brylcreem boy as well. He had also featured in a Slazenger commercial along with Compton, Len Hutton, and Trevor Bailey, and after his retirement, had acted in the 1959 television series After Hours.

Evans led Kent College in football and hockey (other than in cricket); however, none of these sports featured as options when he was asked to make a choice at the age of 17. He eventually had to give up boxing – a sport where he had won many a combat, both as an amateur and a professional.

Evans was that rare combination of perfection and exuberance that everyone strives to become but few succeed. His career ran almost parallel to Keith Miller and Denis Compton, and between them the remarkable trio brightened up the post-war days. He also had remarkable physical strength.

Knott wrote of him in The Guardian: “He was the most frighteningly strong cricketer I have ever seen. I remember a slight disagreement at a cocktail party between Godfrey and the giant Hampshire fast bowler, Butch White. Godfrey settled the argument by lifting Butch by his shoulders, raising him to the ceiling and hitting his head against it three times.”

Try to visualise such a man in action: he stood up to seamers, especially to Alec Bedser (Bedser was advised on this by Maurice Tate, to whom Herbert Strudwick often stood up to) — even against the new ball — standing up right behind the batsman. The poor man with the bat in his hand knew that whatever he edged will be lost in those gloves, and if that back leg slipped even by an inch the bails would be off in a flash. Yes, he was a stumper that good — even against pace.

Of his agility, Neville Cardus wrote: “Evans was modern in the almost surrealistic patterns achieved by his motions. He seemed to get to the ball by leaving out physical shapings and adjustments which ordinary human anatomies have to observe. He was a boneless wonder.” For once he wasn’t exaggerating.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins mentioned that Evans was of “stocky build and a quicksilver character; his darting movements flowed from his natural exuberance, and he made acrobatic catches that few others, and certainly no other contemporary could have reached.”

Then there was the sheer aura about his presence: few cricketers have been as energetic. Even when the opposition were 280 for 2 his vocal presence kept the fielding side alive. His vigour — often bolstered by the afternoon lunch-hour nap — lasted all day, and never failed to liven up the moral of the side.

In Evans’ own words, his success recipe was “a ham sandwich, a half of beer, and then a 25-minute serious kip on a bench or under it, in the lunch interval. The siesta was my unvarying and infallible recipe for my cricket.”

As a batsman Evans was aware of only two gears when it came to batting: the first and the fifth: a terribly unorthodox strokeplayer by nature, Evans had the ability to hang around for hours with fierce doggedness if the situation demanded.

In 91 Tests, Evans had held 173 catches and had effected 46 stumpings. Both the number of Tests and the number of dismissals (219) were world records when Evans had retired. He also ranks second (after Bert Oldfield with 52) in terms of stumpings in the history of the sport. Emulating these numbers by subsequent wicketkeepers would have been a lot more difficult had the World War II not robbed him of his early 20s.

Perhaps it was the war that had made him see life in a different way and turn into an extrovert, just like Compton and Miller. As Ian Wooldridge wrote in Mail, “Life [for war survivors] itself was a bonus. Money didn’t matter very much, authority didn’t concern them. Every minute of every day was to be enjoyed.”

Evans had 816 catches and 250 stumpings — a total of 1,066 dismissals — from 465 First-Class matches. What makes Evans stand out even more is the fact that Kent had produced two of the all-time wicketkeeping legends in Les Ames and Knott, and many an eye-witness has considered Evans as the best of the three.

Evans had also scored 14,482 runs at 21.22 with 7 hundreds. His Test average was marginally less — 20.49 as he scored 2,439 runs with 2 hundreds. At the time of his retirement he held the record for the most runs by a wicketkeeper in Tests.

Early days

Evans was born in Finchley, and was thus eligible to play for Middlesex as well. He wanted to keep wickets at college, but was discouraged by the college coach — for the sole reason that he could not hide a bulky youth in the side anywhere but beyond the stumps.

As a result Evans took to batting: when a newspaper announced an award of a bat signed by Jack Hobbs Evans went on to earn it thanks to an innings of 132. He attended the nets at Canterbury, and after he decided to give up boxing, was picked for the Second XI. His wicketkeeping went up by several notches under the mentorship of Ames and ‘Hopper’ Levett and the Kent coach Punter Humphries.

He eventually made his First-Class debut against Surrey at Blackheath towards the end of 1939 as a specialist batsman (Ames also played this match as a batsman as Levett kept wickets). He eventually kept wickets in his next match against Derbyshire at Gravesend when Levett left Kent to join the army before passing on some sound bit of advice: “Don’t give a fig about byes or any missed chances, just be on your toes and bristling ready for the next ball.”

Evans didn’t really stick to the advice — he remembered that bye at The Oval for ages — but years later he did pass it on to his Kent protégé Knott.

It turned out to be a rather ordinary season: Evans scored 50 runs at 7.14 from 5 matches, and managed to take only 4 catches. The War broke out before he could have another go at it.

Evans was enlisted for the Services. However, he was spotted by Arthur Gilligan during a Services match at Aldershot in 1942: Gilligan made sure that Evans got selected for whatever match of significance was played during the wars. As a result Evans’ stature as a wicketkeeper grew and despite there being no cricket at the higher levels Evans was generally regarded as England’s most talented wicketkeeper.

Ames was 41 by the time The War got over, so Evans, his reputation enhanced by the matches during the War, became the first-choice wicketkeeper for Kent. Evans was back with a bang, keeping wickets beautifully, though he struggled with the bat in early summer. He also earned his Kent cap that season.

Then, after a 72 against Hampshire at Canterbury (his fifth fifty of the season) the selectors thought he had done enough. They picked him for the last Test of the 1946 series against India at The Oval, replacing Paul Gibb.

Test debut

Evans did not get a chance to bat on debut, and neither did he have a wicketkeeping dismissal. He conceded a single bye in India’s score of 331 and rued it for the rest of his life (as mentioned by Keating above). However, the selectors were once again impressed by his wicketkeeping and picked him for the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand.

Gibb came back for the first Ashes Test at The Gabba, only to be replaced by Evans in the second Test at SCG. After England scored 255 Australia responded with a mammoth 659 for 8 in 173 eight-ball overs (1,384 balls). Evans did not concede a single bye — setting a new world record for biggest innings both in terms of balls and runs (Mike Findlay is the only one to have gone without a bye in more balls — 1,608 — while four wicketkeepers, all post-1990, have gone past the record of 659).

It was in this Test that Evans started to stand up to Bedser. He later told: “He needed me to. He knew it made him twice the bowler. But it made for a lot of bruises on my arms and chest, especially up into my armpits.”

To make the feat more remarkable, Evans did not concede a bye in first innings at Melbourne either after Australia had won by an innings at Sydney. He had now gone 2,163 balls and 1,024 runs without conceding a single bye. The bye eventually came in Australia’s second innings of the Test.

Evans went out to bat with the score on 255 for 8 in the second innings at Adelaide after England trailed by 27. He had Compton hanging around at one end, but it was only Day Four, and Australia had a very strong batting line-up. How long would Evans last against Miller, Ray Lindwall (who had dismissed Evans for a golden duck in the first innings), Ernie Toshack, Colin McCool, and Ian Johnson?

Wally Hammond sent Evans in with specific instructions: “If you get out, we are going to lose this match. Stay there as long as you can and give Denis Compton the strike.” Evans recalled, “So we only ran twos or fours when he hit the ball.”

The ebullient Compton scavenged for runs on the sweltering summer afternoon that had turned Adelaide Oval into a cauldron: the temperature was recorded at 107°F. Evans, however, seemed unaffected: his strong forearms rose menacingly — only to come down dead straight and smother the ball with the most placid of forward-defensive strokes. They batted out the 45 minutes on Day Four.

England’s strategies were clear: they never wanted to win the Test. Compton and Evans carried on the next day, trying their level best to bat Australia out of the Test. It took Evans 97 minutes to score his first run. He scored a two after that as the crowd broke out in a loud cheer.

When Hammond declared Compton had scored a 353-ball 103 in 284 minutes (after scoring 147 in the first innings). Evans, on the other hand, gave Compton most of the strike and finished with 10 in 96 balls and 133 minutes. He had even hit a boundary! The defensive strategy turned out to be a correct one as Australia finished with 215 for 1 in 44 overs with only 99 runs left for the match to be won.

Cardus wrote of the innings: “The innings was evidence of the serious side of Evans who, as with every born and skilful man of comedy, knew, and still knows, how to time a laugh.”

That night Evans received a telegram from England. It said “NEVER DID ONE MAN BAT FOR SO LONG FOR LITTLE.” It was from Winston Churchill.

[Note: When Geoff Allott ‘broke’ Evans’ record by scoring a 101-ball duck in 1998-99, Evans was among the first to congratulate him. As he said in an interview to The Telegraph, “When I arrived at the Cricketers’ Club in London this morning they said one of my records had been broken. I’ve only got one left so I knew exactly what had happened!”]

On the subsequent tour to New Zealand Evans scored his maiden First-Class hundred. Playing against Otago at Dunedin Evans came out at 207 for 5 and counterattacked from the very beginning. He scored 101 in an 80 minutes with 15 fours and a six in a 171-run stand with Jack Ikin.

Evans’ first Test fifty came at Trent Bridge against South Africa: the hosts had to follow-on after a first-innings deficit of 325 runs and Evans came out to bat at 407 for 5 with the Test still hanging by its hinges. In complete contrast to his Adelaide innings he scored runs at a rapid rate, scoring 74 in 76 minutes with 14 fours out of a team score of 92. The innings took the Test away from South Africa. He eventually finished the series with 207 runs at 41.80, 10 catches, and 4 stumpings.

Despite his sublime wicketkeeping skills the ordinary performances with the bat did not help: he did well in West Indies but his reputation was tarnished as he missed stumpings of both Arthur Morris and Don Bradman as the Invincibles chased down 404 at Headingley.

His batting kept on deteriorating, and he was dropped for the last 2 Tests in South Africa and was replaced by Billy Griffith. Before being dropped, however, Evans had played 22 Tests on the trot at that point of time a record for any wicketkeeper.

Godfrey Evans, the big gloves, and the bigger smile © Getty Images
Godfrey Evans, the big gloves, and the bigger smile © Getty Images

The batsman arrives

Evans was recalled for the New Zealand series at home — and more significantly, for the iconic West Indies series that brought Alf Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin to the limelight. Evans came out to bat in the first Test at Old Trafford with England with England on 88 for 5 (plus Hutton retired hurt).

He did not care for the fact that all 5 wickets had fallen to Valentine (who eventually claimed the first 8, that too on debut). In a 142-minute partnership of 161 he scored his maiden Test hundred — a 104 studded with 16 fours as Bailey stood obdurately at the other end. The pressure was lifted and England won the Test by 202 runs.

Though West Indies hit back to win the series 3-1 Evans came good with the bat again at Trent Bridge. Facing a deficit of 335 England were 350 for 5 when Evans walked out. He scored 63 with 6 fours – out of a total of 84. In fact, it was for the second time that the Ramadhin-Valentine stranglehold hadn’t worked on Evans.

His wicketkeeping had, by this time, reached unusually high standards. He became a Wisden Cricketer of the Year that season (the other four were all West Indians). The almanac wrote: “Evans helps bowlers to take wickets which normally they would not expect and few batsmen can dispel from their minds the nagging feeling that he is after them, tensed to pounce upon the least lapse of concentration or hesitation.” By this time he had also married, had a son, and had moved into a house at Maidstone that was called — rather appropriately — The Wicket.

He did not succeed with the bat in the Ashes tour that followed but won over Australian hearts and critics with his supreme glovework. Bill O’Reilly wrote of him: “Evans is now the world best. That’s the way things go and the way we Australians are supposed to like it. Evans reminds me always of a fox terrier. He simply cannot stand still whilst on the cricket field. He moves with short, quick steps, dives, literally dives, at the ball when it is returned badly out of his reach.”

It was in this series that took two sensational catches The Gabba. Cardus wrote of the first: “Harvey turned Bedser beautifully to leg, a swift low glance perfectly timed, and he was then 74. Evans apparently saw the stroke even as Harvey was positioning himself to perform it. So rapid was the sideway swoop of Evans that he made the catch look easy.” It must be remembered that Evans was standing up.

Of the other, Wisden wrote: “When Loxton cut Brown, the ball struck Evans hard on the glove and rebounded forward. His reaction instantaneous, Evans dived headlong and grasped the catch with his left hand inches from the turf as his body struck the ground with force.”

The success was followed by a nadir where he scored 19 and 13 in New Zealand, and then followed the sequence with 5, 0, 0, 2 against South Africa at home. As a result he pulled out of the India tour that winter, citing fatigue as a reason.

He was not in a mood to spare the Indians, though. The show-stopper of the series was undoubtedly Fred Trueman, with Bedser providing excellent support. However, along with his stupendous work behind the stumps Evans emerged as a success in front of them as well.

It began with a confident 66 at Headingley. At Lord’s he stumped Sadu Shinde off Allan Watkins; it was his hundredth dismissal, and he was the second wicketkeeper after Bert Oldfield to reach the landmark.

Then, after India had scored 235, Evans joined Tom Graveney, the unbeaten batsman from Day Two. He had had a drink too much the previous night and was suffering from a bad hangover: he was probably irritated with his siesta still two hours away. He decided to take it out on the poor Indians.

What followed was carnage — in the most unorthodox manner imaginable. Graveney later mentioned that he was happy to stand back and watch Evans bat: “Godfrey was so brilliant and so unorthodox, there were moments when I was laughing out loud.”

Vijay Hazare took the ball at 1.28 pm. Evans was on 98, and was all set to become the first Englishman to score a hundred before lunch. The Indian captain took his time, painstakingly rearranging the field until Frank Chester called lunch, and Evans was left 2 short. He reached there after lunch, and fell for 104 in 135 minutes with 16 fours out of 159. It would remain his last Test hundred — both of which were 104.

He wasn’t done with the Indians, however: at Old Trafford he scored 71 in 78 minutes with 9 fours and a six out of 84 scored during his stay. He eventually finished the series with 242 runs at 60.50.

In the same season he reached his highest First-Class score — 144 against Somerset at Taunton. When an announcement broke out that there would be a collection for Harold Gimblett after the match an eager Evans went round the ground with the collection-box.

The Ashes regained and retained

England eventually regained the Ashes in a particularly wet summer in 1953. Australia scored 318 in the third Test at Old Trafford, thanks to Evans dropping Harvey off Bailey. Harvey, 52 at that point, went on to score 122. It turned out to be a crucial drop.

Evans walked out at 209 for 7 and played a customary 39-ball 44. Then, coming out to bat 42 runs ahead, Australia were caught on a wet pitch against Bedser, Jim Laker, and Johnny Wardle. Evans caught Miller off Laker, caught Graeme Hole off Bedser, and then stumped Jim de Courcy off Wardle. Australia slumped to 35 for 8 when stumps were drawn. Had that catch not been dropped…

England regained the Ashes with an 8-wicket victory in the last Test at The Oval after Australia had held it since 1934. Evans scored 117 runs at 23.40 but ended the series with 11 catches and 5 stumpings. He followed this with an innocuous tour of West Indies and a home series against Pakistan that served as an interlude between the two Ashes series. Could England hold on?

In the shocking defeat against Pakistan at The Oval, Evans caught Abdul Hafeez Kardar off Brian Statham to bring up his 131st dismissal: he thus went past Oldfield’s world record of 130.

Godfrey Evans dives to catch Fazal Mahmood in The Oval Test of 1954. It was in this Test that Evans broke Bert Oldfield's Test record for most dismissals © Getty Images
Godfrey Evans dives to catch Fazal Mahmood in The Oval Test of 1954. It was in this Test that Evans broke Bert Oldfield’s Test record for most dismissals © Getty Images

Evans missed the first Test at the Gabba due to a sun-stroke. Colin Cowdrey and Evans were both unfit before the Test. Cowdrey wrote in Cricket Today: “Godfrey Evans was always a stickler for fitness and two days before the Test was due to start he felt below his scintillating best. Unfortunately he prescribed for himself a double-dose of the hardest training he could find and promptly demanded my presence as a sparring partner on the squash court”.

Evans went back to practise as Cowdrey could not take the strain anymore. Cowdrey added: “If only I had been firmer I might have saved him; but whereas a good night’s sleep restored me to fitness, Godfrey developed a high temperature and required the doctor. What he thought was lethargy at the start had all along been a nasty infection.”

Australia won the Test, and Evans duly replaced Keith Andrew at Sydney. England won the Test largely due to Frank Tyson’s 10-wicket haul. Australia were set 240 in the third Test at Melbourne, and they ended Day Four on 76 for 2 with Harvey and Richie Benaud looking confident at the crease.

A cricket miracle happened in the seventh ball of the next morning. As Bailey wrote, Evans caught Harvey “one-handed, horizontal, and airborne down the leg side off a genuine leg-glance” off Tyson. Australia never recovered from the shock — they were bowled out for 111 — and surrendered the Ashes in the next Test at Adelaide.

There was a twist, though: after he had missed the first Test at The Gabba he told his colleagues on flight: “Not to worry. We shall be there at the finish.” He did end up hitting the four that helped retain the Ashes.

Evans was one of the key men behind England’s success on that tour. Wisden wrote that he was “always brimful of energy no matter how exhausting the heat of the day, he was an inspiration to the whole team and especially the bowlers.”

Hutton wrote of him: “He’d be keeping wicket all day in Sydney, 95 in the shade, and never miss a thing. Like the rest he would stagger off the field, have a bath, get dressed, have a drink, sit down at the piano in the hotel and start to play. He was ready for the evening. That is what you need on tour.”

The Australians arrived again in 1956. Evans had 7 victims at Lord’s in England’s defeat, and scored an amazing 29-ball 47 at Old Trafford before Laker ran through the Australians to retain the Ashes yet again.

Final years

Even at 36 Evans’ energy did not seem to wane. He toured South Africa, scored 62 in the Newlands Test — his first fifty since 1952 — out of a 93-run partnership with Cowdrey. He followed it up with 5 catches. When on four he reached 2,000 and became the second wicketkeeper after Ames to reach the milestone.

He bettered this at St George’s Park: it was a treacherous pitch that attracted a lot of controversy. Runs were scored at 1.40 per six balls — which is an all-time low. Wicketkeeping was nightmarish on such a pitch, but Evans reigned supreme with 6 catches and conceding a single bye. Wisden called it “an extraordinary performance by an extraordinary man.” Evans took 18 catches and 2 stumpings in this series, and the 20 dismissals remained his career-best.

In the second Test against West Indies at Lord’s, Evans put up an extraordinary partnership with Cowdrey. After West Indies scored 127 Evans joined Cowdrey at 192 for 6. Evans scored 82, and the two added 171 in 115 minutes: this was a new seventh-wicket record for England, surpassing the 143 between Frank Woolley and Joseph Vine at Sydney in 1911-12. It still remains the second-highest, next to only Mike Smith and Jim Parks’ 197 at Port-of-Spain in 1959-60.

In the fourth Test at Headingley, he caught Collie Smith off Don Smith to become the first player to reach 200 dismissals in Tests. He did not concede a bye in that Test, and finished the series with 201 runs at 50.25 and 15 dismissals.

The end came swiftly after two poor series against New Zealand and Australia. Evans scored 55 runs at 5 from 8 Tests and had only 13 victims to his name. However, the Test at The Oval against New Zealand was his 86th, which took him past Hammond’s world record. Despite his failures he was retained for the home series against India.

Things seemed to be back to normal when Evans scored a breezy 73-ball 73 at Trent Bridge. In the next Test at Lord’s Evans scored a duck, and missed 3 stumpings off Tommy Greenhough’s leg-breaks in the space of 15 minutes. Though he did not concede a single bye in the 941 balls he kept wickets to in that Test he was dropped “in the interests of team-building” as per the selectors. He retired from First-Class cricket that season.

Evans played sporadically thereafter, playing a single match in each of his last eight seasons. He eventually made an India trip for a charity match at Bombay. Even at 43 he was at his best, scoring 36 and 17* and effecting 5 dismissals for Indian Prime Minister’s XI.

With Alan Knott playing for England Evans made a surprise comeback for Kent against Yorkshire at Canterbury at the age of 47. As per Wisden he kept wickets ‘superbly’ in that match as well.

In 1976, he played a seven-a-side match at The Oval. Mike Selvey, who was bowling to him, later wrote: “My experience was an education. Late out-swing just whispered into his gloves. I slipped in a full-length in-swinger on leg stump — the most difficult to take – and there he was, down the leg side as if by telepathy, flicking the bails away as the batsman changed feet.” He was 56 then.

Later years

Evans retained his exuberant self throughout his retirement. Keating, by now a producer at ITV, reminisces: “We employed Godfrey a few minutes on outside broadcasts, once memorably at The Oval with a gloved England predecessor, old George Duckworth, who began, bless him, pulling rank and boasting about how he had kept to Larwood. ‘Yeah, standing back 50 yards,’ chided the younger man, who, I dare say, would have considered standing up during the Bodyline tour.”

Despite his generally chirpiness, Evans almost never sledged. Once, however, the rule was broken. In a Gentlemen versus Players match in 1958, Raman Subba Row walked out and immediately edged Statham through the slips. Evans’ voice broke out: “As soon as you walked in, son, I had terrible doubts about you being a Gentleman, and now I’m positive you ain’t no Player either!” When Subba Row eventually made a hundred in that match Evans was, however, the first to congratulate him.

Evans tried his luck in the jewellery business and also ran a couple of pubs, none of which really took off. He was, however, always one for gambling. As Miller had once written in his Cricket from the Grandstand: “Evans is a good gambler, because he will always accept the risk of losing. After England retained the Ashes at Adelaide in 1955, Godfrey, among the popping of champagne corks, was wagered a hundred pounds by a camp follower, Arthur Hughes, that he could not climb a 20-foot column in the team’s hotel and touch the ceiling. Godfrey shot up the pole like a possum.”

It didn’t come as a surprise when he hit it off with Ron Pollard, the Public Relations Director of Ladbrokes, almost immediately. Wooldridge wrote: “Pollard hired Godders, a man not averse to a flutter on which dog would pee higher up a wall. They became inseparable companions, always laughing and buying drinks in reparation for the money they took off us in their betting tents, mostly as the result of Evans’ shrewd assessments of cricket situations.”

Then Evans got one terribly wrong: he set the odds for the last day for the famous Headingley Test of 1981 at 500:1 — before Ian Botham, Graham Dilley, and Bob Willis pulled off a miracle. Evans kept his job.

Thomas Godfrey Evans passed away on May 3, 1999.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)