John Cleese    Getty Images
John Cleese Getty Images

In the much-vaunted realm of British comedy, few faces are as recognisable as John Cleese, born October 27, 1939. From stand-up comedy to penning down brilliant lines to on-screen acts, Cleese has done it all, the most significant of them being co-founding Monty Python. A serious cricket enthusiast, Cleese also played for Clifton College, thus finding a place in Wisden. Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives the lesser known aspect of Cleese.

Monty Python does not need an introduction, even in the realm of cricket, the greatest sport of all. Monty Python and the Holy Grail featured a lot of moose, King Arthur, and the quest for the grail, not necessarily in order of importance. Of course, initiating the quest was God, and what better appearance could God have but an animated face of WG Grace with the familiar beard?

And while still on Monty Python, who else would have unearthed that rare footage from the match between Warwickshire and The Batsmen of the Kalahari?

The Python journey started like this. Two men, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, met at Oxford. Two others, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, met at Cambridge, where they were joined by Eric Idle. And Cleese met Terry Gilliam in New York. The six men, in various permutations, performed in numerous shows, the first (probably) of which was I m Sorry, I ll Read that Again for BBC in 1964.

The first episode of Monty Python and the Flying Circus was telecast on October 5, 1969. The rest is common knowledge.

Cleese also wrote and acted in The Fawlty Towers and outrageous movies like A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures. He starred in Clockwise, and was part of three startlingly different series James Bond, Harry Potter, and Shrek.

But there was much, much more to Cleese than all that.

Chapman was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989. He passed away on October 4 the same year, a day before the 20th anniversary of Monty Python and the Flying Circus. Cleese spoke some, er, unusual lines in Chapman s memorial service. Sample this: I could hear him whispering in my ear last night as I was writing this: Alright, Cleese, you re very proud of being the first person to ever say shit on television. If this service is really for me, just for starters, I want you to be the first person ever at a British memorial service to say f**k!

When Channel 4 ran the Comedian s Comedian poll (where comedians in Britain and USA voted for their favourite comedian)in 2005, Cleese was voted No. 2, after only Peter Cook. The list also included Idle (at 21) and Palin (at 30).

But this is not about Monty Python. This is about Cleese. This is not about comedy either. This is about a cricket career that refused to take off, ending before you could utter Ni!, and beyond.

Note: Before we move on, a word or two about Palin, no less a cricket fan. In 2013 Palin was invited to deliver a speech for the launch dinner of Wisden. It kicked off with let our tribe be LBW led by Wisden. There will be more when I write something similar on Palin.

The cricket report

Born in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, Cleese supported Somerset CCC (which makes sense) and Bristol FC (which does not, but then, Cleese went to Clifton). He went to St Peter s Preparatory, where he earned reputation for his English and boxing, and significantly, cricket. He was even captain of the school team towards the end of his school days.

His first hero was Bertie Buse, the man whose benefit match famously got over in a solitary day. Buse would probably have incurred a loss had Somerset CCC not decided, rather generously, to waiver Buse s expenses to make sure he got the entire gate money which amounted to a somewhat handsome 2,800.

Cleese s reasoning was infallible: his moustache is like Dad s. Perhaps he admired him more than Buster Keaton. Buse will probably remain a muse for years to come.

 

Cleese was fortunate to have had Geoffrey Tolson as his Headmaster. Mr Tolson deserves a mention, for he had once appointed a teacher because when he came for his interview he was wearing an MCC tie. The teacher turned out to be slightly different from others; for example, he insisted he be allowed to hold a six-foot bamboo while umpiring.

In his autobiography So, Anyway… Cleese recollected his clearest memory with Mr Tolson: He took me aside and explained he d heard the previous day my behaviour on the cricket field had been unseemly; not that I said anything wrong, but that my body language had contained a hint of swagger, of conceit, of what the Aussies used to call putting the dog . And he was right: recently I d got the idea that I was rather good at cricket, and yes, I had been showing off … I was rather ashamed, and made sure it did not happen again.

That was, more or less, it, but Cleese s affair with cricket did not end there. It had started long, long back, when he had developed an obsession (somewhat unhealthy for an English boy) for Australian cricket of the 1920s and 1930s.

His father Reginald, quick to realise this, challenged little (if the word applied to him) Cleese to indoor-cricket bouts that involved bowling a ping-pong ball at a tiny bat held in front of a wooden matchbox holder, conveniently becoming the Englishman in the contest while Cleese was happy to be the Australian.

Thankfully, he switched loyalties after England regained the urn in 1953 and retained it in 1953-54.

The outrageous enormity of Cleese s frame took off from his childhood. By 13 he had made it to the 6-feet mark, always looking for more, finally finishing at 6 5 . The height remains his most distinguishable feature. In fact, even his website title reads John Cleese: Writer, Actor and Tall Person.

The frame was a feature he would share with Douglas Adams, that other giant of the era (in more ways than one), another ardent cricket fan, and an acquaintance of Cleese.

Note: Adams was probably taller, for Cleese recollected later, I was introduced to him on one occasion, I remember, and I noticed how tall he was.

Adams was no less a cricket fan.

At Clifton, Cleese came under the tutelage of former Test cricketer Reg Sinfield. A lower-order batsman, Cleese bowled off-breaks: Being six foot five, my arm cleared the sight-screen easily and so if I bowled the ball from the right end with the right trajectory the batsman was lucky to get so much as a late glimpse of it. However, he also dabbled in leg-cutters…

Cleese was 17 when he played Tonbridge School (led by future Test cricketer Roger Prideaux) at Lord s, a contest Clifton won by exactly 100 runs. Clifton were bowled out for 139 in a curious display of batting where eight boys scored between 12 and 18 (along with 11 extras), but none went past that mark. Among them was Cleese, who batted at 10 and remained unbeaten on 13.

Note: For a virtual tour of Clifton (including the ground where Cleese played) click here.

He would repeat that score (even the not out bit) before bowling in the Tonbridge second innings for 9 wicketless overs.

However, his twin 13-not-outs earned him a mention in Wisden:

At Lord s, July 29, 30, 1957. Clifton Batting: (1st innings) J. M. Cleese not out 13, (2nd innings) not out 13. Clifton Bowling: (2nd innings) Cleese 9-2-28-0.

Cleese was not so fortunate when the colleges clashed again the year after at Lord s. Though Clifton won again (this time by an innings) he fell for a duck while his 5 overs again went wicketless.

John Cleese (front, extreme left, in case the frame and smile did not give it away) with the Clifton College team. Photo courtesy: Clifton College.
John Cleese (front, extreme left, in case the frame and smile did not give it away) with the Clifton College team. Photo courtesy: Clifton College.

Baiting Brylcreem Boy

His greatest achievement, however, was against a particular man. It was a feat he shrugs off today with remarkable indifference: A cause for momentary joy certainly, particularly in 1947, but not something that one would necessarily want on one s gravestone. After all, a lot of people have done it: [Ray] Lindwall, [Alec] Bedser, [Jim] Laker and Bertie Buse, to name a few.

Given his nonchalant attitude towards the incident you would get the feeling that Don Quayle never ended up offering fries to anyone.

The incident involved Denis Compton, a third of the Middlesex triplets, the others being Bill Edrich, and 1947. The match in question took place in 1958.

It was held in July. At forty Compton was no longer the champion he was, but he still played in the County Championship. The following month he would score 31 and take 2 for 52 against Hampshire.

Cleese mentions that Compton s son was a student at Clifton at this point. It must be the six-year-old Patrick, for Richard (father of Nick) was a mere two at that stage.

Compton batted like a dream, often stepping out when the bowler was in his run-up. Cleese had tried to lure wicketkeeper Christopher Pickwoad into a ploy. His third ball would be wide of off. If fortune favoured him, Compton would be left stranded, and Pickwoad would have to gather and take the bails off.

Unfortunately, Pickwoad was not as keen: You can bowl a wide one if you like but I m not stumping him. I want to watch him bat.

The first two balls disappeared somewhere. The third was a wide. True to his words, Pickwoad calmly rotated his wrists through 180 degrees, but the ball ricocheted off his gloves and fell on the stumps. Compton was out of his crease but Cleese s teammates apparently belonged to the same school of thoughts as Pickwoad s.

Nobody appealed, leaving Cleese stunned. The bails were replaced. By the time he realised what happened it was too late. And Compton resumed.

It was the Arthur Mailey-Victor Trumper moment that never happened. Pickwoad prevented Cleese from becoming the second boy to kill a dove.

Compton holed the next ball, a full-toss on leg-stump, to debutant Ken Whitty, the only other man in the ground with an interest in the catch being taken, at mid-on.

Of course, it was not fair, and was therefore unworthy of Cleese s respect. It was as simple as that. It would always be as simple as that. Some ideologies last a lifetime.

 

Unfortunately, the match never made it to that thick yellow almanac. Scant consolation came when Bristol Evening Post ran the entry Compton, DCS c White b Cleese.

Sure enough, Cleese slipped in a line in Basil Fawlty: Whose fault is it, then? Denis Compton s?

From Buse to Baz

Cleese s love affair with cricket continues. He knows his USA, he knows his baseball, but when it comes to comparing the two sports his views are perfectly clear: It s infinitely more interesting than baseball because of so many variations, so many subtleties to it. You don t get slower pitches in baseball. You can score in cricket all round the wicket, which gives a much wider variety of shots.

His dedication towards cricket is evident from his tweets. He has not forgotten Buse, but he has found new heroes as well, and has chosen wisely.

 

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry. He blogs at ovshake.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter @ovshake42.)