John Lennon playing cricket on the sets of How I Won the War © Getty Images

John Lennon (October 9, 1940 — December 8, 1980), iconic singer, song-writer, the legend of Beatles fame, immortalised by his music, lifestyle, ideas about love, peace and politics, many memorable and some unfortunate quotes, and finally the tragic murder. Amidst the sex, drugs and rock and roll, fame, notoriety, FBI files and activism, Arunabha Sengupta finds a strain linking the superstar with the noble game of cricket. 

The Dreamweaver and the Rain-warrior

It was the spring of 1962. After graduating in Physics, Frank Duckworth, one-half of the Duckworth-Lewis method, was working assiduously towards his PhD in metallurgy. He acknowledges it was a mistake, with funds drying up, the work lacking either his interest or a strong conception. However, the data he worked with in those days sowed the seeds for the emergence of a noted statistical analyst. That did play an important part in the way he teamed up with Tony Lewis to ‘fix a hole where the rain got in.’

However, for Duckworth the high point of that spring in 1962 was that with three other students he cooped up in lodgings provided by Mimi Smith in Woolton. Yes, this was the same Aunt Mimi who was married to George Smith, was childless, and was the woman who brought up her nephew John Lennon.

It was rather surprising that she did so, for neither did she like children, nor did she quite take to the lower class friends Lennon made. In fact, she patronised Paul McCartney and regarded George Harrison as a ‘low type’ because he worked as a butcher’s errand boy on weekends. Additionally, she never quite gave up the hope that her nephew would get over the obsession for guitar.

In fact, when Julia Lennon, John’s mother, bought him a cheap Gallotone Champion acoustic in 1956, the first guitar that he ever owned, she stipulated that it be delivered to her own house because she was quite aware of her sister Mimi’s lack of enthusiasm for music. “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it,” Mimi Smith told young John many a times and oft.

Yet, aunt and nephew were in some ways tied by the strings of the guitar later on. According to Jack Douglas, producer of Double Fantasy, from his earliest days Lennon tuned his D-string slightly flat, and Aunt Mimi could listen to recordings and tell which guitar was his.

To come back to our story, Duckworth did stay in the same house as the Beatles legend during those days in early 1962. That was the time when the second Hamburg residency was coming up, and Aunt Mimi, already horrified by the first 48-night affair of the previous August, was having nightmares. That was also the time when Brian Epstein was trying to free the Beatles from their contractual obligations to Bert Kaempfert Productions.

Not that Duckworth and Lennon talked much. Actually, there was only one occasion on which they did exchange words, if that can be called an exchange at all. Duckworth hopped on a number 4 bus from the Pier Head on his way home, and found himself sitting opposite to the young musician. “Hello John,”Duckworth greeted, to which Lennon’s eloquent response was something like “Uh.” But on some evenings, the PhD student did hear the moody Lennon plucking away at the strings of his guitar.

Eventually Duckworth had his own problems with Aunt Mimi and left the lodging. In the combined biography of Duckworth and Lewis he writes, “We might have [got on] if she’d allowed us shivering students to use the electric fire when we got home after 9pm.” He eventually moved to a bigger place where he shared the roof with Johnny ‘Think of a Number’ Ball. But, this is Lennon’s story and not Duckworth’s.

Like endless rain

By the autumn of 1962, the quartet had been formed with Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney being joined by Ringo Starr. And by the end of the year, they were topping the UK charts.

The following years saw raging Beatlemania. Eleven of their subsequent 12 albums released in UK reached number one. Fans waved and screamed as they arrived to perform and swayed and drooled as they sang and played around the world. In early 1964, 4,000 ecstatic fans saw them off at Heathrow and 3,000 went crazy as they arrived at the John F Kennedy Airport, New York. The historic appearance in the Ed Sullivan show followed soon. They were on their way to conquering the world.

Then came A Hard Day’s Night, the long hair aped and emulated by youths the world over, the 37 shows during a course of just 27 days across countries as far apart as Denmark, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

Lots and lots were happening. In August 1964, Bob Dylan introduced them to cannabis, and in June 1965, Queen Elizabeth II appointed all four members of the band as MBEs. By the second half of 1965, they were hobnobbing with Elvis Presley in the King’s Beverly Hills home, and Lennon was calling Rubber Soul their ‘pot album’ because of the influence of marijuana. The Lennon-McCartney song-writing combination had penetrated into the zone of greatness.

In 1957, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had stated, “We’ve never had it so good.” It did seem the Britons were riding on that crest, and the Beatles was one of the symbols of the upswing in their fortunes since the miserable post-War years.

That pair of round glasses… © Getty Images

But, by early 1966 there were understandable reasons for fatigue. They had been working too hard for too long. And there were growing rifts as well. Yesterday, all the troubles had seemed far away, but now they increasingly looked like being there to stay. In spite of the incredible song-writing collaboration, John and Paul were developing frictions.

Lennon also had doubts about the band producing quality music as they could not quite hear themselves above the screaming fans. According to him the name Help! was supposed to be taken literally. Lennon had put on unwanted weight. And in March 1966 he had been partying in the place of a dentist and had his coffee spiked with LSD by the host. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds would hit the charts a year later.

That same month, March 1966, Lennon told Evening Standard: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now — I don’t know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity.” Across the Atlantic, the Ku Klux Klan burnt records of Beatles and issued threats against Lennon. This ill-advised remark would later play a role in the tragic circumstances of his death.

You can learn how to play the game

So, April 1966 was a good time to take a break.

McCartney took his girlfriend Jane Asher on a trip to Africa. Harrison and his wife Patti flew across to India. Starr and his wife Maureen spent the time closer to home, visiting relatives around England.

Lennon went to Almeria, Spain. He was still working, but it was in a far more relaxed environment for him than the continuous days on the stage. He had teamed up with Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Lester was making a new film, How I Won the War, and Lennon had been roped in to play the role of Private Gripweed.

It was while this film was being shot that photographer Zdenko Hirschler visited the sets and clicked a few snaps of Lennon gleefully engaged in an impromptu game of cricket. There is one photograph of the legend, attired in the costume of Private Gripweed, driving off the front-foot while a plank supported by a box stands as the wicket. There are also some other pictures clicked by Hirschler, one with Lennon in a curious cowering action in the field while the ball is seen passing him on the way to the outfield.

It was not Lennon’s first foray into the game. As a kid he had played cricket with friends on the streets of Liverpool. But one wonders about the extent of his cricketing skills.

No scoresheets remain to ascertain whether or not he bagged a pair of spectacles in the game. However, it was during the movie that Lennon first sported the round pair of glasses that we tend to find in every famed photograph of the icon.

There is no further record of Lennon playing cricket. Perhaps “You can learn how to play the game

It’s easy” did not quitework with cricket. Perhaps he decided, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be.”

He never acted in another non-Beatles movie either.

But the round glasses remained stuck to the bridge of his nose all the way till his tragic murder in 1980.

 (Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)