Episode 115: The weird genius who revolutionized cricket history

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Many eccentric geniuses have written about cricket, and indeed played it. Few have been as eccentric as Major Rowland Bowen – or had his genius. In 1970, after years of dedicated research (not all his own) he published Cricket: A History of its growth and development throughout the world. Long out of print, it is still unmatched in its global sweep, its presentation of arcane facts, and its insurrectionary daring (which delighted C L R James) in overturning almost sacred cricketing myths. It riled the cricketing Establishment of its day, especially those seeking to defend white supremacy.

Russell Jackson is an award-winning Australian author and journalist. He became fascinated by Bowen and his contribution to cricket history. He has now inherited from the late Murray Hedgecock the daunting task of reviving Bowen’s work and making sense of his extraordinary life, as he explains to Peter Oborne and Richard Heller as the guest on their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Russell speculates about the motives behind Bowen’s very personal and cantankerous crusade for the truth in cricket history. His career had echoes of John Le Carré: he was the son of a disgraced solicitor and served in Intelligence. In spite of family financial problems he attended Westminster School in the 1920s and was noted early as a cricket obsessive although not noted as a player. At seventeen, he became a member of the MCC to an influential proposer. Already a natural contrarian, he read cricket literature copiously and decided that almost all of it needed challenge and correction by himself. 2-4 minutes

His actual trigger was Roy Webber, the leading scorer, who was the authority for a wrong fact on a quiz show.42-43 minutes It inspired a lifetime’s war for his view of the truth in cricket. To achieve an outlet for this, he eventually founded his own subscription-only journal Cricket Quarterly in 1963. 4 minutes He had a habit of quarrelling violently with subscribers, striking them off, and rejecting new ones for fear that they were the old ones trying to sneak up on him under assumed names. This business model is not normally recommended to publishers, but CQ survived for 32 issues until 1971 and produced a highly influential corpus of work as the basis for his history. With the book it deserves a full re-issue. 28-32 minutes

The undismissed subscribers formed a global network of amateur cricket historians and statisticians. Bowen was astute enough to enlist them as volunteer contributors of obscure local materials which he needed. 4, 20-21 minutes Peter Hain was among them, and submitted to a volley of demands. He said that his only supporters for stopping the apartheid tour of 1970 in the world of cricket were John Arlott, David Sheppard – and Bowen. 13-14 minutes

Russell suggests that Bowen’s central mission was to correct the established Anglocentric history of cricket with its almost exclusive focus on first-class matches. He stressed especially the long success of American cricket and the impact of its exclusion from the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1911. 7-8 minutes

Financial pressures drove Bowen into the army. He served first in India and then in Intelligence in London in the 1950s as a map and topographical analyst. His main achievement was to be the first to detect the Soviet missiles which provoked the Cuban crisis of 1962. 9-10 minutes

Russell describes the reception of the book. Bowen’s long history of quarrels led to poor reviews, other than glowing ones from John Arlott in Wisden 1971 and perhaps surprisingly Alan Gibson in The Times. Gibson especially pointed out errors but these did not diminish their appreciation of the book’s value. Only 2500 were sold, and it is now obtainable only secondhand. 12-14 minutes

Bowen quarrelled with almost everyone he encountered. Russell calls him a precursor of today’s trolls. He treated even allies and collaborators as servants, bombarding them with demands and irascible letters and telephone calls. Most were burnt out by their contacts with him, but recognized his genius. 15-19 minutes Russell describes his relationship with E W Swanton (who fired him as a contributor to The Cricketer): if Swanton was the Pope of cricket, Bowen was its Martin Luther. 44 minutes He was the most recalcitrant member of the MCC in its history (eventually resigning after 35 years over South Africa) and a nightmare companion at Lord’s, where he spent more time arguing than watching any cricket. He was a thorn in the flesh of MCC’s secretary, Billy Griffith, who nearly sued him for libel over one of his fierce letters to The Daily Telegraph, until persuaded against by the then President Sir Alec Douglas-Home. He needed all his diplomatic skill as a past and future Foreign Secretary. 22-27 minutes

Russell comments on his pungent book reviews in Cricket Quarterly.  Bowen felt a supreme duty to warn readers against bad books, and less often, to advise them to acquire good ones. Publishers stopped sending him books: a mistake, since he bought them himself and denounced them even more fiercely for any shortcomings. 32-33 minutes Bowen’s spate of Daily Telegraph letters most often featured the inexplicable halts of his train at Eastbourne and the failure of a soft drink company to meet its promise of 12 flavours. 33 minutes

Other obsessions included science fiction and the paranormal, Tolkien, Catholicism, wrestling and mediaeval farming. He would acquire huge stocks of reading material on such topics and then dispose of them. Before his death in the 1970s in some financial straits, he disposed of his magnificent cricket library: it is now lost. 34-35 minutes

Other obsessions were his dogs, especially one whom he believed to be the reincarnation of his grandmother. 36 minutes He surprised many by marrying late in life. He became a model stepfather to two visually impaired boys. 37-38 minutes

Blindness was one of his strangest obsessions, and even more so, amputation. He deliberately lost the sight of one eye, and after a trial amputation of one finger, he began the self-amputation at home of a healthy leg, calmly summoning an ambulance to have the job finished off in hospital.35 minutes  This episode became national news (and gave his branch of the Intelligence service a pretext to dismiss him and deprive him of a pension). Russell speculates on the origins of the deep-seated stresses in Bowen’s personality. He was a closet gay, who published pseudonymous poems in gay underground media, in an era when homosexuality was still criminalized and its admission would have secured his instant dismissal from Intelligence. 51-58 minutes

Notwithstanding his anti-racism and support for gay rights, Bowen was no model progressive. Russell reveals that this driven complex genius was a lifelong antisemite. 60-61 minutes

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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