Episode 35: “Absent, caught fire” and other great moments from Scotland’s cricket heritage

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.

To most English cricket-lovers Scotland is an exotic foreign country, but it has a rich, independent cricket history, as Peter Oborne and Richard Heller discover from an expert guide in their latest cricket-themed podcast. Fraser Simm is an author, historian, analyst and collector who has been chairman of the Cricket Society of Scotland for over 25 years.


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Fraser speaks of his first introduction to cricket – from Richie Benaud’s Australians visiting Edinburgh at the end of their long  1961 Ashes-retaining tour. They became lifelong heroes to him for playing on through constant drizzle which (said Benaud) turned his normal legbreaks into off-cutters (he still took seven wickets with them, and scored over 70). Fraser picks out some eminent names in the Scottish team including Frank Jones, Ronnie  Chisholm, Jimmy Allan, Rudy Webster, later a sports psychologist and ambassador, and a young future England captain, Mike Denness. 1-4 minutes

He also recalls Bradman’s last two playing matches in the British Isles, in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, where he scored a century, after which King George VI invited him and both teams to Balmoral. A surviving member of the Scottish team later told Fraser that Balmoral was very untidy, that Keith Miller was seen walking with his arm around Princess Margaret and that there was a phoney press row about Bradman with his hands in his pockets talking to the King. Fraser says that the King gave permission for this but cannot answer whether Bradman gave the King permission to put his hands in his pockets. All of these scenes were mysteriously omitted from The Crown.  5-9 minutes

Fraser delves into the early history of Scottish cricket. He cites the earliest known recorded match near Alloa in 1783, but also mentions evidence that cricket was played by Scots at home and as emigrants to Georgia fifty years earlier. He traces the influence of the English soldiers in the Hanoverian army in Scotland after the suppression of the 45, and that of English workers in Scotland’s textile, paper and iron works during the Industrial Revolution.  9-13 minutes Cricket became popular all over Scotland in the nineteenth century, and had a major stimulus in 1849 when many of England’s best players in the All-England XI came to play 22 of Scotland: they won easily although Scotland’s Charles Lawrence took all ten English wickets in an innings. Fraser sets out his  interesting afterlife: he became a major cricket “missionary” to Australia and managed the first Australian tour of England, by Aborigines, in 1866. As in Italy many famous Scottish football clubs began life as cricket clubs, but cricket in Scotland was held back by lack of a central organization. 14-16 minutes Although Scotland received many visiting teams from England, including several led by W G Grace, and provided a vital two-year apprenticeship to Wilfred Rhodes,  29-32 minutes English cricket gave little support to its development.

Although largely denied first-class or professional cricket opportunities in their own country, many important Scottish personalities played cricket enthusiastically and in some cases with real ability. Fraser sets out the astonishing multi-sporting achievements of Scotland’s cricket champion, Leslie Balfour-Melville (a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson).17-19 minutes  J M Barrie loved cricket and formed his own literary team to play it. It included Conan Doyle, who once had to leave the field on discovering his flannels were ablaze after the ball ignited a box of matches in his pocket. 27-28 minutes Hesketh Pritchard, educated at Fettes, refused a cap for Scotland in order to play for his house at school. Later as a literary explorer his search for the giant sloth inspired  Conan Doyle to write The Lost World.  26 minutes

Of the non-Test-playing countries, Scotland has supplied more Test players to other countries than any other. Although Douglas Jardine is often depicted as a quintessential lordly English amateur, he identified himself as Scottish through his family roots. 24-25 minutes Jardine, however, could not boast the pedigree of F A Mackinnon, the 35th Mackinnon of Mackinnon, who earned his solitary Test cap on Lord Harris’s 1878 tour of Australia and lived to be nearly 99. 20-22 minutes Scotland also made a major contribution to the early English women’s Test team, especially the remarkable Betty Snowball, a wicketkeeper good enough to stand up to Learie Constantine.  42-44 minutes

Scotland secured belated recognition in England’s cricket set-up in the early 1980s, with admission to the one-day Benson & Hedges and National Westminster Bank (formerly Gillette) cup competitions. But no Scottish team had as much success as Freuchie, in Fifeshire, and Fraser traces the enduring legacy of their 1985 victory in the National Village championship. 50-52 minutes

Finally Fraser reviews the progress of Scotland’s men and women since Scotland declared independence as a cricket power in 1992. The men’s highlight was posting a huge score of 371 to defeat England in a one-day international in 2018. This and other successes brought Scottish cricket a new public profile although “the media still struggle to get past the football.” 45-48 minutes

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.

Listen to more episodes of Oborne & Heller

Previous Episode: Episode 34: “To take us to tea – and beyond”: the incomparable Henry Blofeld

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