Episode 99: At the wonder house of cricket books

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.

Most of cricket’s history for nearly three hundred years can be found behind a small shopfront in a quiet suburban street in Surrey, forty minutes on the commuter train service from London Waterloo. It is easy to miss on a first visit. The most obvious landmark is the large plastic poodle promoting the dog grooming parlour next door. But a closer inspection shows a handsome carved wooden cricket frieze at the base. Peter Oborne and Richard Heller went there to meet England’s premier cricket bookseller, John McKenzie, the guest in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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John ruefully describes his struggle to keep in order three floors and eight rooms of constantly expanding stock of cricket books and memorabilia. Demand has forced him to double the shop space since its beginnings in the 1960s. He is reluctant to  volunteer even a rough estimate of his over ten thousand volumes, graded as run-of-the-mill, signed and very good. Even the run-of-the-mill category includes many rare and historic titles. 1-2 minutes

John displays three current treasures.

The most recent is well over a hundred years old: a privately printed souvenir booklet of matches played before the Great War by J M Barrie’s literary eleven, the Allakhberries. Barrie himself was an indifferent but enthusiastic performer (he once boasted that he bowled so slowly that if he delivered a bad ball he could catch it up and retrieve it before it reached the batsman) but he was well served by some of his more talented regular performers including P G Wodehouse, A A Milne, and Arthur Conan Doyle. To make the booklet even rarer, it is signed. John has identified the autographs of A E W Mason, author of the dramatic adventure story The Four Feathers, later filmed and Hesketh Pritchard, the best-selling traveller and Hampshire opening bowler. Another signatory (he believes) drowned in the Titanic disaster. 3-5 minutes

The second is an edition of Britcher’s Scores – a very early precursor of Wisden – recording the principal cricket matches of 1799 (the year Napoleon seized power in France), when bowling was still underarm, pitches, even at Mr Lord’s first ground in London were rough and ready, 10 was a fine individual score and 50 a respectable one for a whole team. Mr Britcher published his scorebooks each year from 1791 to 1805 – when the average number of books published in England was just four hundred. (48 minutes) John suggests that this shows the extent of early interest in cricket. The MCC now holds the only full set, survivors of its great fire in 1823. Mr Britcher’s records also show the scale of the prize money at stake in early matches and have a whole section devoted to betting. 5-11 minutes

John’s third treasure is an 1804 edition of T Boxall’s Rules and Instructions for Playing Cricket, the first English cricket manual. It included instructions for measuring the pitch as 22 yards, running up and holding the ball and from where the bowler might deliver it, and the latest Laws (revised in 1800) including the limit on bat width (4 ¼ inches) to frustrate the ingenious Mr   White  who played with one as wide as the stumps. The laws contain instructions for settling wagers, which was their main purpose. 11-15 minutes

John describes his origins as a bookseller, as a teenage devotee making long cycle rides to acquire titles and collections which appealed to him. He acquired so many duplicate volumes that his bedroom was over-run. He began to sell them privately from home but then saw the opportunity of acquiring the present shop, which he has greatly expanded. Fifty years ago put out his first mimeographed catalogue. He now produces three or four printed ones each year. 16-18 minutes He is the doyen of current advertisers in Wisden. 34 minutes

John comments on the spate of cricket titles put out in recent times, to which he has added as a specialist publisher. He began by reprinting rare titles (often with an introduction by John Arlott) and was then able to commission new titles from authors he met on his collecting travels, including the last title by Tony Cozier, an appreciation of Everton Weekes. His latest planned title is a biography of Wes Hall, with a strong contribution from the subject. He shows a delightful photograph of himself in Barbados with Hall, Weekes, Cozier and Garry Sobers.  He puts in a hasty plea for listeners not to send him unsolicited manuscripts or proposals. 18-21 minutes

Besides the West Indians John’s business has brought him meetings with many other great cricketers.

Geoff Boycott, who had been a customer, unsurprisingly was able to correct him on his score on one of the great innings John had watched in the 1960s. 22-23 minutes

He specially commissioned a ceramic of Don Bradman’s hundred centuries which led to a long meeting with Lady (Jessie) Bradman in England and an invitation, accepted six years later, to visit both Bradmans if he were ever in Australia. 24-25 minutes

Australian friends also arranged a meeting with Bill O’Reilly and an invitation to a barbecue with Bill Ponsford, late in his life. 26-27 minutes

Harold Larwood, long in retirement in his Australian garden, took him for a press man. Still scarred from his media siege after Bodyline, he beseeched John to leave him alone. The gift of a cake made him change his mind and Larwood’s memories flowed for hours. Intriguingly, they were more focused on the 98 he scored as a nightwatchman than his bowling in the Bodyline series. 28-31 minutes

John has often experienced items he has sold being returned to him years later. He tells a shocking story of one such return, part of a complete set of Wisdens owned by Plum Warner, with his monograph. The precious collection had been broken up by someone unaware of its importance. 36-38 minutes John also describes his enduring regret at two Wisden hardback collections which got away from him in his very early days, because he could not borrow a few hundred pounds from the Bank of Mum and Dad. As an investment, they would have greatly outmatched inflation. 41-43 minutes

John is very happy to look at books and memorabilia which listeners might want to sell – but asks them to give him a sight or description of the items first, by post or email, rather than bringing them direct to the shop. He is glad to receive visitors at the shop – but asks them to make an appointment first by telephone or email. 35-36 minutes

J W Mckenzie Cricket Books is at 12 Stoneleigh Park Road, Ewell, Epsom KT19 0QT

Telephone +44(0) 20 8393 7700   email mckenziecricket@btconnect.com

Website www.mckenzie-cricket.co.uk

Listen to more episodes of Oborne & Heller

Previous Episode – Episode 98: High performance or last performance? Campaigner Alan Higham dissects the ECB review of English cricket

Listen to all episodes – Oborne & Heller on Cricket

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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