A century for Bill Bowes, the legend who was my friend

ONE of the key issues faced by anyone with ambitions to be a sports writer is coming to terms with the fact that the people whose actions you will describe know infinitely more about their game than the young man armed only with enthusiasm, pathetically little knowledge and a willingness to learn.

The way forward, of course, is to find someone with ample patience, the communication skills to explain in lay terms what can sometimes be obscure technicalities and, above all, the time to further the education of the pupil. No-one matched that description better than Bill Bowes.

He knew what was involved, having been schooled, along with his great friend Hedley Verity, in their early days with Yorkshire by the great Wilfred Rhodes. They would discuss the day's play and Rhodes would point out where the young bowlers might have done better. He also encouraged them to keep notes for future reference.

In 1948, when the newly-retired cricketer Bowes first entered a Press Box, he was overwhelmed by the generosity of those he found at work there. The impression their support made on him never faded. Every time he met a youngster trying to fathom the mysteries of cricket he remembered his early days and was unstinting in his role as teacher.

So, much later, we met: one a genial giant, a Yorkshire cricketing legend but a man with a quick sense of humour – an unforgettable deep, gurgling laugh; the other a callow 21-year-old fresh from weekly newspapers.

The only advice from new colleagues was never to whistle in the great man's company. Apparently, everyone had whistled all day during the years Bill had been incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp; the sound of even a few bars brought back unhappy memories.

The Evening News had perished in 1963 and Bowes had crossed the road to the Yorkshire Evening Post. In winter there was no cricket to report so Bowes turned his attention to rugby and the first afternoon away from Albion Street in his company came with the visit to Lidget Green, Bradford, of the North East Counties and the touring All Blacks.

He made the introductions and offered comments throughout the game and some sort of rapport was quickly in evidence. It would continue during the lunch breaks after first edition, always taken at Yates's Wine Lodge where most indulged in pie and violently-coloured mushy peas.

The start of the cricket season left a hole in the office – Bill would be on the road watching Yorkshire and covering the summer's Tests. In addition, he would write a lengthy weekly article on a topical issue in cricket to appear in Saturday's Green 'Un. One week it was a proposed change in the lbw rules which, in his opinion, would make life even harder for the long-suffering bowler. He duly wrote and phoned over 1,200 or so words pleading on behalf of his brothers. In the process of sub-editing, the impression grew that it was too complicated, no-one other than a professional cricketer would be any the wiser.

A phone call to Bill spelled out the misgivings; he could have pulled rank, but instead he listened, thought for a moment, then said: "You're right; it's not clear enough. I'll re-write it."

He did, all 1,200 words, which he dictated to copy-takers then came through and asked if the new version was better. Some would have ranted at the extra effort; he just said "Thanks". The relationship grew when the Bridges were invited to join Bill and Esme for a week in Scarborough, staying at the boarding house run by Mrs Hogg – no-one ever mentioned a first name – at No 8 Belgrave Terrace just off Falsgrave Road which had been used by generations of Yorkshire cricketers.

One evening, Bill began reminiscing about England's tour of Australia in 1932-3 for which he had been a late choice. Douglas Jardine was the captain and it was his use of short-pitched bowling, especially from Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, which earned the tour cricketing infamy as the "Bodyline" series.

Bill remembered how Jardine had explained his tactics, first considered when it had appeared to some during Australia's visit to England in 1930 that the great Don Bradman had backed away when faced with short, fast bowling. Given that Bradman's innings on that tour included 131 at Trent Bridge, 254 at Lord's, 334 at Headingley – then the highest score in Test cricket – and 232 at The Oval, Jardine was perhaps clutching at the thinnest of straws.

On the train journey across the Nullabor Plain from Perth, the captain showed his players the plan. Bill did in Scarborough exactly as Jardine had done after dinner on the train; salt and pepper pots, sugar bowls, ashtrays, wine glasses, even the butter dish were called into service on the table cloth to represent field placings round an imaginary wicket. The leg side would be packed with close-catchers as Larwood and Voce, skidding the ball off the glassy surface, bowled leg-theory, and the Australians wilted.

Bowes would play in only one Test of the series – bowling Bradman first ball – but he recalled the animosity of the Australian public and politicians and the courage of their players, particularly Bert Oldfield, the wicket-keeper who was struck on the head by one delivery from Larwood, and Stan McCabe, who scored a magnificent unbeaten 187 in the first Test when Bradman was unavailable.

The teaching continued over the coming winters, lessons being doubled up when the sprouting of parking meters in the streets of Leeds persuaded Bill that he would be better advised travelling into work by train from Menston rather than driving his magnificent black Humber Hawk there and back.

There was the occasion the Prince of Wales came to Leeds to open the new headquarters of Yorkshire Post Newspapers and Bill was introduced. "I've met your father a few times," he told the Prince. "He's not a bad bowler." That went down well.

There was another, altogether sadder, day when a tearful Brian Close came into the office, having just been told by Brian Sellers, Yorkshire's chairman of cricket, that he could either resign as captain or be sacked. Close found a shoulder to cry on.

Bill took to walking his dog on Ilkley Moor and would often

drop into Dick Hudson's famous public house for refreshment. Once we had lunch there with Sellers and Arthur Mitchell, another great player in the days when Yorkshire were virtually unbeatable.

It came time to break up and Sellers stood ram-rod straight; so did Mitchell as hands were shaken and farewells exchanged. "Just watch them when they get outside," said Bill. Both shuffled their separate ways towards their cars, obviously suffering with arthritic backs, knees and ankles but their pride had forced them to stand tall, look each other in the eye and walk upright till they had left the premises.

That was the Yorkshire Bill Bowes had grown up with and that was the spirit of Yorkshire cricket he endeavoured to pass on to those prepared to listen.

A LONG CRICKETING INNINGS

ALTHOUGH born in Elland, Bill Bowes spent the first two decades of his life living in Leeds where he accompanied his father to watch evening matches at the Armley club.

His playing career began with Armley Wesleyan Sunday School and developed with Kirkstall Educational while he earned a living working in an estate agent's office where he learned shorthand and typing, skills which were to be called on again later in life.

Success as an accurate, quick bowler brought offers to become a professional cricketer, which would have paid him five times the salary he earned in the office, and he was persuaded by friends to write to Warwickshire seeking a trial. Before he could be called to Edgbaston he travelled to London where he impressed officials of the MCC and was offered a position on the ground staff.

Lord Hawke, Yorkshire's president, made an agreement with the MCC that Bowes, by then 20, could play for the county when his club duties permitted and the young eager man made rapid progress.

Bowes, in tandem with Hedley Verity, quickly established himself in the front rank of English bowlers, claiming over 100 wickets in every season between 1931-39 with the exception of 1937 when he suffered a severe ankle injury.

He was first picked by England in a one-off match against Test newcomers India at Lord's in June 1932 and earned a place on Douglas Jardine's tour of Australia in the winter of 1932-3, the

infamous "Bodyline" series. He played only one Test.

With Bowes and Verity spearheading the attack, Yorkshire, under the strict leadership of Brian Sellers, won the County Championship every year between 1931-39 apart from 1934, when they were fifth behind Lancashire, and two years later when Derbyshire became champions for the first time.

In the season after the Second World War, during which Verity was killed in action and Bowes spent two-and-a-half years as a prisoner having being captured at Tobruk, Sellers led Yorkshire to another championship, with Bowes four and half stones lighter than he had been in 1939. In that summer of 1946 he played his last Test and retired from cricket the following year.

He began a successful second career as cricket correspondent, first with the Yorkshire Evening News then with the Yorkshire Evening Post. The typing and shorthand he had used so long ago at last proved their worth.

He retired in 1973 but continued to write for Wisden, using his vast knowledge and uncluttered, individual style to address the issues of the day, reiterating his long-held view that clubs, rather than the county or international game, were at the heart of cricket.

Bill Bowes died in Otley in September 1987.

BILL BOWES'S CAREER FIGURES

For Yorkshire

Debut: 1929

Last match: 1947

Matches: 301

Wickets: 1,351 at 15.71

Runs: 1,251 at 8.93

Catches: 118

For England

Debut: 1932

Last match: 1946

Tests: 15

Wickets: 68 at 22.33

Runs: 28 at 4.66

Catches: 2