When did (male) professional cricketers start to look the same?
Of course I don’t mean that literally. Notwithstanding the panoply of helmets, pads and other aids to anonymity, cricket remains a refreshingly human activity, exposing character more ruthlessly, almost cruelly, than other sports. (All right, if each man, or woman were an island, golf might give it a run for its money, but we’re not.)
But it is a fact that there is a certain homogenous character about modern professional cricketers from around the world. There are exceptions of course. Every team worth its salt has to have at least one fast bowler who is 6’7”. Generally, however, everybody is of average height or above, and of course supremely fit, some inevitably more visibly muscular than others, but all exceptionally well toned.
The reasons for this are perfectly understandable. The physical demands of the game are greater than before (one suspects that even the average club side has a resident dietician). It is true that fast bowlers in England are no longer expected to bowl over a thousand overs in a season in the way Fred Trueman used to sixty years ago. But fielding has been transformed out of all recognition. (I should perhaps mention that Trueman was an exceptional close fielder.) But it is different now. Part of the difference is the various formats, especially T20. Although there is an increasing tendency to specialise, a tendency encouraged by the pandemic and the attendant bubbles, every aspiring cricketer wants to play across the formats. And it seems barely possible to watch a T20I match, or an IPL or BBL contest, without seeing some almost miraculous fielding exploit. Players like Chris Jordan have emerged as stars for their fielding alone. There is no room for passengers.
It is no accident, or coincidence, that cricketers look so, well, athletic. England, Australia and New Zealand are right up there with the United States, Canada and Scotland as world leaders in producing the most obese people per head of population. Naturally one would not expect professional sportsmen to be obese – even “technically obese”, whatever that means. But historically cricket has been a broad church, so to speak, in terms of weight. In that regard things certainly seem to have changed where teams such as England are concerned. It seems that Dominic Sibley, the 25 year-old and comfortably built England opening batsman, lost two stone during lockdown, encouraged by minders in Team England to steer clear of “luxury foods”.
You can understand Sibley’s motivation. A career can be made, or lost, on such grounds. The all-rounder Samit Patel seemed to have the cricket world at his feet in early 2008, preferred to Nottinghamshire team-mate Graeme Swann as an off-spinning all-rounder for England in white ball cricket, and making runs and taking wickets. But things suddenly changed when the 24-year old was withdrawn from the limited-overs squad in the Caribbean. England captain Kevin Pietersen left little to the imagination when asked to explain the decision to omit Patel: “fat, overweight and lazy”, he said.
Patel is a talented cricketer (he is still on Nottinghamshire’s books today). He had more chances in 2011 and 2011-12, playing five Tests against Sri Lanka and India. His achievements were modest; ironically his fielding was sometimes more than useful though as Lawrence Booth wrote in his round-up of the England squad in Wisden 2013, you felt he was “no more than a fluff away from riling the selectors.” He actually played one more Test, against Pakistan in Sharjah in 2015-16, making 42 in England’s first innings of 306 and forming part of a three-man spin attack with Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. That was it, though.
Andrew Flintoff, whose “comfortably upholstered physique” was highlighted by Tanya Aldred in her profile of him as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of The Year in 2004, had occasional issues with his weight but there was never any serious doubt about his attitude and professionalism and, er, hunger. (Actually Flintoff was a long-term sufferer from bulimia.) Generally, concern about a cricketer’s weight has been very much a 21st century thing.
Weight simply wasn’t an issue before. There were plenty of Test cricketers with “comfortably upholstered physiques”; think of Mike Gatting and the not-so-young Ian Botham, Merv Hughes and David Boon. Phil Sharpe, the Yorkshire and England batsman, was decidedly chubby; he was also probably the greatest slip fielder of his era, and headed England’s batting averages against Frank Worrell’s formidable West Indians in 1963.
Back then it was unusual for a cricketer’s weight to be referred to. When India came to England for an extremely challenging five-Test tour in 1959 their best batsman was the classy and stylish Vijay Manjrekar (father of Sanjay). But he only played in two Tests. According to Wisden’s tour report, he “arrived terribly overweight, … was constantly struggling in the field and all too often the “sub” fielder was called to his rescue”. (Abbas Ali Baig, who famously made his debut in that series, tells me he did not think Manjrekar was exceptionally overweight.)
The Indians’ last match on that unhappy tour – they lost all five Tests – was against Durham at Sunderland starting on 12 September (their first game had started at Worcester on 29 April – it really was a different world). Anyway, Durham was not a first-class county then and this was not a first-class match but there was a significant innings played in the county’s first innings, an unbeaten century by a young lad, still only 17, from Burnopfeld, County Durham, called Colin Milburn, playing his first match for the county.
Milburn went on to become probably the most entertaining batsman of his generation. He was a wonderfully destructive and entertaining right-hander, a superb driver but an especially powerful cutter and puller. And he was, well, enormous. Five foot ten, his weight usually hovered around 18 stone, when he trimmed down to what Bill Frindall called his fighting weight. The analogy is not inappropriate. Like many big men, and heavyweight boxers are the obvious example, Milburn was light on his feet. He was not a slogger, he played classical cricket shots and could move quickly into position to play them. Perhaps his most extraordinary innings was for Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield against Queensland in 1968-69, when he made 243 on the first day, with four sixes and 38 fours, making 181 between lunch and tea.This earned him an England recall; the MCC were touring Pakistan and there was an injury crisis. He made 139 in the third Test in Karachi, his second Test hundred.
His first had come against Gary Sobers’ immensely strong West Indian side in 1966. He made 94 on debut in the first Test at Old Trafford and then helped secure a draw with an aggressive 126 at Lord’s. He was dropped, however, for the fifth Test at The Oval because he was felt to be what Wisden termed an “encumbrance” in the field. That must be part of the reason why that Karachi Test was only Milburn’s ninth Test out of 24 played by England since his debut. He averaged 46 in those nine Tests. Milburn’s biographer, Mark Peel, tells a story about his efforts to control his weight. One day his Northamptonshire captain, Keith Andrew, advised him to keep his weight down by drinking halves rather than pints. Milburn was most reluctant – his father had drunk pints, why shouldn’t he? But he listened, for a while. Then Andrew stood his usual weekend round of drinks. “What’ll it be Col?” “Two halves please Skipper. “
The Milburn story, though, is one of sport’s rare real tragedies. He started the 1969 English season where he had left off in the winter, making 158 for Northamptonshire against Leicestershire. The cricket world was at his feet, and his ebullient personality made him as popular off the field as he was on it. A day or two later he was involved in a car accident as a result of which he lost the use of his left, leading, eye. Unlike the case of his near-contemporary the Nawab of Pataudi, who had lost the sight of his right eye after a car crash, there was to be no comeback. He did try, spending two more seasons with Northamptonshire, 1973 and 1974. He made one fifty in those two seasons. I watched him once, in a famous county game between Hampshire and Northants at Southampton, a game which effectively settled the result of the County Championship in 1973 (Hampshire won); it was desperately sad to see Milburn’s struggles. Life after cricket would probably always have been a challenge. Colin Milburn collapsed and died in a hotel car park in February 1990; he was 48.
According to Milburn’s Wisden obituary – so it must be true – he was the heaviest man to play first-class cricket in England since Warwick Armstrong in 1921.
Armstrong was a titanic cricketer in every sense of the term, a cricketer on a grand scale, as the England leg spinner and superb cricket writer Ian Peebles called him. He was probably the leading all-rounder of his day, finishing a first-class career which stretched from 1898 to 1921 with a batting average of 40 and a bowling average of 18. He was a tall man, 6’3”, and in his youth quite slim. He used his height to great effect as a batsman, being an immensely powerful driver off the front foot, though the square cut was his weapon of choice. He was an accomplished bowler of leg breaks and top spinners.
Armstrong made an immediate impact when he began his Test career against England in 1901-02. In the second innings of the second Test at Melbourne, going in at number 11, he put on 120 for the last wicket with fellow debutant Reg Duff. He ended up heading the batting averages for the series, and was a fixture thereafter. His first Test century came against South Africa at The Old Wanderers in 1902-03, 159 not out, when he became the second Australian opener to carry his bat. Most of his Test cricket was played against England. He toured England in 1902, 1905, 1909 and 1921.(He missed the 1912 tour because of a row with the Australian board.)
It is the post Great War Armstrong that is the Armstrong of legend, when his nickname of the Big Ship really came to resonate. By this time his weight had increased to 22 stone, and he was captain. He led Australia in two series, both against England, in 1920-21 and 1921, winning the first five-nil and the second three-nil (the last two matches were rain-affected draws).In 1920-21 he made three centuries in the series and averaged 77.He also made 157 and 245 not out for Victoria against South Australia.
His on field contribution was more modest in 1921 – though as in 1905 and 1909 he completed the “double” of a thousand runs and a hundred wickets in first-class cricket – but his personality, gruff and uncompromising, came to the fore, particularly in two famous incidents in the final two Tests. In the fourth Test at Old Trafford, the England captain, Lionel Tennyson (grandson of the poet), declared the England innings half an hour before close of play on the second day so that his bowlers could have a go at Australia’s openers. Armstrong insisted that the current Laws did not permit this (because the first day had been rained off) and he ordered his players to sit down and refuse to move until the issue was resolved. It turned out that Armstrong was right. Play resumed after a 30 minute break and uniquely, Armstrong, having bowled the last over before the break, bowled the first one after it.
In the final Test Armstrong got fed up with England’s hardly surprising determination to play for a draw. He withdrew his leading bowlers from the attack and eventually removed himself to the boundary. There, to the consternation of players and spectators, he started to read a newspaper. “What are you reading?” asked leg spinner Arthur Mailey. Armstrong said he was trying to find out who they were playing.
Armstrong loved whisky and after retirement became the agent and distributor in Victoria for a Scottish distillery. He died in 1947 a very wealthy man.
Clearly, as with Milburn, Armstrong’s vastness had no serious impact on his effectiveness as a cricketer. Inevitably as he grew heavier his gait became more of a lumbering one. But even as a youngster his key attributes as a batsman had been a sense of calm and self-confidence; age and increasing size did nothing to dent those attributes. As for his bowling, Peebles said that “[f]or a man of such enormous bulk his action was neat, well-balanced and easy.”
These days, however, it is rare to see a player in respect of whom the very word “bulk” is not a misnomer. In the relatively recent past there was the odd exception. Inzamam-ul-haq was one of the great players of his generation. He batted on his own terms and definitely carried more weight than many would have thought appropriate. But when encouraged to lose weight, he tended to lose form as well. At a slightly lower level Darren Lehmann of Australia, Jesse Ryder of New Zealand and England’s Rob Key seemed to carry a few extra pounds. Even today, watching Kieron Pollard of the Mumbai Indians in the IPL, the phrase “comfortably upholstered” can’t help coming to mind.
But in the last eighteen months or so those who felt there was something missing from the international cricket scene have been able to rejoice in the appearance – the apparition – of a new standard-bearer in the form – the very substantial form – of the West Indian off spinner Rahkeem Cornwall. For Cornwall is – well, there is no other way to put this – Cornwall is very large.
He is also fascinating to watch and clearly a very talented and skilful cricketer.
He is 28 years old, 6’5” and weighs over 22 stone.
A native of Antigua, Cornwall got into the West Indian Test side against India in 2019, and is now gradually beginning to establish himself. He has only played seven Tests but in those games he has made two fifties, taken two five-fors (both in winning causes, and taken 13 catches; he is a stunningly accomplished slip fielder. This really is just as well because it is difficult to imagine him sprinting around in the outfield.
His off spin is his strong suit. His action is simplicity itself; it is impossible not to think of Peebles’ description of Armstrong. He takes what must surely be the shortest run up in the international game. Watching him, I am reminded of a lovely story from county cricket’s great chronicler, Stephen Chalke, about another (quite portly) off spinner, B D “Bomber” Wells, of Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire, whose run up was so short that he once contrived (surely the operative word) while playing at Worcester to bowl a maiden while the Cathedral bell was chiming noon.
Cornwall’s batting is sound. When the mood and the situation are right he can give it a mighty whack. He has been a star in the Caribbean Premier League.
Cornwall has made a promising start to his Test career but his relative – well, sometimes it seems almost complete – immobility does suggest that it may be short-lived.
But you never know. Armstrong is a suitably impressive precedent but we can do even better than that. “Modern” cricket owed so much to W G Grace. He effectively invented batsmanship as we know it; he also transformed sport into a commercial activity with huge potential; as an amateur who nominally played for pure love, he probably made more money out of the game than anyone else in history. He set a benchmark for gamesmanship that is unmatched by anyone. (Cornwall caused opprobrium in a CPL game by “retiring hurt” when he was clearly just knackered and his team needed a batsman who could actually run; one feels “W G” would have been proud of him.) As a player – an allrounder, not just a batsman – Grace set standards and attained records that were breathtakingly in excess of anything even remotely achieved by any of his contemporaries. And he developed a style, a persona and a physical appearance that made him easily the most recognisable man in Victorian England.
That last point, his genuinely legendary appearance, was not just down to his famous beard. Grace was, or rather became, an enormous man. In his youth, like Armstrong, he was tall and lanky. But Grace was a man of gargantuan appetites. By the late 1870s, when he was only in his 30s, he had reached 16 stone. And he just got bigger. A decade later, according to his most recent biographer, Richard Tomlinson, “he was a bloated hulk who gasped for breath whenever he chased the ball or ran a quick single.” Yet he was still a great player. In 1895, when he was 47 and a man of what John Woodcock called “megalithic proportions” he became the first batsman in history – and there have only been two others – to score a thousand runs in May. As Tomlinson says, the extraordinary thing is that but for his startling physical decline he could have been even better.
Grace, Armstrong, Milburn and Cornwall – four literally larger than life cricketers (I am not really suggesting that Cornwall is comparable with the others save in one respect). Is there a place for players like this in the modern game? We can I think be confident that there would be no place for any of them in The Hundred. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said.
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