My old school had a tradition of some wonderful school songs, one of which was entitled “Giants” – you can relax, I am not going to burst into song. The thesis of the song was that the giants of yesteryear were more capable, more athletic and in many other ways superior to the current generation of youth “caste in a Pygmy mould”.
Very sadly we lost two of the “giants” of old in the last few months. Lord Alvingham, who, until last week, was the oldest surviving Straggler, and about whom I will post a note on the web site in the next few days, and, towards the end of last year, Bobby Neame.
Bobby made his Straggler debut at Elham in 1955, and continued to turn out regularly, accumulating runs for more than four decades – 4,669 in all. For many years Bobby was second on the list of all time Straggler run scorers behind Wyndham. Eventually he was overtaken by Nige, and, in 2017, by Jonathan. Bobby was ferociously competitive, and rarely passed up an opportunity to score a run. He would sow confusion among opponents and his partner when dropping his bat on a ball for a gentle single and calling “two”. I batted with Bobby in one of his last innings, and we needed to block out the final over of the match at Boughton Aluph; Bobby was on strike; all he had to do was block 6 balls; the fifth, however, he hit marginally harder and he was not going to give up the chance of a run; not a wise decision. Jonathan was borne in January 1964 and seems to have caused some fluctuation in Bobby’s form – 1964 was one of his best, coming after 1963, when he could barely lay a bat on the ball. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Jonathan, very much like Bobby, likes to spend time at the crease, and, over the years he has found ways to extend his occupation. Some of you who will recall a game at Otterden, in the early years of DRS, when Jonathan introduced BRS – the Brewer Review System. Unlike DRS, which requires an inordinate amount of technology, BRS is very simple. If Jonathan does not find favour with the Umpire’s decision, he stands his ground and discusses the matter with the Umpire, until the Umpire sees the error of his ways and allows Jonathan to continue.
Not content with BRS alone, in 2019 Jonathan took his scouting past to heart – “Be Prepared” – to create opportunities for elevation up the order. Regardless of the number at which his skipper invited him to bat, 6 or 7 would usually be perfectly high enough, Jonathan would don his pads and gloves, and sit poised on the boundary, eager for action. Twice in 2019 he took advantage of his preparedness; the first at Sissinghurst, where his skipper, Ed, umpiring at the time, was somewhat surprised to see Jonathan on his way out at number 3, much earlier than expected.
The second elevation took place in the BB game, again Jonty selected to bat somewhere down the order, but already padded and poised. George was busy carving his way to a big undefeated ton, but wickets did fall at the other end, and, at the fall of the second, Jonathan was up and on his way to the middle, almost before the bails had hit the dirt. Ben, who was actually due in next, was still scrabbling to find his helmet, gloves and bat (Ben, you should know by now that it is usually on the roof of the pavilion). By the time he looked up, Jonathan was taking guard.
Looking at the stats for the 2019 season it would seem that the Stragglers of today are matching, and often exceeding, the gigantic efforts of their forbears. There are two past seasons that stand out in particular – 1952 and 1982.
In 1952, a season with the highest proportion of victories, the Stragglers won 14 of the 17 games played, losing only twice, Jim Woodhouse scored a century at Tenterden, the third ever by a Straggler, and his first of three. The bowling (155 wickets) was lead by Hugh Collins and the President, Paul, (both with 33) and Doc McCausland (20).
The 1982 Stragglers were the first to score more than 3000 runs from the bat in a season, held 66 outfield catches, a record not beaten until 2019, and won 11 of 20 games played. Leading batsmen included Hugh Blenkin, scoring a ton against the Trogs. The bowling attack saw 156 wickets taken, with Rodney Fletcher (46), HT Patten (36), and Peter Canney and Alastair Gordon (both 21) leading the way.
The modern giants of 2019 scored 12 centuries, more than one every other game, while the best individual score conceded was the undefeated 90 in the T20 at Hurlingham; broke the record for the first wicket partnership which had stood for 62 years; took more catches than ever before (73, comfortably ahead of the 66 in 1982), which does seem extraordinary as the Lark catching cup changed hands a number of times during the season; and Stragglers won 14 games as in 1952, but with more games played. For only the second time four bowlers took 20 wickets or more, with a total of 182 wickets between them, the second highest ever, only bettered in 1949. And there was such a plethora of keeping talent that 10 Keepers were successful behind the stumps, very comfortably a record, and together collected 32 scalps, again a record.
Now to the awards:
I would like to start with Benny. Benny bats with the casual elegance of someone from another age, batting very differently to his brothers, who work on the basis that every ball is a six waiting to be hit. On a lovely afternoon at Belmont, he carried his bat to score an undefeated 73, barely breaking into an amble for singles, and not really bothering with boundaries. Fortunately for him and for the Stragglers, George was being more industrious at the other end, and together scoring 221, they broke the record for the first wicket, which had stood since 1957 (Wyndham and JLA Barnes). I will come back to George in a moment.
The first century of the summer was scored in Menorca by Ben. He did not look as if he was going to make it in the final overs, but Hugo, at the other end, turned singles into threes and Ben duly hit the penultimate ball for 4 to get to 103 – out next ball.
Again, I will leave George, who also scored a ton on tour, for the moment.
Hamish MacLeod and Jasper put a weak Hythe to the sword with 102 and 106* respectively. Jasper went on to score another, 119*, in the Inter-Straggler game.
Ed Solly scored a matchless 122 at Sissinghurst, ending by trying to switch hit every ball.
James Leggett plundered an undefeated 107* at Stowting.
Tom Tribe took advantage of a modest Junior BB attack with 103* at Torry Hill.
Ed Wright scored a classy 154* at St. Lawrence and Highland Court, the second score of over 150 in a season, never before achieved. Ed is also mentioned in the awards for his exceptional first Straggler season, averaging 195.
At Tenterden, James Pollington scored a maiden ton in any cricket (100*) 10 seconds after Ben Stokes has finished off the Australians at Headingley, with the cheer for the latter running round the ground to give him encouragement
And before I come to George, to be properly “of the moment” we have the fake news century. Jasper and Patch Clews were padded up to come in at 4 and 5 at Stowting, and getting bored watching James Leggett and Patch thrash the ball to all parts. So, they took a picture of themselves beside the scoreboard – 223 for 1, I think – and posted it on-line. Supporters arriving at the ground had already picked it up on social media and the forwarded it on – Patch’s imaginary century had grown a life of its own; and we gave a little more of a puff with an imaginary match report. Of course, the award is also imaginary!
And so, to George. His tour began badly, not for the first time, but given another chance, George tucked in on the Sunday game to score 126*. We have already heard of the record breaking first wicket stand with benny – George’s contribution was 140; and he then went on to score a really impressive 151* against the BB to lay the foundation for a big Straggler score. At that point, George was a mile ahead in the averages and the batting award was his for the asking. However, the wheels began to come off, and Jasper scored that undefeated ton at Belmont. George and Jasper went into the final game at Bishopsbourne neck and neck. They opened the Straggler innings with only 165 to chase. Their batting could not have been more different – Jasper set off to get the whole lot himself, while George was batting like a nervous kitten while trying to run himself out at the same time. He survived, somehow, and when Jasper was caught at long-off for 85, all George had to do was survive. In the end he triumphed with 528 runs at an average of 75.43.
Now, having dealt with the glamour boys, it’s time to talk about the engine room, the players that actually win games, the bowlers. In 2018, apart from Hugo winning the award, there was not much to talk about and no five-fors. In 2019, however, and for only the second time in Straggler history, 4 bowlers took 20 wickets or more, and three of them took four “five-fors”; there might have been two more “five-fors”, but I have forgiven Tom, and I hope Al has forgiven me. And 182 wickets is the best for 70 years.
Al has reinvented himself as a leg spinner, and, like all good leg spinners, does not mind being carted round the park, as the wicket taking balls are quite special. Against the BB, Al had a big Straggler total to play with and nearly did the business, taking 6 for 94; the following weekend he cleaned up Stowting with 5 for 33, and ended the season as the leading wicket taker with 28. Al might have had another 5 for at Hythe, but sadly was let down in the field.
Stragglers have two sorts of bowlers – those who bowl and take wickets, and those who bowl really well and, somehow, do not. Nick Wright has tended to languish in the latter category, but 2019 saw him promoted, to end the season with 22 wickets and one of the most impressive 5 fors at Nonington – 5 for 39 – to win a game that the Stragglers were losing comfortably.
Now, I am not sure if Hugo’s five for on tour really counts, as three were left arm spin and two right are toe crunchers. The Sunday game in Menorca was ambling towards a big Straggler victory, so Hugo was invited to open it up with some left arm. This just hurried the end along, as three batters managed to go the aerial route and perish on the boundary. However, a young bat arrived who took a bit of a fancy to Hugo and put him into the next field – big mistake. Hugo changed hands and the game lasted two more balls. With 5 for 27 in Menorca, Hugo topped the averages for the season with 24 wickets at 10.33.
Before we come to the champagne moment, there are a couple of occasional awards, which I am very pleased to present. the Overseas Straggler award to Harry Wright for his spell of 3 for 7 and an undefeated 55* against Tarbarrow at Highland Court; and the award for a remarkable first season goes to Ed Wright, who averaged a modest 195, with a big ton and out once only.
Toby already has quite a collection of champagne moments, and in 2019 he faced some stiff competition, with a series of amazing catches and some interesting switch hitting in contention. However, his catch at Belmont was extraordinary – Olla absolutely mullahed the ball, which flew barely 6 feet above the ground, flat towards the deep mid-wicket boundary, and Toby was far enough away for all of us to watch the full panoply of emotions to pass across his face – recognition that the ball was coming his way, the “oh shit” moment, the “perhaps I’ll just let it by” and then at the last moment, a hand stuck out to pick the ball from the air. Toby is a very worthy winner of the 2019 Champagne moment.