The Flashman Papers 1842-1845: Flashman’s Lady

With Flashman’s Lady, the Sixth Packet of The Flashman Papers, George MacDonald Fraser sprung a couple of changes on the series. The first, and more important of these was to break the strict chronological sequence of the Packets to date, by going back to fill in part of one of those two substantial gaps left in Harry Flashman’s career to date, and the second, via the mediation of the Packet’s first editor, Elspeth Flashman’s sister Grizel de Rothschild, to introduce a running commentary in the form of excerpts from Lady Flashman’s own diaries.
The first of these changes overlaps with the first part of Royal Flash but goes on to extend Flashman’s career as far as 1845 (up until the beginning of his service in the First Sikh War) by taking him far away from England, Elspeth at his side (at least metaphorically) all the way.
Once again, Fraser (or Flashman) is presenting two ‘heroic’ adventures into one story which, together with the long and gently enjoyable introduction to Flashy’s unexpected sporting career, breaks the story down into three phases and environments.
The first of these leads us into the long-gone world of early-Victorian cricket, in which Flashman briefly but brightly shines. We’re back in 1842, with the ‘Ero of Jooloolabad enjoying life on Morrison’s money, or such of it as can be distributed via Elspeth. This leads one day to a chance encounter with a tall, well-set-up brown-haired stranger who recognises Flashy even as our favourite cad has no idea who he is.
Appropriately, given the end of the previous adventure, this strapping young man is none other than Tom Brown, full of Christian admiration and forgiveness towards Flashy the hero, and complete with invitation to play for a Rugby Old Boys against Kent. Flashman’s about to turn it down with disdain until he learns the match is to be played at Lords’.
On the great day, Flashy finds himself frozen out (after all, he did tell Brown he was going to do his training down the Haymarket, among the hem-hem ladies) but the crowd recognises the great hero and after some uncricket-like chanting, Flashy’s given an over.
This is not cricket as we know it now. Overs consist of four balls, and round-arm bowling has not long since come in. Flashy bowls fast, seriously fast, seemingly unscientifically. But in amongst his abiding cynicism towards the world, Flashy genuinely loves the game, and off the second ball of his second over, putting his heart and mind into it, he bowls Felix, one of the legendary batsmen of the era.
Felix was skill but, the very next ball, luck enables Flashy to dismiss Fuller Pilch, another giant of a batsman, caught and bowled. Which leads Flashy facing Alfie Mynn, a third legend. And Flashy duly completes the first recorded instance of a hat trick (and it’s both a hat and a trick) by appealing for LBW against a ball going well-wide, whilst leaping across the Umpire’s view!
Nevertheless, it does gain Flashy invitations to play the following summer, and he does secure two very respectable sets of figures against two highly respectable teams.
That’s where Flashman’s problems start. The lovely Elspeth has accompanied him but when Flashy wants to share his triumph with her, she’s nowhere to be found. Eventually, he locates her in the archery alleys, being shown how to draw a bow by a rather dark-skinned gentleman who has his arms round her. All very innocently of course.
The newcomer is Don Solomon Haslam, a very wealthy merchant from out East, who is also a cricket fan and devastated to have missed Flashy’s feat. On the other hand, he’s more than somewhat infatuated with the golden-haired Elspeth.
Haslam’s about all winter, hosting with generosity, always in with the news, enough so to impress old Morrison. The Flashman’s become especial favourites of his, though Harry’s got a very keen eye open for reasons why.
Things come to a head in the early summer of 1843. Having offended both Lola Montez and Otto Bismarck, as we already know, Flashy’s happy to be out of London at a Cricket week, by Alfie Mynn’s invitation. He and Elspeth are guests of Haslam. Meanwhile, Uncle Bindley (who has definitely travelled to the Paget side of the family) is arranging a substantial and prestigious position at Horse Guards. All is sunny.
Of course, there’s the minor matter of the London bookie whose money Flashy has very unwisely taken, and Mrs Leo Lade, mistress to some elderly Duke who Haslam catches Flashy shagging in the dressing room. And Haslam’s got to go back east to check his estate and he’s got this brilliant idea about taking Elspeth with him (with Morrison as chaperone) for a jolly sunny cruise.
Elspeth’s ecstatic, if her brave Hector approves, which he very firmly doesn’t. So Haslam inveigles Flashy into a game of single wicket, with £2,000 if Flashy wins, and Elspeth in her sunbathing corsets if he loses or ties.
It ought to be a doddle. Except that The bookie, Tighe, wants Flashy to throw the match, seeing as how he’s red-hot favourite and all the betting’s going that way. It’s a tremendous pickle, with social devastation and Tighe’s bully-boys on one hand and his wife disappearing for a year or so with some damned n****r (Flashman-speak), and with some vigorous cheating on both sides, given the number of stools, it’s no wonder Flashman falls between all of them. There’s only one solution: Harry’s going East as well.
Neither Flashman nor Frasier do travelling, which is just as well, so several months elapse whilst the happy couple, and her miserable (in both senses) Scots father sail east under Haslam’s command, and a deuced dodgy-looking lot they are, with never an English voice nor a white face amongst them. And Haslam’s growing more native by the nautical mile.
Still, there is nothing but the coward’s paranoia to concern our boy Harry, until the party reaches Hong Kong, and there finally exists an opportunity for vicious living. It’s not to be found amongst the merchant class which, despite sporting eccentrics such as the sherry-sipping Chinese, Whampoa, and the excitable Jew, Catchick Moses, considers cards after seven to be dangerously racy. Indeed, Flashy needs Haslam himself to point him across the tracks, into the Chinese section, where ladies in tight dresses that can nevertheless be removed by an expert may be found.
As can ninjas.
Fraser doesn’t name them as such, though by this time Bruce Lee films had been all the rage for a few years, but it’s pretty damned obvious who the assassins Flashman is desperately fleeing from are meant to be. And as usual, it would be all up with Flashy if not for that significant moment of luck that comes to his rescue at such times.
For a group of Englishmen, some naval, some civilians, some native bearers, but all very handy, happen up the scene, and pull Flashy’s chestnuts out of the fire. He hears names that mean nothing to him, that mean nothing to readers that are not students of British Nineteenth Century history to the degree of George MacDonald Fraser even before he began these books. Because the leader is one James Brooke, or  J.B. And he is one of the strangest and most unbelievable real-life characters Flashman has ever or will ever meet.
Do you know the name? I didn’t. Even now, almost forty years later, I cannot recall ever hearing of Brooke outside the pages of this novel, unless I have deliberately searched for his name and his history. Who is he? Wait a moment longer, because this is where the roof falls in on Harry Flashman. Don Solomon Haslam’s boat has sailed. It has Elspeth aboard but not John Morrison. Haslam has, during the past week, very quietly sold up all his holdings. His departure, and his taking of Elspeth Flashman, is deliberate. It is worked out that his true name is Sulemain Usman, and that he is a notorious Borneo Pirate. And he has kidnapped Flashman’s wife.
At that point, J.B. takes over the operation to rescue Mrs Flashman, with his men about him and, given Flashman’s reputation, assuming his enthusiastic participation. It is a romantic task, made the more pointed by Brooke’s excited, often florid and in Flashy’s eyes, decidedly schoolboyish responses, and it’s not until he queries why J.B. is getting himself so worked up that the others’ incredulity at his ignorance leads to his being told that James Brooke is who he is because he is the White Rajah of Sarawak, one of the two principal states of Borneo. He governs as absolute ruler.
Brooke has to be read to be believed. Flashman finds it difficult to credit that Brooke and his rule, colonial and paternal to a fault, really exists, and despite our respect for Fraser and his meticulous accuracy that has carried us through five and a half books thus far, I cannot be alone in finding Brooke to be so difficult to accept. He is so much the archetype of the least-convincing and most swash-buckling of Victorian schoolboy Empire fiction that the very idea that there could be a real avatar is so hard to swallow.
Part of it is a generational thing. Fraser was thirty years older than me, born and brought up under an Empire upon which the sun never set, and taught to believe in this as a good thing. I am a child of the mid-Fifties, when the Empire had already gone a long way towards extinction, in fact if not mind, and my education, my upbringing, all the liberal instincts by which I live lead me to an automatic rejection of the notion of Empire.
Both of us are too intelligent to believe that either extreme is the sole truth, even though I am far less well read than the late author. For Fraser, the chance to introduce Brooke, to illuminate his story in a manner that acknowledges the implausibility of it yet reflects its actuality, is probably the major reason for this book, and the middle section, in which Flashy joins Brooke’s actual expedition against the river pirates, is the longest part of the story of three tales.
Fraser instinctively applauds – as does Sarawak history and the country’s memories, for Brooke began a dynasty that ruled until 1946 and which Sarawak looks back on his favour – and I instinctively shudder with embarrassment at the cultural imperialism. That was directed at eradicating brutality, exploitation, murder and torture. There are no easy answers.
Ultimately, the river expedition achieves partial success. The pirates are beaten but not broken, and Harry is reunited with Elspeth. Unfortunately, this happens to be on Usman’s ship, steaming away from Borneo at a rate of knots, with Flashy recovering from a gash in the ribs that Elspeth’s unfettered joy in being with her paladin again threatens to tear open once more.
Where do we go from here? Usman still loves and venerates Elspeth and loathes Harry as an unclean beast, unfit to worship his golden vision, let alone roger her senseless, but once he has allowed Elspeth to know her beloved is alive and there, he has removed his own power to kill Flashy. Nevertheless, they are still his prisoners, with no sign of release unless Harry does something about it.
Which, when the ship strikes harbour, on an island of black subjects, he does, breaking free, swimming ashore and demanding to be taken to the British Consul. Usman is panicked off his head at this development, but not for the reasons you’d think. Despite Flashy’s assumptions, this is not the British possession, Mauritius, but the independent island Kingdom of Madagascar.
Where Britains – where whites – have no status, no authority, no rights. They are slaves. They are Lost.
Madagascar is ruled by the mad Queen Ranavalona, who Fraser portrays in accordance with contemporary opinion and historical conclusion that was only just beginning to be reinterpreted, as a literal madwoman, and a homicidal maniac whose only apparent interest in her rule is the opportunity presented to her for an ongoing wave of mass murder in brutal terms. Flashy becomes her salve, a indeed are all the very few Europeans in the country which, in his case, means becoming Sergeant-General of her Army (a gloriously over-promoted Drill Instructor) and her lover.
Though this latter really is a case of the biter bit since Ranavalona’s regard for Flashy’s, er, staff is no more profound or personal than his for a prime pair of bumpers, heh?
If you are a trifle uncomfortable about this same story containing both Brooke and Ranavalona, with no other connection between them than that Harry Flashman serves under both in a most contrived manner of succession, then you may care to reflect that this strange pair of historical mysteries are ironic shadows of one another in the contrast between how they treat their respective subjects.
Or you may as well accept that one of the names of the game that Fraser plays over this sequence of novels is that Harry Flashman’s long career involves him getting involved in most, if not all, of the significant trouble-spots of the middle-to-late Nineteenth Century, no matter how remote one is from another and especially how utterly unbelievable it is that any one man should have even a tenth of them in common.
It is a mark of Fraser’s skill that he is able to make so many of such transitions not just believable but plausible. Sometimes, however, the contrivance has to become a little bit too obvious for the good of the story. There is no true way to place the White Rajah and the Mad Queen side by side. This is just something that we shall have to grin and bear. After all, Flashman at the Charge did something similar, if a lot less hard to swallow, in its cramming together of the Crimea and Russia’s forgotten expansionist wars in Central Asia.
So far as Madagascar is concerned, the Queen’s rule is not welcomed by all. Both Britain and, especially, France had Empirical designs upon the island and its resources, and they had designs towards putting Ranavalona’s much nicer, and considerably more pliable son, Rakota, on the throne in her place. Rakota, incidentally, is keeping Elspeth safe from his mother’s knowledge, and Elspeth is, of course, completely oblivious to any of the Madagascar her petrified husband is facing.
Needless to say, the terrified Flashy is going to be a key component of the plot to get Ranavalona’s army away from her whilst she is deposed. And almost equally needless to say, the plot fails and, in order to ‘prove’ his innocence, our hero has to undergo the infamous, and weirdly creepy tanguin test, involving poison, throwing up and chicken skin.
Flashy survives, but it’s now on the knife edge, and, knowing an English ship to be out there, off the coast, he grabs Elspeth and runs. And this is, to me, quite the finest part of the whole novel. It’s called Flashman’s Lady because she is the springboard for everything that happens, and her naïve observations decorate the story.
But this is Elspeth as wife to, and companion to, a soldier. Not a very good soldier, not in the least. But he is her soldier and whilst her eyes are tinted even more rosy than her absurd ‘diary’, Harry does what any good soldier, any good husband does: he protects her, he rescues her. He is worthy of her, and what makes this last section quietly brilliant is that, in the face of everything we have heard Flashman say about Elspeth, she is worthy of him. When it matters, when it becomes serious, Elspeth proves her fitness, and even the cynical Harry sees that, and values that, and comes closer than ever before, or ever since, to shame in the face of it.
That’s what makes this book into Flashman’s Lady: Elspeth’s courage, her calmness, her grace that shows her as much more than a Glasgow grocer’s daughter, her determination not to let down her true knight, touches the ending of this rather clunky and awkward story with a peculiarly private glory.
Of course it can’t end like that. It’s barely 1845, and Elspeth’s final extract shows a most unwilling Harry being hauled off to the First Sikh War, where we already know he attains more military glory, though we will have to wait until the opening of the Ninth Packet before we can find out just how he does it this time…

History and Memories
This little section follows each blog. It focuses on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P23. Flashman compares his feelings for Elspeth to those for several of his (then-) future lovers. The list includes two women we have yet to meet. Takes-Away-Clouds-Woman will be explained in the next packet, but though Flashman will mention her name again in future, we regrettably never become acquainted with his liaison with the famous Lily Langtry.
P114. Flashman experiences a rare nightmare in Singapore on the eve of Elspeth’s kidnapping, leading him to reminisce about how his worst nightmares usually occur in prison. After referring to those from Fort Raim (Flashman at the Charge) and Gwalior (Flashman in the Great Game), he names the worst one as occurring in Mexico during ‘the Juarez business’. Flashman does have a prominent role in at least the latter stages of the French invasion of Mexico, which took place whilst the United States was distracted from the Monroe Doctrine by its Civil War. This adventure is also hinted at in later packets, but the closest we will come to it is the opening pages of the Twelfth and final Packet, as Flashman leaves the country, escorting the body of the deceased Emperor Maximilian
P161. James Brooke, planning the river expedition to recover Elspeth, reminds Flashman of other charismatic mad-men who could sweep a crowd along with them. We have seen Yakub Beg in action, and will see something but not the charisma of ‘Chinese Gordon’ in the Eighth Packet, but J.E.B. Stuart and George Custer belong to the American Civil War adventure that everyone but Fraser himself wanted to see.
P191. Flashman refers to passing through the river village of Patusan ‘a few years ago’. Flashman experts relate this to Flashman’s known presence in Pekin during the Boxer Rebellion (another unwritten adventure) as part of  a deservedly leisurely – and peaceful – return voyage.
P265. Flashman compares Ranavalona’s improbable personal secretary, Mr Fankanonikaka, to other eccentrics he has met in his lifetime. The Oxford Don commanding a slave ship is John Charity Spring, but the Professor of Greek skinning mules on the Sacramento trail actually fails to appear in the Seventh Packet and the Welshman in a top hat leading a Zulu Impi does not come into the limited account of that War given in the papers comprising the Eleventh Packet.
P273. Flashman lists several unusual roles he has played in his lifetime., only one of which gives any difficulty in identifying, that of gambling-hell proprietor. There is a reference elsewhere to Flashy running a Gambling Establishment in the Philippines, another lacuna in the Chronology, but the first half of the Seventh Packet lays another claim to this recollection.

Running-Out the Bicentenery

Roger Harper was unusual for a West Indies Test Bowler in the Eighties: despite being 6’5″ and athletic with it, he was a spin bowler. And a decent one too, if statistics are your measure. Though he only took 46 wickets in his Test career, his average was greater than the legendary West Indian spinner, Lance Gibbs, and he would surely have taken more if he’d not been playing in the era of four quicks, when his was primarily used to bottle up an end whilst one of the pacemen took a breather.

Harper did not bowl in any classical style, running in from an angle and, as he hit the crease, leaping in the air as he brought his bowling arm over in a massive, wheeling arc, from behind the small of his back, his hand at delivery near enough eight feet off the ground and landing the ball on impossible lengths.

But, like such legendary names as Colin Bland and Jonty Rhodes, Roger Harper was best known for his fielding. For such a tall man, he was incredibly fast and limber, and his reactions were fast beyond belief. In one Test against England, when he was fielding at a widish gulley to a left-handed batsman, the ball was hit, fast and uppish, over his head. I say over his head: it was way over the head of any normal fielder and four all the way from leaving the bat. But Harper, from a standing position, leapt straight up, like an Apollo space mission launching from Florida only faster, and caught the ball one-handed, his arm stretched ramrod straight above his head.

Having only ever been out once through no fault of my own, I know the sickening feeling of hitting the ball clean, sweet and unstoppable, only to see it caught, and have an innings of promise ended abruptly. Roger Harper did that to a lot of people.

The one we all remember took place in the MCC Bi-Centenery match, at Lords in 1987, between the MCC and the Rest of the World. I was not there to see this, so this is not an I Was There in the usual manner. But I’m reminded of it because of today’s Guardian feature in their ‘Joy of Six’ series, which offers up six moments of stunning fielding, and which doesn’t include this.

MCC, batting first, were rolling along nicely at 254-3, the current England captain, Graham Gooch, having already scored a century and looking booked in at 117 not out. Harper bowled: Gooch came a couple of paces down the wicket and drove the ball, flat and hard and very straight. It might have hit the non-striker’s wicket, it might have missed it and shot through for another four, for this was one of those classical straight drives that would have run to the boundary in a matter of seconds.

And Gooch was already relaxing and slowing his forward momentum, reckoning in absolute confidence that he would not need to run. And he would have been right with any other bowler in the World, let alone the Rest of it.

But because of Harper’s unusual action, he did not fall as far away to the left as an off-spinner would normally have done, and because of the speed of his reactions he had assessed the shot Gooch was shaping to play and had stopped himself on the popping crease. And when Gooch played the shot, Harper moved, back and across, bending his 6’5″ body to drop his right hand into the path of the ball, a speeding ball with tremendous impetus, to grasp it in his hand brushing the turf and in one fluid, unchecked movement, straighten up with the hand rising above shoulder height, turning the momentum of the ball into an instant response and hurling the ball back down the wicket, spearing towards Gooch’s stumps.

Gooch was well-set. He had 117 runs already and looked good for another hundred on top. He was in his pomp. He’d hit a four, no two ways about it, until in an instant of shock he saw Harper reaching for the ball, and a shitload of panic dropped into his head out of a cloudless sky, because he was two yards out of his grounds and was suddenly as vulnerable as Smaug the dragon after Bilbo spotted the chink in his armour. The pace of the ball was such that he had no earthly chance of regaining those two yards. All he could do in the time he had to save himself was to turn back towards the wicket, and even then Harper was too fast and Gooch could only go sideways and start to fall.

Maybe it was a primitive urge for safety, perhaps if he fell across the path of the ball and blocked its path he would be safe (except from the inevitable appeal for obstructing the wicket that would have immediately followed). No doubt it came from the safe place as the instinctive move, six years later, at Old Trafford, that made Gooch swing at a delivery falling onto his stumps and swat it away with his hand, incurring dismissal for handling the ball.

Whatever it was, it didn’t work. Harper was just too fast. The ball flew under Gooch’s frame, smashing the wickets, leaving him kneeling in submission.

As I said, I wasn’t there to see it. Instead, I saw it on the News: an on-field moment in an essentially friendly game of Cricket, picked out and given its own spot on the nightly national News. These were the old days, the BBC days, where one fixed camera was used, from one end, and every other over the batsman’s stance saw his facing away and the bowler running towards the viewer, and anything that happened in front of the wicket was invisible: thankfully, we had at least progressed to a second camera point, at the other end, if only for replays from a startlingly different angle.

It was unbelievable to see. If I’d been there at Lords, as I would be six years later, at Old Trafford when Shane Warne bowled the Ball of the Century, I doubt I would have truly understood what it was I would have seen until I saw it on TV. It was fast, too fast for instant comprehension. Sometimes it’s like that.

I’ve seen that run-out many times since, studied each component of it. We don’t get to see that in real life, can’t replay time to let us truly see what we have seen. And it didn’t make the list: inconceivable.

So, for once I wasn’t there. But if I had been…

Travelling with Tinniswood: Introduction

I only ever saw him once.
It was at Lords, in the early Nineties. I was there with Lancashire CCC: we were there often that decade, getting to a helluva lot of One-Day Finals, NatWest Trophies, Benson & Hedges. It was the lunch interval, and I’d gone across to the Souvenir Shop, and was returning to my seat when I saw him, deep in conversation.
I recognised him immediately, from television, from pictures. The greying pudding-bowl hair, the dark glasses, the beard and goatee, the inevitable pipe, the cravat. He was a devoted cricket fan, and a Lancashire member, but I’d never made the connection to the possibility of his turning up to watch his beloved County.
I had nothing for him to sign so I didn’t interrupt him and his friend.But, like I said, we got to Lords pretty often after that, and each time I poppedone of his books in my bag, to be ready in the event of seeing him again. Of course, that sighting was never repeated.
I’d first discovered Peter Tinniswood’s novels in the early mid-Seventies, and I’d loved his work and followed him devotedly ever since. He was in the midst of his Brandon Family novels then, and the BBC sitcom version, I Didn’t Know You Cared was about to start. He’d been a journalist, a satirical sketch writer. He’d go on to create fantastic, surreal cricket stories. He’d later write extensively for Radio 4, plays and serials: these latter dominated the last ten years of his life.
He died in 2003 and it was the ubiquitous pipe that did for him. Throat cancer, and, despite an  operation to remove of his voicebox, he passed away in early January, days after his 66th birthday.
I’d love to have gotten his signature on one of those wierdly stylised books of his. Not for any presumed value that a signature adds, but for the record of a moment of personal contact with someone whose mind has fascinated me, and for the chance to express my thanks for the hours of occupation someone’s imagination has forged for me.
What kind of writer was Peter Tinniswood? He was surreal. He was funny, black of humour to the point that it shaded into ultra-violet. He relished words, the sound, the rhythm, the sensation of them. He wrote in short paragraphs, and his early novels were decorated with titles for every page, knowing, ironic, bizarre summations of what was going on on that page.
Because of that relish for words, he was far more suited to books and radio than TV, though that was where his career began, on The Frost Report, with his early writing partner David Nobbs. He was unique, and he shouldn’t be forgotten. Most of all, he was a Northerner: born in Liverpool, brought up in Sale, just outside Manchester, a journalist in Sheffield. Though he lived for many years down South, the North never left him, and he used his words to shape it into a living, breathing, comic force.
I don’t have all his books, though I have read them all. I certainly haven’t heard anything like all his Radio 4 work. I’ve seen most of his TV series, one of which still stands out in my mind as an incredible piece of work that would still be ahead of its time even now.
For many years, I thought he was one of the funniest writers I have ever read, and although the later years of his career did considerable damage to that opinion, as I will later describe, and though I heard little or nothing of his output for Radio 4, those books from his early career are still as bizarre, hilarious and surreal as I found them when I first plunged into these deep waters.
So for the next few months I’m going to delve into those books, and take you with me into what animates this most unusual of writers, and just what dark and despairing comic glooms the northerner’s mind can encompass.

The Mad Baseball Bat Century

Ian Botham, Headingley 1981

I made my Test Match début in 1968, an Ashes summer, when I inadvertently discovered BBC TV coverage of each day’s play. All day, every day, that summer I would sit in black and white fascination. All but the crucial final day at the Oval, when England raced time to mop up the Aussies on a drying pitch and square the series, whilst my Mam had taken my sister and myself to Southport for the day, and I had to try to follow the score from people’s transistor radios along the promenade. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with this wonderful game.
I made my real Test Match début, my first attendance at a Test, thirteen years later, again in an Ashes summer, on the third day of the Fifth Test between England and Australia, at Old Trafford, naturally. Popular opinion now, and for a very long time to come, will nominate the 2005 series as the Greatest Ashes Series ever, but for those of us who are a bit older, it doesn’t quite dislodge 1981 from our affections. There were all the same thrills and dramas, and England coming from behind, but that summer of the first Six Test series, of the first experiment with Sunday play, had more twists, more aspects, more turns. And where 2005 had Andrew Flintoff, 1981 had Ian Botham.
The series started at Trent Bridge with the 25 year old Botham as England captain. He’d made his début in the Test team in 1977 and had already made his name as a charismatic all-rounder, an exciting, aggressive batsman, a vigorous, dynamic bowler: so much so that, when Mike Brearley had stepped down after winning the Ashes in Australia in 1978/9, against a Packer-decimated Aussie team, Botham had been the popular and Selectorial choice to succeed him.
It’s an arguable point as to what was the cause, but Botham hadn’t won a Test as Captain, and his form had undergone a severe dip: he had scored a half-century in his first Test as Captain, but hadn’t achieved a similar score after that, and he’d taken no five-fors. The press and the public were sure that it was the pressure of captaincy affecting his performance, Botham that it was simply a coincidental loss of form, and the fact that all those Tests had been against the West Indies was certainly more than a contributory factor. Any Captain would have struggled to make an impression upon them at that time, and this was before the ‘Blackwash’ series’ of the Eighties.
The England selectors’ response at this point was to re-appoint Botham as Captain, but only for the First Test, which England lost. He was then appointed Captain for the Second Test only. This was virtually unheard of and served as a focus for Press attention, which was redoubled when England drew the Test at Lords, and Botham was out for a pair.
At the end of the game, Botham spoke to the Selectors and asked them to show their confidence in him by appointing him for the remainder of the series. When they refused to do so, he resigned, confirming this to the Press and explaining that the pressure on his family was unacceptable if he was to be appointed in this drip-drip manner. All resolved, painlessly and sensibly – except that Chairman of the Selectors Alec Bedser then bluntly told the Press that if Botham hadn’t resigned, he’d have been sacked anyway. A cheap, nasty, unnecessary, heartless statement, and absolutely typical of a dictatorial and impervious body of men.
So Brearley was back – a 37 year old man who was a good first slip, a respectable but not Test Class batsman, and a genius at the art of captaincy. That is what he was picked for, to straighten out the England side and get it to function again.
Brearley’s first self-imposed task was to contact Botham and sound him out about his mental readiness for the Third Test. Botham, of course, was up for it: no challenge refused.
Which is where the tenor of the whole series changed. At Headingley
Though Botham managed to hit 50 in England’s first innings, this was still Australia’s test, for the first three and a half days. They’d only made a modest first innings score, but England, despite Botham’s contribution, made a much more modest one and were invited to follow on. And only once in the whole history of Test Cricket had a side won after being asked to follow on. England’s only hope was survival, and that didn’t look too hopeful as wickets fell steadily.
At that time, I was working in Romiley to the south east of Stockport. It meant I got home about 5.50pm on the Monday afternoon, just ten minutes ahead of close of play. I went straight to the TV, switched on BBC2. I caught a shot of the Scoreboard and refused to believe it.
I thought it had said 326-8, but that just wasn’t possible. I had to have misread it, probably 226, that was more like it. But it was 326, and come the highlights I marvelled at the hitting of Botham and Dilley, the sustained attack on the Aussie attack, weakened by the decision to choose left arm spinner Ray Bright on a seamer’s wicket. At close of play we had a lead of 125. Not much, obviously not enough, and a complete surprise.
The next morning, I was in Stockport, at the Magistrate’s Court. As I walked back to my car, at 12.00ish, I passed a television shop and saw Australia were batting again. Obviously we hadn’t added much more, and they were on the way to winning, but at least we’d restored some pride in defeat.
The next thing that happened was, as the clock struck 2.00 pm and I came back off lunch, I stopped off in the Off-Licence opposite, to buy a cold can of Coke – and heard the radio news announce that England had just won the Test! How on Earth had that happened?
Well, we’ll all know about Botham’s 149 not out, and Willis’s 8-42, and what a game it was to watch as the tide of fortune swung so decisively in England’s direction in the last day and a half of the game, making history, overturning expectation in the most spectacular of fashion. Or what it would have been like to watch that, even on TV, which is something that I did not get to do.
It was a dramatic moment, but all it had done was to level the series, and there were few indeed who, at that time, expected better than that England would be better equipped to complete in the last three Tests.
Back in 1981, Test Match Summers had a smooth, enviable rhythm. Headingley ended on the Tuesday, and Edgbaston began on the Thursday of the following week, each Test occupying the traditional venues, at regular fortnightly intervals. We were ready and rested for the resumption of the fray, but it was a nondescript, low-scoring Test – one of the few in which not a single batsman scored a 50 – and once again Australia were chasing a low fourth innings score to regain the series lead. We were already calling the Third Test victory “The Miracle of Headingley”, but no-one expected miracles to repeat themselves. History seemed less flexible, the unexpected more unexpected, and certainly not a serial event.
This was one of the three Tests that were experimenting with no rest day, so the climax ended up on Sunday afternoon. The BBC’s schedules were not prepared for all day cricket coverage on Sundays, so the game was dipping in and out of visits to Birmingham, just like the stop-start nature of the usual Sunday League coverage, where equal time was devoted to other sports. To keep me going, I had on Test Match Special on Radio 3 MW.
It was Australia’s game again, making slow and unspectacular progress towards a low target, more time than anyone would need to get there, five wickets down and accumulating without worries. Then Ian Botham came back into the attack.
Almost immediately, he ripped out Rodney Marsh, clean bowled. It was a start, at least until the next ball, with which he did Bright, leg before! Two in two, the balance of the game changing in an instant, on a hat trick and I’m screaming at the screen for the Beeb to get their coverage over to Edgbaston, before that third ball, come on, move it!
With the slowness of tectonic plates grinding, they did shift their monolithic direction, in time for a third ball that zipped past Lillee without taking a wicket, but now we were at the cricket, there was no going back. Botham struck again, and again, suddenly driving England to the edge of a second unexpected victory, the Botham whirlwind suddenly blowing away everyone in its path, and this was unfolding in real time, not something you come home from work to, done and recorded. And he did it, bending the world to fit around him, five wickets, five wickets in five overs and one ball, and only a single run conceded in that breathless rush. It was England now who, from a Test down, had taken the series lead. No-one who saw the post-match interview with the Captains will ever forget the look in Kim Hughes’ eyes. It was described as the look of someone who’d been sandbagged around the back of the neck just before going on, and in thirty years I’ve never come up with something to surpass that.
And so we moved to Manchester and the Fifth Test, and me.
Old Trafford was the last of the Sunday play Tests that summer. In later years, I would arrange my holidays in Ashes summers (and the West Indian ones) so that I could go to all five days, but this first occasion I hadn’t thought that far in advance and I was only going to the weekend, and Monday.
It was going to be a sunny weekend, August at its best. The first day’s play was pretty nondescript, England struggling towards a low total, and only being boosted past 200 on the Friday morning thanks to a maiden unbeaten Test half century from Lancashire’s fast-medium bowler Paul Allott, making his England début in this Test, thanks to a lot of hacking, slashing and Chinese cuts! It carried England to 231.
I’d been in Court again and now I was back to the car to go back to my Office, and straight to Radio 3MW, where the cheers were still reverberating for Bob Willis’s second wicket in an over. He’s had Johnny Dyson caught at slip off the first ball and, though Kim Hughes had struck a 4, the Aussie Captain was then leg before off the fourth ball. And it wasn’t over: off the last ball of the over, Willis had Graham Yallop caught at slip and then Allott took his first Test wicket, trapping Graham Wood leg before off the first ball of the next over! 20 for 0 to 24 for 4 in seven balls!
It knocked the guts out of the Aussie innings, and England established themselves a 101 run First innings lead which they’d extended to 171 at close of play, having lost the still-far-from-established Graham Gooch cheaply.
The Saturday was a sell-out, Old Trafford was at capacity, 25,000. I’d never seen the ground remotely full so far, so I was completely unprepared for the realities of the situation. There were none of the individual plastic-bucket seats of today: the terraces were adorned with park-bench type seats, in cracked and peeling blue paint, on which people sat and sprawled out as they choice, relaying on primacy of arrival. The ground might hold 25,00, but my inexpert guess was that it could only seat 21,000, and I wasn’t one of them.
Health and Safety be damned, people were sitting themselves on the long, low concrete steps of the gangways between sections on the Warwick Road End, and I followed suit, taking my thin summer jacket off and folding it into as thick a pad as possible (not very) and sitting on that for almost the whole day. It was hard and cold under… well, not foot, was it?
And for half the day, the cricket matched my bum-numb perch. In the morning session, two hours play, England lost three wickets and advanced their score by 29 runs. 29 runs in two hours of play, and a single boundary, a straight drive for 4 by Mike Gatting in the final over before lunch, through long off. And then, typical Gatting, he went and padded up to a straight one next ball, and was out lbw.
It wasn’t much better for most of the first hour after lunch, although it was getting warmer as the fringes of grey cloud were dissipating. Brearley came and went, bringing Botham in. At the other end, Chris Tavare pottered and nudged and nurdled and defended and generally advanced his score at a pace that would have had snails looking back at it, and anyone frustrated at Jonathan Trott rapidly revising their stories.
I decided I needed a drink and squeezed round to the bar under the back of C stand, only to discover when I returned that Botham had hit two fours in the same over off Bright – the second and third boundaries of the day, and I missed them. This was not an introduction to be remembered.
Though Botham was beginning to show a little more aggression, starting to drive the score on a little faster, the second new ball was due before long, and we all knew what that would mean: back into the shell, playing defensively.
The first over with the second new ball was bowled by Terry Alderman from the Warwick Road End, pitter-pattering away from us with that never-too-fast run. Botham was cautious for a couple of balls, then he tried to launch one over long-off and got under it a bit too much. Mike Whitney, the left arm seamer who, a week before, had been the Pro at Fleetwood, up the Fylde Coast, was racing back with arms outstretched but didn’t quite get there: the ball fell to earth and Botham ran three.
That left him on strike for the next over, Dennis Lillee from the Stretford End. This was Dennis Lillee – no longer the flat-out tearaway of 1972 who made me feel scared just running in on TV, but still, this was Dennis Lillee. And first ball he unleashed a bouncer at Botham’s head.
And Botham swayed out of the way, swung the bat round in a vicious circle and smashed it into the crowd behind square leg for 6.
I’ve said before of cricket’s peculiar virtue whereby a game can be fixed solidly in a certain groove, the weight and the power running strictly in one direction, and then in a single ball, the whole edifice is smashed and the game revolves into a completely different thing in an instant. That one shot destroyed the frustrating grip on the game of the austerity so far. The crowd were electrified. When Lillee came up to deliver his second ball, all things had changed.
Botham pushed a single. Tavare, unbelievably, scored 3. Lillee’s fourth ball was another bouncer to Botham, which he again hooked behind square on a flatter trajectory, the howls of the crowd running with it to the boundary. A dot ball, then off the last of the over, a third bouncer and this time Botham wasn’t even looking at the ball, head ducked as he swung and sent the ball back of square for another 6 and out of the ground too!
Funnily enough, after that first over, and those three strikes that I can still see in my mind, as exact as if I were still sat there on the stone step, I remember very little of the rest of Botham’s innings. The sweep for six over long leg, off Bright, with Lillee on the boundary stretching but not reaching the ball, to send us into lunch, the almost perfunctory snick when he edged Whitney behind and waked off briskly, as if he’d just completed a decent 38 at Taunton, these are all that have stuck with me.
But there were three more 6’s than I’ve already mentioned in an innings of 118 that tore the game away from the Australians. It was just powerful, aggressive hitting, the kind that often inspires the word ‘flaying’ to describe it. Botham’s been described as hitting the ball about like a mad baseball player, of scoring so fast that the scoreboard wasn’t able to keep up with him. That at least is hype, but he more than scored so fast that his partner Tavare couldn’t keep up with him. But then, he didn’t try.
Tavare, who’d come in on the Friday evening, after the fall of Gooch, had progressed to 35 not out when Botham came to the wicket. By the time Botham departed, the partnership having added 149 Tavare’s score had gone on to 63. That kind of disparity in a partnership is not surprising when you’re batting with the tail (Viv Richards/Mike Holding, remember?) but it’s highly unusual when the non-scoring partner is the no. 3 batsman. But, until the end of his career, that was Tav. He just stuck to keeping his end up. This really was a one-man show.
Botham’s innings had changed the game. There was a sense of inevitability to things thereafter that, under a hot August sun, filled the crowd with easy enjoyment, fuelled by the drink, of course.
Brearley opted to bat on, to bat Australia out of any prospect of coming back into the game, there being two days and six sessions after the Saturday. So Knott and Emburey, overnight and into a simply glorious and uproarious Sunday, piled on the runs, despite a certain impatience on the crowd’s part to get at those Aussies. When England were finally out, for 404, Australia’s target was 505, a fourth innings total out of all imagining, but still only 100 a session for five sessions.
And they were obliged to go after it. Not just because they were Australians but because there was so much of the game, in perfect conditions, to play. Yallop made a ton, Border made an unbeaten ton, 123 not out, batting with a broken finger.
I remember the uproarious atmosphere, especially on the Sunday, with a capacity crowd revelling in English superiority. The batting and the bowling was of a very high quality – the very best moment was when Alan Knott tried a controlled ‘uppercut’ towards third man and Johnny Dyson, who’d been a bit of a butt of the English crowd’s taunting all summer, sprinted a dozen yards to his right before diving to take a one-handed catch.
But it was the sense of fun I remember most of all. The pitch invasion, in the afternoon session, by the bloke wearing a gorilla costume and trying to get to shake hands with Botham (whose nicknames included ‘Guy the Gorilla’). The even better pitch invasion by two blokes who simply climbed over the fence in front of H stand and, side by side as if they had every right to be there, strolling across the ground towards the wicket, ignoring the umpire going to meet them and, as soon as they reached the wicket, grabbing the bails at each end and sprinting off into the crowd, to raucous cheers.
The best moment however was restricted to those sat in my section of the Warwick Road End. There were girls wandering around, selling ice creams, and some guy, six or seven rows behind me, had cadged from one a piece of the dry ice being used to keep the ice creams from melting. he wanted to cool his beer down, so he dropped it in his glass, and it started foaming and bubbling, the glass vomiting broiling liquid from its rim, and he held the glass up for all to see, the dry ice kicking and spitting and the foam streaming down his arm, and everybody collapsing in laughter at the sight of it.
Monday was a complete contrast, the ground only about a third full and though the sun was still high and full, a certain coolness crept into the air. England bowled on, Australia batted on. They’d been 210 overnight, for 5, still needing almost 300 runs for the impossible victory, but in terms of scoring rates, they had clearly set themselves for the steady 100 runs a session, and they weren’t losing wickets. In the afternoon, with Lillee supporting the immovable Border, the nagging doubt began to creep in that maybe, just maybe, they might do it, or even get as close as the New Zealanders had done in 1972, less than a decade earlier, when I was still at School, in chasing down a 500 plus target and giving history a real fright.
But this was Botham’s year and it was his Test for the third time in a row, and Paul Allott was bowling at the Warwick Road End, to Lillee, with Botham in that position of arrogance at second slip, hands on knees until the batsman’s played his shot, and Lillee edged the ball wide of Botham, and he snatched it in both hands, the ball behind him.
From there it was merely time. The ninth wicket went down before tea, which was delayed a half hour, but Border managed to keep enough of the strike away from Alderman to extend the game into its final session. And then there was a bomb scare in the Warwick Road End, and we all had to evacuate to other parts of the ground, but the game didn’t last long after tea, and we were all running onto the pitch in the manner of the early Eighties, not that there were that many of us, because we’d won the Test, and won the Ashes. My first test. My first Ashes Test. The only time I’ve seen England beat Australia.
It was Botham’s summer, or at least those three Tests were. No-one could fail to support him then, falling, like the Australians before his invincible form. Like everyone in that summer of 1981, I wanted to see him play far more than any other cricketer alive.
The years were not kind to that veneration. Nowadays, I try to ignore Botham, rather than endure the sort of stuff that’s totally destroyed my respect for him, such as his public declaration that he would hang me if he had the opportunity (he being a Monarchist and I a Republican). I’d rather remember the days when he was an exciting and flamboyant batsman and bowler, rather than a 14 carat ****.
Like when he batted like a madman at Old Trafford, and I was there.

Blown Away by Chappie

The late Don Mosey, one of the great Test Match Special Team of the Seventies through to the Nineties, used to describe Cricket as a situation game: if the situation was exciting, the cricket was exciting, and vice versa. He was correct, of course, but I would extend his maxim to suggest that one of the glories of cricket is that, even in Limited-Over (One-Day) Matches, the game is big enough and long enough for a succession of situations to arise.
Sometimes, those situation develop out of nowhere, and a side gains a sudden ascendence that tips the game their way, and the supporters shift forward in their seats, concentrating on every ball, awakened to a moment that might break at any delivery, but whilst it lasts is rushing you along on a current that you want to last forever.
I was a Member at Lancashire CCC for almost fifteen years, which meant that I got to know Headquarters – Lord’s Cricket Ground, that is – quite well, because in the early Nineties we were playing there in one One-Day Final or another almost every year. In 1990, we became the first Club to win the Benson & Hedges Cup and the NatWest Bank Trophy in the same season, and six years later – the same year I had seen United become the first team to do the Double Double – we were on course to become the second team to win both trophies in the same season.
Like all such days, it started early, at Piccadilly Station at about 6.30am, blearily surveying the platform as we waited for the special commissioned train always put on for Lancy supporters on these occasions. By 9.30am we were gathering our bags, debouching from the train at Euston, and pouring onto the coaches for the short drive to St John’s wood.
The first omen was our driver, who looked like he could have been the younger brother of Graham Gooch, the England opener and Captain and, more pertinently, the leading batsman for Essex, our opponents in this year’s final.
I don’t know the St John’s Wood area at all, and no matter how often I’ve sat on a coach from Euston, I couldn’t navigate the route. Half the time, the coach goes a different route, though there are some landmarks I can normally recognise. This time there were none. The average coach journey to Lord’s is about twenty minutes, which was ample for Start of Play at 10.30am. But I didn’t recognise any of this journey, because the driver got lost. Seriously lost. Going All Around the Houses and Going to be Late for Start of Play lost. We passed signs for Islington, we passed London Zoo, after half an hour, two guys who, fortunately, had a London A-Z on them were sat in the door well, directing the driver so that we could get to the ground and sit down in time.
It was 10.25am before we pulled out and positively sprinted to settle ourselves down before the first ball was bowled. And no sooner were we in than we learned the dreadful news that Paul Prichard, the Essex Captain, had won the toss and invited Lancashire to bat first.
Those who are not cricket aficionados may not understand the significance of this piece of information, especially as it is now a relic of the past. The NatWest Trophy Final (and the Gillette Cup Final that preceded it) was traditionally played on the first Saturday in September, and was a sixty-over a side game. That’s 120 overs to be bowled in the day, in September, when the light is starting to recede in the evenings, and therefore the game has to start at 10.30am, the earliest start of any match during the English cricket season. And a 10.30am start, especially when the sun is starting to rise later, means a diminished amount of time for said sun to burn the dew from the wicket. Which, in turn, means an extremely lively wicket for the first hour, during which it is perfectly possible, and indeed monotonously regular, to take the game away from the batting side for good.
So: Essex had put us in to bat, and accordingly we were fucked.
I mean, six years earlier, in the 1990 Final against Northamptonshire, we won the toss, they batted and after an hour they were 35-5.
Lancashire weren’t that bad in 1996, but wickets fell with the regularity that runs were not scored, and although we managed to bat out the full sixty overs, courtesy of a fighting innings from John Crawley, who top-scored with 66 before being out to a freak stumping, we had only scored 186, though we had stretched the innings out to the very last ball, Gary Yates run out off one of those desperate, even one more run might count attempts.
This set Essex a target, on a pitch ten times more docile, of just a tiny fraction above three an over or, to put it another way, having to score off no more than every other ball.
After ten minutes Innings break, Essex started their pursuit of their Mickey Mouse target. Lancashire opened with Peter ‘Digger’ Martin from the Pavilion End and Ian ‘Bully’ Austin from the Nursery End. They were a good pair of opening bowlers. Digger was, tall, blonde, honest, pounding out a tight line with a pace fast enough to win him a dozen England caps, whilst being a very skilful water-colourist.
Bully, in contrast, was dark, solid, slightly round, approaching the wicket with a short, bustling, shoulder-rolling action, pace not much above medium, strength generated entirely from his shoulders and mean as can be, pounding it in hard, on a line, cramping the batsman and preventing him scoring.
And it was good, tight stuff to begin with, as the two started with opening spells of seven overs each, fourteen bowled and Essex scoring only 31 runs. Nothing to base too many hopes on, given the sheer number of overs available for runs to be scored, but Digger had been hammering away at their upper order, and had winkled out Grayson, Hussain and Prichard for only 25 on the Board. The accuracy of his bowling was measured by the fact that two were catches by the keeper, Warren ‘Chuckie’ Hegg, and the other by Neil Fairbrother at slip.
This last wicket had brought all-rounder Ronnie Irani out of the Pavilion, just as the first bowling change occurred, with the young and eager 22 year old Glen Chapple replacing Bully at the Nursery End. I can’t speak for the majority of the Lancashire contingent, but I will have been far from the only one to recognise the inevitable about to unfold.
The NatWest Trophy Final is the last show-piece of the Cricket Season, and it takes place a week before the Selectors announce the touring party for the winter. It’s ideal for that hotshot performance that attracts the Selector’s eyes, and Irani was a young all-rounder with a couple of caps, on the fringe of the England team. Steady the ship, score a half-century, win the game and book his place overseas. Worse than that, he was a former Lancashire player, who’d left the County during the winter, in search of a better chance. So: steady the ship, score a half-century against your old club, win the game and book his place overseas.
And four balls into Chappie’s first over, Irani launched into a flashing cover point drive that had the ball crossing the boundary before Chappie had finished his follow-through. It had started.
Then the next ball burst through Irani, splattered his wicket and sent middle and off stumps a dozen yards back towards Chuckie.
We were on our feet and roaring, as much because the Story had been abruptly overturned. There is a tremendous difference between 25-3 and 31-4, especially when that additional wicket is a tipping point moment. Essex, from a position of security, were suddenly thrown onto the back foot, against a Lancashire side – and crowd – suddenly energised beyond belief.
His next over, Chapple took two more wickets with the score on 33, bowling Rollins and trapping Ilott leg before. There was a hushed awe at the disintegration before our eyes, as impossible took its clothes off and was revealed as almost bloody certain. And when Watkinson took off Digger and introduced the gentle medium pace of Jason Gallian, he promptly trapped Graham Gooch – a shell-shocked onlooker at the carnage going on at the other end of the pitch – leg before with his first ball.
In what seemed no more time than it took to tell it, Essex had gone from 31-3 to 33-7, and Chappie had not finished because here he was inducing Robinson to nick one to Fairbrother and at 34-8, Essex had unbelievably lost five wickets for three runs.
If the welter of wickets had continued at that pace, the Final would have been wrapped up before Tea, and the resultant Lancy roar would probably have rolled the Thames back halfway to Reading, but Essex managed to fend us off until the Interval. But they were a broken team, and two more stump-shattering deliveries by Chapple after Tea left him with new career-best figures of 6 for 18 of 6 overs and 2 balls.
Essex were out for 57, by far and away the lowest score ever in a Sixty Over Final, which was a nice plus point since the previous record of 118 had been scored in the 1974 Gillette Cup Final by our beloved Red Rose County. We had won by 129 runs, with over half the overs left to bowl, and Chappie had won the Man of the Match.
But, most of all, we had had that glorious rush of blood, when our raw young red-headed first change bowler had blown the middle of the Essex order apart, and I was thrilled because I was there.