The earliest depiction of anything resembling a game of cricket appears in a manuscript held at the Bodleian Library, which appears to show monks and nuns playing a version of cricket together in the fourteenth century. This sparked an interest in the role that Priests have played in the game of cricket. The earliest history of the game is by a priest, and the role of the church in the early game is quite pronounced, and this lead me to come up with a cricketing XI consisting of priests. There are two chaps in this 11 with questionable legitimacy; Gilbert Jessop was so successful at cricket whilst at Cambridge that he never completed his training for ordination, although his son did become a priest. Equally, Wes Hall, as the Principal of Codrington College was very quick to point out, is a Pentecostal Minister – not a priest.
Anyway. A list of the players:
1 Frank Gillingham
2 Tom Killick
3 Jim Parsons
4 David Shepherd
5 The Honourable Edward Lyttelton
6 Lord Francis Beauclerk
7 Gilbert Jessop
8 Clem Wilson
9 Frank Wynyard
10 Charles Sharpe
11 Wes Hall
Rev. Frank Gillingham: Stylish batsman of the old amateur style, immortalised in Vanity Fair. First ball by ball commentator on cricket. Highest score of 201. Born in Japan in 1875, as a curate his predecessor was Captain of the Durham XI and his successor was a Cambridge Cox. Once from the pulpit, he illustrated the elevating effect of fervency of spirit by the setting off of a fire ballon. From the Men of the Day 1906: ‘He rides when he can get anything upto his weight. He fancies himself somewhat in his mess kit. He is a fine preacher, but his reputation on the cricket field gives him a better chance of saving souls than would all the eloquence in the world
Rev. Tom Killick: Good enough to open the batting for England with Herbert Sutcliffe. High score of 206, one year had an average of 104. A very good batsman who, if not for the immeasurable Jack Hobbs, would have certainly played more test cricket. Died while taking part in a cricket match between the diocesan clergy of St. Albans and Coventry at Northampton on May 18, aged 46.
Canon John Henry Parsons: Parsons had distinguished war years as a cavalry officer, winning the Military Cross and being almost the lone survivor of the cavalry charge at Huj. He was a superb batsman and his life reads a bit like a Biggles book. High score of 225. Most of his cricket was interrupted by the war, so he missed out on playing at the peak of his powers.
Lord Bishop David Sheppard: England Test captain, played intermittently but still scored 45 first class centuries with a high score of 239*. Famously taunted by Trueman to keep his hands together in prayer rather than try to catch the ball, Shepherd was a notably poor fielder. Close friends with Colin Cowdrey who also preached in Australia once on tour (shame he doesn’t qualify for this side).
Honourable Edward Lyttelton: In an age when scores were much lower, his average was very good. He excelled at Fives and did well at the Long Jump and Weight Putting – not the best cricketer in his family, but (I think) the only first class cricketer to appear in Vanity Fair dressed as a priest, and not a cricketer. Later became the Headmaster of Haileybury, and then Eton.
Lord Francis Beauclerk: He was a descendant of King Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwynn. Depicted in one of the earliest pictures of a cricket team at Lords. He was a noted gambler, “foul-mouthed, dishonest man who was one of the most hated figures in society … he bought and sold matches as though they were lots at an auction”. So unpopular was he, that it is said that a notorious criminal once refused to travel in the same coach as him on account of his “fluent and expressive vocabulary”. Another source said he was “cruel unforgiving, cantankerous and bitter”. When he died, in 1850, The Times wouldn’t write an obituary for him. And he was equally one of the greatest cricketers of his time, a brilliant bat. 5 hundreds may not seem a lot now but in an era when 30 was a high score, he was prolific: add to that 354 wickets, he must have been a great cricketer and character (quotes from CricInfo).
Gilbert Jessop: Went to Cambridge with the ambition of becoming a priest, never did. Decorated in WWI, called the croucher because of his stance at the wicket. Scored the fastest double hundred ever on record and, in an era when sixes had to leave the ground to count as six, by modern rules his scores would probably be forty runs greater. Equally as a young man was a rapid fast bowler. The most popular cricketer of his day. Suffered a heart injury in WW1, in later life he lived with his son in his vicarage and played golf. Wrote cricket instruction books, and wonderful children’s stories.
Frank Wynyard Wright: Keeper, and a middle order batsman. (It is remarkable that there was not anyone playing as a standalone keeper who also became ordained; in fact, most wicket keepers who became ordained seem to have needed to validate their position in the side with their batting as well, which was not the trend of the time.)
Clem Wilson: Could bowl brisk medium pace with either arm, could also bat well. His first class statistics are nowhere near as impressive as his ones in his final year at school, where he captained his team, with an average over 90 with the bat and also took the most wickets.
Sir Wes Hall: West Indian legend; a truly fast, menacing, and outright scary prospect to face. Could bowl long spells – three and a half hours in one test at Lords. Broke Colin Cowdrey’s arm. Famous for bowling the final over in the tied test. Could also bat a little, scored a test match fifty, and one first class 100. His role in establishing the West Indies as a force to be reckoned with was massive.
Charles Sharpe: He only played 9 first class games but still managed to take 70 wickets in that time. Whilst it is unsure just how many runs he went for, a best analysis of 7/43 means that he took wickets in every innings he played, and didn’t just cash in once against a poor side. One scorecard is not complete and so his stats are a little skewed, but, even allowing for this, an average of 14.10 with the ball is mightily impressive – especially as his wickets came against the best sides in the game.
12th Man: Cardinal Henry Manning. Captained Harrow School for two years. Only one scorecard of his games at Oxford survives, where he scored 12 runs. He never really established himself as a cricketer… but I couldn’t resist having a cardinal on the team.
Manager: Charles Wordsworth. Friend of Cardinal Manning, teacher of Gladstone, organised the Boat Race and the Varsity matches.
So all in all, a team that could bat right down to 10, with Charles Sharpe the only real bunny. Some superb batsmen, all of them of an attacking nature: Gilbert Jessop being the standout dominator of attacks. The bowling is a mixed affair. Wes Hall and Jessop are the two fastest bowlers, both in their younger days had been described as genuinely quick. Wilson moved the ball a bit and bowled briskly enough, Charles Sharpe was a slow lob bowler – of a sort that has disappeared in the professional game but can be found everywhere in club cricket and always takes stacks of wickets. Lord Francis Beauclerk’s bowling is equally of a kind that isn’t seen at all anymore: slow, underarm, but with abrupt vicious bounce, summing up everything about him: underhand, vicious and hugely interesting, but best to be kept at arm’s length. Backing up the bowlers is Jim Parsons who could bowl useful medium pace, once took 7 for 41.
This team is far from exhaustive: there are plenty of cricketers who became priests, and some of them much more complete cricketers than those listed – Wingfield Digby being the most obvious one. There was equally a whole host of priests who were good enough to play first class cricket but stuck to playing in local leagues on their day off. After all, up until the start of the 20th Century, two thirds of all Blues went on to become priests.
Constructing teams is always a joy for the cricket fan.
If we base things on statistics we can come up with the theoretical best team; but invariably, people’s feelings come to the fore and there is something unspoken, like the code of cricket, that goes into drawing up a team of great players. By way of example, Marvan Atapattu has scored 465 test runs at Queens Sports Club, Bulawayo, without being dismissed. He is statistically the 5th best batsman to have ever played test cricket at that ground, and indeed, purely on numbers, the best opener to have played there. But very few people would include him in a world best side: his play was dour, and torturously slow. It is the character of the player that inspires, not the numbers. Equally, statistics can be misleading. England’s most successful, inspiring and inspirational captain would, I am sure, not be put out by knowing that for his batting record (in Tests) he does not deserve to be among the greats. However cricket is about so much more than the numbers, the talent or the braun; it is also about thought and intrigue. A game of moving chess. A game where men from all walks of life can muddle together. A game where the less able player can, through the right words and thought, inspire the best of his or her team – and so the priest may indeed learn and teach a lot through his role in playing in the local village club.
Therefore, in my team of cricketing priests, I have chosen not a team of clerics with whom I agree wholeheartedly on any given issue, or a team of cricketers with the best numbers, but those who, for one reason or another, have attracted my attention, inspired or repulsed me – but above all are interesting characters.
*for more information see: Parsons at Play by Christopher Gray.