Geoff Wills (1943-1952) on Cricket, his life at School and after

English Schools Cricket Association (ESCA) 1951-1952

I was both honoured and elated to be selected for the ESCA senior XI in the years 1951 and 1952, especially as in the latter year I was appointed captain. I understand that ESCA was formed in 1948 and in those days only two matches were played each season – one each against the Welsh Secondary Schools and the other against the MCC Young Professionals.

I was a wicketkeeper/batsman during this period and was attending Chichester High School in West Sussex. Cricket opportunities were somewhat limited in those immediate post-war years with very little coaching being available. The various secondary schools associations, however, responded in a remarkably short period of time resulting in the emergence of ESCA and the added attraction of a schools “International” match coupled with the promise of future coaching being available to those displaying promise.

In 1951, I was a member of both the school 1st XI and also the Sussex Young Amateurs – later becoming the Sussex Young Cricketers. Out of the blue, I received a handwritten letter from ESCA (bearing a 1951 Festival of Britain stamp) inviting me to attend a trial for the forthcoming two-day game against the Welsh Schools at Old Trafford. The trial was to be held at Alexandra Palace and the letter instructed me to “find my own way from Kings Cross Station to Wood Green”. Not an easy logistical matter at that time for a 17-year-old youth living in the heart of rural Sussex!

I really do not remember the details of the trial other than it was of a regional nature. I also had what I considered to be the advantage of being the only wicket keeper present! We were told that we would be notified of the result of the trial by letter during the course of the next few days – no mobile telephones, faxes or e-mails in those days and telephone calls were an expensive item!

An envelope bearing the title – “English Schools Cricket Association” – duly arrived. I distinctly remember taking it to my bedroom and opening it with no doubt trembling hands, the suspense in all probability being similar to that of present day recipients of GCSE and “A” level results.

The letter was dated 1st August 1951 and was headed – “England versus Wales at Old Trafford Manchester”. It commenced … “It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to play in the above game on Thursday and Friday, 9th and 10th August 1951”. I read no more for a few seconds. I was quite genuinely overcome with emotion. I then read the remainder of the letter which contained basic details of travel and accommodation arrangements. There was a requirement for players to bring “either sheets or a sleeping bag”! ESCA funds were obviously limited in those utilitarian post-war days.

Arriving at Old Trafford I remember being immediately impressed by the size and splendour of the pavilion and playing area. We were greeted in the dressing room by Mr Herbert Sutcliffe, a relatively small unsmiling man dressed in a grey suit and who presented us with our caps. The England team included my opening partner, Peter Marner, who later played for Lancashire and Leicestershire, Ken Taylor later of England and Yorkshire and who scored a very good 50, and Ray Swallow who later played for Derbyshire. Les Savill, later of Essex, was the 12th man. The foresight of the England selectors obviously stood them in good stead! The Welsh team also included Bob Barber, later of England, Lancashire and Warwickshire.

Sadly the match ended prematurely as a draw on the second day due to the inclement Manchester weather. If I may be permitted to digress slightly, one of my wicket keeping victims was Bob Barber and a note in the now long gone News Chronicle, who was sponsoring the match, referred to my performance as ..”there has been less composed keeping seen in the County Championship at Old Trafford this summer”.

In 1952, I was again selected to play against Wales, this time at Swansea. Although there was no trial involved, the letter of invitation included a note that I had been appointed as Captain which I naturally considered to be a very great honour. I felt at the time, having just left school at the end of the summer term, that it was the pinnacle of cricketing achievement for a Grammar Schoolboy to captain his country at that level.

The team assembled at St Helens and England caps were presented. As I had played the previous year at Old Trafford it was deemed that I did not qualify for a second cap! I remember being invited to give a team talk before the game commenced but I fear that my memory does not extend to the exact content other than conveying the difficulties sometimes experienced by a wicketkeeper in communicating with his team when in the field. However, from a personal point of view, the added responsibility did not, in all due modesty appear to affect my game, as I see on examining the scorecard that I again secured four victims. Once again rain caused the cancellation of the second day’s play and the match was abandoned as a draw.

The second match in 1952, where I again captained the team, was at Lords against the MCC Professionals. Not only was it my first match at Lords but I also had the added honour of leading the team out of the pavilion and onto the hallowed turf as recorded in the attached photograph.

Photograph kindly provided by Colin Grainger 5th in line with the white cap (click to enlarge)

Our side this year contained future county players in Ron Hooker (Middlesex), Bernie Harrison (Hampshire) and Bob Woodcock (Oxford University). The scorecard also recorded a number of the MCC players who would be representing various counties and included Eric Russell who later played for England. It is pleasing to record that the ESCA XI won this one day game at the home of cricket by 60 runs.

Looking back on the matches played in these two years, it is interesting to note the relatively large number of players representing ESCA who progressed to the first class game and also no doubt played minor or 2nd XI county cricket. My own path led me to the county 2nd XI and also good class club cricket at Horsham and Worthing. On many occasions, I was invited by the former Duke and Duchess of Norfolk (Bernard and Lavinia) to play for their respective XI’s on the lovely ground at Arundel. Active cricketing days now being over, I have been more than honoured in being elected to the Presidency of the Jersey Cricket Association, where I now reside and am currently President of the Sussex Martlets who are committed to the financial support of youth cricket in Sussex.

My long-standing interest in cricket has undoubtedly been based on my inclusion in the ESCA teams in the early fifties. Doubtless, many other present-day younger players are hoping to be in a similar position but with the added prospect of overseas tours which were certainly not available in my days. I have retained nearly all of the correspondence, match programmes and scorecards of my ESCA days together, of course, with my England cap – naturally a prized possession.

School 1943-1952

I attended the School from 16th September 1943 through July 1952.

I am West Sussex born and bred – born at Hambrook but lived at Amberley and attended the Amberley village school prior to attending the School. My parents kept the Bridge Inn at Houghton Bridge from 1946 when Wills senior left the RAF until 1983.

I entered form “alpha” – a sort of pre senior-school class for 9 and 10-year-olds – and the form master was Oscar Lloyd. Prior to the 1944 Education Act, the school fees on passing the entrance exam were five guineas per term unless one obtained a scholarship (superseded by the 11+ exam).

Wartime conditions prevailed which included extreme paper shortages, lack of sports equipment, clothing (uniform) shortages, visits to the air raid shelters when the sirens went – mainly during the 1944 flying bomb era – and the ever present need to economise and keep wastage down to a minimum.

Although completing the full school course my academic achievements were somewhat modest. I played cricket, soccer and a little rugby for the School and was cricket captain during my last year – the summer term 1952. I was also selected for the England Schools XI in both of my last two years and was captain in the final year.

My cricketing career in later years led to regular appearances for the Sussex 2nd XI and I was awarded my cap. I also played for the Sussex Martlets of which I was formerly President but am now a life Vice-President. On numerous occasions, I played for the Duke of Norfolk’s XI at Arundel Castle. I then went to the Hampshire 2nd XI for a four-year spell during which time we won the 2nd XI County Cricket Championship in 1967. Further cricket followed on moving to Jersey and led me to represent the Jersey 50+ XI in the national England and Wales County Cricket Board 50+ county championship. I also enjoyed a spell as President of the Jersey Cricket Association.

At soccer, I played for Arundel F.C. and was a member of their Sussex County League Championship winning XI under Ken Suttle in1958 and 1959.

On leaving School I trained as a Chartered Surveyor and attended the College of Estate Management, then part of London University. My professional career took me to Lincoln and London and back to Sussex. I was also involved in Further Education but moved to Jersey in 1977 and headed an established practice in St Helier, retiring in 2008.

My family and sundry commitments require me to return to Sussex on a regular basis and as such, I have been able to attend Old Cicestrians’ meetings and functions since the resurrection of the Society at the turn of the century.

I married Molly (now sadly deceased) in 1959 and have one daughter who is a practising Architect in Arundel with two daughters. I also have a son, Jonathan, who is based in Norwich with his three teenage daughters. He is a presenter with ITV Anglia but was formerly a sports presenter with ITN London.

Snippets of Cricket at the School in the mid-20th Century

Cricket at CHSB was originally played on the old Kingsham Road ground, now buried beneath the 1970’s housing estate. A pre-war captain of the 1st XI – Roland Soper (now deceased) – recalled that pre-war playing conditions were “quite good”. Cricket in the war years was limited by both a lack of equipment and ground staff to prepare wickets and generally maintain the outfield – with the inevitable result. There was only one established “square” and wickets for form and inter-house matches were cut in the outfield.

Reference to copies of the “Martlet” of that era shows that the standard of batsmanship was extremely low, due undoubtedly to the lack of skilled preparation. For example, in the 1945 summer term, the results of eight matches recorded only two total team scores above 50 and with a lowest total score of 23. A decade later the master i/c cricket recorded that the school 1st XI had suffered a “disastrous season and standards had sunk low”.

Nevertheless, cricket continued to be enjoyed and on every Saturday three XIs were regularly taking the field comprising a 1st and 2nd XI plus an under 14 Colts XI. Matches were mainly played against other schools which included Portsmouth Southern and Northern Grammar schools, Worthing High School, Hove County School, (where Jim Parks junior the future Sussex and England wicketkeeper and opening bowler Don Bates were found in the opposition), Varndean School, Collyer’s School, Midhurst Grammar School, Ryde Grammar School and Portsmouth Grammar School. Other opponents included the Old Cicestrians, a Parents Association XI, and the annual Staff XI.

Attempts to raise funds for the erection of a pavilion were noted in various copies of the “Martlet”. The last recorded entry was in April 1947 when a total of £370 7s 10d had been raised. In July 1948 mention is made of a “Games Fund” with a list of current subscribers – the donations ranging from 2 guineas to 2/6. Certainly, the fund was increasing in size but the pavilion never materialised, neither did the monies deposited when enquiries were made as to its whereabouts in recent times. Whilst not suggesting that the monies raised were misappropriated in any way, it is interesting to read that in the summer of 1950 funds had been made available from the “Games Fund” for the purchase of a cricket “net” to allow practice sessions to take place. It would certainly tend to indicate that the funds originally intended for the Pavilion had been subsumed in the newly created Games Fund.

Despite the lack of good quality cricketing facilities at the School over the years, especially the war years, a number of Old Boys nevertheless attained a high level of competency at both Club and County level.

The first member of the School to reach cricketing prominence was not a pupil but a member of staff. Alfred Scales played for Priory Park, taught history with considerable skill, and was Deputy Head (the term then was “Second Master”), followed by a short spell as Acting Head following the retirement of Dr Bishop in 1955. Rumour had it that he had played for Sussex but everyone, and to this day, had great doubts.

It can be confirmed, however, by referring to the 1945 edition of the Wisden Almanac that Alfred Scales did indeed play for Sussex on one occasion and possibly more. On the 6th July 1944, Alfred Scales took to the field for Sussex against C.S.Dempster’s XI at Priory Park Chichester, in company with such well-known players of the day as Jim Parks (senior) and the Langridge brothers – James and John. C.S.Dempster was a pre-war Captain of New Zealand and had been posted to England on active service during the war. His XI also contained numerous well-known players of the day which included S.M.Brown of Middlesex who scored 105. It is sad to record, however, that Alfred Scales decided that his future lay in academic rather than cricketing circles when the scorecard is inspected – A.Scales bowled L J Todd (Kent) – 0. His bowling record in that match was also somewhat modest – 3 overs, 0 maidens, 10 runs, 0 wickets.

Roly Soper (1931-38) obviously excelled at sport both during his time at CHSB in the pre-war days and also in post-war years when he became a member of MCC. He was captain of cricket at school and played soccer in 1938 and believed at that time that the master i/c cricket was Arthur Scales but it may have been Mr Stephenson. The then Kingsham Road cricket square and outfield were “quite good” he recalls. One of the main problems was the cost of travel to away matches. He was commissioned during the war but on returning he played in a number of OC matches as well as becoming secretary of the OCs.

John Bartlett (1939-45) played for Sussex in the immediate post-war years having obtained a cricket “blue” at Oxford in 1946. He also represented the “Gentleman” against the “Players” in 1946 at Lords and went on an MCC tour to Canada in 1950 He first came to the notice of Sussex as a 16-year-old in 1944 when playing against a “London Counties” XI on the Bognor Regis ground. The Wisden Almanac of that year reported – “John Bartlett, a 16-year-old slow bowler, took the first wicket of the day – W.F.Price of Middlesex bowled for 33”. He eventually finished with the very respectable figures of 8 overs, 0 maidens, 33 runs, 1 wicket, in a total of 230-3 wickets, F S Lee scoring 110 not out.

A week’s county cricket was played in Priory Park in the immediate post-war years – two three-day matches commencing on Saturday (no Sunday). The two teams playing were normally Hampshire and Oxford University. In honour of John Bartlett being awarded a blue, the whole school was granted a half day’s holiday to watch the match.

Junior county cricket was also established following the war years and High School boys were available for selection for the West Sussex Schools XIs of varying age ranges, the Sussex Young Amateur XI (later to be called the Young Cricketers XI following the abolishing of the “Gentlemen” status for amateur players), and the England Schools XI. Prominent High School cricketers of the post-war years who were chosen for the latter included Eric Simmonds (Chichester), Bob Pomphrey (Arundel), Bill Ursell (Bognor) and the writer of this article.

Cricket caps were awarded at the end of the season. Green and yellow quarters – also blazer badges denoting the sport and the year of the award. The master in charge of cricket in the post-war years was Frank Haill (a wartime transfer from the Henry Thornton School who chose to stay with us), himself no mean performer for Priory Park. There was an annual Staff v 1st XI match which was watched by the whole school. There was much applause on one occasion when Norman Siviter – quite a lively and aggressive bowler in his time – was deposited to his chagrin onto the rooftop of a house in Kingsham Road.

The wicket on the former Kingsham Road ground was “maintained” by an elderly groundsman whose ability in that field left a lot to be desired. The wicket preparation gave rise to one which may be termed “lively” and was no doubt exploited to the full by John Snow of England test match fame when he later joined the school to complete the final two years of his academic education. In those days there was an annual fixture between the School and the Old Cicestrians which on one occasion left a number of Old Cicestrians bruised and battered following his opening assault.

In later years Jamie Hall (son of Maurice) made nearly 100 appearances for Sussex during a playing career lasting from 1990 – 1996. He became an accomplished opening batsman scoring no less than six first-class centuries with the highest score of 141 not out. He also bowled right-arm off breaks and was awarded his county cap.

The move to the new ground adjoining the western side of the “new” school came in the late sixties when an artificial wicket was also laid.

To be continued – volunteers, please! Corrections and additions to the foregoing welcomed.

25 February 2017