Brian Johnston interviews Ben Travers, 1980

Brian Johnston in "A View from the Boundary"; lunch interval, England v. West Indies, 1980.

(B.T. was speaking without notes, and recalling everything from memory. At the time of the interview he was 90 years of age)

To begin, Ben was asked to recall the earliest first-class match he saw..............

BT - I think it was the first match I saw - the first test Match at the Oval in 1896. I was nine years old, and my father took me. They were three day matches, or course, in those days; started on a Thursday. It rained most of the first day; they didn't start until after tea, W.G.Grace and F.S.Jackson opened for England followed by Ranji. I remember when Ranji came in to bat the crowd started singing; I think he only made 7; it was a very low scoring match.

BJ: What did W.G. make - do you remember?

BT: 24; caught Trott bowled Giffen. He was out first; then Jackson played a very good knock. England won eventually; it was a bowler's wicket. Later, I saw W.G. . When he left Gloucester he started London County at the Crystal Palace; a club of his own. He used to get all the first class cricketers to come and play for him on their days off, against the counties and that sort of thing, and there I saw him make a hundred, with Ranji at the other end making another hundred; a very fine partnership.

Then I saw him again at the Hastings Festival. And I saw W.G. in one of the only two matches in which he played with Jack Hobbs - or, rather, in which Jack Hobbs played with him. He used to take the London County team to the Oval , right at the beginning of the season; this was Jack Hobbs' first appearance. I saw Jack Hobbs play his first innings in first-class cricket. He made 80-odd.

BJ: Before we talk about Jack Hobbs ...

BT: ...I must tell you about W.G......

BJ: ...What was he like, as a man?

BT:: Well, he was a bulky chap; the great thing about W.G. in his time was that he was the great, predominant figure of cricket. More so, I think, than any other individual since his time. He was a very big chap, and he had rather an odd stance, in that he cocked his left toe up....he had his left heel on the ground, and cocked his toe up...and he also, in those days, awaited the delivery of the ball with his bat off the ground. Some comments have been made in recent years about modern batsmen who've done that - Tony Greig, Amiss, Brearley and so one ... Gooch ....but he started that.

BJ: Did you hear him talk?

BT: Yes.. like another very large man, G.K. Chesterton, he had a curiously falsetto voice, coming out of so huge a frame. He was also, incidentally, a practising doctor. My mother was born and brought up in Clifton, and W.G.Grace was their family doctor. None of them lived very long....except one, who became a nun, so he didn't get at her....

BJ: Did you ever see him disagree with an umpire? He had this reputation....

BT: Disagree? When he made his hundred I was telling you about ... he was caught at short leg by a fellow called Brockwell, Surrey pro, off the bowling of Lockwood, for twenty-four...or twenty-two...and he made out that this was a bump ball - he hit the ball on the ground....he went towards Brockwell flourishing his bat over his head, as if to fell him .. the umpire stood there, utterly intimidated ...gave him not out, and he went on to make a hundred. ...

That was W.G; wonderful character....of course, you must remember the days he lived in. Quite apart from the cricket conditions, you must remember that W.G. never saw an aeroplane. He never saw any kind of motion picture........

BJ: How did they get to the ground in those days?

BT: I should think some of the professionals probably went on bicycles and tricycles, and horse & carriages ... hansom cabs ...but hansom cabs not so much outside London; they were sort of ... metropolitan vehicle.

John Arlott: Ben, I must say, if I may, that your performance in scaling these stairs to the commentary box ... which floor me, and have done for three seasons ... I think it was a prodigious effort... arrived in full puff, too.

BT: Well, I don't take more exercise than I can help ... I take an immense amount of mental exercise ... I don't want to be unkind, but I think I'm rather like some of the English batsmen ... take a lot of mental exercise but not much physical.

BJ: Talking of mental exercise - are you broody at the moment - are you writing ...

BT: I'm always writing - I've got two or three waiting ... but we don't want to talk about that - we want to talk about cricket....

John Arlott: What a wonderful life it must have been, before the first world war, ....

BT: People like Jessop - would you like me to tell you about that?

John Arlott: Yes

BT: .. because I think I must be rather unique...there can't be many people about now who saw Jessop's classic 104

John Arlott - at the Oval in 1902...

BT:- at the Oval in 1902, and ... it was a wonderful occasion. That was a very interesting Test Match ... the Australians had already won the Ashes, and this was the last Test match at the Oval, and in the last innings... it wasn't a particularly bad wicket, but there was a bowler there called Sanders, left arm fastish, Australian bowler; sort of predecessor of Davidson... though he wasn't so good a bowler as Davidson; few people were.

At the second innings, England had to make two hundered and sixty-three to win. The first four batsmen on the England side were MacLaren, L.C.H.Paliaret, J.T.Tyldesley and Tom Hayward. Sanders got them, all four out, for, respectively, 2, 6, 0 and 7. F.S.Jackson then went in and stayed there ..pretty good ... up until about the luncheon interval. These four wickets all went down to Sanders. The other end , old Hugh Trumble was bowling; he'd had 8 wickets for 64 in the first innings, so he was a menace. ..

I remember sitting on the right of the pavilion, with some of these rather elderly members ... some of them left the ground; they couldn't bear to see England so humiliated. Well, Braund came in with Jackson after lunch and was immediately out for 2. In came G.L.Jessop. Jackson put up a wonderful defensive performance; most sensible innings; at the other end, Jessop went absolutely crazy. This menace Sanders had already dismissed all our star batsmen; Jessop hit him for four fours in the square leg and long-on district; Hugh Trumble was bowling the other end; he hit him onto the awning of the pavilion; the ball came back; he hit it there again the next ball... and so he went on.

England, of course, had utterly no chance at all, but ... hadn't they? ....the thought began to dawn ... in those days,the boater hat was the fashion, and I remember when Jessop made his century, staid citizens removed their bowler hats and threw them like boomerangs into the air. unlike boomerangs, they didn't return...a great sacrifice; they must have cost at least three shillings a time. A wonderful sight. And, of course, the most thrilling thing of all...when he was out, and Rhodes came in, to join Hirst, they wanted fifteen runs from the last wicket. And a most canny bit of bowling... Trumble

.....they made them gradually....and then the score was a tie...Hugh Trumble, from the pavilion end, who'd bowled right through the innings, two hundred and sixty three, bowled thirty-one overs,...he had a chap called Duff, a very good opening Australian batsman, good fielder - he had him at deep long-on, on the right of the pavilion at the Oval... what became known later as Sandham's Corner ... he served Wilfrid Rhodes up with a slow half-volley on the leg stump. Almost any batsman - or anyone in the world would have said - crack - hit it into the air and get caught by Duff ... not a bit of it; Wilfrid Rhodes gently tapped it past square leg and ran the one run...

BJ: You've made a lot of tours of Australia...

BT: Yes, I've been to Australia several times...I was there, very luckily, in 1928-29, when Bradman first played; I saw Bradman play his first innings, at Brisbane; against English bowling, that is. It was a great tour...a wonderful side, England had...probably one of the best ....Percy Chapman, and Jardine making his first tour; Palmer - White; they were thre three amateurs. And Jack Hobbs, Sutcliffe, who made the greatest side....

I think the greatest innings I ever saw in a Test Match was an innings played by Jack Hobbs at Melbourne, in the last days of 1928....Third Test Match at Melbourne, and Jack Hobbs made 49. I think that 49 was the greatest innings I ever saw. The wickets weren't cover in those days...you were at the mercy of the elements...and there was a tremendous thunderstorm the night before. The sun came out the next morning and really baked the wicket, and Australia still had two or three good wickets to lose. Palmer-White polished them off in a coule of overs, and Jack Hobbs said (this was lunch) "I'm afraid we'll all be out by tea-time".

At tea-time, he and Sutcliffe were still there. That must have been the worst batting wicket anyone could ever conceive...I went and saw it at the end of play; it was like concrete with great lumps and holes in it. Terrible.

BJ: Who was the best batsman you've seen - and the best bowler?

BT: There are two kinds of batman, arent't there, Brian .... the batsman who says "I'm going to slaughter you", and the batsman who says "you can't get me out". The greatest "slaughterer" I ever saw was undoubtedly Don Bradman. The greatest "you can't get me out-er" was Jack Hobbs. There were others like that ... it's the approach to the game, not merely the execution.... the mental approach to the game.

Hutton ... Woodfull....Bill Lawry .......Boycott.... and of the slaughterers, we had one yesterday; it's hard to believe that there could ever be a better slaughterer in cricket... but I think Don Bradman must be at the top. The greatest all-rounder was Gary Sobers; not much argument about that.

John Arlott: None at all.

BJ: Bowlers?

BT: Sydney Barnes...I suppose the Australians would put in a case for O'Reilly; there were some very good medium bowlers - Maurice Tate, Alec Bedser....the greatest classic bowling performances like Laker's, and Verity's, at Lord's, in 1934... they were done under circumstances which helped the bowler....this Garner's a pretty good bowler ...

John Arlott: He's pretty useful, yes....of course, the fielding is better now

BT: Yes, John... the fieldinig ... that's the one thing about this one-day game (which I don't think is cricket at all, apart from being awfully good fun and entertaining) the fielding, and the throwing.... you know, in the old days, the Grace-Jessop days, until quite a long time after, throwing to the wicket always used to be on the long-hop. People didn't throw full-pitch to the wicket. Now, some of the returns you see ... I love watching fielding...

BJ: Did you ever play ; were you any good?

BT: No; much too small. .... I think Percy Chapman was the greatest all-round fielder. Do you remember before Randall ... Bland ... and Clive Lloyd... what a menace he was. And slips ... Phil Sharpe was the best slip catcher I ever saw.

BJ: What about Jack Hobbs at cover?

BT: Awfully good .... so was Jessop. Not so good at the start, but taught himself to be good... to go back to batting for a moment: I love elegance in batting; the most graceful batsman I ever saw was Alan Kippax. He was Australian. To watch him was an absolute joy.

BJ: Did you see Trumper?

BT: Yes. He was great. But he wasn't all that graceful. He was supposed to be, but he wasn't. He had an extraordinary stance with his right knee bent... in front of him. He, of course, was terrific. When I saw Bradman play his first innings, at Sydney, in 1928, he made a glorious cover drive and an excited member(an Australian fan) jumped up and said "Trumper" ... and he was nearly lynched. Blasphemy!

BJ: Did you think Bradman was going to be a great player, when you saw him then?

BT: Well, yes ... we were told beforehand which chaps were up-and-coming great ncricketers ... Archie Jackson, and Don Bradman. Of course, poor Archie Jackson would have been, I think, but he had consumption (T.B.); he died young.

BJ: Do you like watching wicketkeepers? Who do you rate as the great wickerkeepers?

BT: The greatest wicketkeeper I ever saw ... Alan Knott ... Bertie Oldfield was always supposed to be the best... he was superseded by Evans, and now Alan Knott. There was a very strange, marvellous wicketkeeper in my younger days, who's still going strong... you know him - Howard Levitt. He used to stand up to fast bowlers. Of course, he couldn't do it today ... unless he wore a pair of stilts.

BJ: One more question, Ben ... you wrote one farce about cricket, called "A bit of a test".

BT: Yes, it was expected to appeal to a very large public. It was after Douglas Jardine's tour, with Larwood; the bodyline row. Itwas a "skit" upon that... Robertson Hare was captain of England; he went in first. Tom Walls wasn't the villain; he merely produced. I used to have great fun with "Crusoe" ... picking a world team of those you would like to see playing in a Test match... I had a wonderful opening pair - Beethoven and John the Baptist. And two glorious umpires - Judge Jeffries and Pontious Pilate.

BJ: Ben Travers - the great farceur and cricket lover - thank you very much ....

transcribed by Nigel Deacon, with slight editing / Diversity website

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