A poignant reminder of the talents stolen from sport
Tuesday November 13, 2007
The village war memorial stands at the bottom of our lane. I can't pin down the precise reason why this Sunday's Boys' Brigade buglers and the commemorative huddle of parishioners and their poppy
wreaths had, more than usual, a poignant and depressing effect on me.
Perhaps it was the weather: austerely grey and, the trees suddenly leafless, somehow first hint of the bleak coffin-days of real winter?
Or was it that this Sunday the solemn unities of 11/11/11 were so exact? Or, clocking my own 70 last month, is memento mori now an inescapably routine contemplation? Was it to do with my good son's youthful and
serious ambition to be a general? Or because, this summer, I finally got round to reading the anguished, unputdownable novel Birdsong? Or have I simply had my fill of cursing in despair at every latest mention
of the grevious pointlessness of the two ongoing wars the wretched Blair bequeathed us before he swanned off to make and count his millions?
Take your pick. Mind you, 2007's Poppy Day was always going to
provide added pathos for any overkeen cricketing person because, almost to the day, it was 90 years since the death of the most fabled of all the sportsmen wiped out in those ghastly 1914-18 trenches. Every
schoolboy - at my school anyway - was aware of him, just as we knew as well that the first pro footballer to die in that war's opening day was Johnny Wilson (Dumbarton FC and the Black Watch) at Mons in August
1914; and that May 1915 was rugby's blackest month when the game's most luminous internationals Ronnie Poulton-Palmer (Royal Berkshires) and Basil Maclear (Dublin Fusiliers) were killed in the Battle of Ypres.
Carnage. In all, with pitiable aptness 22 capped county cricketers - two full teams - died in those four summers. Thirty rugby internationals never came home to Scotland; 27 England players never saw
Twickenham again; 24 French internationals died, 13 Welsh, and nine Irish. The ratio of footballers was probably worse but, typically, nobody thought to log their names precisely.
That most illustrious of
cricketers, of course, was Kent and England's Colin Blythe. He might even have been the last to die at the infamous Passchendaele (between July 31 and November 10 1917), a mass 'advance' which gained some three
miles and lost 310,000 Allied combatants. Sgt Blythe of the Kent Fortress Engineers was killed instantly by a shrapnel blast on the night of November 8. He was 38.
Most accept him as all cricket's finest
bowler of left-arm slows. Apprentice to Peel and Briggs and Rhodes, he was classic inspiration to the continuing English line of Verity, Wardle, Lock, Underwood, Giles and Panesar. Wisden 1918, harrowingly
chockful of bleak, cursory obits, quotes Ranjitsinhji's opinion that Blyth was 'finer even than Rhodes, the deceptive flight making him far more difficult to hit'. Jessop said he was easily 'the best left arm
of my time, or any time.' Between 1899 and 1914, Blyth took 2,503 first-class wickets at 16 apiece. For England in 19 Tests he took precisely 100 wickets at 18 (in Panesar's first 19 Tests he'd taken 71 at 31).
Pictures show Blyth as a slim, palefaced fellow with a shy smile. In fact Colin was known to all Kent as Charlie. The young Mancunian urchin Neville Cardus worshipped his arts from afar and presumed Blyth a
patrician public schoolboy until, one day at Old Trafford, 'I followed him about and heard this gorgeous cockney, which was a shock because a boy's romanticism is always snobbish, and I learned that Kent found
Blyth playing on a piece of waste ground in grimy Deptford; Kent is not all lanes and hop gardens, and Blyth came out of a slum and became the darling of Canterbury Week, with all its fashion and fine ladies.'
In 1914's summer Blyth took 170 wickets at 15, enlisting before Kent's final match. On his last leave he and his young wife Janet visited Eton College where he was offered the post, once war was over, as
chief coach. At the front his job was skilled and dangerous, supervising night patrols laying temporary railway tracks between the trenches and ammunition stores. With the fighting around the ravaged village of
Passchendaele all but over, a single German shell exploded above Blyth's working party. A metal splinter of jagged shrapnel pierced the cricketer's heart - on its way, passing through the leather wallet in his
tunic's breast pocket and, with unbearably symbolic finality, cleanly erasing Janet's face in the snapshot portrait. You can still weep over the excruciating relic in Canterbury's pavilion museum.
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