"Father of the Flock" by Harry East
This post is chiefly for the edification of a northerner named Andy, but I am sure that the rest of you will find it interesting, too.
Amongst the most fascinating internet debates that I have ever had was one with Andy on the subject of the White Rose's left-arm spinners. He posited Ikey Hodgson as better than my personal choice of number one, Ted Peate. I replied that, while Hodgson was the founder of the art, Peate was its perfecter. Harry East, perhaps my favourite writer on cricket appears (at least by the title of this piece) to agree.
Probably, and no doubt he would have been vastly disgruntled if any other claimant to the honour had usurped him, Ikey Hodgson was the worst batsman and most slovenly fielder who ever lived.
But nobbut just. His bosom pal, Billy Slinn, ran him a close second. Once, unfortunately, early in his career, when he was raw and unsophisticated, Billy had twice scored double figures in the same match. In the total there would be snicks through the slips which butter-fingered fieldsmen had failed to accept; there would be shots that had bounced in eccentric, non-geometric orbits from a wavering, horizontal bat to points unknown in the glossary of fieldsmanship. Nevertheless, whether through accident or design, and all available evidence points to the former, Billy had suffered the indignity of being unable to prevent the ball and his bat coming into contact often enough, so that ten had twice been registered against his name.
No such misdemeanour ever sullied Ikey’s escutcheon. He was not a cricketer. To him, batting and fielding were, as far as personal participation was concerned, distasteful chores to be avoided or, at worst, evil necessities that the idiosyncrasies of the game demanded, and were to be undertaken with the minimum of interest and effort. Had that multitude of iniquitous forms that sift into our private lives been in existence 150 years ago, he would have entered, ‘Isaac Hodgson; born 15 November 1828, in the township of Bradford; occupation, professional bowler.’
Or more likely he would have ignored it and been sought by tipstaff and bailiff. They would not have found him, for Ikey was the peripatetic opponent, the shadow of William Clarke’s All England XI, the haunter and nightmare of his batsmen.
‘The best man for a XXII now living’, a critic pronounced him when he was sweeping, like the sword of Gideon, through the ranks of the tourists’ champions. Not, mark you, for an eleven. No team of any standing could afford to include Ikey and Billy, to see their last wicket fall at number eight and to field nine players. Once, in a moment of desperation, the United All England XI had invited their co-operation, but in six innings they made a grand total of one run. There is no record extant of the number of catches they dropped or gently bouncing balls they failed to gather, but, it seems, the sad conclusion was reached that their talents were outweighed by their imperfections and the invitations ceased.
But, for a XXII, their very failings were their virtues. With 22 fieldsmen to disseminate, the ground was reminiscent of Piccadilly Circus on Mafeking night, and sixth or seventh longstop were acceptable posts to Ikey and Billy. A village captain, faced with the unenviable necessity of making out his batting order, risked a vendetta of Corsican bitterness by being compelled to insult one of the rustics by requesting, ‘Wilt thou go in at t’fall of twentieth wicket, Isaiah?’
Ikey and Billy lifted that burden from his shoulders. There was no need to tell them. They never looked at the score book or the list of names pinned behind the dressing tent door. Twenty-first and twenty-second were their positions by right, by usage, by custom, and whether precedence was decided by rote, by tossing a coin, by alphabetical order or by seniority was a matter of indifference. In the polite language of the time they rarely ‘troubled the scorers’ and would probably have lost their way if they had been compelled to cross the wicket.
William Clarke (known as Old Clarke) was a famous cricketer, a native of Nottingham. He once invited the Sheffield Cricket Club to meet Nottingham for with the suggestion that the stumps should be pitched ‘half-way between Sheffield and Nottingham, each party bearing its own expenses’; for besides being a man of mighty deeds Old Clarke was a great lover of money.
So he assembled his All England XI playing anywhere, town or village, where he could be guaranteed a ‘gate’, often taking on 18 or 22 opponents and the two ‘home’ umpires as well. And, being a man of great cunning, he laid as many side bets as possible with the village yokels, who, when their bellies were full of ale, were apt to think that the sun shone out of their village heroes.
After the match, his top hat brimming with golden sovereigns, Old Clarke assembled his men in the local pub, rewarded them scantily from his fortune, and, if they murmured in dissatisfaction at their miserly stipend, advised them to ‘take their hooks back home’. There were plenty more in the South and Midlands anxious to take their places.
The match against All England was a great day for the Yorkshire villagers. The delvers from the quarries, the handloom weavers from their cottages, the wool combers from the water-driven mills, the shepherds, the blacksmith, the saddle maker, the wheel-wright, assembled in the village field. They brought their pints of ale from the pub and stuck them in niches in the dry stone wall. They gobbled their sandwiches in the interval. Mellowed by the sun and the ale, they cheered their heroes vociferously and heckled and tormented their enemies.
Superciliously the Internationals smiled at the cross-batted lunges of the villagers; they laughed uproariously at the incongruous, disorientated swipes of the corn miller and the potter, but, sometimes, they had laughed too soon. For Ikey and Billy would be playing for the village. Not by birth, residence or upbringing would they be entitled to do so. Nevertheless, there they were.
When the villagers went out to field, the grimaces of disdain were wiped away, the mockery and derision stifled. Aided by a splinter or two of outcropping millstone grit, belligerent Billy whistled the ball round the batsmen’s skulls, or, hitting the serrated edge of a dandelion root, shot it with supersonic vehemence along the ground. Carpenter and Hayward’s billycocks may have wobbled in awe, George Parr and Julius Caesar’s shins tingled in dismay, but nevertheless, it was Ikey whom these master batsmen feared the most.
Year in, year out, he and Billy followed the circus round the North of England. Wherever the tourists played, the ‘twins’ were engaged to bowl them out, and Ikey relied not on groundsman’s aid, Pennine undulation or local umpire’s bias. The patriarch of Yorkshire’s greatest cricketing glory, Ikey bowled slow left arm, relying on his perfect length and subtle flight. Day after day, week after week, year after year, he faced the same batsmen, the stars of their day, the select of England, yet never could they master his sublime skill. In the six seasons 1860-1865 he took 475 wickets against the tourists alone, besides playing in county matches and club matches whenever the tourists had fled to some other corner of the realm.
Poor Ikey. He died in 1867 at the early age of thirty-nine; but he had lit a beacon, a fire that was not to be quenched in a century of cricket. ‘I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth,’ the Lord had promised Abraham. So it was to be with Ikey. Ted Peate was eleven years old, Bobby Peel ten when Ikey finally left the field. Both might have seen him, as children, when their imaginations were most vivid, at the zenith of his skill. And the line was to continue, forever unbroken, through George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes, Roy Kilner, Hedley Verity, Arthur Booth, Johnny Wardle and Don Wilson. Somewhere, in a Bradford graveyard, is an old, moss-encrusted stone. When I retire, like Old Mortality, with rag and cleaning spirit I will etch away the rust and mildew. And there I shall unearth the epitaph to the Father of the Flock:
Isaac Hodgson, rest his soul,
Could never bat but always bowl.
Through many years the tourists’ skill
Was subjugate to Ikey’s will.
They took their stance with vain defiance
Against his subtle skill and science.
Progenitor, great Almus Pater,
Bowler divine, but batting hater.