Review: Touched by Greatness

Review: Touched by Greatness

Gerald Morgan’s review of Touched by Greatness, Andrew Murtagh’s biography of Tom Graveney.


This is by no means the first biography to be written about Tom Graveney, but it is difficult to believe that a better one will be written, based as it is on many long and searching conversations with the great man himself. I use the word ‘great’ advisedly, even though the book itself reasonably settles on the description of him as ‘touched by greatness’, for his test record falls somewhat short of greatness, especially in test matches against Australia. Undoubtedly he was blessed with gifts of greatness as a batsman, although at key moments in his career he was deserted by the good fortune that even greatness requires. But his elegance and gracefulness as a batsman, based upon the soundness of a distinctive front-foot technique acquired on the slow wickets of Nevil Road, Bristol, conferred on him a special aura even in an era when England produced batsmen such as Ted (‘Lord Ted’) Dexter (Radley) and Peter May (P.B.H. May, Charterhouse), and the setting of Worcester Cathedral as a background in the years of his maturity leaves us all with satisfying and imperishable memories.


Graveney was the greatest batsman produced by Gloucestershire since Wally Hammond and in the 1950s he bestrode cricket in the county like a colossus. He illuminated my childhood in Lydbrook in the Forest of Dean, and I still recall returning home from school in the village in 1953 as he took the fight for the Ashes at Lord’s on the Friday evening to Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller in partnership with the great but cautious Yorkshireman Len Hutton. He finished the day on 78*, his supreme strokemanship held at bay when he had the Australians at his mercy at the bidding of his partner, and the following morning he was undone third ball by one of the greatest balls ever bowled by the great Lindwall himself (p.82). That dismissal remained in the mind of many who for reasons hard to discern continued to harbour doubts about him, a kind of unworthy English self-fulfilling prophecy.


I saw him once as a young boy in the 1950s and remember his entrance at No.3 for which we were all waiting as George Emmett and Martin Young batted serenely on. He emerged to my eyes like a god from the pavilion at Cheltenham and I followed every ball he faced with trepidation against the possibility of sudden failure. He was run out for seven going for a third run against Ken Suttle (Sussex) on the boundary. What an anti-climax. I was to see him batting (other than on television) only once again, on the first day (22 August 1968) of that famous match at the Oval in the final test of a disappointing Ashes series. I had promised my wife to leave for Oxford at tea (then at 4.15) in order to make our way to Dublin the following day, and I left with Graveney 25*, though Ashley Mallett had set him some problems. For me it was triumph of a kind, for so much was at stake and, as it turned out, by no means for Graveney himself, since Basil D’Oliveira made 158 (p.198) and was promptly dropped for the forthcoming tour to South Africa (pp.200-205).


There were many moments of triumph for Graveney in a long career, not least his 258 against the West Indies at Trent Bridge in 1957 (pp.121-22), but they were punctuated by many disappointments, and they left me, as they must have left him, with an abiding sense of injustice. On many occasions he was undermined by the lack of confidence of selectors who claimed to discern in him a temperamental weakness, a view not shared by such distinguished opponents as Richie Benaud (p.179). In 1960, as captain of Gloucesterhire, he was sacked to make way for an ordinary (by comparison) Old Etonian player, Tom (C.T.M.) Pugh, with whom he had shared a record stand of 256 for the second wicket against Derbyshire at Chesterfield. He left Gloucestershire, the county he loved and we love, to go to play for Worcestershire, but not after a year in the wilderness in 1961 when he was banned from first-class cricket and in consequence from the Ashes Series of that year. Pugh’s reward was to have his jaw broken by a full toss from David Larter of Northants and to be given out lbw for a duck for his pains. In 1962 he led Gloucestershire to fourteen victories and fourth position in the County Championship (presumably the reason he was appointed captain), but his own form was not good and he too was sacked by the muddle-headed Gloucestershire selectors. But Worcestershire with Graveney in commanding form became a team hard to beat and were county champions in 1964 and 1965, and in 1964 Graveney himself reached his hundredth hundred off a bouncer from the same David Larter (still a dangerous bowler in all senses) in a match against Northamptonshire at Worcester (pp.164-65).


Nevertheless he was in and out of the England team, and did not prove himself at international level as the best batsman in the country (as he then undoubtedly long had been) until brought back at the age of 39 for the Lord’s test of 1966 against the formidable West Indian team of that era with a bowling attack consisting of Wes Hall, Garry Sobers, Charlie Griffith and Lance Gibbs (pp.15-21). From then until 1969 he was a permanent fixture in the team until his career was brought to an end by a three-match ban imposed upon him for playing at Luton for his benefit in the middle of the first test against the West Indies. In his last match for England at the age of 42 he made 75 until bowled by Vanburn Holder, a player he himself had recruited for Worcestershire (p.216). His exit from international cricket was thus fittingly on a high point of success and a low point of continuing injustice (pp.21-27 and 211-21).


It is clear from this book that Graveney was an affable man and for all his talent and success a modest one. Why then did he become the victim of so many injustices on the part of those running English cricket? The answer would seem to be that he was a professional among amateurs, although a gentleman amongst the players, liked by team- mates and opponents alike (and especially among the former by Basil D’Oliveira (pp.151-52 and 178) and among the latter by Australians such as Bill Lawry (p.186 and 200) and West Indians such as Everton Weekes (pp.151-52) and Garry Sobers (p.185)). Thus in congratulating David Sheppard (Sherborne), not out for Cambridge University at lunch time as he made his way back to the pavilion, Graveney was reprimanded by his captain, B.O.Allen, for calling Sheppard ‘David’ and not ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’ (p.62). Allen had at the end of the 1948 season thrown a county cap to Graveney rather than awarding it to him in fitting manner (p.61). Gloucestershire County Cricket Club was still in thrall to the idea of an amateur captain in 1960, sacrificing in the process their greatest player and damaging his career.


The 1950s and 1960s were a great period still in English county cricket, but in the story of Tom Graveney we see the disastrous flaws in the class system of English society (hardly eradicated at the present day). Even though educated at Bristol Grammar School (pp.41-43) and a Captain (Glosters, then 2nd/4 th Bn, the Hampshire Regiment/ then Artillery) in the army  in Egypt in 1946-1947 at the age of twenty (pp.49-54) when he signed for Gloucestershire in 1947, Graveney was a second-class subject of the king (an inferior to an amateur like Sheppard, no more than a 2/Lt in the Royal Sussex Regiment in his army days). In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that England struggled to compete with Australia. In 2004 at the age of seventy-seven Tom Graveney became President of the MCC (pp.27-30 and 251-72). In my view this was an admission of past injustices and a vindication of the man. All that is required now is an apology from Gloucestershire County Cricket Club itself.


Click here for more information on Touched by Greatness, including a free sample chapter.