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Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales

Christmas comes early for Paul Edwards at Canterbury

Arriving at the St Lawrence Ground on a sunlit morning is like waking up on Christmas Day and discovering that someone has given you all the presents you really wanted.

Kent's home retains all the charm and pride one associates with county cricket without very many of the shabby-genteel features one might find at a club down on its luck. If Lord's is the mighty cathedral of the English game, grounds like Canterbury, Taunton and Hove are its parish churches, places of daily observance rather than annual pilgrimage. They are like the great wool churches of the Cotswolds, Fairford or Chipping Campden for example, reflective of local prosperity and regional heritage while still contributing to the national weal.

One Kent cricketer who found it a strain playing Test matches was Colin Blythe. The son of an engine-fitter, Blythe was born in Deptford in 1879. He made his debut for Kent in 1899 and over the next decade established himself as perhaps the very best slow left-arm bowler in England. In a career spanning just 15 seasons, he took 2,503 first-class wickets at 16.86 runs apiece, but a natural nervousness, exacerbated by epilepsy, meant that he played only 19 Tests, although he still managed to take 100 wickets for England. In 1906 Blythe's bowling played a key role in Kent winning their first County Championship.

For those wanting to discover more about Blythe's career there are biographies by Christopher Scoble and John Blythe Smart and a typically perceptive article by Gideon Haigh in his book of essays Silent Revolutions.

The reason I wanted to draw brief attention to this sensitive product of cricket's golden age here is that there is a memorial to him just inside the St Lawrence ground. The inscription on the front of this stone is worth quoting in full:

To the memory of Colin Blythe of the Kent Eleven, who volunteered for active service upon the outbreak of hostilities in the Great War of 1914-18 and was killed at Ypres on the 18th November 1917, aged 38. He was unsurpassed among the famous bowlers of the period and beloved by his fellow cricketers.

To be unsurpassed as a bowler is a wonderful achievement of course, but to be loved by your colleagues matters rather more I think.

There are Lancastrian connections to Blythe too. He is the slow left-arm bowler about to deliver the ball to Johnny Tyldesley in Albert Chevallier Tayler's famous 1906 painting The Champion County, a copy of which hangs in the Kent pavilion. The pavilion in the background of that artwork is still very recognisably the same building used today and it is certain to survive the frequently threatened redevelopment of the St Lawrence ground.

It was also Blythe who, when bowling to Lancashire's consummate stylist Reggie Spooner, suddenly blurted out in admiration: "Oh Mr Spooner, I'd give all my bowling to be able to bat like that."

That "Mr" reminds one that Blythe was very much a professional cricketer, but the appreciation of the beauty of Spooner's play is not too unexpected, coming from a man of artistic temperament who was also a skilled violinist.

Blythe's sensitivity and gentleness is not too apparent in the mugshot photographs of him which reveal a rather cheeky schoolboyish figure; put a ball in his hand, however, and suddenly the photographs - and Chevallier Tayler's painting -show a delicacy and poise which are utterly appropriate for one of the greatest of slow left-arm bowlers of all time, a man who dismissed 215 batsmen in 1909 -  and was loved by those he had so outrageously deceived.
Photo: PA Images


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