Memories of Ebbw Vale Cricket Club in the 40's and 50's

By J.P. Thomas

The idea for this offering emerged following conversations in 2000 with Malcolm Keane at both Monmouthshire Cricket Meetings and at the Ground. We thought the odd items may be of interest to the present members and that in any case I would have pleasure in recollecting the old times that were to me highly enjoyable and important in that they gave me a life long interest in the game.

In 1944 I attended Glyncoed Junior School and was taught by a Mr Stan Bull (known as Istanbul, naturally.) Mr Bull was the scorer for the Ebbw Vale Cricket Club 1st Eleven. He must have thought that I could count as he asked me to operate the Scorebox for him -it was situated near the end of the Rugby Grandstand in those days. Thus began my association with the Cricket Club. Incidentally he must have thought that I could sell raffle tickets as he often gave me books of tickets from the Cricket Club to sell for him. Message to the Great Scorebox in the sky - "Mr Bull I'm grateful".

Naturally I wanted to play, not spend hours in a dirty, dingy scorebox getting splinters in my fingers spinning the huge wooden wheels containing the numbers. However my next job was to score for the 2nd Eleven, which I enjoyed as it gave me the opportunity to talk to the players.

I remember going to "Nets" on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and it may surprise today's players to learn that unless a valid reason was provided for absence from the Tuesday practice, such as shift work, then players were not considered for Saturdays teams - in those day's Sunday play was not permitted on the ground, which had something to do with the Free Church Council - whoever they were.

Selection meetings were held in the old Visitors Dressing Room and went on well into late evenings - I can vividly recall looking at the team sheets with a few friends by the light of matches to see if "J.P. Thomas" was 13th or 14th man for the Seconds for the Saturday match.

Eventually I used to get picked and was always thrilled to arrive outside the Bridgend Hotel to catch the bus for away matches at about 12 midday with my holdall containing all my "kit" (coffins hadn't been invented). In those days we used to clean our kit, even whiten boots with Blanco - ever heard of Blanco?

Nobody owned their own bats, pads or gloves in those days, except the top order in the First Team. The team bag contained a selection of items, always handed down from the Firsts and bats and gloves were often exchanged on the field with the incoming batsmen. Gloves were either the cotton with spiked rubber strips shown on the backs or the wrap-around sausage variety - Helmets, Arm Guards, Chest Protectors and Thigh Pads had still to be invented - some stuffed a thick towel down their front leg. The two most junior players in the team were responsible for lugging the bag between bus and changing rooms.

We always travelled to away matches by bus, nobody that I knew in the Club owned a car in any case. The younger lads loved the bus rides, especially the late night return journey's when singing would last from West Wales to Ebbw Vale Crossing - win, lose or draw.

The Club played in the old South Wales and Monmouthshire League with teams in the First & Second Divisions, we were the only Monmouthshire side in the league, so that every other match was a pilgrimage to West Wales - except for the match against Hills Plymouth who play at Pentrebach in Merthyr near the present Hoover's ground. There were no motorways and the Heads of the Valleys Road hadn't been built, so that most away matches involved a long coach journey of at least two hours. The Clubs in the League at that time included Swansea, Llanelli, Neath, Gorseinon, Dafen, Briton Ferry Town, Briton Ferry Steel, Pontardulais and Pontardawe. It's interesting to note how the League has developed into the South Wales Cricket Association with sides such as Ammanford and Ynysygerwen now firmly established.

In those days there was no such thing as limited over cricket, so that the side batting first could in theory bat as long as they liked - it was not unusual for a side to continue to bat after tea. Five points were given for a win and two points for a draw - and several Clubs were quite content to come to Ebbw Vale for just the two points - this to a high percentage of drawn matches but they were not always boring finishes, especially if you were at the crease during the final overs.

Most sides had a professional in their ranks, I remember Ted Whitfield (ex Surry), Bill Andrews (ex Somerset) and George Bernard Shaw (Glamorgan) playing for us. Bill was an amazing character, who always supervised nets accompanied by his huge wireless from which he got all the County scores at 6:30 pm irrespective who was batting at the time. He was known to have sold the same basket of pigeons on three consecutive Taunton Market days and was sometimes known to mislay his wallet in the pubs after matches - he was also a fine opening bowler and a hitter of huge sixes.

Naturally any youngsters in the team loved to do well, but above all we were petrified of dropping a catch off the pro's bowling, Bill Andrews was on a bonus for 5 wickets!!

On a personal note I recall him giving me a King-Sized bollocking for daring to throw in a leg-break in the middle of an over after he had taken great pains to help me set my field, later in the innings he told me I was the best off spinner in Wales - I wasn't the best spinner in Fitzroy Avenue and we both knew it!! Never the less, a kindly man.

George Shaw was a fine bowler who had considerable success in County Cricket and a lovely man who later died tragically in a car crash at an early age when he was living in Australia. I can see him now, fielding down on the third-man boundary and rubbing the new ball vigorously on the cinder path that surrounded the ground - who thought ball tampering, was a modern phenomenon? George had an amazing appetite and another fond memory of him is to see him emerging from a Neath fish and chip shop carrying a fish, a shillings worth of chips (six pence was normal), a meat pie plus a flagon of pop to be consumed on the journey home. George was in those days a baker in Pontypridd, regularly rising at 4 am. For work, so perhaps he needed a little more sustenance than the rest of us.

The ground hasn't changed much, you've got a very fine Cricket School and a Bar which we didn't have............

The first Groundsman I remember was an old cricketer named Alf Davies, who at one time was the Landlord of the Bridgend Hotel in Crickhowell. Alf Davies loved that ground and woe betide any kid found to fall short of his standards of behaviour. The Ground in those days was owned by the Welfare Association and the Groundsman single-handedly was responsible for the maintenance of the Rugby / Soccer field in addition to the Bowling Green, Tennis Courts and Cricket Ground. Alf Davies cut the outfield with a Ransome and Marles hand mower and tended the immaculate square with loving care - he had a long bladed penknife with which he cut off the root of any offending weed. The rolling of the wickets was carried out by use of a huge, concrete filled iron roller fitted with wooden sharves for horses. A horse wasn't needed as Alf enrolled any youngster in sight to push the roller. Any of these unfortunates knows full well that there is a considerable slope on the ground as the effort to return the roller to its resting place by the top sight screen was considerable. The big advantage Alf had was that he held the key to a locker in the Home Dressing Room which contained a rough selection of practice kit - easy, no roller pushing, no practice!!

First Class County Cricket came to Ebbw Vale for the first time in 1946 and the condition of the ground must have been an important factor.

The first Glamorgan Count match played at Ebbw Vale was against Worcestershire and was a great success, so much so that later that summer when the Llanelli ground was deemed unfit for first class cricket their fixture with Notts was relocated to Ebbw Vale.

The Committee must also have worked hard to bring first class cricket to Ebbw Vale and the Officers I remember were Edgar Watkins (Chairman), Silwyn Davies (Secretary) and Trevor Henry (Treasurer). Mr Watkins was incidentally an old Ebbw Vale player and was the father of John, a stalwart of Ebbw Vale Cricket for many years.

Cricket in those days drew huge attendances, with people seated on temporary 3-tier benches along the river boundary and Rugby end, with every square yard of the bank occupied. Matches always were held during the Steelworkers and Miners Holidays which accounted for much of the crowd - there weren't many counter attractions either, not many cars and no-one had heard of Benidorm!!

The great broadcaster John Arlott did a commentary on one match from a table situated in front of the old Tea-Rooms and proceeded to "blow the gaff" on all kids from the County School who had "mwched" the day off from school.

During one of those early matches in the late 40's I earned 7s 6p (37p) a day plus packed lunches for operating the Scorebox. Glamorgan used to sell off all the old match balls for £1 10s (£1:50p) each and I well remember buying one from the Glamorgan Captain Wilf Wooller at the close of play on the third and final day of a match, supplementing earnings with pocket money.

At this time boys used to organise their own cricket matches against teams from other districts in the locality. Glanyrafon versus Cwm, New Houses and Willowtown were regular fixtures, generally played on Frenches Field (opposite Queens Villas and College Mews on Beaufort Road). This used to be a very rough football field and an even rougher cricket pitch (ask Bob Parsons or John Watkins) but our gang had a leather seam ball - known as a "Casey" as opposed to a "Corky" ball.

Tea was always a bit special at Ebbw Vale and from what I have seen of the present catering it still is. My first tea in the Pavilion was memorable, for following sandwiches and bread & butter and jam (do you still have that now?) I happened to reach for an iced-slice only to receive a gentle slap on the back of my wrist with a knife administered by John Desmond, who told me "I'm the Senior Pro in this team and I get the first choice of cakes". The same John Desmond who insisted that the team bus always stopped at the Farmers Arms, Resolven to consume two quick pints on the grounds that he couldn't be expected to bowl 15 - 20 overs without!!

In 1953 I played for the Club against Pakistan Eaglets, who were touring in preparation for the first ever tour of England the following year. Mixed day's fortune - I bowled one Khalid (Billy Ibadullah) who later became a Test opener and an overseas player for Warwickshire - wonderful!! Later I faced a fast bowler Fazal Mahmoud, first ball didn't see it - hit pad - not out said our umpire Mervyn Gardener. Second ball - ditto - "Out" said Mervyn, he could have saved me some grief if he had given me a ball earlier. One result of this fixture was that we picked up a new very fine player who later, I think was Captain of the Club - his name was Nazir Ali Quizilbash; he married an Ebbw Vale girl Marjorie Shearer and returned to Pakistan where he met an early death. A few years ago at Usk I met up with their son who was playing cricket for a Newport team.

At about this time I remember coming second in a talent competition for Juniors at our ground sponsored by the News of the World, the winner was Gordon Richards (Panteg), who won a free holiday at Butlins, Pwllheli, with cricket coaching. Second prize - NOTHING!! But I did get a game for the Firsts out of it. I'm happy to say that after many years I met up with Gordon in a Three Counties Dinner and we now regularly chew-the-fat at Panteg matches. Gordon is manager of Panteg House Social Club.

Players make Cricket Clubs what they are and I would like to include a few brief notes on some of the men I played with and was pleased to know.

Number one must be Ivor Brain, (Captain Wicket-Keeper and Opening Batsman) who was, without doubt, the best batsman I have still ever to seen in club cricket - his off and cover driving were exceptional. Ebbw Vale bowlers in those days may have had problems with their lengths but their line was dictated by the position of Ivor's gloves. He had a scornful facial expression for the bowler of any rubbish (I Know!!) and he also used this expression for any sub-standard return from a fieldsman. At net practice he used to put coins on top of his stumps and believe me, he didn't lose many. Ivor had a younger brother Harold who could also play a bit - he once reputedly hit a six over the tin sheet fence on the Newchurch Road side of the ground.

Ivor's regular opening partner was the left hander Ernie Worthington, a fiery character who was an excellent foil for his Captain, he also took loads of wickets with his unorthodox wrist spin. Both Ivor and Ernie were brought up in Pontygof, practically on the ground, so as you can imagine cricket was in their blood from an early age. I once heard Ernie tell Wilf Wooller the Glamorgan skipper what he could do with an offer to play in a County Match at Ebbw Vale - it appears they still owed him money from some Second Team Appearances.

The opening bowlers in this team were Glyn White and Wynford Cox, a great clubman who I'm sure many of you will remember. Glyn's brothers Sid and Lewis played in the same side, they had moved from Gorseinon to Ebbw Vale when the new Steelworks opened just before the war.

Jack Grealy was a giant fast bowler who frightened the life out of 14 year olds in the nets - he was a plain clothes detective but wore a yellow waistcoat and loud check jackets.

Jack Cope was a top order class batsman who had played Minor Counties Cricket and professional soccer for Bury in the football league. I remember him impressing young players with the maxim that anybody could push singles into the off-side but it took a good player to do the same off his legs. He was firmly of the opinion that singles were the foundation of an innings - the boundaries would come. Jack for all his sins was the father of Mike!! (sorry Mike).

Another first team stalwart was Norman Darby, who was a grand left handed batsman and a more than useful right arm spinner. If you don't know or haven't heard of Norman Darby, I don't believe it!!! - what a clubman he was until his death in September 2007. What some may not know was that Norman was a first rate full back with Abertillery for many years and a very handy single figure golfer.

All rounder sportsmen abounded in those days and notable Ebbw Vale cricketers who excelled at other sports include John Pugh a hard hitting left hand bat and brilliant catcher and fieldsman who once told me that "if I didn't have the guts to pitch the ball up don't bother to bowl". This may have sounded a little harsh to a 17 year old but it was tempered by "if they hit it in the air near me, they're out". Good advice John Pugh!! John of course was better know as the try scoring right wing for Ebbw Vale in their heyday who regularly got thirty tries a season.

Another First Team batsman I remember was the schoolmaster Glyn Powell, who always fielded first slip and had played for both the Town's Rugby and Soccer teams.

John Watkins played at full back for Tredegar R.F.C. and together with Bob Parsons later formed a very handy golf combination - anyone taking a half-crown (12p) had truly earned it.

Of the characters in the Second Team, the aforementioned John Desmond - later Secretary of the Badminton Club was outstanding and closely followed by Gwilym (Spargo) Lewis an opening batsman, short in stature but big on cutting and hooking who regularly delighted in scoring loads of runs. Gwilym who treated all opponents the same... rudely!! Once replied to a query about the health of his Dad, by Stan York of Usk in the Abergavenny 6-a-Side Competition with the words "Bugger off Stan, I'm here to get a fifty not talk to you".

Horace Payne (wicket-keeper and big hitter) had returned home after war (WW2 that is) service in the Far East and used to delight us with strings of jokes and tales of removing gold teeth from the dead enemy!!

There were many promising cricketers around at that time with whom I played and have great admiration for to this day, Including John Watkins, Bob Parsons, John Gaydon, Terry O'Leary. Mike Cope, Les Saunders, Nev Gwyn, Clive Rees and Alun Hunt to name but a few.

Did you know that we had a future Lord in our playing ranks in those days? A diminutive slow left arm round bowler named Keith Brookman was a highly promising player in the early 50's who later became Lord Brookman - there's a chance for a little name-dropping if the need arises!!

I moved away from the town later and lost touch with the happenings at the Cricket Club but always read newspaper reports and scores and still delighted in Ebbw Vale League victories. For the last twenty years I have been involved with Usk Cricket Club and serve on the Monmouthshire Cricket Management Committee, so you see what I meant by a life-long interest. I hope to be on the Ground a little bit next season, so if you see a grey haired wrinkly usually with his mouth open, please come on over and have a chat.

Best Wishes for the future at Ebbw Vale Cricket Club.

J.P. Thomas

July 2002

(Updated by Malcolm Keane November 2007)