Fred Bakewell; A Rough Diamond

More years have passed than I care to remember since I bought ‘Crusoe’ Robertson-Glasgow’s two collections of pen portraits, Cricket Prints and More Cricket Prints. Both are well read, but still dipped into from time to time. Some years ago my interest was piqued by the essay on the pre-war Northamptonshire batsman Fred Bakewell, and more particularly the comment when his mind and his fortunes were warm, he could have batted with Bradman on not uneven terms. It is a remarkable comparison for a man so little known, so who was Bakewell?

There are parallels to be drawn between Bakewell and a later Northants opening batsman, Colin Milburn. Both bristled with aggression at the crease and had decent records in the few Tests they were able to play. More poignantly both saw their careers taken away from them at the age of 27 as a result of injuries sustained in road traffic accidents.

Born in Walsall in 1908 Bakewell was the youngest of seven children, one of whom died in infancy. His father was a ‘leather maker’, a trade which most of Bakewell’s siblings seem to have entered. As for Bakewell himself he ended up as a teenager in an approved school in Oxford. That he was there was as a result of a brush with the criminal justice system as a 15 year old, convicted of six allegations of theft. Such schools were modelled on the lines of traditional boarding schools, so were not fully secure. In any event Bakewell seems to have done well enough and it was during his time there that his cricket developed apace. On leaving he settled in Northampton, and quickly came to the attention of the County club.

Northamptonshire were not a strong side, but they were led by a fine all-rounder, Vallance Jupp, and in EW ‘Nobby’ Clark had a fiery left arm fast bowler, both of whom made Test appearances for England. Bakewell became the side’s third top class player, but the rest of the team were generally very weak and Northants were the County Championship’s whipping boys throughout Bakewell’s career.

In his first summer, that of 1928, Bakewell batted down the order, but he soon converted to being an opener. The purists disapproved of his wide two eyed stance, so unorthodox that his right foot pointed towards mid on. No one liked his grip on the bat, one hand right at the top of the handle, and the other at the bottom. The expectation would be that that would give a limited range of strokes, but the coaches never tried to change Bakewell. In truth the strange stance seems to have been nothing more than an idiosyncrasy, his footwork being excellent and swiftly putting him in a much more orthodox position by the time the ball reached him. He was also an excellent close fielder, described by Robertson-Glasgow as three short legs in one. In his first season he took eight catches in one match against Essex. Had he played in a stronger bowling side he would certainly have held many more catches than the 225 in 250 matches that he ended up with.

By 1931, despite playing for such an unfashionable county, Bakewell had created sufficient interest and scored enough runs to become the fourth Northants player to be chosen for England. The opponents were New Zealand, touring as a Test nation for the first time. Bakewell’s opening partner was another debutant, Johnny Arnold. There was a sensational start to the England innings as Ian Cromb took three quick wickets to reduce the strong England side to 31-3. Bakewell was one of the three, pinned in front of the stumps by an inswinger so perhaps for once that stance did let him down. That he scored nine, more than Arnold or the mighty Walter Hammond would have been scant consolation. He did better in the second innings, scoring 27 before cutting Cromb to gully.

The New Zealanders gained a creditable draw in the first Test, but were overwhelmed in the second. This time Bakewell opened with Herbert Sutcliffe and the pair added 84 before, with Bakewell on 40, Sutcliffe called for a run that wasn’t there. Bakewell had the choice of sending Sutcliffe back to oblivion or sacrificing himself. He chose the latter. He wasn’t in the side for the third Test, replaced by another debutant, Lancastrian Eddie Paynter. The general view was that he had done enough, and that the selectors were seeking to have a look at Paynter rather than dropping Bakewell.

In 1932 there was only one Test match, the inaugural game with India. For Bakewell the season proved to be a step backwards. He comfortably achieved his thousand runs for the season but his average was down and he was not selected for England, the MCC or the Players, and he was not in the frame for selection for the Bodyline series. In its summary of the season Wisden referred to a need for Bakewell to tighten his defences early on in his innings, advice he was to take on board the following summer with great success.

As the inquest on Jardine’s tactics began Bakewell had his best ever year. He scored more than 2,000 runs and averaged 46 with seven centuries including two big doubles. First of all he set a new record score for Northants by scoring 246 against Nottinghamshire, and then in the very next game raised it to 257 against Glamorgan at Swansea. The tourists that summer were West Indies and at the start of their tour Northants beat them by an innings, Bakewell failing to trouble the scorers. It is unlikely he was considered for the first Test, which England won easily, nor the second. That was the famous game at Old Trafford for which the tourists were able to persuade Nelson to release Learie Constantine. The West Indians were much sterner opposition with their talismanic all-rounder who, with Manny Martindale, subjected England’s batsmen to a Bodyline attack. With one exception the home batsmen were clearly troubled to be on the receiving end, that exception unsurprisingly being skipper Douglas Jardine, who gave an object lesson in how such bowling could be played, and recorded his only Test century.

After the lacklustre performance at Old Trafford the selectors made changes for the final Test. In came Bakewell to open the innings with the Worcestershire amateur Cyril Walters, who was making his Test debut. The West Indian batsmen let their side down and were bowled out cheaply twice, so Bakewell’s 107 does not look as crucial as it was. Had he not held the England top order together the eventual total of 312 would not have been approached, and the outcome of the match might have been very different. He was the only man in the top six to score more than 22.

That century earned Bakewell his place with the MCC party that toured India under Jardine in 1933/34. On a personal level however it was not a particularly successful trip for Bakewell. He was the first tourist to be out for a duck on the tour, and struggled for most of it. Finally he came good before the third and final Test and scored 158 against Madras and that was enough to get him in the Test side where an innings of 85 in the first innings confirmed that he had eventually run into form. An essentially modest man when interviewed many years later by David Frith Bakewell described conditions as perfect, although that doesn’t really help very much as he seems to have similar recollections of every wicket he made a big score on.

By his own standards Bakewell had a poor season in 1934 and so was never in contention for a place against Australia. In fact he wasn’t even Northamptonshire’s leading batsman, Jack Timms just bettering Bakewell’s average of 32.30. In terms of runs scored the pair were well ahead of anyone else, and as the season wore on Bakewell’s form certainly improved. Wisden’s view was that the exhausting tour of India was the reason for the early season malaise. Despite his problems there was one remarkable statistical highlight of the season for Bakewell to share in. It came in the game against Warwickshire at Edgbaston.

The home side batted first and spent the first day compiling 429-9 before declaring. For Northants Bakewell and a 21 year old amateur, Alex Snowden, then put on 119 for the first wicket. Bakewell scored 60, but after the pair were parted the remaining nine wickets could add only 45 more and the follow on was enforced. This time they added 121 before Snowden was out, thus sharing in two century partnerships on the same day. Bakewell went on to score 132, but no one else scored very many and the match was lost by nine wickets.

In 1935 Northants fortunes briefly looked like they might change as they started their Championship campaign with a win at Taunton, but it proved to be a false dawn and they failed to win again all summer. The reliance on Bakewell to give the batting any semblance of respectability can be illustrated by three matches in the second half of the season. The first game saw Worcestershire come to Kettering. On a damp wicket the visitors collapsed to 93 all out and although Bakewell was, for once, dismissed without scoring the home side managed to get a modest lead of 78. In much better batting conditions Worcester put in a sterner effort second time round but the home side’s first innings lead still meant Northants needed what appeared to be a relatively modest 230 to win.

Bakewell atoned for his mistake in the first innings in style. He made a chanceless 141 in three hours that Wisden described as magnificent. Unfortunately however his teammates could manage only 44 between them, so with 14 extras Northants still lost by 30 runs. No doubt influenced by that performance when Yorkshireman Arthur ‘Ticker’ Mitchell had to withdraw through injury the England selectors decided to recall Bakewell for the last two Tests against South Africa, thus causing him to miss two Championship fixtures. One was lost by and innings and 213 and the other by ten wickets. In the four completed innings in the two games Northants highest total was just 156. Losing by ten wickets to eventual runners up Derbyshire was no disgrace, but the hammering from Hampshire, who lost only three wickets in the match and finished just a solitary place above Northants in the table, must have been a source of embarrassment. Only one of his teammates managed to get even half way towards Bakewell’s season’s average of 42.32, and then only just.

In what were to prove his final two Test appearances Bakewell did not let himself down. In the fourth Test he was given a couple of early lives, but went on to score 63 in the first innings and added 54 in the second. The South Africans were 1-0 up in the series and in a match limited to three days comfortably held England off. In the final Test, also of three days, England skipper Bob Wyatt gambled on putting the South Africans in. The Springboks proceeded to spend the whole of the first day and most of the first session of the second piling up an impregnable total. England did manage a first innings lead but there was far too little time left in the game. Bakewell, charging out of the blocks at the start of the innings, managed just 20 before trying one square cut too many and being caught by the wicketkeeper.

By his own standards Bakewell did not have a particularly good season in 1936, no doubt a factor uppermost in his county’s failure to win even a single match that summer. There were some good scores amongst the bad, but at the start of the last match of the campaign, against Champions Derbyshire on their home patch at Chesterfield, he was barely averaging 30. When in the first innings Alf Pope bowled both Bakewell and opening partner Reggie Northway for just four between them no one on the ground was surprised. The rest of the Northants batting got them to 144, and the bowlers did well to restrict Derbyshire to a lead of 65. It should still have been plain sailing for the champions but in their second innings Northants turned the game on its head. Bakewell batted for six hours for an unbeaten 241 and with support from the middle order he gave his captain a rare opportunity to set a target. Half the Derbyshire side went for 54 and defeat seemed inevitable until sadly, in the way champions do, the lower order dug in and saved the day. Wisden described the innings as one of the finest of Bakewell’s career, and reported he was scarcely guilty of one risky stroke.     

Northway owned a two seater sports car and after the match he set off with Bakewell at around 11pm to return home. Just before midnight, near Kibworth in Leicestershire, the car went over a humpback bridge, narrowly missed a telegraph pole and then swerved. It crossed the road and mounted the verge on the other side before crashing into some kerbstones, turning on its side and finally ending up with its radiator in a hedge. Both men were flung from the car. Northway’s body was found in a nearby ditch. He died instantly. Bakewell was on the road, unconscious with a fractured skull, facial paralysis, a serious injury to his right wrist and most of the flesh stripped from his hands. He too would have died had teammate Jack Timms, driving ahead of Northway and concerned when his headlights disappeared, not turned back. As it was Bakewell was on the critical list for several days and had to undergo surgery. In the end his strength got him through it, but the effect of the arm injury meant he never played again.

How did the accident happen? One suspects that there was a celebration after the match that would have involved the imbibing of at least some alcohol, although more than forty years later Bakewell told David Frith that Northway was an excellent driver and had had just a half pint of beer, and hadn’t even drunk all of that. Bakewell’s view was that his friend fell asleep at the wheel, but he himself was asleep at the time, so that can only be speculation. Bakewell added, without a trace of bitterness over what the accident had cost him, that ordinarily he would have been in Timms’ car, and not Northway’s.

The 1937 edition of Wisden felt able to describe Bakewell’s recovery as complete, notwithstanding the fact that the surgery he had undergone included bone grafts in that right arm. In truth he hadn’t made a full recovery at all, and never was able to fully bend his right arm again. Perhaps understandably however despite knowing in his own mind that his career was over he kept telling people he hoped to be back, and from time to time the local press became excited about the prospect of his playing again.

On 20 May 1938 Bakewell found himself in court, facing the local magistrates for failing to make adequate financial provision for his wife and daughter. The court ordered him to pay 17/6 a week, equivalent to around £55 today. He clearly did not much care for the decision, his wife’s solicitor at the next hearing rather euphemistically stating that after the decision was announced Bakewell had unfortunately made known certain views that led them to think he did not intend to comply with the order. So Bakewell found himself back before the bench three weeks later, predictably having paid nothing.

It would seem that Bakewell was more respectful on this occasion, if not contrite. He explained he had earned nothing in the time since his last appearance, but that he was due to start a coaching job, four days a week and weather permitting, the following week. He confirmed he derived no income from the County Club and that the compensation he had received following his accident was all gone. In that respect he must have been very poorly advised. As a passenger in Northway’s vehicle there can have been no issue as to liability, and the severity of his injuries should have led, even in the 1930s, to rather more compensation that could have been frittered away in a matter of months. Certainly in the report of the second hearing it is stated that Bakewell’s arm was in plaster, although given Wisden’s observation one suspects that may have been tactical.

Asked in court whether he realised he had a duty towards his wife and eight year old daughter Bakewell somewhat cryptically replied; I realise also that she has a duty towards me. Either the local journalist chose not to report anything further or, perhaps more likely, Mrs Bakewell’s solicitor decided he had got all he wanted. It emerged later that although Bakewell was seeing another woman, and that adultery was the basis on which Mrs Bakewell was granted a decree of Divorce in October 1939, that it was in fact she who left Bakewell, so doubtless there was more to the story. In any event in June 1938 the result of the second hearing was a 14 day prison sentence suspended on terms that the original order was paid as well as 2/6 a week from the arrears, so £1 per week.

It seems unlikely, despite there being no report of the sentence being activated, that Bakewell would not have complied with it for any longer than the three week period referred to during the Divorce hearing. What seems more likely to have happened is that he took the bench’s advice and went back for a variation of the order. Certainly at the beginning of the 1939 season it was reported that Bakewell had finally abandoned all hopes of a comeback to the First Class game, and that his struggles during the previous winter had been such that the Northants scorer had been organising an appeal for funds for him. One suspects he would have continued to lead his former wife a merry dance for a number of years, but it seems to have done her no harm. In due course she married again and had another child and outlived her errant first husband by many years, passing away as recently as 2009, at the grand old age of 101.

In 1940 Bakewell, still only 31 of course, looked to join the Army. He was rejected because of his injuries and that consequent loss of the opportunity to lose his life on military service is one of the reasons he gave Frith in 1980 for his phlegmatic attitude towards his career ending injury. Whatever he did instead cannot however have brought in much in the way of money as by 1943 he was clearly in desperate straits as he resorted to a particularly mean type of theft, that of cricketers’ wallets from pavilion changing rooms. It was reported in June of 1943 that he had pleaded guilty before Peterborough Magistrates to two charges. He had initially denied the allegations but realising the hopelessness of trying to explain why he was in possession of another man’s wallet said; I’m sorry it happened. I don’t know what made me do it.

Bakewell also admitted an allegation of the theft of two diamond cutters from his then place of work. It is not clear from the contemporary reports how that came to light, although presumably it was a result of a search of his home address following his initial arrest,  According to the press report the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire spoke eloquently on behalf of Bakewell, who had remarried three years previously and had a young daughter. The Chief Constable went on to say that there was an extraordinary amount of good in him, but added, to use the vernacular of the times, that he had got in with a bad crowd. The result was the Chairman of the bench being unable to resist describing Bakewell’s offending as not cricket, and he went on to fine him £5, ordered him to pay £5 in compensation and made an order for probation supervision. To put that in context the report gives Bakewell’s earnings as £4 5/- per week.

Life does seem to have improved for Bakewell after that. He moved to Cambridge and told Frith he was for a time a publican in Wisbech and then subsequently in the village of Fowlmere. In 1965 however tragedy struck him twice. His second wife died and he was also, again as passenger, involved in a road accident. The account he gave Frith was that a friend of his (the driver) had been to court over his divorce and driving back from court the car struck a lamp post. Bakewell lost an eye. In fact a bit of online research shows this was at least the third serious road accident he had been involved in as a passenger. The first was in 1933 when a car driven by an acquaintance of his was driven into a shop front. On that occasion Bakewell appears to have come to no serious harm, but he clearly wasn’t believed by the court when he gave evidence on behalf of the driver at the ensuing trial.

There was one more visit to a court for Bakewell in 1970. He found himself charged with the theft of a bottle of ginger wine and two packets of biscuits from a store at which he had been an employee. He was again made the subject of probation supervision and that, as far as can be ascertained, was his last clash with the courts. By the time he spoke to Frith a decade later he seems to have been unwilling to discuss those latter offences but there must have been a story to it as Frith reported that a signed deposition regarding the matter was lodged with Bakewell’s solicitor. Thirty years after Bakewell’s death it seems unlikely it will ever now see the light of day, if indeed it ever existed in the first place.

Just a couple of years after tracking him down for that interview Frith was writing Bakewell’s obituary. He died in Westbourne, Bournemouth of a heart attack. He was 74. As a cricketer Bakewell was clearly an exciting talent and was, perhaps, unfortunate not to play for a stronger county. Had the fates not conspired against him in the way they did he might now be remembered as one of the greats of his era. As a human being he was clearly flawed, but certainly cannot have been all bad. Amongst all the negative stories of his life outside the game there is one interesting little snippet. At the beginning of the 1934 season, the one after his annus mirabilis, Bakewell was reported as having donated a trophy for Working Men’s Clubs to compete for.

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