Fleet Street is long gone as the centre of the British national newspaper industry but some of its more acceptable traditions still flourish in the Fleet Street Strollers. The club was founded in 1976 by journalists on the now defunct London Evening News with the original name of the Northcliffe Strollers, in recognition of the media group that owned the newspaper.
The early Seventies were good times for Fleet Street cricket, with many papers fielding occasional teams able to call on columnists such as Denis Compton and Ted Dexter to supplement more modest in-house talents. The games were convivial affairs played on pristine pitches where the sun always poured down like honey. Naturally, it was essential for players to keep their fluid levels high.
The Evening News had held an interdepartmental cricket competition for many years and also played an annual match against its arch rival, the Evening Standard, competing for a silver rose bowl donated by John Marshall, cricket writer and former editor of the News. John also set up fixtures for his own Fleet Street XI, including one against the West Sussex village of West Chiltington near his home. For this event, the thirsty hacks were enticed down the A24 by the promise of a champagne reception on John’s lawn, followed by lunch in a local hostelry. Once he even laid on a sumptuous banquet in the village hall, when the journalists were still lovingly passing the port while the local team were changed and limbering up on the pitch. An early example of a team “self-nobbling”.
It was against this background that Simon Brodbeck, features subeditor, left-hand bat, right-arm seamer and all-round Nottinghamshire cricket and Notts County football fanatic, set up the Strollers. The idea was to play decent, enjoyable, friendly cricket every Sunday at pleasant club and village grounds in the Home Counties. Volunteers were sought from all corners of the newsroom on the understanding that enthusiasim was as important as ability. Step forward television editor Patrick Stoddart, who became one of the keenest and most popular Strollers, at one time serving as chairman, even though he would be the first to admit that his contribution with the bat was decidedly average: 1.4 in 131 matches, to be precise.
Player numbers were also boosted from beyond Whitefriars Street. I was on the Standard news subs’ desk and, having captained the aforementioned rival team, was welcomed to the fold. Of the first recorded Strollers team to take the field – against West India and Millwall Docks at Sidcup on 25 April 25 1976 – Simon and I are the only members still in active service today.
The Strollers bandwagon drew on apace – with “drew” being the operative word. Limited-over, win-or-lose cricket was the staple of league sides; our friendly matches relied on a sporting declaration and allowed for nine, ten and jack to hang on stoically, honours even. If any of the opposition took offence, we were adept at “drinking back” the fixture.
The extramural aspects of the game have always been important to the Strollers. Wives, girlfriends, parents, children, friends, relations and pets are as much a part of the club as the players. Robert Low, a one-time sports editor of The Observer and European editor of the Reader’s Digest, introduced his brother John to the team and during one tour to the West Country persuaded their father Leslie to make up numbers. When John’s daughter Katie turned out a few years later she became the sixth member of the clan to represent the club. Pat Stoddart’s wife Nicki worked for Laurie Lee’s literary agents and was instrumental in securing us a fixture on the writer’s fabled sloping pitch at Sheepscombe in the Cotswolds. On our first visit Laurie greeted us warmly at the Butcher’s Arms, offered to buy a round and promptly caught his foot in a hollow on his way to the bar. “Laurie Lee tripped here,” growled the publicity-conscious poet in his best Cider With Rosie burr. During the match he nodded off in his deck chair, never spilling a drop, until his wife took him home.
A more atttentive spectator showed up when we played the Royal Household in the grounds of Windsor Castle, although it wasn’t until we had traipsed in from fielding that we were told the figure at the wheel of a dark Range Rover that had glided up to watch from the private road at the corner of the pitch was none other than the Queen.
The Northcliffe Strollers became the Fleet Street Strollers in 1980 after the demise of the Evening News. By then it was a more fitting name anyway, as we spread the net wider to find more players to meet the demands of a growing fixture list. We now played on Saturdays as well as Sundays and had annual tours to the West Country and adjoining corners of Leicestershire, Notts and Derbyshire.
Little by little our results improved, although sometimes the team appeared stronger on paper than on the field. An attack named O’Kill and Slaughter, for example, gave many opposing batsmen cause for concern - until the pair in question started to bowl. Peter O’Kill’s strange windmill action was mostly harmless and Stan Slaughter’s beguiling left-arm spin far from terrifying. That said, it stood the Strollers in good stead for many years, as did Stan himself until a dodgy knee brought on by a surfeit of squash, forced him into early retirement.
In contrast, Richard Littlejohn felt almost compelled to unnerve batsmen. Can any team ever have boasted a more opinionated opening bowler? In his Strolling years, Richard was industrial editor on the Standard. His rapid off-cutters were unsubtle, belligerent and aimed at the jugular, much like the metaphorical throat balls he would later lob at his targets as a columnist on The Sun and Daily Mail. One year on a pre-season course at the Lord’s indoor school, Don Wilson’s coaching team decided to teach Richard some variety. They gave up on altering his chest-on, quick-arm action and painstakingly taught him how to work his fingers on the seam to produce a passable leg-cutter. It worked. In an early game that season, he put his newfound skills to the test and induced a snick from the bat. I held the catch at slip and a delighted Richard charged the length of the wicket yelling: “Forty quid, forty fucking quid!” It might not seem much nowadays but in 1984 it was a tidy sum to pay for two days’ cricket coaching. Richard was certainly a cricketer who left an impression and his best-bowling return of eight for nine stood for more than 10 years as a club record.
Another Strollers talent was Peter Hayter, whose father Reg ran Hayter’s sports news agency and El Vino’s cricket team, and who nowadays is cricket correspondent of The Mail On Sunday. Peter was in the side that set a club record indelibly etched into the Strollers annals at Blackfordby, an old Leicestershire mining village that in 1988 was the first leg of our Three Counties tour. It was August bank holiday weekend, Saturday morning saw it chucking it down and a dreadful pile-up stranded half the tour party on the M1. The few of us who arrived in good time took refuge in the Bluebell Inn, and proceeded to lunch voluminously, expecting to be there all afternoon. Imagine our surprise when, come the scheduled start time of 2.30, the deluge abruptly ceased and the hosts, without a care for the state of their wicket, suggested a start in 20 minutes. They generously dispensed with the toss and invited the assembled Strollers to start batting, leaving the latecomers to slot in down the order. So after five pints of fortifying Marston’s Pedigree each, Peter and I sallied forth to open the Strollers’ innings. “If you need me, I’ll be at the other end,” he reassured me. Indeed he was but only for the first delivery which I glided adroitly through the slips for a single. Next ball, Peter, shaping up for a more expansive shot, was bowled. The rest of us fared little better. As the harassed stragglers finally began to turn up, a sorry pattern unfolded. They parked in one corner of the field, frantically scrambled over to the pavilion opposite, changed, rapidly marched out to the sodden wicket, then trudged back in having succumbed to bowling which was, if truth were told, nothing out of the ordinary. We were all out for the grand total of eight, though to our credit, we did win the beer match. To Peter’s credit, he entertained us handsomely with his mellifluous baritone crooning later that evening.
Ah, the crooning. You don’t have to be mad about community sing-along to play for the Strollers, but it helps. It was his precise back-up vocals to Running Bear (“ oompa-oompa, oompa-oompa”) that added value to Kimball Bailey’s contribution to the club when we first recruited him. His arrival coincided with a seismic shift in the British newspaper industry, the diaspora of the national press to undiscovered countries such as Wapping, Canary Wharf and Kensington. Until then, if we were struggling to raise a side we could walk into The Harrow, Poppinjay, Cheshire Cheese, King & Keys or practically any other EC4 watering hole and rustle up a body or two for the weekend. Failing that there was the Magic Number. This belonged to a payphone in the hallway of an Earl’s Court bedsit emporium, where a steady stream of itinerant Australian subeditors dossed down during their sojourn in London. To a man, they were gifted sportsmen, intrigued at the prospect of Pommie social cricket, and one call in those pre-mobile days was sufficient to summon a bevvy of players.
Even so, the press’s exodus from Fleet Street still left us with a chasm and into it Kimball poured his vast network of business and social contacts. As befitted his calling as a management consultant, he outsourced the Strollers going forward and brought us selection solutions. We were also helped by the demise of another wandering cricket side, the Non-Conformists, a club formed by friends from Durham University that thrived on the park pitches of London until their main man gave up the ghost. Six of their best took the atttitude “If you can’t beat them join them” and remain committed Strollers to this day.
Another aid to recruitment was the introduction of mid-week evening fixtures, which started in 1993, years before the professional game hit on Twenty-20 cricket. The games included people who might not get into the side at weekends and originally served the dual purpose of raising money for charity.
It was hearing of another feat of charity on Test Match Special that led us to send a cheque to Krishna Lester, an expat Englishman who managed the Chateau de Chaintres vineyard near Saumur and ran the local cricket club (hon president, Mick Jagger). Krishna called Kimball and invited him to bring a team over. That first “rebel” tour was in 1998 and it took a few years for the event to receive the club’s official recognition. Now, however, we wouldn’t be without our French connnections. It was on the banks of the River Loire, of all places, that the Strollers finally met their match when it came to Running Bear. Not only did the Montagu Toller team who were also touring there know all the words, they also did the accompanying whoops and war dances, much to the bemusement of locals passing by the Irish Bar in the small hours.
Another tour takes us to the South of France each autumn, for matches against, among others, Riviera and Monte Carlo cricket clubs, on a quaint daisy-strewn ground north of Grasse on the Route Napoleon. More recently we have ventured to Geneva to take on the CERN nuclear research centre on their wittily named Higgs Field. A guided tour of the Large Hadron Collider facility sets you up nicely to face the quickest bowling.
The 21st century has seen the influx of a new generation of players, mostly keen Kiwi thirtysomethings introduced to us by Hamish McDougall, who as a communications specialist with the Canary Wharf Group and more recently Crossrail, has genuine press credentials. Of his friends, James Timperley has already overhauled the club record for the number of centuries and total runs in a season and Jono Addis has shown a penchant for scoring double centuries.
This new antipodean stream of cricketing talent is even more formidable than that supplied by our Magic Number of happy memory and has just as readily bought into the family culture that sets our club apart. Sue Pinnick hit the nail on the head at her wedding to our skipper Mike Morgan a couple of years ago when she admitted in her bride’s speech she was marrying into two families, the Morgans and the Strollers.
I am particularly grateful for another family connection without whom the Strollers wouldn’t be what they are today - my wife Maggie. We married in 1977 during the third Test at Trent Bridge between England and Australia and come six o’clock, when she was supposed to be taking leave of the reception guests at Lumley Castle, the bride was nowhere to be seen. Her mum did a recce and tracked her down to a bedroom where she had gone to change. She was sitting on the floor still in her bridal finery, sipping a large gin and tonic, eyes glued to the cricket on the television. Quite understandable really, given the gripping nature of the game. It was the one where Ian Botham took a five-for on debut and Geoff Boycott marked the end of his self-imposed three-year exile from Test cricket by running out local hero Derek Randall before making amends in a stand of 215 with Alan Knott. You must remember this. We do, if only because the next year I gave Maggie the Bill Frindall scorebook of the game as an anniversary present. (She gave me a ’63 Fonseca, but that’s another story.) Other women might have resented such a gesture, but not Maggie. Cricket scoring is in her blood, which no doubt runs the colour of the many pencils she uses for each diffent bowler. I am a particularly generous one and over the years have given opposition batsmen nigh on 14,000 runs. Maggie has uncomplainingly recorded practically every one.
It’s a comforting thought that as Simon Brodbeck and I approach the twilight of our cricket careers we both play in the team we set up nearly 40 years ago alongside the bright younger things that will keep it strolling on. In Simon’s case it is because he is still our “Main Man” and still bowls a mean spell – 1,000 wickets and counting. Me? Well, as they used to say in the team song (to the tune of The Laughing Policeman): “He really only keeps his place, ’cos his missus keeps the book!”
An abridged version of this article appears in Gentlemen, Gypsies and Jesters: The Wonderful World of Wandering Cricket.
It is available for £25 from www.nomadiccricket.com
All proceeds go to the Chance to Shine charity.