Oborne & Heller on Cricket

The weird genius who revolutionized cricket history

March 21, 2023 Peter Oborne, Richard Heller, Russell Jackson Season 1 Episode 115
Oborne & Heller on Cricket
The weird genius who revolutionized cricket history
Show Notes

Many eccentric geniuses have written about cricket, and indeed played it. Few have been as eccentric as Major Rowland Bowen – or had his genius. In 1970, after years of dedicated research (not all his own) he published Cricket: A History of its growth and development throughout the world. Long out of print, it is still unmatched in its global sweep, its presentation of arcane facts, and its insurrectionary daring (which delighted C L R James) in overturning almost sacred cricketing myths. It riled the cricketing Establishment of its day, especially those seeking to defend white supremacy.

Russell Jackson is an award-winning Australian author and journalist. He became fascinated by Bowen and his contribution to cricket history. He has now inherited from the late Murray Hedgecock the daunting task of reviving Bowen’s work and making sense of his extraordinary life, as he explains to Peter Oborne and Richard Heller as the guest on their latest cricket-themed podcast.

Russell speculates about the motives behind Bowen’s very personal and cantankerous crusade for the truth in cricket history. His career had echoes of John Le Carré: he was the son of a disgraced solicitor and served in Intelligence. In spite of family financial problems he attended Westminster School in the 1920s and was noted early as a cricket obsessive although not noted as a player. At seventeen, he became a member of the MCC (thanks to an influential proposer. Already a natural contrarian, he read cricket literature copiously and decided that almost all of it needed challenge and correction by himself.

His actual trigger was Roy Webber, the leading scorer, who was the authority for a wrong fact on a quiz show. It inspired a lifetime’s war for his view of the truth in cricket. To achieve an outlet for this, he eventually founded his own subscription-only journal Cricket Quarterly in 1963. He had a habit of quarrelling violently with subscribers, striking them off, and rejecting new ones for fear that they were the old ones trying to sneak up on him under assumed names. This business model is not normally recommended to publishers, but CQ survived for 32 issues until 1971 and produced a highly influential corpus of work as the basis for his history. With its book it deserves a full re-issue.

The undismissed subscribers formed a global network of amateur cricket historians and statisticians. Bowen was astute enough to enlist them as volunteer contributors of obscure local materials which he needed. Peter Hain was among them, and submitted to a volley of demands. He said that his only supporters for stopping the apartheid tour of 1970 in the world of cricket were John Arlott, David Sheppard – and Bowen.

Russell suggests that Bowen’s central mission was to correct the established Anglocentric history of cricket with its almost exclusive focus on first-class matches. He stressed especially the long success of American cricket and the impact of its exclusion from the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1911.

Financial pressures drove Bowen into the army. He served first in India and then in Intelligence in London in the 1950s as a map and topographical analyst. His main achievement was to be the first to detect the Soviet missiles which provoked the Cuban crisis of 1962.

Continue reading here: https://chiswickcalendar.co.uk/episode-115-the-weird-genius-who-revolutionized-cricket-history/

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