William Clarke: The Old General
Written by Peter Wynne-Thomas
Born in Nottingham in 1798, William Clarke was an effective slow bowler of his time, hanging onto his old under-arm ways well after round-arm styles had been developed. His skill was such – he took nearly 800 wickets in first-class matches – that pamphlets were published on how to counter his wiles.
In the spring of 1846 his second marriage broke down. He left Trent Bridge and set up the All-England Eleven as a commercial enterprise, hiring the best players of the day. For ten summers his team travelled around Britain like a circus, often on the newly built railways, to play fixtures (arranged through the new Penny Post) against eighteens and twenty-twos in industrial cities and old county towns. Crowds came, and moreover paid, to watch local players take on the big names of the game.
Of course there were disputes along the way – and there can be little doubt that Clarke liked a good argument. The established elites didn’t like it, and rival Elevens grew up. He may have failed to make the fortune often alleged, but by the time he died, aged 57, cricket had become the most popular ball-game in Britain to play, watch and read about.
Peter Wynne-Thomas tells the tale of a man who, like Kerry Packer, single-handedly changed the face of the known cricket world.