By James Hawkins
16th December 2022
They say, ‘Never meet your heroes, because they will
disappoint you.’ My boyhood cricketing hero was Graham Barlow, the punchy left
handed bat from the 1980s team of internationals, and Middlesex. Although I was
(and still am) a Northamptonshire supporter, hero status was secured after I bowled
at Graham along with some mates on the outfield before play at Wantage Road,
way back in 1981. When we met again forty years later, not in person but on
Zoom, we were embarking on a journey that would lead to the publication of
Graham’s biography. As a teenager I knew Graham Barlow the opener in the white
helmet. In my fifties, I now know Graham Barlow, the man, and someone I can
call him my friend. Both versions have not disappointed me.
After our very first meeting I soon found out that Graham had briefly played for England and was now filling in as an opener in the absence of Mike Brearley on what became heroic Ashes Test match duty. Later in his career, Graham made the opener’s spot his own, which was also my own preferred batting position. The book research process allowed me to delve deeply into how Graham became the outstanding county player, that he became, with generous insight provided by many former teammates. Graham was an outstanding schoolboy sportsman, excelling in a variety of sports especially rugby and athletics. His natural hand eye coordination was a gift that needed the support and advice of old sages and he found that in club cricket, as so many budding professional cricketers have done over the years.
In my own role, part of the Steelbacks in Community team, we constantly look at ways to get children involved in cricket, and role models, either at club, county or international level, always play a huge part in inspiring the next generation. When Graham arrived at Brentham Cricket Club in Ealing in West London as a fresh faced seventeen year old, he had plenty to choose from.
‘At that age I was playing a lot of representative schools’ cricket and being coached by Jack Robertson, who I really respected. Adult club cricket offered me something very different in terms of my development. When my first club GWR played Brentham, who were a much larger club in the area, Brian Reid approached me and suggested I make the move and play a higher standard on better pitches.’
Brian Reid, who passed away very recently, will be known to many as a fine pace bowler at club level, who carried on playing for Brentham well into his fifties and became a fatherly figure in local club cricket, assuming the nickname “Pops” to those who knew him well.
At the time club cricket in Middlesex was competitive, but all matches were still effectively friendlies with no league format. During Graham’s time with Brentham, club cricket was transformed. The introduction of a limited-overs competition, the Wills Cup, came in 1968 and, four years later in 1972, Brentham CC, along with 15 other clubs, were founder members of the Middlesex County Cricket League. Another one-day cup competition also started in the early 1970s, with the launch of the National Club Knockout. One of Graham’s first Brentham team-mates was David Bloomfield, now club president, who was first-team captain from 1970 to 1972. He remembers Graham’s arrival, ‘My first memory of Graham at Brentham CC was in April 1967, playing in the first XI. Obviously, there was some foresight because he went in at number three and scored 13 not out including a six and a four. His first fifty was in his third match in a low-scoring game. His talent certainly shone through early on.’
‘My first Brentham captain was Roy James. Roy was a short fellow who batted in the middle order and bowled some funny little off-spinners. It was through him that, along with my sisters, we started the Barlow family baby-sitting service for the families from Brentham. Before he moved to larger house in the area, Roy lived two doors down from the Brearleys.’
Brentham already had strong Middlesex connections. Horace Brearley and his son Mike both played for the club. Horace had played once for Yorkshire before the war and twice for Middlesex after it. Mike played for Brentham before going to Cambridge University in 1960. Horace Brearley was in his fifties, when Graham arrived at the club and David Bloomfield recalls Horace having to take the young Graham to one side to advise him on reining in his attacking instincts. ‘Graham had scored a breezy 48, including seven boundaries in an all-day game at Barnes on a green and lively pitch. He got out to a poor stroke just before lunch and I remember Horace advising him on a more cautious approach prior to an interval to make the most of the afternoon session.’
In Graham’s first season at Brentham, he scored 650 runs and averaged 34. David Bloomfield recalls how Graham loved the challenge, thriving on the opposition’s attempts at sledging the young player. Graham always rose to the occasion when faced with comments in his direction, and he always attacked with vigour, Don Wallis of South Hampstead, no mean opening bowler, but who always had a lot to say.
Along with Brian Reid, the vastly experienced Sri Lankan Joe Misso, who was in his mid-forties, would make a lasting impression on Graham. He had a wealth of batting knowledge and experience to pass on to the young man. Misso was born in 1920 and attended the prestigious St Peters College in Colombo and captained the school in the seventh annual ‘Battle of the Saints’ encounter against St Joseph’s College in 1939. Legend has it that he scored more than 300 centuries, which is engraved on his memorial plate. By all accounts he was a very correct and disciplined batsman, who was ruthless on the bad ball. He was also an outstanding tennis player.
‘I really looked up to Joe and I remember one comment from him whilst I was boasting about an innings of 76 for Middlesex Young Amateurs against MCC Young Pros in my first game at Lord’s. He turned to me and said, “Didn’t you want the other 24?” My mindset had always been just to dominate bowling with no thought for the bigger picture and the remark really struck a chord. A sort of light bulb moment.’
Another influence was the experienced left-handed bat and leg-break bowler, John Swann, who played four times for Middlesex between 1949 and 1951. In his only Championship appearance at Lord’s in 1951, his leg-breaks were good enough to dismiss the Northamptonshire stalwart and scorer of over 30,000 runs, Dennis Brookes. Swann also scored three centuries for the Middlesex second team. He first played for the Club Cricket Conference team in 1952 and later featured in the Conference team that defeated Richie Benaud’s 1961 Australians.
‘John was a very good cricketer coming towards the end of his playing days. We all knew that he had played to a high standard, but he was very modest and never talked about his own achievements. As a fellow left-hander, he was a font of knowledge giving me lots of good advice, which he delivered in the most genteel way. Just like Joe [Misso], I had enormous respect for him too.’
In all Graham played 142 matches for Brentham and scored 4,885 runs, averaging just below 40. He made eight centuries and 35 scores over fifty with a highest score of 156 against Amersham, which is a match remembered by David Bloomfield because he confused Graham’s individual score with the team total, such was Graham’s monopoly of the scoring. Perhaps an even better picture is drawn by the long serving Brentham scorer Ivor Chaplin’s statistical detail which reveals that Graham hit 89 sixes and 572 fours in his career at Brentham, or well over half of his runs in boundaries.
Brentham Cricket Club’s 64th year in existence was 1972 and it proved to be one of their most successful. The club were now founder members of the Middlesex County League. The club finished third in the new league, were semi-finalists in the local Wills Cup and most notably reached the final of the National Club Knockout competition. The team, now led by David Bloomfield, were defeated by Scarborough by six wickets in a low-scoring final played at Lord’s in September. Graham’s most notable contribution was his unbeaten innings of 113 in the semi-final, away at Wolverhampton. Early on it was a sporty pitch and Graham’s innings helped set a target that proved beyond the home team.
Fifty years later, the current lack of cricket in state secondary schools makes the role of recreational cricket clubs in the development of the game even more pivotal. The transition of junior cricketers into senior teams in the twenty first century is a tricky one with so many other distractions in a teenager’s life nowadays. For those that do want to step up into senior cricket, old sages being welcoming and passing on their knowledge remains just as important as when Graham arrived at Brentham in 1967 and long may this continue.