The curious career of a county captain who happened to be my grandfather. Cricket column, The Times, July 16 2005
Our mum was turning out the other day, and there, in a folder of sepia pictures and curling cuttings, was the official photo from that game. John de Lisle is centre stage, next to Don Bradman. de Lisle sits upright with a military bearing, while Bradman, slouching, gives off a faint air of Aussie contempt. He was 21, a whizzkid poised to become a legend: soon afterwards, he scored a hundred in the first Test of 1930, a double in the second and a triple in the third.
My grandfather was 38, but playing only his fifth first-class match. He had been parachuted in as captain because Eddie Dawson, Leicestershire’s leading batsman, had resigned, unsure of his availability, and no other amateur was on hand. A professional captain was as unthinkable in those days as an amateur one would be now.
John de Lisle had made a striking debut with 72 and 88 against Frank Woolley’s Kent, in a low-scoring match in which only Woolley, with a hundred, did better. In the folder is a headline that says LISLE BATS WELL AGAIN, and a set of Leicestershire averages for the season, proudly snipped from the paper, showing de Lisle top of the class with 80. But that was in 1921, and he had spent the intervening years in Dacca, India (now Bangladesh), working as a jute merchant to support his many siblings back home. He was a professional: he just wasn’t a professional cricketer.
In 1923, “an item of pleasing interest” appeared in Leicestershire’s annual report. “Mr John de Lisle, who distinguished himself so signally two years ago, … has intimated his readiness to assist the County.” He played twice in 1924 without repeating his success. Resuming six years later, he put himself at number eight and didn’t bowl. He made the odd battling 20, but was virtually a specialist captain.
Against Australia, he won the toss and batted on an icy May day. “The chilled fieldsmen stamped their feet to keep warm,” noted the Sydney Morning Herald, and I don't think they were using chilled in the modern sense. Leicestershire, bamboozled by Grimmett’s legspin, collapsed from 100 for none to 148 all out, and the Aussies strolled to 365 for five. Bradman and de Lisle were both unbeaten – on 185 and 2 respectively.
Leicestershire were saved by a third-day washout, but a month later, they were lying 16th in the Championship, without a win. Flicking through the scorecards, I feel for my grandfather, picturing the pros muttering and the crowd – as many as 6,000 for the Aussies – getting restless. In some games, JAFMP de Lisle scored fewer runs than he had initials.
His luck turned at Whitsun in the local derby at Northampton, when the England seamer George Geary bowled Leicestershire to victory. The captain may have been a little distracted: on the Sunday, a rest day, his wife gave birth to their first son, my father, Everard.
His son's eye for a ball would turn out to be something of a disappointment to John, but when Leicestershire finally won the Championship, in 1975, Everard happened to be the county's High Sheriff. My brother and I were taken to meet the captain, Ray Illingworth, who made genial small talk to two tongue-tied junior nerds.
My father had a theory that his father had been brought into the dressing-room to restore discipline, but the history books are silent on that. He ended up steering Leicestershire to 12th in the Championship, which was about par for the period. So was his short tenure: in The History of Leicestershire CCC (by Dennis Lambert, 1992), the chapter covering this era is headed “Seven captains in 10 years”.
Today, Leicestershire pay their captains, but still get through them at a great rate. The current incumbent, HD Ackerman, a Kolpak player from South Africa, is the fourth captain since 2002. Their forte is the Twenty20: a 1930-style crowd is expected for Monday’s quarter-final against Middlesex. In the Championship, they are back at 16th again, with only their neighbours, Northants and Derbyshire, below them. Sooner or later, those three will surely become two.
John de Lisle retired after his year as captain and took up stockbroking. He died in 1961, just before I was born. He has acquired a sliver of immortality at cricketarchive.com, where even the humblest first-class career is logged in full, and in the list of captains handsomely engraved on the pavilion wall at Grace Road. His talent, so far, has skipped two generations.