Farewells to county cricket come in many forms. Dennis Amiss made his with a valedictory pair at Scarborough. Nick Knight’s last knock brought 15 not out, exactly what was required to leave his Bears career average on 50.00. Daniel Vettori, to save time, bade farewell on his debut. It’s nice to go out in style, of course. With a century, perhaps, and a few have done that for Warwickshire down the years. But only Billy Quaife did it aged 56. Brian Halford reports.
Picture Geoff Humpage scoring a century for Warwickshire. Not in his prime, back in the 1980s, but next season.
It’s hard to envisage. Humpage was a fine wicket-keeper batsman for the Bears but he retired from first-class cricket 20 years ago. He will be 56 next April, so is unlikely to stride out at Edgbaston in a championship match and rattle up a ton.
Batting powers tend to fade when a chap starts the turn out of the back straight to head in towards the telegram from the Queen. Eyes start to go. Feet slow up. The back creaks.
A batsman clocking up a first-class century at 56? No way. Not these days. The bleep tests, that wonderful emblem of 21st-century cricket’s obsession with athleticism over skill, wouldn’t allow it. It will never happen.
Or rather, it will never happen again. Because Warwickshire’s Billy Quaife (the Bears’ own ‘W.G’) did it.
You wouldn’t have called William George Quaife part of the Edgbaston furniture because most furniture doesn’t last as long as he did in Warwickshire’s team. He played his first game for the county as a 21-year-old in 1893, a year before the club attained first-class status. Thirty-five years later, in August 1928, he played his last, against Derbyshire at Edgbaston. On his 665th first-class appearance for the Bears, he strode out to play his 1,112th innings and, aged 56 years and 140 days, compiled a faultless century. A unique achievement which, it is safe to say, will remain unique.
Quaife’s longevity as a cricketer and contribution to Warwickshire were remarkable, yet he was a quite unremarkable person. Small of stature, only 5ft 3in tall, he was a quiet man and self-effacing to the point of diffident. His personality was reflected in his batting: solid and reliable with few frills. Quaife scored consistently and heavily, often at his best when his team was in trouble, but sometimes at a pace which frustrated spectators and team-mates.
He played seven Tests for England but was never happy representing his country and averaged just 19. His Tests came around the turn of the century, at the height of cricket’s Golden Age and, a hugely modest man, he was uncomfortable among flamboyant characters and mighty cricketers like Ranjitsinjhi, Fry and Jessop.
On his Test debut against Australia at Leeds in 1899, Quaife made 20. For the next Test at Old Trafford, he was promoted to open – in the slot filled at the start of the series by WG Grace. No pressure, then!
Twenty-nine years later there was no pressure, only a sense of history, when, on August 4, 1928, Warwickshire began a championship match against Derbyshire. By then, Sussex-born Quaife had made his native county’s decision to release him, aged 19, a resounding candidate for the Biggest Clanger in Sporting History.
Sussex’s loss was Warwickshire’s gain to the tune of 33,862 runs, 900 wickets, 330 catches and even one stumping. Quaife helped lift Warwickshire to their first championship triumph in 1911 and scored 1,000 runs in a season 20 times.
In 1928, after a disagreement with the county about whether he was actually retiring, he decided enough was enough and, while playing club cricket for Leamington, was invited to pick a match to make his county farewell.
He chose the Derbyshire game – and applied the perfect climax to his career. More than 6,000 spectators attended the opening day and were pleased to see Warwickshire win the toss and bat. Quaife, No 4 in the order, would get to the crease in front of a big Saturday crowd.
And it was all perfectly set up for the afternoon when the Bears lost their second wicket, Bob Wyatt lbw, to the last ball of the morning session. Quaife would bat after lunch.
First, a presentation. During the interval, on the outfield in front of the players dining room, Quaife was presented with a silver dessert service by club president Ludford Docker.
Warmly applauded by both teams and the crowd, the retiree responded with a quip about his famously slow scoring. “Although I may not have exceeded the speed limit,” he said, “I have exceeded the time limit.”
Then off he went to pad up one last time in the pavilion that was brand new when he arrived at Warwickshire.
Applauded all the way to the crease, he soon flicked Garnet Lee to leg for three to get off the mark. An anti-climatic duck was avoided.
Now how far could he go? More than a few times over the years, spectators had barracked Quaife for slow scoring and craved his dismissal. Not today. And those 56-year-old limbs and senses were up to the challenge in the fashion which had served him all his days.
“Quaife was never a man to sacrifice artistry to please the timekeepers,” reported the Birmingham Mail. “But batting with all the skill and correctness of former days, he never failed to deal with a loose ball and his masterly placement delighted the spectators. His defence was impenetrable, yet not a thing to harrow the soul of the onlooker as does the defensive play of some of the modern century-mongers. He showed all his old footcraft and supplemented his opening stroke with several nice shots to the on-side.”
At tea, Warwickshire were 231 for three with Quaife 44 and the Rev Jack Parsons 35. In the final session, Quaife continued unperturbably on and, ten minutes before stumps, late-cut Stan Worthington for four to reach his 71st first-class century.
The spectators stood to acclaim this man who, for almost 40 years, had been a familiar figure out there in the middle of Edgbaston but now was there for the final time.
“Fifty-six years of age he may be and relegated to the shelf of first-class cricket,” reported the Birmingham Mail.
“But the name of the man who can emerge from the pleasant shades of club cricket, in which he has been rusticating this summer, into the glare of a county championship contest and score as perfect a century as ever came from his bat must go down to posterity as one of the Masters of the Art of cricket.”
Quaife closed on Saturday night on 103. He added just 12 on Monday morning to finish with 115 including 12 fours, five threes and seven twos.
Strangely, almost the moment he was dismissed the weather turned cold and damp and, in front of much smaller crowds on Monday and Tuesday, the match petered out into a draw as Derbyshire followed on but comfortably avoided the innings defeat.
Another ovation awaited Quaife on Tuesday afternoon as he headed up the pavilion steps for the last time to soothe his aching feet, reflect on a perfect valedictory innings and read in that night’s Birmingham Mail that the first day of Walsall Flower Show had raised £541 11s 7d.