Fifty years ago, a group of Yorkshire cricketers made a coast-to-coast tour of the United States and Canada. Presumably aimed at raising interest in the sport, the tour allowed the Yorkshire players the chance to visit the Empire State Building, lift cocktails at consular offices, and meet Wilbur from Mister Ed. It was a moment from a bygone era, before the commercialization of cricket brought the end to such goodwill tours.
On September 17, 1964, a group of Yorkshire cricketers were the guests of honor in the Monarch Lounge of London Airport, as Heathrow was then called. All but one of these men had or would gain Test caps, and three would go on to captain England.
They were about to embark on a 15,000-mile tour of North America. There had been occasional pre-season jaunts to warmer climes in previous years, and many eclectic bands of wandering amateur teams had toured in the U.S., and Canada, but a trip by a county side at the end of an exhausting season was a novel venture. Fred Trueman, for example, had bowled more than 800 overs in the year just gone, and Geoffrey Boycott was looking ahead to his first tour with England, to South Africa in December.
In the strictest sense, this was not the full Yorkshire county side, winners of the County Championship in 1963, that flew from London into New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The trip was not an official tour but the brainchild of Ron Roberts. Roberts was a journalist, mainly for the Daily Telegraph, a committee member of Somerset County Cricket Club, and a confidante to a number of cricketers. He was also an inveterate organizer of private tours, having sent other groups of cricketers on trips to South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Tanzania, and Greece.
Roberts’ previous tours had all been played under the banner of the International Cavaliers and involved anyone in the county game who wanted a few weeks in the sun. The idea of a North American trip was first conceived the previous year when Roberts had passed through Los Angeles on his way back from covering the Ashes in Australia. There he met with officials from the United States of America Cricket Association and its Canadian equivalent. They were keen for a glamorous tour to raise the profile of the game throughout the continent. Yorkshire, with its 26 County Championships and famous names, fit the bill.
The tour party consisted of eleven Yorkshire cricketers. Along with Boycott and Trueman, the group included captain Brian Close, Ray Illingworth, Doug Padgett, and Phil Sharpe. Roberts came along, as did Alan Thompson from the Daily Express. Seam bowler Tony Nicholson was included in the original party but withdrew at the last minute, which meant that Roberts played three games and a surprise guest – probably the best ringer in cricket history – joined their ranks for the final leg.
The first issue upon arrival in New York was getting through customs. One official, perplexed at the gloves in Trueman’s kit bag, asked, “Whadda you? A goalie?” Despite their confusion, the police were friendly and allowed the Yorkshire players to take a look at their Colt 45s in exchange for playing with their bats.
On their first full day in the big smoke they had lunch at one of their sponsors, the Ford Motor Company, and then went to the top of the Empire State Building. When the Yorkshiremen arrived at their first game, a few miles to the north of the city, they encountered a pitch that had been well used as a baseball diamond throughout the previous summer. The first ball flew past Phil Sharpe’s head, and Trueman said that “the run up to the wicket was so up and downish that by the third over I began to get seasick.” These improvised pitches became a recurring theme throughout the tour.
Both games in New York were against more or less the same group of players, who were almost entirely Caribbean immigrants. The best of their number was probably Ophnell Larrier, a Barbadian who fifteen years later would go on to represent his adopted nation in the ICC Trophy. His slow left-arm spin took ten wickets over the two games. The New Yorkers held their jet-lagged guests to a draw in the first match, but they were roundly trounced the following day.
The second stop was Washington DC, where the British Commonwealth Cricket Club were the opposition. The home team was outclassed by 304 runs in an atmosphere akin to country-house cricket, which was exacerbated by the ground’s location next to the National Mall. Trueman bragged that he would strike a six into the Potomac River. Not for the first or last time his deeds could not match his words.
The British Commonwealth players may not have been up to standard as cricketers but they were excellent hosts. They housed their visitors and chaperoned them around the city. The group was invited to a cocktail reception at the British Embassy, visited the White House, met the Speaker of the House, went to the Lincoln Memorial and finally paid their respects at John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. These iconic landmarks of the U.S. capital were all well and good but for Brian Close the visit “was made all the more memorable by our meeting Miss West Virginia.”
From Washington DC they went north on a rapid trip across Canada. First stop was Toronto, where the mayor welcomed the cricketers at City Hall. There was a small but dedicated cricket community in the city who had prepared long and hard for the biggest game in the city for many years. Unfortunately, the weather was poor and both matches ended early in draws. It was not rain but snow and near-freezing temperatures that prevented play in Calgary. Thankfully, the sun was shining in Vancouver, where 3,000 spectators saw John Hampshire hit eight sixes, two of which ended up disturbing a nearby game of gridiron football.
After travelling from one coast to the other in three days the tourists allowed themselves four days in Los Angeles. They dutifully traipsed along to the Consul General’s house for more diplomatic niceties, but there were more excited by meeting Alan Young, then famous for his role in the television series Mr. Ed and later known as the voice of Disney’s Scrooge McDuck.
The Yorkshiremen squeezed in a further two games during their time in Los Angeles, winning both comfortably. These took place at the Sir C. Aubrey Smith Field, named after the only Hollywood star that has captained England. The ground was encircled by a horse-racing track and, as their colleagues knocked up some easy runs, Brian Close and some of his charges learned the finer points of riding.
The hardy group had played almost non-stop and travelled across the vast continent during the first ten days of the tour. The final week was spent in Bermuda, 3,000 east of Los Angeles. On a layover in New York the Yorkshiremen were again entertained by Ford Motors, who took them to the World’s Fair in Queens, where they watched color television for the first time.
There was consensus that the Bermudians were by far the best opponents they faced, despite winning all four matches on the island. The Bermudian bowlers were adept at exploiting the coconut matting that was laid over concrete. “It was bloody quick let me tell you” Boycott later said, adding that he was worried he would suffer a broken finger which would put him out of the upcoming Test series in South Africa.
It is probable that the Yorkshire team, exhausted and with only the journalist Roberts to call upon as a substitute, would have lost at least one match in Bermuda if they had not called in a ringer. The added player was a Barbadian who happened to be visiting Bermuda at the time: the great all-rounder Garfield Sobers, then at the height of his career. The original plan was that Sobers would play against Yorkshire, but, according to Close, the West Indian objected. “I’ll not be playing on those matting wickets against your lot,” he said. So it was that Sobers played for Yorkshire – 28 years before Sachin Tendulkar became the first overseas cricketer to officially wear the club’s white rose badge.
Sobers hit a hundred in his first match but was almost unplayable on the bouncy wickets with the ball, bowling both left arm spin and seam-up. He took four wickets in each of the four matches, finishing with an average of 6.13. Yorkshire cricketers are renowned for their taciturn nature, but even they were impressed by these returns. Boycott called playing alongside the great man “an absolutely wonderful experience.” Close added, “We are jealous and proud of our home-grown tradition but I wish Sobers was a Yorkshireman.”
Sobers went back to Barbados after his week in Bermuda, while the rest of the party returned to the autumnal grey of England. There was no doubt among the players that it had been a great success, although this was more for social than sporting reasons. Trueman termed it “one of the greatest three week spells of my life.”
Roberts, the architect of the tour, thought that the “game was given a great lift” in North America as a result of his tour, and he hoped that the County Championship winners would make similar evangelistic trips across the world. Worcestershire, champions in 1964, undertook an even more ambitious globe-hopping trip before the 1965 season, with stops in India, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and culminating with a match at the Sir C. Aubrey Smith Field in Los Angeles.
Fifty years after the Yorkshire tour of North America, it is clear that the journey was against the tides of history. One-day cricket had been dribbling into the game for a few years already, in response to a dramatic reduction in attendance at championship matches. The introduction of the Gillette Cup in 1963 was the first time all the counties competed together in a one-day tournament. Then in 1969 came the Sunday League – a forty-over-per-team competition – and county cricket became a ceaseless regime of matches and travel throughout the summer.
As the 1960s wore on the cricket boards quietly kiboshed private promoters such as Roberts. The MCC effectively banned the International Cavaliers from playing their regular games on Sunday to guaranteed television coverage and sponsorship money for their new league. The first one-day international in 1971 sealed this trend. Kerry Packer’s attempts to break the boards’ monopoly in the late 1970s only exacerbated the situation, with cricket transformed into an overtly capitalistic enterprise.
With the best cricketers playing ever more top-level games there was no time – let alone money – for goodwill tours or evangelizing missions. Without the lure of a decent payday even county cricketers were unlikely to undertake exhausting trips in exchange only for liberal quantities of alcohol.
Roberts, one of the underappreciated dynamos of cricket, did not live to see any of this. He became ill shortly after returning from North America and died the following year, aged 38. Richie Benaud, a close friend, directed part of his salary from the BBC to Roberts’ widow and young children. Although his tours would not have survived the winds of change blowing through cricket, this innovative, zestful man would surely have unearthed ways to contribute to the game that he loved.