Sportsman, war hero and incurable romantic - How Norfolk’s Bill Edrich played his life’s innings with style and bravery

Norfolk cricketer Bill Edrich. Date: Apr 1970.

Norfolk cricketer Bill Edrich. Date: Apr 1970. - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper celebrates the remarkable life of Bill Edrich - Norfolk sporting legend, war hero, serial romantic, and party-lover – born exactly 100 years ago this weekend.

Bill Edrich, former Middlesex Captain (centre) being greeted on the Lords dressing room balcony by M

Bill Edrich, former Middlesex Captain (centre) being greeted on the Lords dressing room balcony by Middlesex Captain Peter Parfitt (left). Date: Apt 1970. - Credit: Archant

I can hear John Arlott's mellow voice of summer rising reverently over the expectant hum of a full house at Lord's. Then the most evocative cricket commentator of them all picks up a bigger brush to paint words of welcome to match loud applause and warm appreciation:

'So one of England's most doughty fighters strides to the crease with the jaunty air of a man who has seen and solved it all before. He's not disdainful of opponents but the way he takes guard, surveys the field and signals that he's ready tells them – and reminds us – he's certainly not scared of any searching examinations to come.

'WJ Edrich, just plain Bill to friend and foe alike, is ready to strive again for his country on this hallowed turf after showing rare courage in war-torn skies over Europe. Perhaps his richly-deserved DFC now stands for 'Don't Flinch, Chaps!'

'He flicks a speck of dust or an irritating fly from his sweater, shares an almost-conspiratorial grin with a posse of close fielders, settles and looks straight ahead. The Norfolk farmer's boy who came to cricket headquarters to reap such a rich harvest has sharpened his sickle again…'

Bill Edrich, then captaining Norfolk, leads out his formidable side against Staffordshire in 1960.

Bill Edrich, then captaining Norfolk, leads out his formidable side against Staffordshire in 1960. - Credit: Archant

Well, it needs an imaginary fanfare like that to point towards a special anniversary for the noble game in general and for Norfolk in particular. William John Edrich, arguably the most gifted sportsman the county has produced – he was also a talented soccer player with Spurs before strained knee ligaments forced him out of the game – was born on this very day in 1916. Another 'ton' in the scorebook to prompt fresh eulogies after adding it to so many impressive statistics during an outstanding career.

Figures, of course, tell only part of the most triumphant of sporting adventures, but just a few from the Edrich dossier immediately underline his value to England, Middlesex and his native county where this stirring story began and ended.

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All told, he played in 571 first-class matches between 1934 and 1958, amassing 36,985 runs with a highest score of 267 not out and the golden feat of scoring 1,000 runs before the end of May in 1938. He piled up 2,440 runs for England in his 39 Test matches, with 219 against South Africa in the famous 1939 'Timeless Test' at Durban his personal best.

After the war, Bill's devil-may-care lifestyle helped dispel austerity gloom, above all in partnership with his Middlesex 'twin', dashing Denis Compton, during that rhapsodic summer of 1947 when Bill scored 3,539 runs and his colleague 3,816. How fitting this pair should be together six seasons later when the sun of a Coronation Ashes success shone over The Oval.

Bill Edrich on the attack at Ingham in 1971. John Tythcott is the bowler and Billy Rose batsman at t

Bill Edrich on the attack at Ingham in 1971. John Tythcott is the bowler and Billy Rose batsman at the other end. - Credit: Submitted

When he played for Norfolk between 1932 and 1936, Edrich totted up 2,160 runs and took 119 wickets. By the end of his second spell with the county from 1958, those figures stood at 8,308 and 417 respectively.

Bill was born at Lingwood, eight miles east of Norwich, into an old-established family of farmers already known for their cricketing prowess.

Three of Bill's brothers also graced the first-class stage, Eric and Geoffrey for Lancashire and Brian for Kent and Glamorgan. Cousin John later made his big mark for Surrey and England. Over the years teams made up entirely of the Edrich clan played a host of popular fixtures.

Perhaps three episodes from Bill's long-running crusade for dominance at the crease, one from either end of his career and the other in gathering gloom somewhere in the middle, serve well to encapsulate how he played and fought buoyed by old-fashioned virtues – including sheer cussedness. He passed his first test as a 16-year-old schoolboy making his Norfolk debut against All-India in 1932. The illustrious visitors to a tented field at Lakenham included the tall and menacing Mohammad Nissar, one of the fastest bowlers of his time. He collected another 14 victims in this match.

Among a crowd of 3,000 was a large and vocal contingent of black-and-white blazered Bracondale schoolboys given a day's holiday to support their fellow pupil.

Watching proceedings with equal intensity were members of a proud but apprehensive Edrich family. Excitement rose as India were bowled out for 101.

Norfolk lost five wickets for 21 runs before young Edrich marched to the crease. He later recalled: 'I hung on to my bat like grim death as Nissar approached on his long bounding run. I set my teeth so hard that they hurt, and my brain kept repeating I must not get out for a duck.'

Cometh the hour … cometh the boy. Edrich demonstrated the defiance which was to become his trademark in battling years to come. Norfolk were dismissed for 49 – but the Bracondale schoolboy won his laurels amid the wreckage. He scored 20, sharing a stand of 25 with Desmond Rought-Rought.

The Eastern Daily Press reported: 'It was a severe examination for a boy of 16. His nerve was unshaken by the rapid fall of wickets, and if anyone expected him to display timidity facing bowlers flushed with success they were probably amazed and delighted by the splendid note of aggression in his batting. His legside play was particularly good. He took a ball from Nazir Ali, banged it to the square-leg boundary and repeated the shot off the next ball.'

There was another rearguard action in the second innings. Edrich and Thistleton-Smith put on 40 runs, Norfolk's best stand of the match, but the visitors didn't seal victory by 128 runs until a few minutes before time on the second and final day. Edrich's memorable debut included an economical bowling spell of eight overs, conceding only 11 runs, and the wicket of Nazir Ali. He also took a skied catch with the coolness of a veteran.

In fading light at Lord's 20 years later Edrich was felled by a bouncer from Northamptonshire's Frank 'Typhoon' Tyson, reckoned by no less an authority than Sir Donald Bradman to be the fastest bowler he had ever seen. Edrich's cheekbone was fractured. To the astonishment of all he returned to the middle next morning, his jaw in a sling, his eyes all but closed by massive facial bruising.

Tyson's 'welcome back!' was another bouncer. 'Believe it or not, Bill tried to hook it,' recalled Frank. 'You simply could not intimidate him.'

One of Bill Edrich's final outings for Norfolk came in the Gillette Cup first-round tie against Middlesex at his beloved Lord's in April 1970. He made top score of 36 out of a total of 117. Middlesex were easy winners by 147 runs – but it was an occasion of overflowing sentiment as the old warrior returned.

My old EDP colleague Bryan Stevens was there to file a report starring a player he had watched and admired for so many summers … 'Edrich, applauded all the way to the wicket, took some time to get off the mark. Gradually he moved into gear and brought the memories flooding back.'

The last six balls of Bill's innings yielded 22 runs, including two sixes. His reign in Norfolk ended in 1971, 39 years after walking out as a resolute schoolboy at Lakenham intent on giving notice of countless fearless feats to come.

Fifteen years later, Bill passed away just a few hours after attending a St George's Day lunch at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

He suffered a fall at his home in the Buckinghamshire village of Chesham and died on the way to hospital.

After his funeral the following month his ashes were scattered at Lord's, a very rare honour for a valiant servant of the game.

He had belonged to a small elite of men who symbolised defiance in cricket and war.

A service of thanksgiving was held in October at St Clement Danes, the Central Church of the Royal Air Force in the Strand. George Mann, Edrich's former captain and Middlesex president, and renowned commentator Brian Johnston read the lessons.

The RAF Central Band played the Dam Busters March and Anne Shelton, an evocative voice from the Second World War, graced the occasion with one of Bill's favourite numbers, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Denis Compton, Bill's great chum on and off the field, gave the address.

The Compton and Edrich stands are side by side now at Lord's - just as those two were inseparable in their run-rich years.

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