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The Story of Seymour Clark

We’ve teamed up with The Nightwatchman to bring you a fascinating story written by the great David Foot.

In the days when the job was considered enviable, romantic even, Seymour Clark made his living as an engine driver. By a quirk of fate, he was also to prove himself a county cricketer of exceptional talent – an untrained yet brilliant wicket-keeper. His unlikely alternative career lasted all of five matches, but it was long enough to ensure that he was more than just another margin note amid the game’s arithmetical diversions, foibles and frolics.

Seymour was 25 before he was persuaded to play his first scratch match for the local railway team at Weston-super-Mare. Based on the remotest of evidence, he said he rather fancied being the wicket-keeper. To the surprise of his teammates, he positioned himself in unfamiliar fashion right up to the stumps. He apparently saw no danger in that, although the crudely manicured pitch was notoriously hazardous and the ball flew off the uneven grass at all angles and directions.

Through his relatively short career behind the stumps, he continued to demonstrate the same physical courage. Just three years after his first close-up sight of a cricket ball, he was selected, somewhat sensationally, to make his debut for Somerset. Away from the footplate steam or the invigorating sea-salty surrounds of the Rec – where he served his sporting apprenticeship, occasionally with a depleted cricket wardrobe of single pad and gloves – his name meant virtually nothing to county cricket devotees.

But his fearless attitude to keeping wicket gradually became a good-natured discussion point after club matches. He was once asked to play in a club fixture captained by that superb, unfulfilled amateur Bill Greswell, one of the innovators of leg-theory bowling. Bill was clearly impressed by the newcomer’s skills of anticipation even if not too certain of Seymour’s intended role. “You look a useful player. How about opening the innings? Get the gloves on.” The railwayman soon put him right on that. He batted at No.11, a normal residence for him in club matches and later Somerset.

Yet, maybe, there was a statement of intent in the way he went off and bought himself a new bat to celebrate his unexpected first-class debut. He must have been cheered, or perhaps confused, by the words of Jim Bridges, the Somerset swing bowler whose challenging variants were guaranteed to test any inexperienced wicket-keeper. Jim also came from Weston-super-Mare and there could have been understandable geographical support in his public praise for the part-time engine driver. “He should forget those ideas of wanting to drive a train all the time. We ought to sign him full-time.”

Somehow Seymour got time off in the June of 1930 to travel to pastoral Chesterfield for an unlikely debut. Somerset lost by 10 wickets. There were no dynamics or hints of stylish endeavour at the batting crease from him. But he kept without flaw or fuss and retained his place for the next game. Oddly, captain Jack ‘Farmer’ White alone was less than encouraging. “He didn’t have a word with me on the train and the first time he spoke to me was on the field at Chesterfield. Then he had a moan at me when, standing in the slips, he put down a catch, and wanted to know why I hadn’t been covering for him!” White, one of Somerset’s greatest players and, at times, a man of few words, seemed to treat Seymour with some suspicion. When he saw how close the emergency wicket-keeper was crouching, he spluttered dismissively, “Whatever do you think you are doing there? I suppose you know that Arthur Wellard is really fast.”

The unworldly stumper shrugged and withdrew to safer ground in silent obeisance.

The older pros exchanged furtive grins. They accepted that White, gruff and cuttingly taciturn as he was by nature, was making a fair point. In a protective way, they feared injury unless Seymour got out of the firing line. Not that he appeared in the least apprehensive. The new wicket-keeper had the personable relaxed features you would associate more metaphorically with a Great Western Railway holiday timetable. You could imagine him wiping his brow as he pushed back his peaked cap and stepped down from his sweaty cab. By contrast, White had a dour sun-creased face and weary eyes, used to a day’s work in the fields. Over the seasons, he’d seen too many transitory last-minute Somerset players of suspect identity and token talent.

They lacked his bronzed haymaker’s forearms, or his grim-faced resolve to win. He didn’t really know what to make of this latest recruit.

Team selection had of course often been a problem for Somerset. White had heard many of the old, embellished stories. Going back to Victorian days, the triumph-less county were once said to have taken the field with eight wicket-keepers, who, we can assume, were of negligible proficiency – though they may have had the right accent and educational pedigree. One could surely excuse White any cynicism; he was still well aware of necessary dubious selection on occasion in his playing day, although it was less embarrassing then.

Based on his comparatively sketchy association with county cricket, Seymour’s relationship with Somerset was a cordial one. In truth, his new bat wasn’t put to very good use and he accepted it didn’t turn out to be much of an investment. He enjoyed his sporting excursions to Chesterfield, and the dressing-room bonhomie, as he shared cheap boarding houses with the other professionals at Bradford, Kettering, Colchester and finally for a home fixture at Bath. In those introductory matches, his keeping won the approval of his colleagues. He held the catches that came to him; his glove work was tidy; yet when it came to his batting, in five matches – and nine innings – he failed to score a run. Everyone, even the poker-faced skipper, did their best to revise the miserable sequence. When the team got to Colchester, Essex’s Peter Smith was particularly sympathetic, “Come on, here’s one to hit.” It was the most amiable of deliveries and bounced twice on its way to the batsman. Seymour gratefully attempted a slog but missed the ball completely in his balletic eagerness – and was comically bowled.

We should pause for a moment to marvel at the keeper’s natural agility and not see him, in any sense, as a figure of fun. He looked like most engine drivers of his era. The fists were thick and gnarled like any boxer’s; his forearms scarred from the physical exertions of the train’s footplate which snorted steam as if from the stained, beloved pages of a John Betjeman poem while sneaking through the buttered meadowlands on its restful even-tide journey away from teeming Temple Meads.

The other players watched him with varying awe. They rated his complete absence of theatrical flourish. They winced when the ball thudded into his fragile gloves. “Hure, Clarky, when you’m keepin’ to them fast bowlers, don’t they hurt yer finger?”

At the close of play, he made one confession. “I’ve got a couple of dents in my new bat. I dropped it twice on the pavilion steps when I was going out to bat against Yorkshire. I was worried about having to face that big bowler of theirs. Bill Bowes, wasn’t it?” And they all laughed. In any case, Seymour was in the Somerset side for his wicket-keeping.

I went to see him shortly before his death at the age of 92. He confirmed (or maybe joked a little) that his highest innings in club cricket was three and that two of those runs came off an overthrow. That arguably made him Somerset’s worst batsman – but certainly not their worst wicket-keeper. In one of his matches, he didn’t concede an extra till after tea-time. He had excellent eyesight and picked up the flight of the capricious ball with extraordinary rapidity.

He clearly enjoyed the camaraderie and feel of team spirit that came rather late for him. He saw the dressing-room’s practical jokes as part of the ritual, gamely grinning through any private pain as one of the older pros hammered his boots through to the floorboards. It was all part of being accepted and he warmed to the intimacy of the cavern-like claustrophobia of players’ corners. Gaining confidence, he started to trade pleasantries in his distinctive dry humour with opposing stumpers.

Arthur Henry Seymour Clark (possessor of three Christian names in the best cricketing tradition) was something of a curiosity even as an engine driver. He had plenty of rugged railway stories to pass on. But the best one, still recalled in Clarence Park legend, was about his highly personalised approach to cricket.

Fearless as ever – and out of earshot of Jack White – Seymour was standing up to the bowling of Evelyn Hill, a strapping Old Etonian who liked to take the new ball for Somerset. He was digging his hostile deliveries in at his sharpest, and least dependable direction. So bellicose, in fact, that the wicket-keeper was unable to take any kind of cover. He was hit a sickening blow in the mouth.

His teammates converged, in solicitous alarm. But he waved them away as he spat out the blood. “I’m all right. Let’s get on with the game.”

With mesmeric deliberation he completed his improvised dental surgery and then placed his dislodged blood-splattered tooth at the rear of one of the stumps. “I’ll know exactly where I’ve left it. Then I can pick it up at the end of the innings.” Play continued – and Clark didn’t lose any more teeth.

According to those who supposedly witnessed that extraordinary act of sporting courage and ingenuity, Seymour remembered exactly where he’d left that damaged denture.

Balancing professional cricket and life in a loco was never going to be easy. On the few occasions he played for Somerset, Seymour had to forego his railway pay. He was allowed time off to play cricket only with a little subterfuge by a senior railway official who supported Somerset.

In the view of his Weston teammates, Clarky was a fine, natural cricketer who, with a little more specialised training, could have progressed all the way. And Somerset, though never renowned for generosity when it came to contracts, wanted Seymour to join permanently. He was told he would be guaranteed a first-team place. They immediately offered him another county fixture, this time at Taunton, the county headquarters. He took some weeks making up his mind.

But it was in 1930, the time of the Depression. “I’ve got a good job with the railway. I don’t think I can risk becoming a full-time cricketer. And I haven’t got the heart to ask for more time off.”

He remains, instead, one of the county’s most cherished riddles.

 

The Nightwatchman is Wisden’s quarterly. Each issue includes an eclectic collection of essays, articles, and brilliant photography from an array of contributors. The Nightwatchman is a great gift idea and a must-have collectible for anyone who appreciates the culture, history and unique beauty of cricket.

This piece is taken from issue 5.

 

 

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