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A look back on Mill Hill Village's postwar years by Ron Sargeant

A look back on Mill Hill Village's postwar years by Ron Sargeant

David Hickey25 Nov 2023 - 08:36
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Ron Sargeant debuted in 1952, once taking 100 wickets in a season. In a personal essay, he reminisces about his 15-year affiliation with the club

'The fire at the old pavilion was the making of the club because the members responded magnificently. By the following week a temporary hut was erected to use as changing rooms and a bar. Not a game was actually missed'
- Ron Sargeant, MHVCC player 1952-1967

My name is Ron Sargeant, now living in Southend-on-Sea. I played cricket for Mill Hill Village Cricket Club on Saturdays and Sundays, plus many midweek games, from 1952 until the end of the 1967 season. You might find my faded photo somewhere on the pavilion walls. I am now 85 and my earliest memories of Mill Hill Village Cricket Club go back to the first season after the Second World War, 1946. There cannot be many alive today who remember that far back.

My father, Cecil Sargeant, joined the club in the spring of 1946 just before the cricket season actually started. In those days there were two cricket squares on the front field at Burtonhole Lane with overlapping boundaries and the field at the back was football only, with two pitches. There was no actual road across the top of the ground like there is now and everyone had to drive in over the outfield of the top square, which was aligned up/down the slope.

The third and fourth XIs played at the top of the front field with the 1s and 2s playing where they do today. The outdoor net was in the top right-hand corner and of course there was no posh scoreboard. In 1946 the 1st XI was skippered by George Shankland, who was also chairman of the club and was addressed as “sir” by us lowlifes. George was a very large and imposing character, hence the deference towards him.

Old Lal
The 2nd XI were skippered by Howard Mallatratt, author of a history of MHVCC. Dad played for the 3s skippered by Bill Pestell and it was a team for the over 40s, very rarely getting bowled out, but the fielding did leave a bit to be desired as did the penetration of the bowling. With the help of my dad and at the age of 7 I quickly learned how to do the scoring to qualify for my free tea.

We had Old Lal putting the numbers up on the scoreboard. Quite who he was is still a mystery to me but he turned up for every home game. He had this strange way of walking, somewhere between a walk and a trot and I can visualize him to this day wearing his flat cap coming across the field with his little box of sandwiches.

Dad only played on a Saturday but we did spend many Sunday afternoons at the ground just watching. Many of the players in the third and fourth XI squads were first and second-team players before the war. These included David Dean, Frank and Charlie Wingrove, Vic Birdsey, Bill Pestell, Ted Pestell, Len Bibby, John O’Keefe, Viv Weston and Pop Matthews.

We never saw much of the second XI as they and the 4s played away whilst the first and third XIs were at home. Dad did get called on to play for the seconds occasionally when they were short but he never really enjoyed it. It was all too serious for him.

Learning my bowling trade
Team selection and practice evening was on a Tuesday and I spent many of those evenings bowling against first and second-team players in the net from about the age of 11 onwards and starting to learn my bowling trade. This was of course after finishing my school homework. I would cycle to and from the ground from our home in Worcester Crescent. I failed my Eleven Plus exam due to a violent bout of jaundice and was sent to Edgware Secondary Modern School, then situated next door to the now vanished LNER goods yard in Station Road. My first bit of playing success was at the age of 11 taking six wickets for seven runs for Edgware against Haberdashers’ Aske’s School.

Fire at the old pavilion
These were the days of the old wooden pavilion situated in exactly the same spot as the current clubhouse. Dad became treasurer of the club and was in that position in 1950 when someone left a cigarette still burning in the old clubhouse and overnight between a Sunday and Monday it burned to the ground leaving nothing but a still smouldering sea of ashes, which we viewed on the Monday evening.

Absolutely everything had gone: cricket gear including stumps and bails, all photographs, deck chairs and kitchen equipment. Fortunately, the equipment for the ground and wicket maintenance survived in a separate shed, which may still be there in the backfield.

This event was probably the making of the club because the members really responded magnificently and by the following week a temporary hut was erected to use as changing rooms and a bar. Not a game was actually missed which was quite remarkable. A lot of furniture came from Jack Jones, a player for the 2s, who owned a furniture store at the roundabout at Mill Hill East.

Low-scoring games
Older members might remember some of the 1st XI from those days. John Eve and Mike Hobson opened the batting, Johnny Grosvenor came in at three with Bill Carden, batsman wicketkeeper at four. Then came Reg Bibby, George Shankland, Ken Pestell, Arthur Spratt, Johnny Butler and the two fast bowlers Eric Heath and John Stanley. They were actually a very strong side but the wickets played on were nowhere near the standard they are today so low-scoring games were a norm.

A debut in 1950 - and batting with dad
I played my first game for the club in 1950 for the thirds, at the age of 11, our team having turned up one man short, although I count my full debut as being a couple of years later. This first game was at Old Stationers who then were playing next door to Barnet FC's former ground at Underhill. I had cycled to the ground from Worcester Crescent and so had to ride home and back again with my gear. Dad dropped himself down the batting order to number 10 with me at 11 and together we put on 30 for the last wicket of which I scored exactly one run.

By the age of 14, I was opening the bowling for the 2s under Jimmy Simpson and latterly Henry Winser. It was a great learning curve for me and it stood me in good stead whilst still playing schoolboy cricket and I was lucky enough to play for both Middlesex and London Schools (1954 and 1955), plus Willesden district and North West London Schools. I attended Kilburn Poly, the same school as Alan Moss, the former Middlesex and England fast bowler, and it was largely thanks to the groundsman at the school playing fields that my schoolboy cricket career took off as he made the necessary initial recommendation.

Tragedy at tea
Dad was still playing when we turned up for a 3rd XI fixture with Maurice CC over at Canons Park. We batted first and then it was boots off for tea. Tea finished and as the Village team got ready to go out to field, there was a message from the opposition. One of their opening batsman had finished his tea early and had gone to their changing room to put his gear on, sat down and died. He had had a massive heart attack. So the game was immediately called off at that point and we had the ambulance coming across the outfield. Was there something in the tea to cause that to happen?

Also back when Dad was still playing I remember going with him as scorer to an away game somewhere out near Oxford. I remember quite a crowd turning up and then batting first the Village was all out for 39 including seven ducks. All very embarrassing. Of course, the game actually finished early but I clearly remember the Village winning the beer match afterwards.

National Service
In my early playing days I earned money to pay for my cricket either by caddying at Mill Hill Golf Club or by watering the tomatoes at Finchley Nurseries, next door, then owned by Basil Coleman who played for the 2s for some years. The second XI had something of a reputation in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s for hosting rather naughty parties on a Saturday night after cricket where wife-swapping was said to take place. I will always remember the wife of Don Coxall, their opening bat, being the first lady to turn up wearing tight-fitting trousers and the stir it caused amongst both teams at the sight. I did my National Service from 1957 to 1959 and was lucky enough to be able to continue to play both Saturday and Sunday being stationed at Folkestone and latterly Chatham. I used to hitch-hike on a Friday afternoon into London and then get a bus or tube to Mill Hill from wherever I landed. I’d take the last train on a Sunday evening back to Folkestone was at 11pm.

Work and cricket
After National Service, I returned to working for Lloyds Bank on Tottenham Court Road. Unfortunately, the sub-manager played for the bank and a lot of pressure was put on me to play for them. This ended acrimoniously because they went too far. They put me on post duty nearly every night and I had to work every Saturday morning, plus being given all the rotten jobs around the branch. It ended when Dad wrote a letter to the bank’s chief general manager complaining bitterly and demanding that I should be given a transfer. The worst of it came when the Village had an evening match and I had to be out of the branch at about 4:30 that afternoon. The chief clerk, seeing my cricket gear in the gent's cloakroom, promptly changed the duty roster putting me on post, which would have meant not leaving the branch until well after 5pm. I was not having that. At 4:30pm I left, evading the attempt of the chief clerk to block the exit door of the bank.

The following morning I was summoned to the sub-manager's office and given a dressing down and a warning that unless I played for the bank my future prospects would be bleak. I said nothing and at the end of his tirade just went back to work. That evening Dad wrote his letter and hand delivered it the next day. I got my transfer two weeks later. There was no way I was going to leave the Village and I was not about to do a four-hour round trip from Mill Hill to Beckenham just to play a home game for their third or fourth XIs. which is where I surely would have started. I was not about to leave my friends.

A wedding on the Ridgeway
The whole team turned up with wives and girlfriends when Barbara and I married in 1964 at St Paul’s Church on the Ridgeway. Of course, we timed this to take place in the off-season, one week after the season had ended to be precise. The first XI in the early/mid ‘60s were all much the same age so the social life surrounding the cricket was tremendous. Fortunately, a few of us, including me, had a wife or girlfriend who either genuinely loved cricket or the social life that came with it. Most of the remaining single blokes all tagged along if we went for a meal or dancing somewhere afterwards. The meeting point for away games was normally outside the Hunters Horn Restaurant, which was the first shop in the parade on the right as you approach the Broadway from Apex Corner, with its little slip road.

Legs like tree trunks
In one of my early years with the 2s, we had an away game with NALGO down at Mill Hill Park to be played on a ground situated next door to the swimming pool. Our team that day included the Webber brothers. The older was a normal-sized guy and a decent lefthand bat but the younger was something else entirely. He, Eric Webber, was a giant, well over two metres in height and weighing in at over 23 stone. With legs like tree trunks and enormous shoulders he fielded at first and second slip. He was the Middlesex junior shot put champion. Eric bowled off of four paces and was quick, very quick and really pretty dangerous to face on any surface. From the height the ball was bowled it lifted when it hit the wicket no matter the state of the surface. Trouble was he had great difficulty in keeping to any kind of direction or length. If he got it right then we were in business.

It was Eric’s batting that was most amusing. His stance was right in front of the stumps which could not be seen behind him so there was never any chance of an LBW because it would have been a total guess by the umpire. The bat looked like a twig in his hands and if he connected with the ball with almost any part of it then a four or six normally resulted. However, Eric’s big problem was that he could not wear a box when batting because of his size. The inevitable happened. He got hit full-on by a lifting ball and promptly collapsed just on a length. Eric was in such pain he had to be carried off and it took eight players to actually lift him and get him back to the changing rooms. On lifting him a large dent in the wicket was revealed, which just happened to be smack on the place where a good length ball should have pitched. So from then on to the end of the game any ball hitting the dent either shot along the ground or lifted quite violently. Very disconcerting. Fortunately for Eric there was an ice cream seller at the gate to the park and we were able to get a bag of ice for Eric to shove down his trousers whilst a member of our team found a call box and called an ambulance. It duly arrived and he was carted off to Edgware Hospital. Eric recovered of course but that was the end of that particular game for him.

1st XI debut
I made my 1st XI debut at Winchmore Hill under the captaincy of John Stacey in 1956 and opened the bowling from then until the end of the 1967 season. By that time I was the old man of the team under John Hardie and was his vice-skipper for three seasons. We were a very strong side on both Saturday and Sunday, and the fixture list improved greatly season by season as a consequence. I can’t remember which year it was but we did go through a complete season unbeaten.

I passed 100 wickets in a season only once and was on 98 when dislocating the little finger on my left hand going for a caught and bowled above my head. Painful? Oh yes! This was at Osterley against London Transport. I pulled the finger out straight and carried on bowling until my hand swelled up so much I could not hold the ball. I got the guy two balls later and got my 100th wicket the very next over. I had to leave the field soon after. I had to go out to bat at number 11 able to use just my bottom hand with about six runs needed for victory. Jack Stock was at the other end and he got the runs. I was playing again the next week, but finished up at Edgware Hospital later that evening with someone else driving my car.

We had some quite long away trips back then - Dunstable Town, Southend-on-Sea, Romford and Stevenage Town to name but a few. Dunstable was a favourite trip, especially for the ladies as we usually left early and stopped for lunch at a pub before making for the ground.

Of course, these were the days before league cricket but our skipper, John Hardie, was never one for letting a game drift and so we played each game more like a league side. The batting order on a Sunday in the mid-'60s, when all were available, was: John Hardie, Gordon “Butch” Nicholls, John Hazel, Bob Ward, Denis David, Ron Cross, Peter Steed, Tony Wilmot, Chris Marshall, me and Pat Duffy. That’s good quality batting down to number eight.

Umpiring at my end was firstly Johnny Grosvenor, and then later Fred Matthews. They were both very tough to get a positive LBW decision out of but they were both scrupulously fair and very good umpires.

Ma Matthews
In the early days in the new clubhouse cricket teas were the domain of Ma Matthews, and no one, but no one, was allowed to interfere with her preparations. Anyone caught stealing a cake prior to the tea break was chased out of the clubhouse front door with Ma waving a cake knife at them. All the makings for the teas were purchased from Bill and Bessy Carden’s shop just off Hammers Lane at a good discount as he had been a club member for years.

A coaching session from Jim Laker
The best weekend I ever had as a bowler was in 1965, taking seven wickets on the Saturday and then eight on the Sunday. I was never very quick. I bowled left-arm over the wicket with an eight-pace running approach. I could swing a new ball late and was very accurate, and never bowled a wide in my entire cricket career. My accuracy was such that wicketkeeper Ron Cross sometimes opted to stand up to the wicket. I did not like this much as I felt it restricted my bowling options. On a good day, I bowled with one slip and a gully, and three short legs, one in front for the bat/pad, one just backward of square and the third at a wide leg slip, a wide mid-on, fairly straight and short mid-off, square cover, and a wide third man.

At the end of an innings trying to remove the tail the third man moved to short extra cover and the leg slip to cow corner on the leg side about halfway back. With much the same side every Saturday or Sunday most of the team would automatically walk to their fielding positions without John Hardie as skipper actually saying anything.

My stock ball was an in-swinging yorker normally aimed at either off or leg stump and this often spelled the doom for any batsman not picking his bat up straight. At home, I always bowled from the far end. I don’t really know why but I was always more comfortable there. Maybe this was the influence of the slope of the ground. When young I bowled round the wicket but after some coaching with former England great Jim Laker at Alf Gover’s cricket school I changed to over the wicket and I was taught how to bowl the other one which swung in, pitched and then either straightened or moved slightly away. The latter was difficult at home given the slope on the ground.

Nine-wicket hauls
I have never had a 10-wicket haul but took nine wickets three times, two for the Village and one for Tonbridge in 1969 after we had moved away. For the latter, I took my career-best 9-37 against Wilmington, seven bowled and two LBW. How I loved a Kookaburra half-ball! It was a hard ball but getting a shine on one side was always possible and it never lost its shape.

I remember turning out for Mill Hill Village 3rd XI out the back in about 1966 when the first team did not have a game and not being allowed to bowl. OK, then I thought: I will open the batting. I batted right through the innings for 86 not out, the highest score I ever made in club cricket. Fielding in the deep I took four catches off of Dave Radcliffe's bowling that same day. I had to buy two jugs for that lot.

Benefit games at the Village
The club was fortunate to have Vic Lewis, former band leader and impresario, as club president for a few years in the 1960s, and of course he knew a lot of people and through him we managed to stage benefit matches on our ground against Middlesex for Don Bennett and Worcestershire for Dick Richardson. Their side included Ron Headley, Alan Ormrod and Basil D’Oliviera, but unfortunately no Tom Graveney. Fred Titmus wanted to roll the wicket up and take it with him because he was able to turn the ball both ways on it. The latter against Worcestershire in 1967 was a great game and a great evening followed, made a bit riotous when four of our wives and girlfriends took over serving behind the bar. As a result, the Worcestershire team was at least two hours late leaving by coach and a few were very much the worse for wear. Pictured above are both teams during the tea break, with actor Ian Carmichael lying down in the foreground.

Vic Lewis also brought a President’s XI to play against us that included David Frost and West Indian internationals Rohan Kanhai and Tom Dewdney, a most fearsome prospect. Dewdney bowled from the pavilion end and could just about get his run-up in place before the sight screen. He was not quite the fastest I ever had to face. This was Malcolm Marshall of Hampshire during a benefit game in the 1980s at Tonbridge. I lasted three balls!

A young David English, of Bunbury fame, was also around in the 1960s, a very stylish left-hand bat even at 15, but prone to lifting his head at the wrong time and getting out when he should have gone on to a big score. He sometimes made the first XI on a Saturday. Eric Palmer with whom I grew up and played a lot of football in our teens, skippered the second XI for a number of years around this time very successfully.

A farewell to the Village
I was very sorry to leave the club when I did, but my days of opening the bowling for the 1st XI were coming to an end, due largely to being overbowled. Game after game I would bowl anything up to 16 overs and sometimes many more. I had lost my edge. A typical example of this was opening the bowling at 2.30pm up the hill at North London (then skippered by George Hurd) and was still bowling at 5.15 when the last wicket fell. I had taken 7 for 40 something but was utterly exhausted, 23 overs on the trot and actually fell asleep in the bar afterwards, my wife having to drive me home.

In January 1968 we moved to Tonbridge and I played for them for the next 20 years but I never at any time lost my love for the Village. Actually, the move to Tonbridge was purely based on economic grounds, not being able to afford to buy the property we wanted anywhere close to Mill Hill nor where Barbara and I had lived since 1964 at Harrow on the Hill. Tonbridge Cricket Club's first XI’s fixture list was not quite up to the standard as that of the Village. I quickly regained my edge again - and took a shedload of wickets.

Mill Hill Village Sports Club always welcomes contributions to millhillvillagecricketclub.co.uk from current or former players or supporters. Email info@millhillvillagecricketclub.co.uk

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