The Greatest: Cricketing Beards

The Greatest: Cricketing Beards

The thick, curly but well-trimmed story of the beard in cricket, across the full span of the game’s history.

Like vinyl records, the Fiat 500 and Hawaii Five-O, beards have made a comeback. Everywhere you look, there are men wearing braces with all sorts of furry face furniture. Even AOC headquarters itself has bought into the hirsute homage to yesteryear with the occasional shaggy one, sharp one and shadowy one. As Britain’s men collectively ditch their razors, smart marketers have spotted opportunities for lotions, potions, oils, ointments, combs, curlers, balms and brushes. Recently there have been claims that they make you look older and contain more germs and nasties than a music festival shower block. A year or two down the line, those of us still sporting them are scare-story survivors.

There are warnings from Lizette Borelli from Medical Daily that “men are growing their face fur to incredible lengths to exude manliness and non-conformism, but at a heavy and smelly price”. We see your heavy, smelly germs and respond with the research from the Journal of Hospital Infection, which finds within a sample of male hospital workers, that facial hair does not “harbour more potentially concerning bacteria than clean-shaven workers”. Indeed sometimes, says the Journal, “clean-shaven individuals are significantly more likely to be colonised with potential nosocomial pathogens”. Take that, you shavers.

What part has facial hair played in the history of cricket? Indeed, right now would be a perfect time for reflection, given that one of the great contemporary examples of bushy brilliance has put his bat aside to spend more time with the hairs on his chinny chin chin. Misbah-ul-Haq has bowed out of international cricket after leading his team to a victory against the West Indies at Roseau, and the game will miss much more than those luxuriant black bristles.

Grace represented ‘the happy conjunction of the beard movement and gentlemanly athleticism’

“How many times have we seen Misbah in such a situation where the entire team lets us down and he alone is left to mop up the mess?” asks Usman Afzal Minhas, concluding that “he has been the captain who goes down with the ship. And you don’t find captains like that anymore”. Together with Younus Khan, writes Harsha Bogle, Misbah brought much needed dignity to Pakistan cricket. His beard, according to Osman Samiuddin, “is not in the hipster style that footballers have latched on to and mainstreamed”, and he can surely “not have grown it for the purpose of looking more mature”. Nor “is it a growth of laziness either, because it is fairly well manicured”; “his face” says Samiuddin, “is imponderable enough for this not to add any more mystery”.

Misbah’s face might not need anything to make it more enigmatic, but it seems that beards add something intangible. Is it me, or has Ravi Jadeja become a better bowler, batsman and fielder since he started sporting that devilish-looking Van Dyke? Did a well-crafted, beautifully detailed beard ever reflect the batting of its wearer more closely than in the case of Virat Kohli? Then, take Kiwi Mitchell McClenaghan. Perhaps inspired by his compatriot Daniel Vettiori, he arrived at the IPL in 2017 as Mumbai Indians’ specialist death bowler with a magnificent set of shaggy whiskers. He shaves them off, and literally as I am writing this, MS Dhoni has just taken 26 off his final over in the first qualifier. What more evidence do you need? McClenaghan is Sampson to Dhoni’s Delilah, and that’s not a sentence I ever expected to write and, I suspect, not one you ever expected to read.

WG Grace
Historians are almost certain WG Grace had a beard

This examination of the influence of cricketing beards must, of course, start at the beginning, with the “beard that was feared”. The Beard Liberation Front (BLF) proposes that WG Grace provides the template for the new generation of cricketing beards and that indeed, his whiskers are the ultimate example of how a beard can enhance cricketing performance. In Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, Christopher Oldstone-Moore suggests that the beginning of 20th century marked a “new formulation of manliness”, where athletes were required to be “men of muscle and speed rather than hair”. Before that, Grace – and more specifically his beard – represented “the happy conjunction of the beard movement and gentlemanly athleticism”. WG’s beard even has its own historical anecdotes – a snorter from Aussie paceman Ernie Jones once passed through it on its way to the fence. Indeed, perhaps it is the single most famous ball the great champion ever faced according to Simon Rae. But, as Jarrod Kimber reflects, although WG’s “wandering billboard” of a beard was successful in raising public awareness of the game, it was the Great Champion who usually profited personally. “He wasn’t some lovely old chap who was a bit cheeky” asserts Kimber, but “a ruthless bastard who hated to lose, and loved to make money”. Not a fan, then.

bearded cricketer
Jack Blackham wore a beard for professional reasons

Talking of money, others from that era had other motivations for remaining hirsute. Take Jack Blackham for example; according to Denzil Batchelor, the Australian keeper kept his beard because the customers he served while doing his day job in the bank rather liked it. “It suggested steadiness and a sapient character” and one “appreciative of the latest prices on the stock exchange”. Besides, wrote Batchelor, “if you wore a beard shovelling sovereigns over the counter, you could hardly expect to appear clean shaven when you lurked behind the stumps”.

In terms of physical presence rather than accomplishment though, the nearest thing to WG in Australia was the famous hitter George Bonnor. At 6ft 6ins and weighing in at 17 stones, Bonnor could give it proper whack. On the 1880 tour of England, he demonstrated that he had no peer when throwing a cricket ball (over 100m), and also when hitting one (over 150m). Once, he hit the ball so high he ran 3 before the fielder caught it. The beard was a little more trimmed that WG’s but perhaps he won the style stakes; “with his golden hair and flowing beard” wrote Ian Johnson, Bonnor “was often referred to as a reincarnation of the Viking gods”.

George Bonnor, Australia's 'Colonial Hercules' who stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 17 stone
George Bonnor, Australia’s ‘Colonial Hercules’ who stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 17 stone

Thereafter though, the idea of having a beard rather fell into disrepair. Look at any old photo of any touring party for about 50 years until the early 1980s, and it is clear that Gillette had a much bigger bearing on the game than sponsoring the one-day knockout. But when the sponsorship ended, and so it appears, did the careful grooming. Only cricketers on the subcontinent kept the beard going.

Eventually, the era of hairless chins was disturbed by the most unlikely of potential hipsters. In an attempt to develop what Steven Lynch called “a spikier image”, the normally clean shaven Mike Brearley grew an impressive appendage ahead of England’s tour of Australia in 1979/80. As Keith Flett of the BLF reports, the beard is important in and of itself, but also because of the gravitas it adds to the wearer’s presence on the field. In theory then, it might have been a good plan – intimidate those Aussies with a hairy face that connotes intellect and breeding. Unfortunately those things were no match for raw unadulterated fast bowling. The home side whitewashed Brearley: the beard and the beleaguered England batsman. To make it worse, opposing skipper Greg Chappell had a beard too; while his was complimented for its style and suitability, Brearley was nicknamed “the Ayatollah”. Knowing he’d facilitated the first series in 96 years where both Aussie and England skippers wore beards was no consolation.

Brearley's team were hammered by Chappell's, but who had the better beard?
Brearley’s team were hammered by Chappell’s, but who had the better beard?

After that, the beardgates were open. Gatting, Border, Hendrick, Chris Old and plenty of others threw away their aftershave, and let nature take its grizzly course. Ian Botham, you will remember, had one when he made his 149* at Headingly in 1981. It may not have been any more than a “light covering” reports Steven Lynch, but “there seem to be about a million pictures of that heady summer” featuring the triumphant Botham, “a half-smile gleaming through the foliage as he swipes another six off his nose, or demolishes another set of Aussie stumps”. But such hairy heroics did not last long, and by the time of England’s tour to India in 1993, instead of adorning the game’s finest as they performed their glorious deeds, beards were in the dock and being blamed for all sorts.

“It was an omnifiasco” says Rob Smyth, as the trip was blighted by “smog, Chinese prawns… Uzbekistani pilots, Graham Gooch’s marriage and, occasionally, England’s inability to bowl or play spin”. “No other England bowler took more than four Test wickets,” reports Smyth, despite an early claim by Chris Lewis that he could remove Vinod Kambli “any time I want to.” “As Kambli moved towards a double-century in the third Test” notes Smyth, “Mike Atherton suggested that now might be an opportune time”. While Tufnell was doing “the elephants, the poverty” and generally having a terrible time, his Middlesex spin colleague John Emburey was “bewildered by a series of savage assaults in the warm-up games by Navjot Sidhu”. The Indian was “the Pink Panther to Emburey’s Herbert Lom,” wrote Mike Atherton.

beard cricketer
Botham’s ’81 beard is basically immortal

Everyone was ill, Dermot Reeve’s mother was pressed into service as the official scorer, there was civil unrest and a strike by Indian Airline pilots made travelling internally impossibly perilous. Even the local engravers added to the collective woe, as the press corps presented Gooch with a silver salver on the “occation” of his 100th hundred. Except it wasn’t his 100th ton; one had been downgraded by the ICC and he was actually only on 99.

“Then” reports Smyth, “when the Test and County Cricket Board reviewed the miserable tour”, Chairman of Selectors Ted Dexter appeared to blame the debacle on designer stubble. “Some people believe it to be very attractive,” he said, “but it is aggravating to others and we shall be looking at the whole question of people’s facial hair”. There was it seems, an obvious correlation between the whiskers on England’s chins and their complete mystification reading the variation and bounce of Anil Kumble. How ironic that not so many years later, the man engaged to help address the failure to bowl and bat against spin wore one of the best cricketing beards of all time; not only did Mushtaq Ahmed know his craft, he had a big bushy number complete with what Phil Tufnell calls “a dashing Dickie Davies-esque streak of silver”.

Mushtaq and Monty were a strong pair
Mushy and Monty were a strong pair, beard-wise

Most recently, the beard has enjoyed something of a cricketing comeback. Some of course, have every good religious reason for wearing them, albeit Michael Henderson appears to take exception to Moeen Ali for saying that his beard was a “label” and “uniform” that he was proud to wear when playing for England. “A man who belongs to a team and draws attention to his beard as a symbol of his faith is opting to stand out” asserts Henderson, perhaps forgetting that this is 21st century Britain. In the case of players such as Moeen, Hashim Amla, Mohammad Yousuf, Saeed Anwar, Bishen Bedi, beyond any statement about style, beards have a serious meaning related to religious beliefs. Cricket wise, their beards seem to be a very clear mark of the highest quality.

The final word this time however, goes to a bearded man whose impact on the game might rival that of WG Grace. Bill Frindall – the Bearded Wonder – “single-handedly elevated” the “pretty obscure craft” of cricket scoring “because he made it seem so important to vast numbers of people,” says Matthew Engel. Perhaps more important than that, he made it clear to the young kids with little playing ability that they could play a crucial part in this game, and that plotting wagon wheel batting charts was every bit as important as the innings themselves.

The Bearded Wonder himself
The Bearded Wonder himself

He scored 377 Test matches, and, recalls Vic Marks, enjoyed the fact that he was born on the first day of England’s longest – the Timeless Test of 1939 against South Africa at Durban. Initially wrote Marks, Frindall became famous as Brian Johnston’s “stooge” during Test Match Special, and “was a ready butt for Johnston’s schoolboy humour”. Further, said Marks, the Bearded Wonder fulfilled a key function for John Arlott. “I hear you like driving,” said Arlott when the two first met. “Well, I like drinking so we’re going to get on well”. In later years, reports Marks, “Jonathan Agnew built up an easy rapport with Bill, poking fun at his beard and his occasional moments of pedantry”.

In 2004, Frindall was awarded the MBE, but other instances of recognition were often omitted from the fulsome tributes that marked his death in 2009. To redress the balance, and on behalf of the BLF, Keith Flett wrote to The Guardian and reminded them that their obituary “rather skates around the issue of his beard” and that “Frindall won several awards from the Beard Liberation Front”. Despite the awards “being largely, if not entirely, light-hearted” reflects Flett, “not everyone in public life who receives the accolade takes them in such good heart as Frindall”. Such awards were in the face of strong competition from the likes of Bill Bryson, Fidel Castro, Terry Practchett and Ricky Tomlinson. And this for a radio man whose face was hardly ever seen! Bravo, the Bearded Wonder.

What’s your favourite cricketing beard? Comment below to share your view!

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