Cricket in Italy. The topic of this week’s ‘The Greatest’. Question is, who’s the greatest cricketing Italian?
When I was young, the thought of going anywhere that didn’t provide full and unlimited access to cricket commentary was a worrying proposition. North America, anywhere in Asia and the rest of Europe was a major problem. Food, culture, beaches and weather maybe, but no cricket. The Caribbean would have been fine of course, but who could ever afford to go there? The main holiday criteria was not fine cuisine and a sea view, but whether you could get Test Match Special on Long Wave.
Globalisation, whether you enjoy it or not, has changed the outlook of cautious cricket fans considering which beach they might lie on come their summer holidays. It is described as economic, political and cultural integration, where boundaries are straddled in favour of the pursuit of profit.
More cynically, John Wiseman describes it as “what happens when you lose your job in Bolton or Bristol because the company for which you work has been bought out by the UK subsidiary of a Dallas-based transnational company that has relocated its production of T-shirts to Mexico because of cheaper wage costs and lower health and safety standards”. But every cloud and all that; globalisation and technological advances enable us to watch and listen to the cricket in the unlikeliest of places, like Indonesia, Iceland and the Isle of Man. And Italy.
Italy’s connection with cricket, at first glance, appears rather tenuous. Scratch beneath the surface and it’s a different story. For example, arguably the greatest batsman to have ever strapped on a pair of pads was one eighth Italian. Daniel Lane and Andrew Wu of the Sydney Morning Herald report that in 1826, one Emanuel Sebastiano Neich left Genoa, thinking that the ship he had boarded was on its way to Holland. At some stage, presumably when it was too late, he discovered that he was not going to Holland but New Holland.
New Holland is what they called Australia in those days. Researchers Rodney Cavalier and Bernadette Mahony report that despite what must have been a shock (and a much longer journey than originally anticipated), Neich “liked what he saw and stayed”.
Settling into life Down Under very quickly, the new arrival became a successful hotelier, and was apparently unparalleled at skittles and quoits. He clearly also had major reserves of energy, his two marriages yielding a total of 24 children. However, reports Abhishek Mukherjee, he “was not exactly the most loyal of men” and had a daughter with another woman while his first wife was still alive. The child in question was called Sophia, and when she became a woman she married one William Whatman. Their sixth child was called Emily, and she married a chap called George Bradman. You can guess the rest. It’s hard to say who is the most prolific – Emmanuel and his 25 children, or great grandson Donald George with his 6,996 runs in 52 Tests.
Ironically, The Don’s run gathering was characterised by its Teutonic efficiency rather than any Italian styling, but cricket’s links with Lo stivale extend further than just the greatest batsman. The game’s greatest benefactor – Sir Paul Getty – was born at sea off the Italian coast. The boot-shaped peninsula can therefore claim some distant credit for saving Wisden, and the creation of Wormsley, surely the most beautiful cricket ground in England.
The Italian connections keep coming. Besides Bradman, Aussies Michael Di Venuto, Mike Valetta and the late and much missed Phillip Hughes have strong family connections to the old country, and Queenslander and former Lancashire player Joe Scuderi even played ODIs for Italy. Intriguingly, he played against teams including Jersey, Norway, Denmark and Tanzania, but never played a single match at home.
England cricket has one particularly sad association with Italy. As the Yorkshire CCC website explains, one of its favoured sons – Hedley Verity – was mortally wounded while leading an Allied night attack on the Germans in Sicily. The attack took place at a spot described by James Holland as “one of the most fertile parts of the island, largely flat and low-lying, bisected by rivers and dominated by the towering presence of Mount Etna”. Verity, writes Holland, would have seen the volcano “from the moment he landed at first light on Saturday, 10 July 1943, as part of the biggest seaborne invasion the world has ever known”.
After the attack, the BBC report that Verity’s batman, Private Tom Rennoldson carried his officer to a field hospital for emergency treatment. Then, “in sweltering, overcrowded conditions”, Verity was “ferried in an open railway truck across the straits of Messina to Reggio in Italy”. Three days later, under only a local anaesthetic, medics operated on Captain Verity, but he haemorrhaged a number of times and succumbed to his injuries. He rests in the military cemetery at Caserta, to where, say Yorkshire CCC, “many a Yorkshire follower has since made the pilgrimage to his grave”.
On a more cheery note, if Italian styling ever mapped itself to cricket, then it did so through one of its greatest and most delectable dashers. From Milan, the fashion capital of southern Europe, came the exquisitely sublime Edward Ralph Dexter. Forced to leave Italy and return to Blighty as a child when war broke out, Dexter became, claims Mike Selvey, “arguably… the most charismatic England cricketer of his time”.
But it was not just at cricket that Dexter effortlessly excelled – there was golf, piloting his own plane, riding his own motorbike, the world of business, gambling and coming up with the ICC player rankings. Less successful endeavours included standing for parliament and a rather eccentric reign as chairman of the England selectors. His attempt to become the next Agatha Christie floundered somewhat when the crime novel he co-authored bombed at the bookstalls.
It was an unlikely tale of an Aussie fast bowler expiring while bowling after being poisoned during the tea interval. Though “a champion entertainer at the crease,” writes Arunabha Sengupta, Dexter “fell quite short of matching his batting feats with his typewriter”. The book, says Sengupta, is weighed down by the sheer number of characters” with “21 remaining cricketers, the press contingent, the officials of the MCC, several fans and a few glamorous women associated with the cricketing scene” all featuring as suspects. The denouement includes the murderer being revealed in the style of Poirot and Miss Marple. It is a shock, writes Sengupta, but only because the plot and method are “intolerably insipid and unfair to the reader”.
Lord Ted wasn’t much good at pushing cars either. When his Jag ran out of petrol on the Cheswick flyover he tried to push it safety and ended up running over his own leg, effectively ending his own career in the process. It was about the right time to give up anyway, reflected Dexter, since he “wasn’t all that badly placed”. After all, he still had “[his] journalism, [his] business interests ([his] golf and a wife and family” and still was able to keep fit “on the quiet” by “jogging” and “refusing the third gin and tonic”.
If Dexter’s off-field activities had been a bit hit and miss, on the cricket field he was usually dreamily magnificent, often, notes Sengupta, batting like “the cavalier amateur of the old school”. Trevor Bailey suggested that “it was not too much to claim that he was worth at least double the admission price”. Ever the Milanese stylist, Dexter described himself as “International Sportsman and jolly good egg.” Or, to put it another way è un brav’uomo. Even that sounds classy, doesn’t it?