Silver cigarette box inscribed to Douglas Jardine by members of 1932-33 England team to Australia

A silver cigarette box presented to Douglas Jardine, engraved with signatures of the 1932-33 England Ashes squad

© Marylebone Cricket Club


Collect call

There are few stronger symptoms of cricketomania, as John Arlott once wrote, than the pursuit of memorabilia

Nicholas Hogg  |  

I have a cricket ball in a cup on my bookshelf. One side has been buffed shinier than the other, the seam is still prominent, and the only real scuff mark is the word "Radella" scratched into the leather with a beer bottle top. Although no great batsman has cracked this ball across a hallowed outfield, and no legendary bowler has skittled out a team of icons with a spell of wizardry, it is my most prized item of cricket memorabilia because it is the visceral memory of a game in which I took 7 for 24. On the slopes of the Radella tea estate in Sri Lanka, on an overseas tour in which we would lose every other game, this cherry swung. Even now, two years from that humid afternoon in the hills, when I take the ball down from the shelf and grip it between my fingers I can relive each of those seven wickets, the sensation of running in to bowl on a coconut-matting track and the euphoria of winning a game beneath the dramatic setting of mountainside draped in cloud.

This physical connection to an event - an object marked by action, the weather, the spit and the shine of the fielding team, and even the glorious collisions with the stumps - is a priceless memento. But alas, its importance is trifling to anyone else. I am an amateur cricketer, no more than a passionate club player, with my one season for Leicestershire Under-19s rapidly receding into the distance. No collector will one day stand at an auction and bid for my seven-for ball, unlike the purported Garry Sobers "six sixes" ball which went for the princely sum of £26,400 at Christie's in 2006.

The anecdote of the acquisition is part of an object's myth, the narrative that money can't buy

A prized object does not have to be the actual memento of a great player to be considered valuable - as my cricket ball demonstrates. Writing in the mammoth Wisden Book of Cricket Memorabilia, published in 1990, Marcus Williams and Gordon Phillips note that "there exists a ready and established market for just about anything associated with cricket". Bats, balls, shirts, tea towels, ashtrays, paintings, photographs, plates, postcards, computer games and bits of masonry from the Oval wall have all been desired items in the budding curator of cricketana - a word, the authors note, that first appeared in print in 1862, evolving from "sayings or items of gossip about cricket" to its current informal definition of collecting cricket objects.

Writing in the book's foreword, the polymath John Arlott - author, journalist, poet, wine connoisseur, commentator and cricket memorabilia hoarder - diagnoses that "the collection of cricketana is one of the major symptoms of cricketomania". A keen collector from the age of 12, Arlott began with cigarette cards and autographs, expanding his hobby into an "incurable" complaint that crowded his house with over 3000 items gathered mostly from the second-hand bookshops he browsed when travelling England as a broadcaster. Although his primary passion was for books, from cricket annuals to scorebooks dating from the end of the 18th century, his archive included membership cards, watches and a toast rack. He had such vim for cricketana that bookshop owners would have to apologise to foragers who arrived after Arlott had been in and cleaned out their prized items. So if anything vaguely connected with cricket has value to a collector, what added gold dust sprinkles an object once owned by a Test-playing legend?

On a frosty winter's day at a seemingly abandoned Lord's, one can still feel the warmth of summer days gone. On my way to meet Adam Chadwick, the curator of the burgeoning MCC memorabilia collection, my footsteps echo around the empty stands and it does not take much imagination to people the outfield with the ghosts and greats of yesterday. This is a venue where even the icons of the moment are moved by the legends of the past. Hanging on the outer walls are pictures of recent stars with their thoughts about playing at Lord's or making the honours boards - wistful quotes from Sachin Tendulkar and Andrew Strauss about how special it was to score a hundred here, although Tendulkar famously never added to his international century tally at the ground. In the gallery of the Long Room, cricketers' portraits loom like gods over a congregation, from the formidable WG Grace to a beaming Vivian Richards.

Memorabilia from the 1977 Centenary Test at the MCG museum

Memorabilia from the 1977 Centenary Test at the MCG museum © Getty Images

Chadwick is protector of all that is precious at the MCC, the oldest sporting museum in the world. A former fine-art auctioneer - and a keen cricketer - he is an engaging and convivial man who falls naturally and fondly into anecdote. He is perhaps wiser to the pitfalls of buying and selling than the average cricket memorabilia enthusiast. Writing in A Portrait of Lord's, Chadwick explains how the MCC, after a 150-year collecting history, is now finally able to "provide an unprecedented array of objects, books and documents maintained in museum-quality conditions and yet accessible to the public".

Not that this has been easy. "Wealthy private collectors have always provided significant and often insuperable competition at auctions," rues Chadwick. "And the prices paid have often meant family members beating a path to Lord's in an attempt to persuade MCC that items donated by their ancestors were in fact only temporarily loaned." Money-hunting inheritors aside, Chadwick brightens when talking about the "wonderful surprises" while building the collection. "The only surviving set of scores by Samuel Britcher, the MCC's first scorer [1790-1805], were sold to us despite much more tempting financial offers because the seller believed 'this is the place they should be'."

Weird artefacts

Mickey Mantle's death threat

New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle signed a piece of paper that sold at an auction in 1999 for a reported $18,400, which might seem extortionate for an autograph - except this was a death threat, a letter received in 1953 from a Boston Red Sox fan.

Cleaner's World Cup sweepstake

Cleaning up after the draw for the 2006 World Cup, German decorator Matthias Blume found the 32 country slips in a rubbish bag and subsequently auctioned them on eBay. Bidding for the Germany tag went past $1000, FIFA threatened to sue, and last heard, Blume was quoted saying, "I hope it will be able to pay for my lawyer's bills."

The White Ford Bronco

The white Ford Bronco that police helicopters tracked on the day OJ Simpson was arrested for murder, and later acquitted, became a baseball memento of a morbid variety. Although the truck, which was actually owned and sold by OJ's friend Al Cowlings to a pornographer, Michael Pulwer, is now kept hidden from public view, it was wheeled out in 2012 to promote SCORE!, a Las Vegas sports memorabilia museum.

Andre Agassi's ponytail

The tennis star with the lion mane would eventually go bald and secretly wear a fake hairpiece - but his scythed ponytail was bought by Robert Earl and displayed in his bar, the All-Star Café, in Times Square, New York.

The Stuffed Sparrow

One of the biggest (but also smallest) oddities in the MCC collection of cricketana is the infamous "stuffed sparrow" mounted on a match ball. The poor bird happened to be flying over Lord's in 1936 when the Indian cricketer Jahangir Khan was bowling at Marylebone batsman, Tom Pearce. The ball downed the bird in mid-flight - yet the dead sparrow now forever stands on top of it in the MCC Museum.

Before Chadwick took me on a tour around the museum, we sat and chatted in his office tucked behind the pavilion. It is a small and cluttered space. Desks are piled with cricket tomes, and bats of varying vintage are stored in the kind of metal locker that might house priceless jewels for safekeeping. From Chadwick's boyish ebullience it would appear that his career is also a labour of love.

"Only in the last month we've had three wonderful donations of material relating to the first England women's tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1934-35. The last was on display in an Australian museum when the descendants of the owner, Betty Archdale, found a copy of her will that stipulated her scrapbooks should reside at Lord's." In a touching gesture, the family transported the items from Australia themselves.

Chadwick's most beloved item in the collection is the Ashes urn. No object in English cricket, and quite possibly world cricket, stands so diminutively yet towers over the game's history. Perhaps, also, no other object embodies the need for myth in sport so powerfully. "It resonates with rivalry, friendship and memories for more sports fans than any other object," contends Chadwick. The terracotta trophy, four inches and shaped like an egg cup has infamous (and somewhat hazy) origins, beginning with that obituary for English cricket running in the Sporting Times, September 2, 1882. The urn, said to contain the remnants of a burnt bail, was presented to the captain of the England XI, Ivo Bligh, by Lady Clarke and Florence Morphy - who Bligh would marry in 1884 - just outside Melbourne on Christmas Eve.

After 75 years of sitting unexamined in Lord's since its donation in 1927, it was finally X-rayed - the glued-together fragments confirming perhaps that story of the clumsy maid who knocked it off the mantelpiece while dusting. That the MCC committee voted not to open the lid, Chadwick informs me, and explore its insides tells us about the need for a meaningful narrative in sport, even if that narrative might possibly be fantasy, and of the cold hard facts of financing our game - what lustre might the biannual dogfight lose should this most hallowed cup be no more than an empty piece of clay?

The urn's journey from Lady Clarke's dining room - across the seas to Bligh's memorabilia collection at Cobham Hall in England, until Florence Morphy donated them to the MCC after her husband's death - is not an unusual acquisition tale for Chadwick. On the way to the museum, passing through the library, we walked past a mighty bust of the mighty man, WG Grace. Chadwick stopped and touched the bearded icon before telling me how one of the three marble sculptures had actually been plucked out of a skip beside The Oval. Cricket-ignorant philistines had apparently ditched the good doctor into the rubbish; a passer-by who thought Grace would make a fitting Father Christmas saved him from the crusher.

Curators, but not of pitches: Adam Chadwick (left) of the MCC museum with the Ashes urn; Osian's Digvijay Kathiwada

Curators, but not of pitches: Adam Chadwick (left) of the MCC museum with the Ashes urn; Osian's Digvijay Kathiwada © Getty Images/Digvijay Kathiwada

While some objects arrive via more direct routes, such as gifts bequeathed by former players or their families, others are simply found. Mike Brearley's trunk had been left undisturbed in the attic of a stand before it was discovered and displayed in the museum. Brearley, one would argue, is enough of a name - the trunk bears his moniker in white stickers - to warrant an item inclusion without the object actually being a part of a distinct and momentous performance.

The Bodyline series, that fiery and indelible Ashes fought in 1932-33, is an obvious draw. A contest that has become the stuff of legend, so too have its armaments and mementos. From the Bert Oldfield bat, used - or not, considering Harold Larwood fractured his skull - in the third Test at Adelaide, to the handsome silver cigarette box inscribed to skipper Douglas Jardine by the England players.

The Doctor's oldest patient: Henry Allingham, who watched WG Grace play, poses with a bust of Grace at the MCC in 2007

The Doctor's oldest patient: Henry Allingham, who watched WG Grace play, poses with a bust of Grace at the MCC in 2007 © Marylebone Cricket Club

When Chadwick walked me over to a table at the back of the museum, past the display cases and gleaming plaques, and showed me a pair of dainty boots resting next to a blue cloth cap, I could hardly have imagined their owner. But here, in the cracked and whitened leather, with crude iron spikes pushed through the wooden soles, Don Bradman had once stood. And the stiff-peaked cap, the headband marked with sweat perspired after some of the most infamous bowling spells in history, had once shielded dear Harold Larwood from the fierce Australian sun. His name, inked on the lining tag in his own hand, was proof enough that this indeed was the legend's own. Born only a few miles from my father and grandfather, and revered in the pit towns around Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, he was my cricket hero - even though I never saw him play. When I carefully picked up his cap, as if I were lifting a delicate and bejewelled crown, and touched the satin lining and sweat-stained band, I understood something of the dedicated collector. The rich and dedicated collector; those well-heeled fans who can afford to procure their very own piece of cricket history.

Selling priceless cricket memorabilia to the highest bidder is not what motivates the Indian entrepreneur Digvijay Kathiwada, a shareholder and director of Mumbai-based Osian's - The Auction House. I managed to sit down with the energetic Kathiwada at his sprawling pad north of Ahmedabad three days after his wedding, an event in which cricket was considered of such importance that a screen was erected behind one of the wedding ceremonies so that guests - and, of course, the groom - could watch India play Pakistan in the World Cup.

As passionate about cricket as Indian fans are, Kathiwada wonders if they have the global interest to sustain a cricket museum dedicated to the world game

Before I even had the chance to quiz Kathiwada, 30, about his ambitions he told me that there wasn't "a single public cricket museum in the entire country". When I mentioned the Blades of Glory cricket museum in Pune, recently opened by construction-company owner Rohan Pate, Kathiwada's hackles rose. He questioned whether hanging "glorified merchandise on bare walls" qualified it as a museum that truly celebrates cricket heritage.

Kathiwada believes his goal is more noble - to establish, among a cricket-mad populace of 1.3 billion, a shrine that would admit the humble fan. Big dreams, perhaps. But this is a man who had already walked me around a cricket pitch he was constructing in a village in Madhya Pradesh, a square of green shoots sprouting from what seemed a scorched wasteland. This ground was going to happen, Kathiwada confirmed, stroking the emerald turf with his hands. His vibrancy is hard to deny, although he does admit he needs "a sizeable collection" to start such a grand institution.

In 2013, Osian's hosted "India's Glorious Cricketing Heritage" - what Kathiwada believes was the first professional public auction of cricket memorabilia in the country. It included items from Erapalli Prasanna, Ajit Wadekar, GS Ramchand and Anshuman Gaekwad.

Harold's headgear: Larwood's cap displayed at the MCC

Harold's headgear: Larwood's cap displayed at the MCC © Marylebone Cricket Club

Despite these donations, Kathiwada grumbled that Indian players did not share his zest for a lasting cricket heritage.

"I understand players are emotionally attached to their kit, but I want them to understand that their bats and balls and shirts would fetch a higher value now, while they're hot." And if the player isn't motivated by rupees, Kathiwada cites charity fundraising as a motivator for putting their memorabilia on the market. Yuvraj Singh's cancer foundation raised £12,000 ($18,600) by selling the jersey Tendulkar played his last Test match in, and MS Dhoni's World Cup-winning six bat fetched Rs 72 lakh ($112,870) at an event for his wife's charity.

In a sales pitch to Virender Sehwag, Kathiwada tried to convince the great man to part with his two Test triple-century bats, arguing that adding them to a public collection would "preserve their legacy". Although Sehwag listened as Kathiwada intoned, he only pledged to sell his bats if it "felt like the right thing to do". Auctioning now, argued Kathiwada, in a similar strategy to offloading stock at the top of its value, would be the prudent time to sell. "Before another player breaks his records and devalues his memorabilia."

Dravid understands the lasting value of iconic kit. After a visit to the Lord's museum he decided to donate to it the bat he used on his last tour to England

As passionate about cricket as Indian fans are, Kathiwada wonders if they have the global interest to sustain a cricket museum dedicated to the world game. Would an Indian schoolboy journey across a state to see a bat used by Len Hutton? Or a ball bowled by Jim Laker?

If India is filled with more cricket-mad enthusiasts like veteran sports journalist and author Gulu Ezekiel, then both visitor and benefactor to such an attraction would be in bountiful supply.

Like Arlott, Ezekiel began collecting from the age of 12, motivated in part by India's first series wins in England and the West Indies in 1971. From pasting magazine cuttings into scrapbooks, Ezekiel quickly graduated to autographs - Dilip Sardesai in Bombay, 1972 was his first - and his bulging scrapbooks were deemed worthy enough to recently donate to a historian in Kolkata who plans to open a sports museum.

Although various collectors have decried the trend for players simply signing items as "merchandise" rather than "memorabilia", and David Frith, writing in Cricket's Collectors, dramatically describes a "terrifying vision... that one distant day a book that has been signed - no matter how hurriedly - by the likes of Kevin Pietersen will be fought over", I can, as a schoolboy autograph hunter, understand that special moment when a cricketing hero signs in a little book. The ordinary object has become extraordinary because we have invested our emotion in the act. An autograph is evidence of an event, a goosebump moment with an icon, and not simply a name scrawled in Sharpie pen on one of a dozen bottles of sponsor's champagne - which is why Ezekiel's pursuit of Bradman's autograph is such a touching tale.

Mike Brearley's trunk lay in an attic until it was brought to the MCC museum

Mike Brearley's trunk lay in an attic until it was brought to the MCC museum © Marylebone Cricket Club

"Back in 1998 after Sir Don Bradman's 90th birthday," Ezekiel says on email from Delhi, "I collected all the material from the Indian media on this occasion and sent it to the Bradman Museum in Bowral. In exchange I asked if they could request Sir Don to autograph a number of items connected to him in my collection, which they agreed to, even though he'd stopped signing due to poor health. I made a package and sent it to them and months later they all came back signed. Among them was a colour pencil sketch I specially commissioned by an artist friend in Delhi, which Don signed, 'To Gulu with best wishes.'"

Also among Ezekiel's favourites in his collection is a bail from the game in which Anil Kumble took 10 for 74 against Pakistan in Delhi - a memorabilia-creating match: Kathiwada's auction house sold the scorecard confirming Kumble's feat, and the Independent reported how "Kumble's shirt was grabbed and torn by fans clamouring to touch him." Again, Ezekiel has an accompanying story: "That evening Anil came to the NDTV studios - where I was sports editor - and I interviewed him. I asked him if he had anything to spare from the day, even his pair of socks. He thought hard and said he would get back to me and a week later this bail arrived by courier. It's actually bent after he bowled a batsman and the umpire replaced it."

An autograph is evidence of an event, a goosebump moment with an icon, and not simply a name scrawled in Sharpie pen on one of a dozen bottles of sponsor's champagne

The anecdote of the acquisition is part of an object's myth, the narrative that money can't buy. And the power of a personally bestowed memento from a Test star means more than a fistful of dollars.

Writing in the 2015 spring issue of the Nightwatchman, John Crace fondly recalls the remarkable series of events that culminated in Wasim Akram throwing him his sweater shortly after Pakistan won the World Cup final in 1992. Crace, who was then a "wet-behind-the-ears English writer", had wangled his way into the squad to do research for a book on Akram and Waqar Younis. After weeks spent earning the trust of the squad, players relaxed to the point where Crace interviewed a naked Imran Khan in his hotel room (he was having a massage at the time). Shortly after Akram blew away England to finish off the game, and the Pakistan team were dancing around the gleaming trophy, Crace was gifted his "most treasured sporting possession". He had fought his way through the MCG members' area before a steward thwarted his entry to the dressing room. It was Akram who spotted Crace and invited him inside. Akram then tossed him the "floursecent lime-green" sweater as a souvenir, a piece of cricket memorabilia that not only commemorates a famous win but the life and pluck of its fortuitous owner.

A statue of Don Bradman takes pride of place amid a display of his baggy green caps at the MCG's National Sports Museum

A statue of Don Bradman takes pride of place amid a display of his baggy green caps at the MCG's National Sports Museum © AFP

I doubted this particular item would be found in an auction catalogue anytime soon, but thought I would try and tempt Crace into considering its sale. First I had Osian's Kathiwada estimate its value at £1000 ($1553) upwards, before asking Crace whether he might want to cash in on the sweater at some point.

"It has never occurred to me to sell it," Crace begins. "Although one hesitates to say never - kidnap, destitution etc - but I've realised it has no significance for my children and therefore a home must eventually be found for it." Nobly, Crace would ultimately like to see it "donated to a cricket museum, or donated as a prize to raise money for a Pakistan charity". Something I'm sure both Kathiwada and Chadwick of the MCC would love to chat to him about - a star player's memento, with traceable provenance.

But although that acquisition tale is vital to the mythology, what if that story is more fantasy than fact?

At the beginning of this article, I wrote about the sale of a ball that was purportedly dispatched half a dozen times out of the St Helen's ground in Swansea in 1968. Garry Sobers hit the ball six times, and Malcolm Nash, the unfortunate bowler, delivered the same ball six times. After each hit the ball was returned by the crowd to Nash. Except the very last delivery, about which BBC commentator Wilf Wooller memorably cheered: "And my goodness it's gone way down to Swansea."

The final ball of that infamous over, returned two days later by a local schoolboy, was thought to be the same one that sold for £26,400 in 2006. Garry Sobers signed a certificate as assurance of the ball's provenance, and as Christie's would counter when quizzed on its authenticity, his eye was keen enough to launch it over the ropes six times, so surely no one knows it better than him. Well, perhaps the bowler. Nash very simply pointed out that the ball sold, a Duke, was not a make even used by Glamorgan that season.

The labyrinth journey of this "fake" ball moves from St Helen's to Trent Bridge, where it passed between out-going and incoming Notts supporters' club secretaries, before collecting dust in a make-up drawer until the then owner, Josie Miller, gave it to Christie's to raise money for her medical bills, and finally to a buyer in India*. It provided investigative journalist Grahame Lloyd enough material for two books. And a starting point for my questions to Kathiwada on the importance of ascertaining provenance for cricket memorabilia.

"We bought the ball," he answered, shaking his head. "That was Osian's."

Oh dear. The fast-talking businessman with a vision for creating India's first genuine cricket museum was suddenly quiet. I apologised for springing the question; I hadn't meant to embarrass Osian's. Kathiwada shrugged, as if such risk was normal in the antique business, and then mentioned he had spoken to the intrepid Lloyd, and that it was now obvious the ball they had bought was an impostor. "I even met Sobers," he said ruefully. "He told me he was sorry and that he had no idea about the [wrong] ball."

The fiasco of the fake also revealed the difficulties Kathiwada faces in setting up a cricket museum. The Indian import laws had no specific tax classification for sports memorabilia. The default set by the government on imported sport antiques was whopping. To even begin the process of applying for a refund from Christie's, Osian's needed to return the ball, and to set it free from the customs limbo it would have cost them nearly £50,000 ($77,745). When I asked Kathiwada where the ball was now, he had no idea. A few weeks later I got in touch and told him about Lloyd's dogged investigation, revealing the ball had been sprung from red tape by a businessman in Delhi who bought it as part of a job lot, with an antique bat, for less than £1000 in an unclaimed goods auction.

After hearing about Kathiwada's mighty cricket museum dreams, I wanted to finish on a positive note, and asked what special items he had already acquired. "Rahul Dravid's twin-centuries bat," was his immediate reply. "Used against Pakistan at Eden Gardens in 2005." The bat, for which Kathiwada paid Rs 20 lakh ($31,000) at a private auction held by the actor and social activist Rahul Bose, was also the only auction in which one of Tendulkar's bats has been sold, as far as Kathiwada is aware. The blade he scored an unbeaten 163 with against New Zealand in Christchurch in 2009 fetched Rs 42 lakh ($65,800) for Bose's NGO, The Foundation. It raised twice as much money as any other item that went under the hammer that day, including the Dravid bat and the rifle fired by gold medallist Abhinav Bindra at the Beijing Olympics. "Everyone in India," speculates Kathiwada, "would value his [Tendulkar's] kit more than anyone else's on the planet."

Considering Kathiwada's passion and vitality for the game and its historical objects, he might just be the man to convince Tendulkar that giving his bats to a public collection would be the best way to preserve cricket heritage in India and expand its concept to a wider audience. Dravid, it seems, already understands the lasting value of iconic kit. Not only did he auction away his twin-centuries bat to Kathiwada, after a visit to the Lord's museum he decided to donate to it the bat he used on his last, and outstanding, tour to England in 2011.

By displaying the game's past, its present is enlivened. Once through the gates at Lord's, Chadwick writes, one "can sense the history and traditions" and that each artefact in the MCC collection "contributes to this resonance and builds the all-important context". It's no surprise that the BCCI have enlisted the expertise of Chadwick for erecting their own shrine to Indian cricket.

Objects tell stories, and cricket is a game fabled for its tales - public, private, embellished, professional and amateur. For the moment, until my small collection of books, the odd dusty trophy, and my autograph book from the 1980s, is involved in a fierce bidding war, it will remain a private collection. And that ball from a Sri Lankan hillside, the scuff marks and the scratches, the evidence of wickets taken and of a game forever won, will take pride of place.

All dollar values are approximate
*Minor details have been amended in the story of the Sobers ball

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award. @nicholas_hogg