The trusty time machine has taken Third Man back to 1782. It is late May and he is sitting at a table in the George at Hambledon, now kept by the redoubtable Richard Nyren, the best captain of the best cricket team in the world. Or, as his son would later describe him, Hambledon’s ‘head and right arm’.
Nyren is a cricketing entrepreneur. He is somewhere between a Michael Eves and a Richard Branson. If we are to imagine a fixture played at Broadhalfpenny Down at around this time, there is no better place for the imagination to start than with an image of a Glastonbury Festival; a temporary and tented city built for the enjoyment and entertainment of people from far and wide with all the impermanent infrastructure that is needed to feed and drink and relieve that huge transient community.
For a typical match 20,000 people descended on little Hambledon and camped on Broadhalfpenny Down, two miles outside the village. They and their horses arrived hungry and thirsty from as far away as Reading, TonbridgeWells and, of course, London Town. Such numbers needed the services of a city. Tents and pennants and banners advertised food and drink. The Hutt (later renamed by the entrepreneur The Bat and Ball) was the centre of the hive of activity with fresh made bread and every type of provender. Bookmakers and bat makers, punch sellers and pie makers set up their stalls. Smiths and cartwrights set up temporary forges. Dukes and Earls and Baronets with their VIP ‘all areas’ passes enjoyed exclusive access to the members’ Lodge with its covered seating and expensively covered chairs.
Nyren’s backers have made millions from their wagers won on the backs of the successful teams Nyren has formed and led for a quarter of a century while he himself has prospered from the faire he provides from The Bat and Ball, the commissions he skims from the stall holders and bookmakers, the share of the prize money and the wagers he has won, always backing Hambledon, no matter how dire the situation.
“Never bet against men such as these,” he once told two members of the Quality with a fearlessness of rank and authority which were at the root of his success.
Nyren is in the process of creating a new venue, close and more convenient to the village, at Windmill Down, and although the wicket will take time to bed in he is already beginning to think highly of it.
Richard is there in person in the George this evening. He is not serving, but is sitting with some ‘Quality’. One is obviously a parson. The others simply exude wealth, position and privilege. Their talk is loud and indiscrete.
Third Man can make out that they have been playing in or watching a match at Odiham and are taking their ease after a three hour journey home. The wine and punch is flowing. Elsewhere the rest of the team are singing.
But Third Man can see from the intensity of Nyren’s expression that he is in serious discussion. That day he thinks he has has witnessed something special, a new but as yet undeveloped talent, a bowler who with Nyren’s coaching in the new style of bowling could he believes achieve a steepness of bounce, an intimidation and an accuracy that no one in cricket will ever have encountered before. To Nyren his potential is obvious.
“We must have ‘im for ‘Ambledon, for ‘Ampshire”
The pioneering stalwarts, his great team, are beginning to lose their edge. If the success of the team and its ability to win big money is to continue, fresh blood must be brought in. Like a Fergusson operating in the transfer market of today, Nyren and his backers are ruthless in the changes they must make.
They are in the process of putting together their second great team. The cream of cricket from Sevenoaks to Dartford awaits the invitation from Nyren. But there that evening the big decision is made. They are agreed. This new team will be built around an unknown and a raw and as yet undeveloped talent with the potential pace and bounce to be the scourge of batsman for twenty years. This new team will be built around David Harris and his extraordinary action.