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Sticky Westminster wicket: A century of cricket players in Parliament

Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge, ennobled as a reward for old memories by Sir John Major, spoke three times.

3 min read

In February 1916, two weeks after Britain had introduced conscription and a week before the start of the slaughter at Verdun, the government sent in a raw recruit to open the batting in the debate on the King’s Speech.

Though this was the MP for Howdenshire’s maiden speech, he had experience of combatting nerves. Lt Col the Hon FS Jackson was wearing his military uniform but it could have been white flannels. He had fought in the Boer War in 1900 between making 91 on his cricketing debut for England and returning to captain his country to victory in the 1905 Ashes. He called for unity in the war effort, the practice of common economy and a desire not to play dirty like the Germans.

Stanley Jackson, who succeeded his father-in-law in the Yorkshire seat, had gone to Harrow where his fag was WS Churchill, earning a gleeful greeting from David Lloyd George. “I’ve been looking all my life for the man who gave Churchill a hiding,” the prime minister said. His love of cricket was noted. In one debate, he got a missive from the Speaker that read: “I have dropped you in the batting order; it’s a sticky wicket.” Then one that said: “Get your pads on, you’re in next.”

Jackson, who made five centuries in 20 Tests, is the most accomplished cricketer to sit in the Commons, though CB Fry tried three times to win a seat for the Liberals, while Ted Dexter stood as a Tory in 1964 against James Callaghan. Alfred Lyttelton, who played four Tests in the 1880s, became colonies secretary; Henry Cecil Lowther, an MP for 55 years, had played for Hampshire and Surrey; Peter Eckersley became MP for Manchester Exchange after captaining Lancashire in the 1930s; and Hubert Ashton, MP for Chelmsford from 1950 to 1964, had made a century against the 1921 touring Australians.

Nine peers have played Test cricket, but few much troubled the Hansard scorers. Lord Botham spoke twice in 2020 and not since; Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge, ennobled as a reward for old memories by Sir John Major, spoke three times; Lord Constantine, the West Indies cricketer and civil rights campaigner, just once. The Victorian and Edwardian cricketing Lords Hawke, Harris, Darnley and Tennyson seemingly played no strokes in Parliament. Only Baroness Heyhoe Flint, who lifted the women’s World Cup in 1973, and David Sheppard, first as Bishop of Liverpool, then as a life peer, performed much of a role.

Yet cricket has often been brought up in Parliament by others, from its mention in a debate on observance of the Sabbath in 1834 to Geoffrey Howe suggesting in 1990 that Captain Thatcher had sent her batsmen out with broken bats. It is even claimed that most select committees today have 11 members because Benjamin Disraeli said in 1857 that the number worked so well in cricket.

Prime ministers, in particular, have loved the sport, though only Alec Douglas-Home, briefly of Oxford and Middlesex, played it to first-class standard. Major and Ken Clarke passed notes of the latest Test score in cabinet. Clement Attlee was convinced of the merit of installing a news ticker in Downing Street when told it would allow him to receive reports of county matches. And Theresa May shares with Jacob Rees-Mogg a childhood love of Geoffrey Boycott. 

Today the sport still unites rivals via the Lords and Commons team. I once remarked to Labour’s Ed Balls how heartening it had been to see him keeping wicket to the Lib Dem Danny Alexander with the Tory Matt Hancock at slip when the three all held or shadowed the Treasury brief at the time. He replied that they found common cause in “sledging” their teammate, John Redwood.

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