English cricketing eccentrics, No. 1 – Bryan ‘Bomber’ Wells

This is the first instalment in what will hopefully become a reasonably regular feature on some of the more interesting characters from the history of the English game. We decided not to start with one of the glaringly obvious English eccentrics (W.G. Grace and Jack Russell will both follow in due course) but rather to have a look at someone you’ve probably never heard of. He never played a Test and his overall career figures were little more than decent. What he did do was play cricket for fun (arguably too much fun a lot of the time) and it is for that reason that he’s remembered by us. Here follows the tale of Bryan ‘Bomber’ Wells.

A typical Bomber delivery, complete with run-up.

It should be said at the outset that it’s pretty difficult to know how much and how many of the anecdotes about Bomber Wells are actually true. With such larger-than-life characters such stories inevitably become apocryphal (no doubt exacerbated by the character themselves) and tales are fused together. Nevertheless, Stephen Chalke, who wrote Wells’ memoirs, has stated that ‘there was always an essential truth in his stories’. In any case, as the saying goes, why let the truth get in the way of a good story? We can’t hope to cover all of the wonderful anecdotes Wells generated, but we’ll give it a go.

Wells played for Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire in a fifteen year career starting in 1950. We may as well start with his debut, in which he took 6-47. Never a man for strenuous exercise, Bomber told his new teammates after this haul that he could see he was ‘going to have to do a lot of bowling’ before adding, “I shall have to cut my run down”. And cut his run down he did. It was never more than three steps, usually two steps but sometimes even one step or none at all (“I liked to take the batsman by surprise” he would say). However many steps it was, such a short run-up hardly seems an oddity for a man who once took a catch on the boundary one-handed while balancing a cup of tea in the other. History doesn’t relate whether he then nonchalantly took a sip of tea, but we’d like to think he did.

Perhaps the lack of run-up was for energy conservation purposes, or else owing to the sizeable lunches he usually had (an already fair-sized girth only expanded further after dispensing with Gloucestershire’s ‘little salads… [with] one slice of meat so thin you could see through it’ for the heftier meals at Nottinghamshire in 1960), but it may also have had something to do with fooling or confusing the batsman. John Edrich, who had a ritual of looking up and down several times before the bowler bowled, was allegedly bamboozled by Well’s (missing) run-up, as Wells merely stood there and said “Are you ready, our John?” preventing Edrich from being able to fit in his pre-delivery routine.

More than once, Wells got batsmen out when they weren’t looking. The most famous, and most apocryphal, of these instances was before Bomber made his debut for Gloucestershire. Playing for the Nondescripts against Witney, he bowled out a batsman named Len Hemming, who was then reprieved for not being ready. Wells promptly bowled him again next ball and Hemming was heard to say as he stumped off, “If you think I’m staying here for him to get his bloody hat-trick, you’ve got another think coming.”

Nor was this the only instance of Wells’ cheeky antics when the batsman wasn’t ready. Against Essex, one of the batsman kept stepping away from the crease when he was about to bowl. Wells, taking matters into his own hands, ran all the way round the square ‘behind the keeper, back to mid off’ before shouting “Are you ready yet?” and promptly bowling him first ball. Somehow, the more we read about the man, the less surprising tales like this seem.

The short run-up did have other benefits, not least getting through overs quickly. He coached his spin partner at his Nottinghamshire club side to bowl off a similarly brief run-up and between them they could get through the 40-over innings in barely more than an hour. However, the piece-de-resistance of his bowling shenanigans occurred in a match at Worcester. By arrangement with the batsman, Roly Jenkins, he managed to bowl an over while the cathedral clock struck twelve, approximately 34 seconds, which still remains the fastest over bowled in first class cricket. After this incident (and this is probably where two half-true stories melded into one), Wells had this exchange with his captain, Sir Derrick Bailey:

Sir Derrick: “What do you think you’re doing?”

Bomber: “Not a lot.”

“You’re making this game look stupid.”

“I’m not. That’s what I normally do.”

“I want you to go back ten yards. Come in from further back.”

Bomber did as he was told. However, instead of running in the several yards to the crease, he stood still, bowled the ball (from nearly 30 yards away) and proceeded to land it perfectly on a length. The man at short leg apparently fell about laughing and Wells was promptly dropped for two matches for insubordination.

Bowling was by all accounts his only cricketing strength. We’ve already alluded to his standard of fielding and his batting can only be described as agricultural. His running between the wickets, however, was another source of amusement, not least because of his rotund frame, which made running singles rather more of an effort than for most others. Run outs were a frequent occurrence with Bomber at the wicket and occasionally, too, they were accompanied by witty dialogue. On one occasion in a club game the batsman hit the ball for a straightforward single to midwicket. Wells didn’t move and upon his partner reaching the same end as him, he merely said in his thick Gloucestershire accent, “Oi’m not running for that – ee dun you in the floight”.

The most two notorious run-out incidents involving Harris came when batting with Sam Cook. In one case, as was usual, Wells’ partner was left floundering in mid-pitch. “Can’t you say anything?” Cook cried. Back came the reply, “Goodbye”. In another, similar, exchange, Cook cried out “For God’s sake, call!”, to which Bomber exclaimed “Heads!” *

His final action as a first class cricketer in 1965 was to decline a game upon being told his career tally was one short of 1000 wickets, the reasoning being ‘plenty of people have got 1000 wickets, I bet no one’s got 999’. As it turned out, he only had 998, but the sentiment remained the same. He thrice took 100 in a season and finished with a very creditable average of 24.26 in 302 matches.

The stories may have their variations; some may even not even be true, but even without them you get the sense of an eccentric cricketer who played the game for the sheer enjoyment of it. No doubt Bomber Wells was three-parts bonkers (in a good way) but cricket’s history is embellished by such players. Michael Parkinson once said of him that there was ‘a summer’s day in his face and laughter in his soul’, which, in our view, is the way we should all play the game.

*We had originally assumed that these were two variations of the same story, the true version of which had been lost in the retelling. However, we are are indebted to Mark, who got in touch to inform us that, in fact, both incidents happened. He told us: ‘Both of the run out stories with Sam Cook are true. Bomber was a friend of mine and I know that the two incidents occurred. The inconsistencies in the stories did not come from Bomber, but from those who retold them, he was always remarkably consistent in his telling of the tales.’ We had originally written “Perhaps both [versions] are true. We’ll never know.” Thanks to Mark, we do. [testmatchspecialist, 24th February 2013]

Bibliography

The Telegraph – obituary – 10th July 2008

The Guardian – obituary – 25th July 2008

Steven Lynch – Gone in 34 seconds – Cricinfo – 3rd Feburary 2009

The Cricketerobituary – 2nd September 2008

Cricinfo – obituary – June 20th 2008

Stephen Chalke – Tribute to Bomber Wells – June 2008

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2 Comments

  1. Mark

     /  January 15, 2013

    Both of the run out stories with Sam Cook are true. Bomber was a friend of mine and I know that the two incidents occurred. The inconsistencies in the stories did not come from Bomber, but from those who retold them, he was always remarkably consistent in his telling of the tales.

    Reply
    • Thank you for the clarification, Mark – I shall amend the post when I have a moment. Bomber was such an enjoyable character to research and write about. However, I can only imagine this pales in comparison to actually having known him personally.

      Reply

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