David Owen ©ITG

This should have been written 20 years ago: let's call it my better-late-than-never tribute to the man who created the perfect cricket ground.

Captain Richard Henry "Dick" Hawkins was one of those upper-class Englishmen for whom verbs were largely optional.

"Elephant dung," he replied, when asked the secret of producing such a first-rate cricket square in the rolling South Northamptonshire countryside about 100 kilometres north-west of London.

"Rhinoceros too dry. Cowpats too wet. Elephant just right."

Having recently moved to the area, my wife and I had stumbled on Dick's Everdon Hall ground during a New Year's Day walk along the Nene way. 

The sightscreens and the thatched pavilion, surmounted by a weather-vane featuring a fox pursued by a portly scarlet-jacketed huntsman on a white steed, betrayed the purpose of the field. The resting square felt reassuringly firm even in the January mizzle.

Given the key ingredient, the presence of Whipsnade Zoo 40 miles away down the A5 was a stroke of luck. The ministrations of Jim Fairbrother, the groundsman at Lord's, the famous old Test match arena in London, must have been a big help too.

"Dick used to pay for Jim to come on the train," recalls Dennis Cadd, who took over as captain of the R.H.Hawkins XI for the last few years of its existence, after Dick had hung up his boots. "Dick said Jim used to come and 'put the wicket to sleep'."

Captain Dick Hawkins at Everdon Hall cricket ground in the mid 1990s ©ITG
Captain Dick Hawkins at Everdon Hall cricket ground in the mid 1990s ©ITG

Dick was well plugged-in at the place often referred to by cricketers simply as "HQ". Every November, he took a party of players there for the Cross Arrows dinner.

I have an indistinct recollection of former England football star turned TV presenter Gary Lineker giving the after-dinner speech (most entertainingly). 

For occasions like this, Dick provided us with not one, but two club ties, the first in red and sky blue stripes, the second mainly claret with a sky blue crest. This incorporated cross bats, a bearded male figure (Epicurus?) and the motto Nil Aequo Plus. These were ordered from Dege, the Savile Row tailor. Dick did not believe in doing things by halves.

Matches at Everdon Hall, which took place on Sundays and occasionally in midweek, were all-day affairs with lunch and tea taken at long tables in the white-walled pavilion adorned with old photographs, crests and cartoons in the usual manner.

Inside the door in pride of place was a small cartoon of a vanquished but imperturbable Dick at the crease with stumps spreadeagled. "But," read the caption, "it's my ground".

A short history of the club printed in each year's fixture-card was typically laconic. After foundation in 1901, readers were informed that "the Cricket Ground at Everdon Hall was returned to farming in 1914". It went on: "Owing to the death of Major H.Hawkins in 1930, the ground was not reinstated as a cricket ground until 1950." That was it.

Henry Hawkins, Dick's father, played 26 games for Northamptonshire in the Edwardian era (1902-1909). A succinct obituary in Wisden, the cricketer's indispensable reference tome, describes him as a "spirited batsman and fast bowler". His figures are modest: 350 runs with a top score of 33; 24 wickets with a best of two for 12. Like Dick subsequently, he was a Master of the Grafton Hunt.

Dick would only have been seven or eight when Henry died. In late July 1940, he took five wickets in a losing cause against Tonbridge in Stowe school's first match at Lord's.

The flavour of the times is captured in a summary of how another public school, Clifton College, fared the same year. "The XI," it is noted, "had a successful season which was unfortunately cut short early in July…when the school broke up through enemy action."

Dick's overall return for Stowe that year, as the Second World War took its course, was 19 wickets at a shade under 22.

An article by Peter Hayter, published in The Field in 1991, notes that Dick left the Guards in 1948, which explains the timing of the cricket ground's reinstatement.

David Owen, centre, and Dennis Cadd, front row hands on knees, in a team photo ©ITG
David Owen, centre, and Dennis Cadd, front row hands on knees, in a team photo ©ITG

It was not until nearly half a century later that I introduced myself to the tall, ruddy-complexioned figure, already into his seventies, standing a touch knock-kneed, but with an air of unimpeachable authority, at boundary's edge.

He had stopped playing by then, having monopolised the Number Eleven berth in his team for years, if not decades. But the twinkle in his eye never left him, and if you scored runs or took wickets for his team, while playing the right way, nothing was too much trouble.

The charm of the place lay in its timelessness, its tranquillity and its beauty.

To the east, a magnificent copper beech guarded a stand of fir trees over which the sun would rise on Dick's verdant arena. To the north, behind the pavilion, the rose of the shires undulated gently towards the horizon. 

To the west, through a garden gate, lay Everdon Hall itself where, if you strolled past flower-beds and an ancient mulberry tree, Dick and his wife Anne would often entertain, doling out gin-and-tonics generous enough to have a material impact on some results.

Anne, a great character in her own right, was the life and soul of the Everdon Horse Trials. On match-days, conscious that hard leather cricket-balls had been known to clear the hedge, she would garden in a hard hat.

On one famous occasion in 1978, movie star Carrie Fisher had pitched up at Everdon for something rejoicing in the name of the Star Wars Cross Country Team Event. "Come to outer space at Everdon," said an ad in the local paper. "May the Force be with you." 

There were free-range hens, usually appearing from the south at morning and evening. There were ornamental maples. There were Mick and Paula, Dick’s faithful lurchers, who, at full tilt, would streak across the ground in a dozen strides. 

And since the venue, tucked away down potholed lanes, was a considerable distance from the nearest main road, there was perfect peace. Even while playing, you could feel your batteries recharging.

The players, recruited by Cadd and others, were mainly local men, talent-spotted in the county leagues. Rob Williams, a technically proficient but ferociously destructive batsman who went on to captain Oxfordshire, was probably the pick of the regulars in those last few seasons.

The scorecard from Old England v Old Australia ©ITG
The scorecard from Old England v Old Australia ©ITG

Added to these were characters such as David Money, a septuagenarian wicketkeeper said to have played in more than 20 countries and to have once arrested Gandhi.

This was country house cricket at its best. The fixture list could have been preserved in aspic, with the likes of Free Foresters, the Stoics, the Forty Club and the Gloucestershire Gypsies all regular visitors.

Two or three foreign, usually Australian, touring parties would pass through each year. The Hawkins XI would embark on winter tours too.

My only experience of this was a trip to Cape Town, but the Australian tours were legendary. The 1989 edition lasted almost a month and included a game in Thailand against the Royal Bangkok Cricket Club on the way home.

Before that, on the last day of August 1980, a "1950s Reunion Test Match" had brought former England fast bowlers Frank Tyson and "fiery" Fred Trueman, Australia's Doug Walters and Neil Harvey, and the one-and-only Denis Compton to Everdon for a game won by Old Australia by a comfortable six wickets.

The greatest plaudit in a way for Dick's creation came right at the end. Everdon was used by the BBC to film a short introductory sequence to preface its cricket programming, including an Ashes Series against the old adversaries Australia. Some British readers might just remember the evocative squeak of the unoiled Everdon roller.

During that last summer, 1997, the ailing Dick was confined largely to a makeshift bedroom set up for him on the ground floor of the great house. 

His funeral on August 22 saw four sturdy black horses draw the hearse the mile or so to the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. The Grafton Pony Club formed a mounted guard of honour. After a stirring service – 'I Vow To Thee, My Country', 'He Who Would Valiant Be' and so on – Dick was laid to rest in the churchyard with his cricket bag alongside him.

We played on stubbornly until the end of that season a month later. As the boundary rope was hauled in after the final fixture, normally unsentimental local men had tears in their eyes.

Dick’s cricket-ground was as perfect in its way, and as much of a credit to its creator, as a Shakespeare sonnet or a Lennon and McCartney pop song.

I hope he realised how much human contentment he was responsible for.