Historic county captain whose identity with Trent Bridge spanned eight decades writes Peter Wynne-Thomas
BIKES and buggies. But for them I would be in a better position to describe cricket in the 20 years after the Second World War and John Clay’s part in it.
Each day since 1986 I have walked from home to Trent Bridge. Once or twice a week my walk has been delightfully interrupted by John Clay, walking from his home to the centre of Bridgford. A cricketing yarn filled 10 minutes before we went our respective ways. Well, it would have done if those twin banes of a pedestrian – bell-less bicycles and childless buggies driven by mobile-phoning mothers – had not constantly disturbed the flow of conversation.
The story that gradually emerged from the bruised shins and near-death encounters with budding Olympic cyclists was of a quiet man devoted to all that is great about county cricket.
Born in West Bridgford, died in West Bridgford, always within walking distance of Trent Bridge, Clay represented Notts Public Schools on the famous Test ground before the Second World War. He was a reliable orthodox opening bat and a brilliant slip field.
War came and he served in the RAF. In 1946 he scored mightily in club cricket and the following year he joined the Nottinghamshire playing staff. But the old pros had been denied six years and, determined to make up for some of that loss, they were not going to retire early. Any aspiring youngster on the staff was looked upon with suspicion – in those days the junior players were not even allowed in the senior dressing room.
Clay flourished with the seconds but his reward was only an occasional first-team match and it was not until 1951, with Reg Simpson a Test regular, that a real opportunity came. By then another generation of young hopefuls was snapping at his heels. Clay held his place in the side, scored his 1,000 runs a season (on six occasions in all) and took his slip catches.
Traditions at Trent Bridge die slowly. Simpson retired as captain in 1961. The committee had to find an amateur to replace him. They found Andy Corran but he was still at Oxford. For the only time in the 20th century before Gentlemen became players a professional was chosen to lead the side. Yes, the man was John Clay. He scored another 1,000 runs, then quietly moved over for Corran in 1962, becoming captain and mentor of the 2nds. This was an ideal role for an ideal cricketer who always saw the best in his fellow players. In all the years of gossip with him I do not remember a malicious comment.
When his legs decided that 2nd XI cricket was too much for them he was appointed as coach and led the colts. Later he went to work for Boots, then in retirement came to watch county matches at Trent Bridge, just as he had done as a schoolboy. Despite the bikes and buggies, I shall miss our chats.
John Desmond Clay was born on October 15, 1924 and died on February 11, 2011, aged 86.
Peter Wynne-Thomas is a cricket author and historian, and archivist and librarian of Nottinghamshire CCC