On August 31st, 1968, West Indies cricketer Garfield St Aubrun Sobers became the first player in the, roughly, 200 year history of the sport to hit every ball of an over for six, playing for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan at the St Helens ground in Swansea. To date the feat has only been repeated once in conventional, 3 to 5 day cricket. My e-book on that game is here
Connoisseurs of fine sporting locations place St Helen’s ground in Swansea on any world list of great places to play cricket. Many, you might say most, venues serve their functional purpose in a disconnected urban environment. St Helen’s is different, and I like to think rather special.
It sits under the Uplands, part of the hilly student quarter of the city, sloping gently downwards, where many elegant terraced houses have been converted into flats. All around is history, fine scenery and expressions of this city’s creativity.
St Helens is just 100 yards from the sands of Swansea Bay, the curve of coast which poet Walter Savage Landor declared better than the Gulf of Salerno and Naples “for scenery and climate”. At low tide the sea retreats more than a quarter of a mile down the wide sandy beach. Although it is very hard to say why, cricketers who play there believe the retreating and advancing tide has a big influence on what happens on the cricket pitch.
Heading east along the waterfront from St Helens, it’s a short walk to the docks where the remarkble dog Jack, a black retriever, earned his fame in the 1930s by diving into the docks and saving people. Today there is a memorial to Swansea Jack on the waterfront. In 1936, he was named “Bravest Dog of the Year”.
Across the road from the ground is the Patti Pavilion, built in honour of the great American-Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, probably the most famous opera singer in the world in the late C19th, who lived near Brecon. Adelina built the original pavilion as a place to entertain guests. In 1917 she donated the pavilion to the people of Swansea.
A little further on is the Guildhall complex, with its imposing clock tower. The adjoining Brangwyn Hall is a performance centre for concerts and cultural functions. The Brangwyn Tapestries, created by the artist Frank Brangwyn hang here. The British Empire Panels were commissioned in 1924, as a “decorative painting representing various Dominions and parts of the British Empire”. The House of Lords rejected it as too colourful and spirited. Swansea snapped the tapestries up for its new hall.
I mention these places to underline how interlaced with culture and history this locality was, and still is. What happened on August 31, 1968, was only one more piece of history to set alongside so many.
One man who knew the ground and its surroundings well was the poet Dylan Thomas, who was born less than a mile from the ground in October 1914. This passionate cricket follower often watched matches here. (He set several of his short stories in the vicinity.) It was this very beach where Dylan Thomas imagined two “hale young men” walking into the waves, still puffing on their pipes in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”.
There is another, if somewhat tenuous, link to the August 31st match. John Arlott, who wrote so fulsomely about Sobers, was a good friends of Thomas. Both were consummate broadcasters. Arlott, too, was a poet, modestly in print, and considerably in his commentaries.
In a letter to Arlott, Thomas wrote: “You’re not only the best cricket commentator – far and away that; but the best sports commentator I’ve heard, ever; exact, enthusiastic, prejudiced, amazingly visual, authoritative, and friendly.”
To complete the literary connection, Sir Kingsley Amis, novelist, poet and critic, was a lecturer at nearby Swansea University from 1948-1961. Although his Lucky Jim is supposed to be based on a Midlands university, it is clear he drew inspiration from his time in Swansea.
I’m back on the terraces, looking over to the narrow gap between the ground and Swansea Bay. Side by side here ran the former London Midland Railway from Swansea’s Victoria Station to Shrewsbury and the north, and the long lamented Mumbles Railway. “The Mumbles Train” is said to have been the world’s oldest. It had been a familiar, trundling, clanking presence as long as cricket was played at the ground.
From the east terrace I used to watch the evening train from Manchester pulling in at the station just outside the ground. But the tall red Mumbles Railway tramcars – the double-deck cars were the largest built for use in Britain, with room for 106 passengers – which ran the six mile length of the Bay, were gone by then.
At the time of the Great War the beach was a huge draw to the working classes of Swansea. On a fine August Bank Holiday in 1913, 48,000 people arrived by train. The Mumbles Railway closed with a whimper in 1960, and the tracks were ripped up.
YouTube has a heart-warming film of the Mumbles Railway, made for the BBC and narrated by the engaging and erudite Wynford Vaughan Thomas. He recalls riding the trams on the “uncomfortable but altogether human railway” with his friend Dylan Thomas. “If we were very lucky we could see for nothing from the top of the tram as Glamorgan played.” The two Thomases would recite a poem by Dylan as the tram trundled around the bay (4 mins 10 secs).
It’s a charming piece of time travel into old Swansea, that film. We’re back in the 1950s, sitting in the driver’s cab as the train rocks and rolls under the massive footbridge over the Oystermouth Road and the two railways. The Slip Bridge was just beyond even a Sobers six hit from the cricket ground. While working as a draughtsman on its construction, my grandfather lost a leg in an accident. They kept him on, but in a minor role.
The Slip Bridge continued to make its muscular leap over the now busy dual carriageway until 2004. It was removed, supposedly over health and safety concerns, and now stands, sad and bereft of its supporting piers, further along the Promenade. Some people are calling for the bridge to be returned to its original site, or at least replaced with a replica.
I doubt if that will happen. Today only the Guildhall and Brangwyn Hall stand much as they were, components of the old Swansea, which was diminishing even in 1968.
St Helens was, and is, an illustrious place. Cricket and rugby has co-existed here for 125 years. The western half of the cricket square doubles as the in-goal of the rugby pitch during the winter. That’s a rare alliance of sports. The first Welsh rugby home international was played here.
Swansea staged its last international in 1954. St. Helen’s was abandoned as an international venue, because it was hard for people in East Wales to get there on congested local rural roads. Swansea’s keen rival Cardiff could take bigger crowds and make more money.
Club rugby continued. Swansea RFC had become the first club side to beat New Zealand, winning 11-3 there in 1935. Swansea also defeated Australia 21-6 in 1992.
There were famous victories at Swansea for Glamorgan too. The county side defeated the South Africans in 1951 after the tourists suffered a dramatic collapse after tea. Glamorgan beat the Australian tourists on consecutive tours in 1964 – by now I had graduated to the pavilion enclosure, where I used to sit importantly as a schoolboy member taking in splendid views across Swansea Bay and the Severn Estuary to Somerset – and 1968 (I was back on the East Terrace, where I witnessed the Sobers feat, by then).
In 1964 Glamorgan defeated the Australians by 36 runs, thanks to magnificent spin bowling from Don Shepherd and Jim Pressdee. Glamorgan repeated the feat in 1968, three weeks before Sobers’s innings, with Don Shepherd leading the side.
The incoming tide was said to favour the bowlers. Glamorgan captains of the past such as Wilf Wooller and Maurice Turnbull would consult the tide tables for Swansea Bay before going out to toss.
But on that one day in August 1968, a batsman was never more in control