Men of the cloth and sporting excellence are not an everyday combination. Names that come to mind include Bishop David Sheppard, the England Test cricketer, Very Rev. Leonard Small Moderator of the General Assembly, an amateur Scotland goalkeeper and of course Eric Liddell.
Another worthy of inclusion in such a list would be the Rev. Jim Aitchison, an outstanding Scottish cricketer widely considered to be one of our greatest ever batsmen.
As what would have been his 100th birthday occurs today, it is fitting to look back on highlights of the career of the only Scot to have scored centuries against two major Test playing nations while representing his country. The first was against South Africa in 1947 and the second against Australia in 1956, the latter yielding a remarkable post script years later as we shall see. The legendary John Kerr of Greenock is the only other to have cored a century for Scotland against either country, in his case against Australia in 1921.
In all, Aitchison racked up seven centuries for Scotland in 69 appearances which places him fourth equal in the all-time list, an impressive statistic given his career was interrupted by war and the subsequent increase in number of international fixtures. The last of those centuries came against Ireland in 1959 in Dublin when, aided by a partnership with then Ayr Academy schoolboy Mike Denness, he went on to score 190 not out, the highest ever innings by a Scot till 1991 and currently second on the all-time list.
Within a year of his international debut, Aitchison completed the first leg of his celebrated double when against the Springboks at the Whitehaugh Oval in Paisley, in front of a crowd of 10,000, he reached 106 not out, a major contributor to Scotland’s innings of 177. In one report an unnamed correspondent described Aitchison”as playing the bowling with the utmost confidence and brilliantly throughout,” adding: “ in my opinion his innings was one of the finest I have seen played by a Scot.” Aitchison recorded years later in notes, “100 against tourists, the first and only against South Africa – history!”
Fast forward nine years to Hamilton Crescent, Glasgow, and Scotland are facing the mighty Aussies with iconic players such as Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Richie Benaud, Neil Harvey and others in a David v Goliath type contest. It was the first live television coverage of a Scottish match with cameras positioned on a nearby church tower. In miserable conditions, Aitchison stood at 40 overnight before adding a further 60 in 55 minutes the next day to complete a stunning century. It was generously acclaimed afterwards by the opposition, with Benaud and Miller stating it was the best innings of the whole tour which included five Tests and 26 other games in England.
For his part, Aitchison in notes made years later recalled how Lindwall was the fastest and most beautiful to watch and Miller the most dangerous to life and limb. His aim was to reach 50 and then “hit out”. He was at “91 in no time as Miller came on to prevent a Scot getting a coveted 100 but he gave me two chances for 4’s and a 1 and the century was up. Lindwall yorked me and that was that.”
The fascinating sequel came 33 years later as an envelope postmarked ‘Australia’ and addressed to Rev. J. Aitchison c/o Scottish Cricket dropped through the latter’s letterbox. In it was a handwritten letter dated 1st February 1989 from Keith Miller in New South Wales, completely ‘out of the blue’, congratulating his erstwhile opponent for that outstanding century.
Miller wrote that he had been “daydreaming about… some outstanding innings in my cricket lifetime… and high up on the list …was the century you made against us in 1956 at Glasgow… I recall so vividly the 100 you thumped against Ray Lindwall and the rest of us…I’ve seen hundreds of fine innings but sir, yours that day rates most highly…people tend to forget some of the game’s sparkling gems…I repeat, that century was a truly great one.”
To receive that accolade from one of cricket’s all-time greats, thought by many to be Australia’s best ever all-rounder, was extremely touching and despite his innate modesty doubtless delighted Aitchison. Making it extra special and unexpected was that Miller and he were virtual polar opposites in terms of character, the former with a reputation as a brash, outspoken and occasionally ill-disciplined bon viveur. He served with distinction as a wartime pilot and when asked while a guest on the Parkinson Show if he felt pressure playing cricket, famously replied :“Pressure is when you have a Messerschmitt up you’re a**e, not playing cricket.”
Aitchison began playing the game in his home town, Kilmarnoc,k and by 17 was in his local club’s 1st XI. Had war not intervened, he would undoubtedly have won his first cap before 1946. Between then and 1963, when he won his last cap against Ireland, he played club cricket for Kilmarnock, Carlton and the Grange, scoring 56 centuries and a barrowload of runs. Representing Scotland, he faced many top teams apart from South Africa and Australia, including New Zealand, India, Pakistan, the MCC and various English county sides. It was reckoned he was good enough to have played county level cricket in England, but cricket was always secondary to his vocation as a minister, a welcome relaxation from professional responsibilities.
In terms of his notes, he was grateful to the sport for letting him ‘rub shoulders with some of the greats, for moving among the kings and princes of the game and worshipping in the shrines and famous grounds and pavilions.’ Other ‘greats’ whom he encountered included Bradman whom he admired particularly, Len Hutton, Freddie Trueman and South African spin bowler Athole Rowan. But what he derived most from the game was the chance to meet people, to talk with them and learn from them.
He was very attached to his roots in the game in Kilmarnock, and had lifelong appreciation for the start it gave him. While international cricket for him was fascinating, he recorded that “my greatest privilege was not playing among the great but among the unknown men of my boyhood, youth and manhood in Kilmarnock. Bob Ritchie means more to me than Donald Bradman, George Hill more than Neil Harvey and Hugh Fulton than Athole Rowan. They showed me deep love for the game. I reserve my crown not for the great but for the ordinary players who give their one talent with loyalty and zeal.”
He believed in the spirit of sportsmanship and how it was a barometer to the well-being of cricket, latterly criticising the tendency for players to rush to congratulate each other for minor feats on the field. Although always fuelled by a strong will to win, he maintained perspective, mindful it was merely a game.
He saw no clash between his sporting pursuit and his ministerial function, drawing parallels between the need for moral values to be at the core of both. Highly regarded professionally, having served in parishes in Renton, at St Stephens in Comely Bank ,Edinburgh and Broomhill, Glasgow, one colleague spoke for many when saying ‘he was everything a minister should be’.
That, one suspects, would have meant more to him than the well merited lavish praise for his cricket.
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