It was good to hear that Somerset have recruited an exciting young wicket-keeper in Ryan Davies. Throughout their 125-year history in the County Championship, Somerset have had an eye for a fine wicket-keeper. Back in the early days of their Championship history, they had a surfeit to call on, reminiscent of recent years, when Craig Kieswetter and Jos Buttler were both playing for the county. In the 1890s they had three names in the frame. Leslie Gay kept wicket for England and won an international cap at football, too. Rev Archie Wickham, regarded as one the great eccentrics of the cricketing world, often disconcerted batsman by proclaiming Latin and Greek verse as the bowlers ran up to the wicket. Some said he, too, should have been awarded an England cap. They said the same about Arthur Newton, as well. Newton and Wickham were both still playing for the county into their fifties. By the time they packed up their pads, another great keeper had been and gone.
Henry Martyn was a cricketer who exuded charisma. Here was a man credited with being the prototype for the wicket-keeper batsman. A man who could walk into most county sides on the basis of either skill. A great entertainer, who was irrepressibly optimistic as he stood behind the stumps and undertook the role with a great sense of theatre. A man, too, who emptied the bars whenever he came out to bat, believing that bowlers were there to be punished and shown no respect. He was described at the time as ‘the most brilliant keeper in England’ but it was Somerset and England’s misfortune that Henry Martyn, although he hailed from a distinguished Devonian family, had to work for a living. He was never one of those rich amateurs whose lives were one of unrestrained hedonism.
Born in Devon in 1877, he was the seventh child of the rector of Lifton. At Exeter Grammar School he showed his early promise, playing for the school team for three years and captaining the side for one. Already strikingly tall at ‘well over six feet’, he gained a fearsome reputation as a competitor, insisting that the first team should meet for fielding practice each day. A former teammate recounted that many team members would be in a state of some terror as their tall, charismatic captain proceeded to ‘flog the ball’ at them. He was called up by Devon and on his debut, the day before his nineteenth birthday, came in at number six and blasted the Cornwall attack for 138 out of a total of 251 all out. Somerset took note and registered their interest. Devon had little or no prospect of hanging onto their brightest talent. At Oxford, he would play for the university for two seasons, with Wisden noting that ‘it was obvious that a great wicket-keeper had been found’. Martyn combined fearlessness with a gift for showmanship. He was also unusual in wearing two pairs of gloves to allow him to stand up to quick bowlers and take the ball at pace. Cheltenham Chronicle informs us that:
In style and execution Martyn was one of the finest wicket-keepers ever seen in first-class cricket. Tall and possessed of long arms and a beautiful pair of hands, he almost invariably stood close up to the fastest bowlers, and even so made singularly few mistakes.
On occasions his fearlessness proved his undoing. Sam Woods relates in his autobiography that ‘Admiral Beaune’ (as he christened his keeper, based on Martyn’s fondness for that wine) was from start to finish in any game full of unbounded optimism. Woods adds that on the occasion that Martyn was hit full in the face by a bouncer from George Gill, he had a couple of his teeth removed. Woods ordered Martyn to hold his head still while he ‘shoved them back into their sockets, they are still there, although a bit discoloured’. As a batsman he never held back. A reporter, reminiscing in rather floral prose in the Bath Chronicle writes that ‘the crowd used to sit up and take notice when he strode with tread measured and slow to the crease to begin an innings, which more likely than not, would be a display of vast muscular exercise of embarrassment to the widespread field’. Perhaps, had he shown more temperance he might have improved on his average of 24.86 in seventy-four matches for Somerset, including one century, which came in 1905, a knock of 130 not out against the Australians. It can’t have helped that he was arguably the one outstanding member of a pretty woeful Somerset team at the time and probably felt obliged on occasions to chance his arm while wickets tumbled around him.
Unlike some of the wealthier amateurs, he was obliged to balance work and play. He’d started out as a teacher but opted for a life in sales. By 1906, he had to call it a day and focus on his career. Just when he was hitting his stride, too. Martyn had been the only Somerset man to top 1,000 first-class runs in the season. He came back out of retirement to appear in Len Braund’s benefit match in 1908. Braund was a shrewd businessman who knew that Martyn would draw the crowds. Regrettably, the rain came down in torrents and put the kibosh on proceedings. But the records don’t tell the whole story. Here was a compelling cricketer whom crowds were happy to pay to watch. His death, in 1928, triggered a number of eulogies overflowing with praise for a skilled entertainer. A man of Devon with all the characteristics the Somerset supporters looked for in their players.