History of Cricket.

PART 1: 1924 -1950

The practical starting point for a review of the history and development of BRA cricket has to be 1924 when the first edition of the Owl was published.         

Not unusually for Northern Ireland, the reports in the owl reflect that the cricket season began and ended with rain, a rather inauspicious start. 

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In those early days the school had a cricket coach, Charles Lowings, and the records show that school cricket was played at the Cliftonville Cricket Ground, not far from the school.

The emphasis in the 1920’s was on establishing house cricket as a method of building the profile of the sport within the school. A 1925 edition of the Owl contained an extensive article by J.C. Picken in which he recorded that the brothers A.W. and Lawrence Walker had played for the ‘Gentlemen of Ireland’.

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We know that by the end of the 1920’s, cricket was developing in popularity in the school. School matches were being played at Cliftonville and Bladon Drive and by the end of the decade Nat Cank, the Cliftonville groundsman, was coaching. Cank was later appointed as head groundsman for the Stormont estate.

The Owl reports reflect an increasing pace of cricket development in the 1930’s at the school. The 1933 Owl talks approvingly of new nets behind the school which had created unusual interest and enthusiasm and for the first time the Owl set out full score cards which show that the 1st XI were playing at Cliftonville with junior fixtures at Bladon Drive.

In 1934, the school took a major step forward under the headship of A.R. Foster, when land was purchased from the Shaftesbury Estate. This later became the Castle grounds, described by Sir Anthony Brutus Babbington as ‘the splendid new playing fields at the Castle Grounds’. 

In the early 1930s we see again the influence of J.C. Picken who was probably instrumental in asking Samuel McCully, father of one the authors of this article, to be amateur coach to the 1st XI. It appears that Sam coached the 1st XI from 1933-1937 and one of the 1933 1st XI team, Des Simon, later famous in his own right, reported that Sam possessed the right blend of patience and encouragement to be an excellent coach. 

There are reports in the 1934 Owl of a team Sam selected playing against the school and him batting in the middle order, quite a challenge for the boys as he was a regular for the adult Cliftonville team.

The year 1937 saw the first match between the 1st XI and the school staff and it was held at the Castle Grounds. The 1938 Owl also records that the Castle Grounds played host to the first school sports day and that Lady Babington opened the new art deco style pavilion. The 1938 cricket team captain was T.B. Shaw, one of three Shaws who had played for the 1st XI during the decade.

In 1938 the fortunes of BRA cricket became synonymous with the renowned coaching of Alf Chapman who came to the Academy from Bedford School in England. 

Alf always championed being turned out correctly and occasionally he wore a white cravat at net practice. As both authors can personally confirm, it was at net practice that Alf excelled in his coaching. He would encourage young players to drive by lobbing up a couple of half volleys but no sooner than a batsman had become confident, he would bowl his ‘arm ball’ which swung sharply from outside the off stump into the batsman’s toes, often knocking back the middle stump.  Alf was unerringly accurate but exhibited his skill gently and with a benevolent smile. Alf displayed a quietly spoken authority, which I believe earned the respect of all the boys. Everyone tried to play their best, as much as anything else, to please him and a compliment from him was treasured. He set an example which embedded the spirit of the sport through many generations at The Academy. The second world war had an impact on the country and the school but in the 1940’s the Owl recorded a considerable number of boys who were capped for Ulster Schools. Pupils such as Kyle, Dixon, Catherwood, Nash, Elliot and Boyd brought distinction to the school. “Kyle” was none other than Jack Kyle, BRA rugby legend who, in the opinion of many at that time, possessed cricketing credentials superior to those of rugby football.

Throughout the 1940’s, The Owl consistently paid glowing tributes to the coaching of Mr Chapman. We conclude with the words of the 1947 Owl in reference to Alf: “as always the club is very much indebted to Mr Chapman for his coaching; he seems to command a never-failing source of energy and skill”.