From the Ashes
Considered by many as one of the greatest batsmen ever to grace the game of cricket, Don Bradman had very close links to one of Perth’s greatest, AK Bell, where the two left a long-standing legacy.
“After a man has a roof over his head and his bread and butter is fairly well assured and he has a surplus, I think you will agree with me that it is only common sense that he should spend part of that surplus for the benefit of his native city.”
The benevolent shadow of Arthur Kinmond Bell is cast long over the city of Perth. A man to whom philanthropy was as important as the business acumen which powered the growth of the family whisky company into one of Scotland’s most iconic brands, AK Bell’s establishment of the Gannochy Trust in 1937 ensured that his charitable works would live on well into the present century.
His is a legacy for which Scottish cricket has particular reason to be grateful, too, as Bell’s lasting monument to his love of the game has safeguarded its future in his native city today. And whilst a new chapter in the history of Perthshire cricket is being written a previous one is celebrated, too, as the story of the businessman’s friendship with the greatest player of them all is proudly remembered.
Cricket in Perth has a glittering heritage. Perthshire, later to be renamed Perth County Cricket Club, was founded in 1826 and for many years so dominated the domestic scene in Scotland that the sobriquet ‘The Big County’ was born. Based at the historic North Inch, which in the years around the Second World War used to draw four-figure crowds to the annual derby with Forfarshire, the club was a founder member of the Scottish County Championship and claimed its title no less than twenty times in the years between 1953 and 1978. The scorebook features several names to catch the eye, too, with Lal Rajput, Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist amongst those who turned out for the famous old side.
AK Bell was an accomplished player for Perthshire himself. In a cricketing career which also took in appearances for Grange Cricket Club in Edinburgh his pedigree on the field is indicated by the century he scored at the reputed age of fifty-five.
It was in keeping with his character, though, that Bell was most drawn toward the social power of the game, and it was as he encouraged wider participation in cricket that he oversaw the creation of Doo’cot Park in 1925. The Grade II listed pavilion, stone-built and larch clad with an octagonal, pan-tiled roof, is one of the most iconic buildings in the city, and with two meticulously kept cricket pitches as well Bell’s gift to his fellow Perthites remains one of the finest grounds in the whole of the country.
In November 1934 it was to receive a particularly illustrious visitor.
In the early 1930s Donald Bradman was at the peak of his powers. Statistically the finest batsman the game has yet seen, the Australian star announced his arrival on the international stage in 1930 by way of 974 runs for his country over the five-match Ashes series.
His seven innings had included two double-centuries and one triple as Bradman racked up 334 at Headingley, a score which would remain his highest in the Test arena. The unprecedented figures both astonished and alarmed his contemporaries in equal measure, and whilst the achievement sealed worldwide fame for the shy young batsman it brought a gathering cloud, too, as the seeds of Bodyline were sown.
Quite how the very different worlds of Bell and Bradman came to coincide is something of a mystery. Dr John Markland, author of “When AK Met The Don”, has looked into a variety of suggestions.
“Bell and his brother were in Australia for quite long periods during the twenties and thirties but there is absolutely no evidence in his correspondence that he encountered Bradman while he was there,” he said.
“There is, however, a photograph taken at the Gleneagles Hotel during the Australians’ Tour of 1930. In the front row is a very young Bradman and standing in the middle is someone that looks very much like AK Bell.
“There is no way of guaranteeing that that is the case but there is at least a chance that they met on that occasion,” Markland continued.
“What we do know for certain, however, is that Donald and Jessie Bradman stayed with AK and Camilla Bell in Perth during November 1934.”
Much water had passed under the bridge over the preceding four years. Bodyline had been and gone, taking with it the careers of English captain Douglas Jardine and fast bowler Harold Larwood as Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) sought to distance itself from the controversy. After weathering the storms that had raged Down Under all were relieved that the first post-Bodyline Ashes Tour had passed by free of upset.
But not, however, of serious incident.
Bradman had suffered periodic bouts of illness throughout the summer and the lack of a conclusive diagnosis was to very nearly cost him his life. During late September the culprit, acute appendicitis, was to develop into post-operative peritonitis as Bradman endured days of pain and high temperatures battling an illness which at the time commonly proved fatal. King George V asked to be kept informed of Bradman’s condition as back in Australia Jessie Bradman prepared to make the four-week voyage to her husband’s bedside.
Gradually, though, his health improved and by the time Jessie arrived in London on October 27th Donald was out of danger but facing six months of convalescence to complete his recuperation. With foreign travel out of the question, the reunited couple spent the next eight weeks taking an unscheduled holiday in the United Kingdom. And so it was that in late November the Bradmans travelled north to Kincarrathie House, the Bell’s Gannochy residence.
Three photographs record their visit. The first depicts the two couples on the steps of Kincarrathie whilst another pictures the foursome at the summit of Kinnoull Hill, a photograph that was widely reproduced to mark the occasion by the local newspapers.
It is the third image that is most interesting, however, all the more remarkably because neither Donald nor AK is present. The picture depicts the two wives, Jessie glancing to her right, her arms folded against the November air, Camilla eyeing something unseen to the left, neither seemingly aware that the camera shutter is about to fall. And there, to the side, is the Doo’cot pavilion’s unmistakable wooden staircase.
We can only speculate as to where their husbands were as the picture was taken. It is safe to assume that they were present, but quite what the greatest batsman in the world made of his visit to Doo’cot that day will have to remain a mystery.
It is, though, a strange irony that AK Bell’s ground was to play a small hand in the final demise of his beloved Perthshire. Doo’cot Park had been created partly as a nursery to aid the development of players for the county side but under the terms of Bell’s bequest to his former club payment was dependent on Perthshire’s continued residence at their traditional home on the North Inch.
A period of rapid decline both in the standard of the pitch and the team, however, was to culminate in the historic club being put into abeyance in February 2009.
Graham Ferguson had played for Perth County since his school days but, as the club neared its end, was forced to yield to the inevitable.
“I was there until 2009,” he said. “There were about three or four of us desperately trying to keep it going but in the end we just didn’t have enough players.
“I would say that the downward spiral began in 1993,” he continued. “There was a major flood that year which left all sorts of rubbish from the river over the Inch and us operating out of a couple of prefab huts for the whole season. It was horrendous and the standard of the pitch really started to deteriorate from that point onwards.
“We asked if Perth County could come and play at Doo’cot Park but that was declined because of the terms of the trust so eventually we had no other option but to put the club into abeyance.”
Perth County’s last-ditch attempt to relocate to Doo’cot may have been unsuccessful but four other teams – Almond Valley, Strathearn, Mayfield and Northern – had made their home on the Gannochy ground. The demise of the most famous name in the area, however, served as a bleak warning to the four as they continued to compete with each other for access to an ever-shrinking pool of resources.
“After we lost Perth County we all felt that we had to do something,” said Gordon McKinnie, then of Strathearn. “But it took a long while for the clubs to reach a consensus that the best way forward was to look at a merger.
“There were always people who thought that combining forces was a good idea, while perfectly understandably there were those who had their old club loyalties and wanted to keep things as they were.”
Two chastening losses for Perth County and Strathearn in the National League play-offs in 2006 and 2010 focused minds, however.
“There was a gradual realisation that things could never go forward whilst the best players in the city were spread over four or five different clubs,” Graham Ferguson continued.
“It just didn’t make sense. We started talking and pretty quickly there was agreement that something new was needed.”
And so, in 2011, Perth Doo’cot Cricket Club was born. A bringing together of five of the grand old names in Perthshire cricket – the four Doo’cot Park sides together with the former Perth County – the new club has settled into life in the Strathmore and Perthshire Cricket Union (SPCU) and, in 2013, tasted its first success at senior level in the form of the CS Challenge Cup. But perhaps most importantly as Perth Doo’cot moves into the future its health on the field is being matched off it, too.
“We want to be much more than just a cricket club who puts out a couple of elevens on a Saturday,” said Gordon McKinnie. “For us the place of the club in the community is key to us getting to where we want to be.
“The merger was not only aimed at combining the best of our resources at senior level but in junior cricket, too, and we’re really starting to reap the benefits of that now. In 2017 our U13 side reached the National Finals Day at Goldenacre which for us is as important a stage in our journey as winning the CS Challenge.
“As a club we are confident that we are moving in the right direction and we’re really optimistic about the future.”
Whatever that future may hold the name of Perth Doo’cot will forever be interwoven with the illustrious history of cricket in the region as well as with that of the greatest of all Ashes alumni. Thanks to the legacy of AK Bell and the devotion of local cricketers a new and stronger club has risen.
Pictures by Donald MacLeod, written by Jake Perry. With Thanks to Dr John Markland, The Gannochy Trust and The State Library of South Australia