This review for Pep, the Cec Pepper Story, from the noted historian and author David Frith in the English Cricketer magazine saw my new book rated as ‘four stars’:
A small 1973 book entitled Never Marry a Cricketer, by Eileen Hollands, could appropriately have been dedicated to this bulky, mouthy, womanising giant from country NSW. Ken Piesse propounds the view that Cec Pepper was the best Australian cricketer never to have played in a Test match – a contentious claim given that other candidates include Frank Tarrant, Bill Alley and a few others. But never mind. We are left to wonder teasingly just how successful Pepper might have been at top level had he not big-mouthed his way to the sidelines.
His unbridled temperament diverted his destiny in late 1945, when he was heading towards Test selection. He believed he had Don Bradman lbw twice when the returning Australian Services XI played South Australia. At the second denial, so frustrated was Pepper that he exploded. His “filthy” outburst instantly stifled his prospects of Test cricket. Inexplicably, Pepper’s written apology was lost in transit. Shortly afterwards he was reported again following an outburst in a Brisbane match.
His country’s loss was northern England league cricket’s gain. It was small comfort when Pepper learned that Bradman had rated him second only to O’Reilly – and the truly great O’Reilly was no batsman.
Pepper made his name as much for his colossal hitting as for his lethal wrist-spin, his fame igniting in Parkes, the NSW bush town. Some of his mammoth thumps are still discussed, one of them thought to have been just on 175 yards. For the Australian Services team he tapped one ball into the top tier of the old Grandstand at Lord’s. He was a star in the Victory Tests of 1945, when the great Hammond found his bowling hard to handle. Pepper further kept himself amused with a 25-minute hundred at High Wycombe.
His exceptional talent, despite his inability to control his tongue, brought him back to England for league cricket over many summers, a popular key attraction, smashing records (seems he was the first ever to do the 1000/100 double in the Lancashire League, and he once took all 10 wickets twice in 18 days), heaving sixes, harvesting victims galore with a dazzling range of buzzing deliveries, including the “unplayable” flipper, all of this to the accompaniment of his unstoppable commentary, little of which was suitable for discussion in church.
Pepper had played for NSW with varying results prior to his call-up for war service, when he became a sergeant. While we aren’t told whether this bigmouth was good under fire, Basil D’Oliveira later described the middle-aged Pepper’s hitting as being “like a shell from a field gun”.
In 1943 “Pep” married the first of his three wives. There were affairs galore and three sons – none, alas, emerging as entertaining cricketers like their father. He also made money through investments, and saw an opportunity to stay centre-stage by joining the first-class umpires list. It made it more interesting for county cricketers to have this large Aussie chatterbox running the show. But Test cricket eluded him again. The authorities remained wary of this chatty, flashy showman who made it clear that he was ready to no-ball Charlie Griffith for throwing.
He could be generous. It’s stated in this chunky book that he purchased a car for Frank Worrell and paid off Garry Sobers’s gambling debts. But when Cec was asked to appraise England’s great discovery, Ian Botham, he chose not to heap embarrassing adulation on the exciting new all-rounder. No, said “Pep”, even at his age he could have bowled Botham out with a cabbage . . . with the leaves still on.
Other cheeky remarks are immortalised: he considered that little Lancastrian Harry Pilling wouldn’t get far in the game – “And tell Snow White I said so!” Then he put the considerable sum of £5 into Harry’s collection box. Essex’s “Tonker” Taylor even reported Pepper to Lord’s for excessive and noisy breaking of wind. The majority of cricketers, it has to be said, are somewhat boring. Not Cec Pepper, who is revealed as a biographer’s delight.
- Cec is pictured with Keith Miller during the 1945 Victory Tests in the UK