Retro Sport: The story of Old Tom's bat - part two

Torbay Weekly

After the Earl of Winchelsea claimed it, in 1786, Tom Walker’s bat was moved to six different pavilions, survived a fire, and was left in the vaults at Lord’s, unrecognised - now it faced World War One.

Luckily, the Lord’s pavilion escaped from the bombs which fell on St John’s Wood during World War One, and Tom’s Skyscraper bat was spared once again.

Peace didn’t last for ever though, and in 1939, Lord’s became the headquarters of The Balloon Barrage, and the Lord’s War Cabinet decided that its bats and paintings should be stored, for safety, in a dug-out under the racquets court.

Again, Lord’s avoided a direct hit, and, after the war, the pavilion was decked out again, in all its finery, but, still, Tom’s bat languished in the vaults, until, one day in 1986, some amazing news shocked the cricket world.

The MCC announced that a 'bi-centenary auction' would be held in April 1987, and that it had asked Christie’s to sell some of its 'reserve collection' to raise funds for more purchases.

Surely, it was unthinkable, particularly as so many of its treasures had been given free of charge, and entrusted to the club for safe keeping!

Whatever would they be selling? Collectors, like me, couldn’t wait to hear!

In March, the catalogue was printed, and we found out that the MCC would be offering 800 lots.

Every page listed wonderous, irreplaceable treasures, and, there, towards the end of the catalogue, was a picture of lot 677 - Tom Walker’s bat!

How could any responsible cricket club even dream of selling a bat which was now 200 years old, and the oldest first-class bat in existence?

To people like me, the whole thing seemed like an enormous betrayal of trust!

Nevertheless, it gave collectors a once-in-a lifetime chance of buying something really precious, and on April 13, Lord’s greeted a world-wide audience.

Jenny and I had got there early and, one by one, we were ticking off the items which I might want to bid for.

After an hour, and despite the crush, I couldn’t wait any longer to have my first look at Old Tom’s bat.

Although I knew that I had no chance of out-bidding every cricket museum in the world, nor of competing with Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, who was after it too, a quick glance would cost nothing!

I left Jenny sitting on a chair in the corner, and went off to find lot 677, and perhaps to even touch it!

It took ages to find, but, eventually, I found it on a half-hidden shelf at the back of the room.

As soon as I saw it, I knew that it wasn’t a Skyscraper, but was just a straight-faced late 19th century bat, at least 100 years later than Tom’s.

Perplexed, I walked back to find Jenny, and, on the way, passed a big glass display of bats, which I hadn’t noticed before.

As I gazed up at them, I noticed that only one was a Skyscraper... and yes, it was Tom’s!

But it was numbered and labelled 667, not 677!

When the auction began, I expected an announcement, but none came.

It seemed that no-one in the room had noticed the difference between the bats!

When lot 667 came up for sale, I bought it for under £100, and then held my breath.

Ten minutes later, lot 677 went under the hammer, and the bidding went up in steps of £100.

Would it never stop? Eventually, it was sold and the crowd clapped its applause for the buyer.

I made sure that I was first in the collection queue, handed in my bidding slip, and kept everything crossed as a young lad went to find my purchase.

After what seemed ages, he handed me a 200-year-old Skyscraper!

In minutes, I was flying down the motorway with one hand on the gear stick, and the other on the bat!

Later that week, I got a phone-call from Christie’s acknowledging their cataloguing mistake, and offering a small fortune to buy it back.

They had no chance - somehow, I believe that Old Tom meant me to have it!

It is now in safe storage, and, as I grow old, I often muse that while my eventual fate is certain, where will the story of this remarkable bat go from here?