For the Fun of the Game

A tribute to Richard Field - Former Master at Shrewsbury by Richard Barber from 2005

Much of what gets written about Fives records events at the top levels of the game, as its most skilful proponents clash in headline-catching competitions, achieving hard-won victories in famous finals and lifting impressive silverware to display with pride during the coming year. But what we seldom hear about are the innumerable matches among the foot-soldiers of the game Fives which bring no less enjoyment than the game at top level and which probably characterises about 95% of all the Fives played up and down the country.

Such a game was recalled by Richard Field, sometime master at Shrewsbury, a school which has always encouraged its masters to play this wonderful game no matter what their level of sporting prowess. Indeed, as will be clearly seen from what follows, "sporting prowess" at this level of the game is far from being the only weapon to be deployed in the player's armoury in order to win points and achieve the satisfaction of final triumph.

What follows is extract from a speech made by Richard at the end of season dinner given by the Old Salopian Eton Fives Club to the School's main players, from new boys to school leavers, in 2005. One of his opponents on this occasion was Tom Wheare, later Headmaster of Bryanston School, but at the time of this particular contest a fellow-colleague on the staff at Shrewsbury.

"I'm not quite sure why I'm here this evening, though I'm delighted to be so and delighted to be associated with a school which plays Fives so well. I was never much of a Fives player, but I loved it and I think it's probably true to say that Mike Hughes'* first game of Fives was played with me and the then Housemaster of School House, Tom Wheare.

It must have been there that Mike would have learned the advantages of playing Fives with a pronounced stomach. Tom's was particularly impressive and in order to get round him you had to set off on the most enormous detour, circumnavigating him with considerable difficulty. As he was incapable of any sort of speed - like an oil tanker, it took him about twenty minutes to reach, say, 8mph - Tom would stand still like an inflated bollard in the middle of the court while Mike set off to retrieve the ball, developing violent wheel-spin in the process. This frequently caused him to hit the ball into that hole high up in the court nearest the cricket square. We used to call it "Mike Hughes' hole" long after he had left the school. Sometimes we used to call up to him.

Another weapon that Tom had in his armoury was an amazing pair of shorts. An earlier Headmaster of Shrewsbury, Jack Peterson, had written a short coaching book on Fives in which he advocated wearing baggy shorts. This was to make it harder for your opponent to spot the ball coming off the front wall when you were up on step. Perfectly built for that aspect of the game, Tom's shorts, which were a sort of indeterminate khaki, filled the court like a marquee in a high wind and sometimes made a strange flapping noise, which could be very off-putting - especially if he was standing behind you. When the ball got caught in the wings of his shorts he would occasionally ask "let?" in a tone which combined generosity with surprise. I think I'm right in saying that long after Mike became a better player than Tom and me - probably during his third game - he found it difficult to beat us because of the frightful gamesmanship we employed.

I relied more on verbal tactics myself, and a trick which never failed involved a very senior and competitive member of the staff. He had an extremely short fuse, most of which was buried in gunpowder anyway. A talented, though lethal, footballer (there are old men who still bear the scars from Oxford Cuppers of fifty years ago) I often played Fives against him. In those days there was still talk of an ex-Housemaster of School House who used to run the 1st X1; in fact he ran everywhere and was generally reckoned to be the fittest man on the staff. But he dropped down dead in the middle of a game of Fives aged about 45. In the days to which I'm referring my opponent was over 50 - in fact he still is. My hideous ploy was to ask, just as he was about to cut, "how old was that Housemaster when he dropped down dead on the Fives Court?" It never failed to slow him down physically and to wind his temper up to such an extent that he smashed the ball out of play for the next few rallies. Nowadays I don't find that funny!.

Richard Field has now retired from Shrewsbury, but his love of the game remains evergreen, and the humour and affection with which he recalls his days on court remain an inspiration to all who would play the game without the expectation that they will achieve anything more than huge enjoyment of a wonderful game.

* OS 1975-1980, subsequently Captain of the OSEFC Alan Barber side from 1993-2003 and winner of the Keeling Cup in 2004.