IN cricketing folklore, wicket-keeper Jim (“Pip”) Denver is a living legend at Whitehaven. His ability behind the stumps was near-perfection and his dedication beyond question.

“At five in the morning I started work up on the pit top at Haig, getting all the machinery going, oiled and greased; on a Saturday when we had an away match I’d run back down Kells brows and the wife would meet me with a tatie pie before I got on the bus to Barrow, Carlisle or anywhere else,” laughed Jim, now well into his 89th year.

Jim, 10-stones and 5ft 7ins, was universally known as “Pip” and this young lad’s great expectations in the local cricket world were well realised.

World War II cost him the chance of playing for the illustrious Lancashire county side with the likes of Brian Statham, but there were plenty of compensations for this young whippersnapper of a wicketkeeper: Some 23 colourful years as Whitehaven’s first team stumper, winning league and cups, during which time he was virtually an automatic selection for Cumberland & Westmorland, playing against some of the all-time greats of the West Indies and South Africa.

There was one cameo at The Playground where he lined up against Harold Larwood, the England fast bowler who struck terror against Don Bradman and Co in the 1932-33 Australia “Bodyline” Test series.

By all accounts, Jim Denver claimed around 500 victims in straight stumpings and catches.

Quite a long time ago (in Sporting Jottings) I described Jim Denver as the Stanley Matthews of local sport, he had played on into his 50s but at the time he was anxious to deny reports that he had retired – there was no doubt in his mind that he had been well and truly dumped from the Whitehaven first team.

The familiar Denver name had been missing from the first team sheet for several weeks and the maestro of three decades wasn’t at all happy.

Two years earlier, at the age of 49, Jim was still rated good enough to be called up for Cumberland and Westmorland to keep wicket in an emergency against Lancashire 2nds.

Despite the veteran’s temporary omission during the popular Adrian Gray’s captaincy reign there was no doubt about the high esteem in which he was regarded by the Whitehaven club, its players, supporters and his home town in general.

So much so that Whitehaven CC presented him with a gold watch as a token of its affection and appreciation and to mark a distinguished 30-year playing career in the North Lancashire League.

Cumberland’s Lord Lieutenant John Wade, who was the Whitehaven club’s president, recalled that as captain he’d played with Jim before the war and both were in the team that won the League Championship (1939)

He said: “Pip” Denver is an excellent example to any young cricketer – a fine sportsman, a great clubman, a perfectionist behind the sticks. But for the war he would have been playing for Lancashire. His has a wonderful record and Whitehaven people are proud of him. I wonder how many people can claim to have had more than 30 years N.L.L. cricket, it is a wonderful record, particularly as a wicket keeper.”

Mr Wade urged “Pip” not to hang up his gloves but to carry on playing with the club’s second and third teams – but for a time that was not the veteran’s intention.

What went wrong then? – “Well, I was dropped a couple of times, the first when they brought another wicketkeeper (Roger Day) into the club. I’d played in the first team from 1946 to 1969, but they wanted to bring this other lad in from away. The season before, I had 15 victims and I was as fit as any man. I was having a bit of trouble with my eyes but I got a pair of glasses (unbreakable ones) and was back to normal.

“Even at my age I didn’t think Roger Day was any better than me, anyway big George Hodgson, the club secretary, came up and said ‘Jim I want to have a crack with you’ – I knew what was coming.

“George said: ‘You know you and Roger are competing for selection together for the first team and they want to give Roger a go.

“Am I letting the side down, George, if I am I will drop myself? – “Oh, no you are still the best in the league for me, but the feeling is he’ll be here a bit longer than you.

“I told George I’d play till I dropped, anyhow I was dropped to make way for Roger Day. When I got home Tina (Mrs Denver) wouldn’t let me play for the second team, I still remember her saying ‘they’ve done the dirty on you, Jim.’

“Tina always made the teas for the club, she was up baking until two o’clock in the morning but she wouldn’t any more after that, I was finished as well.

“A few weeks went by and I was breaking my heart. At the finish up, Tina said ‘get those so-and-so whites out and get down and play for the second team, so I did, there was no animosity, and I did enjoy it for a couple of seasons.

“Then I got the chance to go back in the first team, Ike Park was wicketkeeper and a great lad. Ike was a cracking ‘keeper but he felt he couldn’t captain the side and stump as well. I said ‘okay’ but don’t expect miracles.

“I still thought I was up to it, but they dropped me again, we weren’t scoring enough runs but my job was to keep wicket, we were carrying five bowlers and two of them weren’t even getting a ball, I wasn’t there to score runs.

“That was it for me, I had been dropped twice, it wasn’t going to happen again. I could have gone to Carlisle, Workington or Haverigg, but I never played again.”

Says Ike Park: “It was a selection committee decision; I think the world of Jim and it was a great honour for me to take over from such a legend.”

All great sporting careers come to an end and the manner of Jim’s final exit could never overshadow his achievements for club and county.

But what a different course an outstanding career might have taken but for the outbreak of World War II?

“It was at the end of my first season, we’d won the North Lancashire League title, I’d just come off the field at Furness when this gentleman, a smart chap, came up.... ‘have you ever had any broken fingers,” he asked. “I hadn’t and then he also asked ‘how would you like to play for Lancashire, you are showing real promise lad.’ I thought I was lucky to be playing for Whitehaven never mind Lancashire.

“I’d forgotten all about it until my uncle came up to the pit and said ‘you’ve got to go to Old Trafford for a trial tomorrow’; I was put on a train and put up in Manchester by Tommy Graham who used to play for Arrowthwaite. They put me in the nets, I could never keep wickets in the nets but it went okay and they were wanting a keeper to go straight into the first team.

Then we were told ‘war could break out at any time’.... we just don’t know what’s going to happen with our regular players like Washbrook for a start, but if it all blows over we will send for you. I was only 20 and to be honest I didn’t know much about wicketkeeping.

So you could have been stumping for Statham? – “Well I might have done, but it didn’t happen, war broke out, I was in the lst Batallion North Staffs, and we were sent to Calcutta. I played soccer for the batallion, captain of the side, playing the Indian teams. We played one tournament and drew in the semi final, if we’d been beaten we would have played against the full England side. Probably as well because I was fullback and would have been marking Stanley Matthews.

“I was with the batallion in Burma but we had to be pulled out and declared unfit for active service – the monsoons had been on and they couldn’t get supplies through to us, we were unfit.”

How did this sporting career all start then? – “Well, it was just by accident, I was only 14-and-a-half when I went to work at Haig and started playing for the pit team on the Recreation Ground. There was no wicketkeeper this night and our captain, Ralph Johnstone, asked if I would take the gloves. The other lad never got his spot back, then a year or two later my half brother said if I went down to Whitehaven I would get a place. I said ‘no’ they’re all schoolteachers and the like, I’m just a la’al pit lad.

Anyway, I couldn’t afford the 15 shillings subs for the year so I went to Distington to play for a season before my dad decided to pay my subscription at Whitehaven. Wilf Robinson was the regular first-team wicketkeeper but after Wilf went to help with the alternations at his mother’s pub, The Vine, in the market place, he said to me ‘you’re doing well you might as well stay in.’

Pip’s most momentous representative moment was playing against the West Indies at Carlisle in 1950. Of the three great W’s in that touring party – Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott – Walcott played in the match.

In its report of the historic match, The Whitehaven News reported: “The Whitehaven stumper had a good day. He conceded only three byes, stumped Testraill with great dexterity, caught Pierre from a skier and ran out Valentine in Test match style.”

Jim said: “We were well beaten but there were only these three byes in 240-odd runs from the West Indies, a crowd of about 8,000 turned up and it was a big honour just to be on the same field as these great stars.”

What all this about Larwood, the ex-Notts and England star? – “Harold was more or less finished at the time. He was turning out for Blackpool who came up to play us at Whitehaven in a friendly, it was a bit of a mixed team and I think the old Huddersfield goalkeeper was playing for them. There was a fair crowd turned up, like, and we had a great day except for the night. Larwood and some of the others went off to St Bees for a drink, I couldn’t because I didn’t have enough money in my pocket.

“Mind you, I think Larwood and the England captain, Douglas Jardine, were badly done to with all this bodyline business out in Australia. “It wasn’t attacking the man like the West Indies used to do when they had four fast bowlers, and bowling over people’s heads, Larwood was attacking the stumps and the Aussies didn’t like it.”

Jim Denver, jnr, also got nicknamed “Pip” but never played the game, unlike younger son Alan

who also stumped for Whitehaven and later Shropshire 2nds.

In all his time at The Playground, Pip Denver had great admiration for three players in particular – Bob Newall, the early Whitehaven professional from Leeds – “he played for the club, not himself – Kells headmaster Arthur Graves and the brilliant Nev Emery,who earned even greater fame as the Whitehaven rugby league cup semi-final coach, but he wasn’t so keen on Emery’s fellow Aussie, Dick Beard – Nev told me Dick would never get 100, always 50s, the spectators used to have a sweep on when he would get out! Still as outspoken as he was unassuming – “honestly I never thought I was any good” – Pip Denver enjoys his 90th year in the John Gaskell Court at Hensingham.

Jim needs a whiff or two of oxygen these days to help with his breathing but the memories of all those stumpings and catches live in the memory of a very long and memorable innings.