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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

A 90 Year Old Cricketing Mystery Solved - Owzthat!

Updated: Jan 9, 2023

For nearly nine decades aspiring cricketers and cricketing fans throughout the world have enjoyed playing the diminutive classic game Owzthat! - two small hexagonal dice in a little blue tin with a single sheet of rules that all packaged together could easily fit in a matchbox.

A Standard Pre-War Set of Owzthat
A Standard Pre-War Set of Owzthat

But until now, nobody knew who’d invented the game, who had produced it or when.

The Australian Sports Museum have a set at Melbourne Cricket Ground and they don’t know the details. Oxford University’s Bodleian Library also draws a blank. Even the MCC Museum at Lords, the home of cricket, has been stumped.

Today I can reveal that we have Norman Cook of Manchester to thank for this sporting classic. He Patented and Trademarked Owzthat in 1932, just in time for England’s famous Bodyline Ashes Tour of Australia. It was launched for Christmas that year and was an immediate success.

The patent application included ideas for several other similar games based on other sports, you can read more about it here.

Norman Cook and Co of Exchange Street Manchester were a company specialising in producing parts for the spinning and weaving industry. Cook and Co held Patents for a Ring Spindle Oiler, a Shuttle Trimmer and a Roller Leather Stripper amongst many others. The tins used to packaged their Ring Travellers are highly collectable but Owzthat is even more so!

In the intervening 90 years lots of myths have grown up about the game and even keen collectors can be misled by tales such as those of Tommies playing the game in the trenches of World War One, nearly 20 years before the game as we know it was invented! One dealer has even tried to “prove” to me that the game dates to 1908. They did so conflating by an unrelated Registered Design Number with the official Registered Trademark number.

Quite why Norman Cook shunned publicity is not known but his silence provided a golden opportunity for many myth makers and imitators to try and capitalise on his invention. A global oil company even tried to claim the game as their own by subtly changing the spelling to ‘Howzat’. There have been many legitimate versions produced by different companies but the set that is most sought after is the classic little blue box.

Some of the many sets of Owzthat, Owzat, Howzat, and Howzthat in my collection. I don’t yet own a copy of ‘Zat but I live in hope!
Some of the many sets of Owzthat, Owzat, Howzat, and Howzthat in my collection. I don’t yet own a copy of ‘Zat but I live in hope!

How To Identify & Date Early Sets of Owzthat

Nine sets of Owzthat in the classic small tin, all produced between 1932 and the early 1960s. In the mid 1960s some sets were produced in a hinged box and in the 1970s Owzthat was sold in a plastic tube.

Nine sets of Owzthat.

All nine sets are in the same sized box, contain two very similar roller dice and almost identical rules. Four of these sets are pre-war (1932-1939) and five were made after 1946.

To date an early set of Owthat the key differences to look for are, the rollers, the boxes and the rules.

The pre-war rollers always have "PAT APP 18960/32" stamped on one end of both rollers.

Three sets of Owzthat rollers with the PAT APP 18960 mark.

The interior of the lids always have the words 'Owzthat' and 'PAT APP 18960' printed in white. Often the print is worn and is hard to read, if you have an ultraviolet light it can make the words can be easier to spot.

Four Owzthat tin lid interiors with the PAT APP 18960 mark.

A badly worn lid interior under ultraviolet light.

Owzthat tin lid interior with the PAT APP 18960 mark under ultraviolet light.

Post-war lids may also be worn but there is no trace of print even under ultraviolet light.

Four Owzthat tin lid interiors without the PAT APP 18960 mark.

Post-war editions have slightly smaller rules and the text layout is slightly different but the clearest difference are the words (Registered and pat. app 18960) beneath "OWZTHAT"only pre-war rules have this wording.

Two copies of Owzthat rules.

Owzthat rules and modern paper under ultraviolet light.

Finding a set of genuine rules with any set is hard, the rules are easy to learn but require a little care to put away and so were often discarded. One thing to look for in genuine rules are the characteristic horizontal creases made by folding and then the less regular creases formed when rolling the rules around the rollers.

Ultraviolet light can help to identify modern paper, no matter

how it has been treated to give an impression of age. The modern sheet of standard printer paper on the right glows very brightly compared to set of pre-war rules on the left.

Two Owzthat sets with differently folded rules.

There are two common ways that rules are found rolled around the dice, both produce similar creases. The method of rolling could have left the individual preferences of packers.

Nine sets of Owzthat.

One rare difference between pre and post-war sets is the print on the outside of the box lid. In nearly all surviving pre-war sets virtually all traces of paint have been worn away. The bottom right tin in the picture above is the only example I have ever seen where all the print remains in tact and uniquely it bears the words "PAT. APP. 18960" rather than the common "MADE IN GT BRITAIN".

Beware of sets that have been "put together" by a seller. A pre-war tin with the correct print on the inside and outside of the lid with or without pre-war rules is not an authentic set if the rollers are post-war.

Rollers from other more modern versions of the game sometimes "find their way" into older boxes too. The rollers from the Lindop plastic tube edition are the same length and have a dull finish. Other rollers are made of brass or plastic.

An authentic pre-war set will have the PAT APP 18960 inside and outside the lid, on the rules and on both unequally sized stainless steel rollers.

An authentic post-war set won't have PAT APP on any part but the rollers will be stainless steel and unequal lengths.

In both cases the better the condition of each element the rarer and more valuable the set as a whole is.


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