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Cricket is a way of life, not just a game. It has a literature of its own, as well as a mass of statistics and an endless series of arguments. My sight doesn't let me watch cricket - I can't see the flight of the ball from the boundary - but I love its atmosphere, and its history. It's also the only subject which I can talk about with the average non-fan, provided I try not to be too well-informed. I can normally manage this, since the conversation is usually about Test cricket. I listen to that, anywhere and everywhere, with head- phones at work when I can get away with it, on the train, while playing games, through the night when it's in Australia. Anywhere and any time. So do lots of people. Cricket matters.
It started as a straightforward rural game. Throwing a ball at someone with a bat, who would hit it away, than see how far he could run before the ball was brought back. Baseball is part of the same family. Farm-workers played it, and then the English gentlemen who employed them found that batting was fun, and took it up. It was a crude, simple game - until Hambledon. We'll never know, barring time travel, just how the players of the small, rural club at Hambledon came to re-invent the game and make it one of genuine skill. They had the backing of noblemen, since the nobility of the time would bet on anything. The first written version of the Laws of Cricket had rules for settling wagers - they were needed, since bets of thousands of pounds on a game were common in the 18th century. Hambledon played the rest of England regularly and won. Their skills spread, and cricket became a widespread sport - for enjoyment, as well as betting. Then came Grace.
William Gilbert Grace had a unique status: for over thirty years, he was not only the best cricketer in England, but also the best-known and most popular man. Cricket grounds charged double for admission - and got it - when he was there. He re-made batsmanship, setting a new standard of play, a quality of success that must be possible to mortal man, but seemed out of the reach of all others. For many of those thirty years, he was not just the best; but, on the statistics, twice as good as the next man. Such ability inspires, and the spare sons of the nobility and gentry needed something to aspire to. There weren't enough wars to keep their numbers down, and the British Empire and its merchants had made England the wealthiest country in the world in those days: most of the widespread sports of the world - cricket, soccer, rugby, lawn tennis, golf - were codified in England and spread world-wide by an empire which exceeded that of Rome. Cricket acquired its place in the sun as the most 'gentlemanly' of those games, played at a leisurely pace, with complex tactics and room for technical innovation.
Test cricket happened by accident. The convicts and their guards played cricket in Australia's earliest penal-colonial days. The country became more settled and democratic, and nineteenth-century English teams went to Australia as commercial ventures, playing for paying audiences, sometimes losing and sometimes winning. Sides came to England, and usually lost, but big crowds came to see all of the greatest English players of the day together, and wondered at the skill of the colonials. Before Test matches, there was North v South, Under 30 v Over 30, and they had the same purpose - seeing all of the legends of the day together. Then Australia won. In England. Thoroughly, and in a single day. Punchwrote an obituary for English cricket, saying that the body would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. The next time an English team went there, they were presented with a small urn of ashes, or so the legend goes. There is a small, plain urn containing ashes now. They are of a ball - or a bail (a piece of the wicket) - or something. No one has tried to analyse them, and I doubt anyone who appreciates their importance would want to. They matter because of the pride and effort that have gone into matches played for them, not for their substance.
Test matches are important now, but they were a lot more so in their early days. The English knew that they were the best in the world; the Australians knew that that wasn't always so. A lot of pride went into those games; there was a tension and heroism that spanned the world. Test matches are played for longer - five days instead of the usual three or four for county matches - reducing the pressure of time and letting the game reach a fair conclusion. Pride rides on them, and fame or ignominy for the players. Everything matters: in a game that looks relaxed and is filled with tension, a Test match is the tensest time of all.
South Africa produced good cricketers, and began to play Tests; so did New Zealand, the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe... Cricket was a legacy of empire, and someday it may make all of the islands of the West Indies into one nation. It's the only thing that might ever unite them.
The class system was important in early cricket: gentlemen batted, while workmen did the harder labour of bowling. Bowlers win matches; the workmen were a vital part of the game. The English nobility have lasted longer than any of the others in Europe, and a part of whatever settlement has kept them in place so long must have evolved on the cricket field. Gentlemen had to bowl a little: unless you understand bowling, you can't be a good captain of a cricket side, and there were some gentlemen bowlers... just a few. The Gentleman and the Professionals became separate groups, with their own dressing rooms, their own hierarchies, and an annual match against each other. The Public Schools movement, progressive in its time, seized on cricket as training in patience and fair play, and wrote it into the language. Perhaps they made our culture too accepting of failure and decline, but that's another, and separate, issue.
There was a Golden Age, from about 1890 to 1910: a time where the game was important to the world, but in the right way, where loss can be recovered on another day. The men of that time played with flair and spirit, and much talent. They died in the First World War, and cricket has never been the same since. There are still memories, and stories, written of cricketers who died before we were born. Lord's Cricket Ground feels like Stonehenge: the past is almost palpable, and if you shut your eyes you can see the old players flicker to and fro. Grace's memorial there says, simply, 'The Great Cricketer'.
After the war, the game became less Cavalier and more Roundhead: Gentlemen, who could swashbuckle and take risks without fear for their livelihood, were fewer, poorer and sadder. Professionals took fewer chances, and practised more. In the North, there had been working-class cricket teams for decades and their professional spirit produced the greatest flowering of skill, as opposed to flair, in history. Cricketers had long careers and passed those skills on: a love of the game was its own justification, even to a Roundhead. Tests were hard-fought; with no TV and limited access to radio, big crowds came to see the County Championship matches. The county clubs had been the main organisers of cricket since the 1870s, but they came into their own now. The annual Championship between them was the breeding-ground for Test cricket, and made a good income for its players. Working-class boys made themselves into gentlemen, even if they were still professionals who took payment for playing - a Gentleman never could.
Back in the 1890s, Yorkshire County Cricket Club had had a vast supply of talent, but no leadership. Factionalism, regional quarrels and drink had made the side a mockery of the county that knows itself to be God's Own Country. Someone decided to ask a young nobleman who'd played the game at Cambridge to lead them, and he did. Lord Hawke made the class system seem almost justifiable: independent of the fortunes of the team, ruling as an autocrat, he made the team into the strongest county of the Golden Age. He didn't take many risks, but he had spirit: his players knew that Yorkshire cricket was the most important on Earth. The men he trained played until 1930, coached until 1940, talent-scouted and advised into the '50s. Their sides <>won<>. They taught the hard fight which the current England team manager - Ray Illingworth, who played for Yorkshire in the '50s, '60s and '80s - could fight when he came back to captain the side in his fifties, but can't teach with words in his old age. They are gone now. Yorkshire has returned to its earlier state, the talents of its sons unfulfilled. Geoff Boycott was the first of the new wave, a marvellous technician with the bat, but no leader and incapable of lifting the side to his standards. I'm not a Yorkshireman - though people sometimes think I am - but I feel I understand a little of what has been lost. It's May 1995 as I write, and Yorkshire are starting the season well, but they will falter somewhere, without the leadership that makes men play beyond their own limits.
In its way, cricket is a religion. Lord's is its cathedral; it has its miracles and its holy men, its theology (always subject to change) and its mass of worshippers. It is a fairly Protestant sort of religion: everyone thinks they know what should be done, and while money and background help, they aren't vital. The high priest of cricket was John Arlott, the grave-digger's son, who joined the police because the job had a pension; produced Dylan Thomas's radio play in verse Under Milk Wood; and became a legend for his cricket commentary. He made cricket into something that non-watchers and non-players could love, and was loved for it; SF is my 'real' way of life, but I felt his loss a lot more keenly than I did Asimov's - though maybe not Angela Carter's.
Arlott was a good cricket writer, but not the best. You can't really name the best cricket writer, but there have been perhaps a dozen great ones, and many more who were good. Like SF, lots of mainstream writers have dabbled, and with more success than in SF. The best piece I've read this year was by Vincent Hanna, the political journalist, and the most atmospheric of the '50s was by Harold Pinter, the playwright. The only piece of Leslie Thomas I've ever read made me realise what was special about Glamorgan, the only Welsh county who play in the Championship. There's much more. Too much for one article, or even one book...
Most cricket writing is non-fiction: history, bibliography, philosophy, polemic. There's very little good fiction, but oddly enough it was an SF writer - John Christopher - who wrote some of the best. He produced two of the most effective post-war cricket novels, which dealt with village cricket and Test cricket respectively. Arlott liked them, and offered to take Christopher on the reporter's circuit for a summer so that he could do the third volume, on county cricket, correctly. Christopher had to turn Arlott down - he couldn't afford to spend the summer in hotels, watching cricket and drinking - and the atmosphere of the '50s county circuit, which still had traces of the '30s, and of the golden age, is lost and gone. If I could change the past, that's one detail I'd really like to fix...
Lots of people can play cricket well: some types can't play some roles - a fast bowler can't be tiny, a fat man can't field far from the wicket - but anyone with co-ordination and sight can play. Women's cricket never became important, somehow, and stayed a separate thing: female slow bowlers or specialist wicket-keepers could play amongst men on equal terms, but they're very rare. The culture of cricket, the watching, the listening, the reading and the nostalgia are somehow masculine. Maybe it's the way that cricket has set itself apart from passing time, remembering the past, and always scared of the future.
After WWII, there was joy and there was good cricket, as people celebrated survival. The game tried to carry on as it had in the '30s, but it knew it was becoming obsolete. Gentlemen became fewer still, until they were abolished in the early '60s, and there were simply cricketers, all of whom were paid: rather less than in the '30s. Nostalgia for the past - as well as racism - kept cricket sides going to South Africa until there was no choice for the organisers, except that between no cricket, or death in the stands. South Africa changed, and cricket's organisers went back, looking for the old days, but not finding them.
The professional players are more willing to accept change than the organisers: TV coverage brought money into the game, once an outsider - Kerry Packer - had broken the existing structures by hiring the best players of the day for a 'rebel' series of Test matches. Those organisers still prefer men in their sixties to run sides over men in their forties; men who remember a more distant past, and with the foreshortening of the past, say 'we never got injured in my day!' Even the professionals remember the past fondly and think many things were better. Some probably were: slower bowlers of spinning balls have been in decline in recent years, as modern fertilisers for pitches and the demands of TV favour the fast bowlers. There's a loss, not just of variety, and of balls moving slowly enough that older eyes can see them, but of the game of bluff and guile between spinner and batsman, the most fascinating in cricket. Or so they say.
Cricket doesn't like to change. The old men of cricket wish they were still young; the young want to equal - or to be - the great men of the past. It may become unfashionable, it could even cease to be professional, given the incompetence of its administrators and the Americanisation of the world's TV networks. It won't die. The peaceful greenness of the cricket field calls too strongly. The rural game, played on fields and village greens, will live on. It gets played in city parks when men want to forget their cares for a few hours, against any tree stump or wall, on the beach, anywhere where there is a little space and a ball can be struck, someone will still play. Good games are immortal.
When Test cricket started, a new sport rose with it: 'Arguing About the Test Team'. Between us, my father and I have kept a fairly close eye on the England side since 1935 or so, and neither of us can ever remember the selectors being hailed for their wisdom. Sometimes a side is acceptable - such as, no changes from the last one, which won handsomely - but never in all those years were the selectors applauded for unexpected insight. Until after the match...
Everyone thinks he (rarely she) could do better, and I've often tried over the years. Here's the all-time greatest Anglo-Australian XI, as I see them, and a few reasons why. There are no modern players in it because of historical foreshortening: we don't know who will be remembered as great - although Botham's list of Richards, Lloyd, Border, Lillee, Hadlee and Gower has a lot to be said for it. Any of them would be worth a place in this side, as players, but I prefer the rosy glow of the past.
A cricket team needs five players who bat well, four bowlers and a wicket-keeper, which leaves one place free, hopefully for someone who can bat and bowl reasonably. Of course, in an all-time-great side we have the luxury of several all-rounders: the supremely talented often have several strings to their bows.
I'd start with Victor Trumper (Australia), but he is the most obscure player in this side. You have to look hard for him in the statistics these days, but during the golden age, from 1895 to 1910, he was the most admired, the most-prized wicket, the acknowledged greatest batsman.
Jack Hobbs was the best English batsman in history, and Don Bradman was probably the best Australian ever. W G Grace (England, Captain) was simply the greatest cricketer: I sang his praises earlier. Les Ames (England, wicket-keeper) needs a little justification. Picking one keeper from history is hard: you can only pick one, and their results depend so much on the bowlers whom they serve that an absolute best can't be chosen. The classical answer is to pick the best batsman of the possible keepers, and Ames was certainly the best batsman - 102 centuries - of the top-class keepers in history.
Gilbert Jessop (England) was a unique hitter. The top five batsmen in this side will grind down the bowling of any opposition, but Jessop will splinter them and cast them to the winds. Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall were the fast bowlers from the 1948 Australian side, probably the strongest Test team ever fielded. Harold Larwood is one of the claimants for the fastest bowler in history: he certainly was the key to Bodyline, a method of bowling at the batsman which nearly caused a breach of diplomatic relations between England and Australia. The tragedy, for him, was that he was bowling under orders and would have been more effective in his normal style, bowling conventionally.
The slow bowlers need brains and deviousness, and an unwillingness to give in when being hit all over the ground: Bill O'Reilly (Australia) was the most combative spinner in history, and Hedley Verity, the Yorkshireman, the most determined. He died a hero's death in WWII; Don Bradman summed him up: 'there's no breaking-point with him'. They bat quite well enough for 10 and 11 in this side, too.
Why those men? They all have that touch of the numinous about them, beyond my description; more than glamour, greatness. Those whom I had to leave out - and who I would add if I were picking a squad: George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes, to win some more matches; S F Barnes, the greatest bowler before WWI and a great coach; Lindsay Hassett, to keep the side entertained; Denis Compton, for a touch of uncertainty; 'Tiger' Smith, to push them on; John Arlott, to describe their progress. And Peter Tinniswood, author of Tales from a Long Room, the silliest cricket book in history, to make fun of them.
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