Series of Dreams

I generally sleep well these days.  When I don’t, perhaps through an excess of wine or cheese, I sleep fitfully, slipping in and out of a series of dreams, caught up in narratives which cohere until I stir, when they dissolve, to be replaced by a succession of similar fragments, until I wake, when these mini-dramas, which temporarily compelled my attention, vanish from my memory.  I mention this not to be gratuitously boring, but because following this year’s cricket season has seemed rather like that.

After months without cricket, it has felt like opening an overstuffed high cupboard in search of something lost, and having its contents fall out on to your head.  Since I last wrote, I have followed (by various means), at a rough estimate, five Test Matches, four of Leicestershire’s Bob Willis Trophy games, three club matches at Market Harborough, four at Kibworth, one in Great Bowden, one on the Recreation Ground behind my home, and the closing stages of a junior game which I came across by accident on a walk.   

Of these, I only saw one in its entirety, and in many cases that entirety was rendered less than entire by rain. At times, I have listened to one game in the morning and watched another in the afternoon ; at others, watched a County game online while listening to the Test on the radio.  It is not surprising that most of them have, along with my fitful dreams, vanished from my memory.  I suppose it is salutary to be reminded, by seeing a whole season concertinaed into a couple of months, how much of the average season is, far from the Platonic ideal as imagined by Neville Cardus, or me in the depths of Winter, spent in disappointment and wet frustration.

The structure of English cricket resembles a human pyramid : amazing feats are performed at its apex, while no-one notices that the bottom row are beginning to stagger, and that ill-wishers are attempting to kick their legs out from under them.  To begin at the top of that pyramid, most of my memories of 2020’s international cricket will be of Test Match Special itself, rather than any of the games that they were reporting on.  The interminable saga of what the presenters were planning to have for their dinner will be as redolent of the immediate post-lockdown period as the alcopop reek of hand-sanitiser, or wind-blown blue masks mingling with the early Autumn leaves.

TMS has been as much about itself as the cricket for years, and, in fairness, the numerous interruptions for rain did not leave much choice but to fall back on their own resources.  Predictably, I found the dips into the archives the most memorable.  What struck me (apart from how the presenters’ voices had deepened over the years), is how various those voices used to be : Arlott’s Hampshire ; Johnston and Blofeld’s music hall toff ; CMJ’s exaggerated RP ; Lewis’s Welsh ; Trueman and Mosey’s Yorkshire.  With the departure of Boycott and Blofeld (who represented that tradition in, latterly, self-parodic fashion), we now hear, apart from Agnew (who will eventually turn into Johnston), and Vaughan’s trans-Pennine caw, the tones of Herne Hill, High Wycombe, Barnet, Dulwich and (with the addition of Mark Ramprakash), Bushey.

Perhaps cricket is now a less various game, perhaps we are a less variously-voiced nation (that portion of it that is allowed on the BBC, anyway), and TMS may well be the best programme that it is possible to produce in England in 2020.  (I would not claim, incidentally, that my own tones, like Derek Nimmo on Mandrax*, would do anything to improve the situation). It goes without saying that I should miss TMS if it went, and that we should be grateful to the ECB, the West Indies and Pakistan for arranging two entertaining and coffer-replenishing series.  So I shalln’t say it.

I am not the only one to have been dreaming.  At first, I thought that naming this year’s County competition the ‘Bob Willis Trophy’ was a nicely sentimental tribute to the recently deceased great, if a little incongruous, given his reputed lack of enthusiasm for representing Warwickshire.  But then I recalled his contribution to the symposium in the ‘Wisden Cricketer’ in October 1999, which I discussed at (probably excessive) length a short while ago.

In it, Willis, having accused the County members of having made ‘a terrible mess’ of running the game, and the players of being a ‘clapped-out army’, goes on to propose that we should ‘split our current 18 teams into three divisions of six and play ten first-class matches a season’.  This is not quite what we have had this season, but, if various people who ought to know are to be believed, it is likely that we will be getting something along those lines next year.  It is not obvious to me why this would be an improvement on previous arrangements, but, as most of the alternative proposals seem to involve Leicestershire ceasing to exist (as advanced by that frightful old ghoul Graves), or only playing limited overs cricket, it should not be much worse, given that it promises no reduction in first-class matches (thanks to some kind of subsidiary competition tacked on to the end of the main one).

Leicestershire’s results in the BWT have been a bonsai of one of their typical seasons : after their encouraging win against Lancashire in the first game, they lost by nine wickets to Derbyshire (having been forced to follow on, and – as the club’s Twitter put it – taken a slender 11 run lead) ; been denied by rain against Durham, in a contrived run chase they were favourites to win ; in their turn, denied Nottinghamshire a win in another game spavined by bad light and showers ; and, finally, a hugely discouraging ten wicket defeat by Yorkshire.   I would like to say that I have followed all these faithfully on the streaming service, but it has been more a matter of a few afternoon sessions.

As compared to Lancashire’s coverage of the first game, which had fairly high production values, that from Grace Road has been a throwback to the earliest days of cricket broadcasting with a fixed camera at both ends (unless it was one bloke haring from end to end between overs on his bike).  At times, the (fine) commentary has been a little ahead of the pictures, which at least alerts the viewer whose attention is wandering that a ball will be worth watching, and at others they have seemed to be employing some of the primitive psychedelic effects that used to feature on Top of the Pops in the early 1970s (though that was probably attributable to some inadequacy in my wi-fi connection).  Given the rain we have had I seem to have spent a lot of the last months squinting at what appeared to be CCTV footage of the ground staff going about their business.  At least we have been spared the vast boredom of replays and DRS reviews.

When play was possible, the fixed camera puts the viewer in the position of one who remains clamped to his seat behind the bowler’s arm, binoculars trained on the square.  There are spectators of this kind in real life (what you might call the Ted Chippington tendency) and, no doubt, their diligence is rewarded by technical insights that those who, like me, prefer to roam around are denied.  On the other hand, they miss a large part of what, for me, makes a day at Grace Road enjoyable : the susurrus overhead as the wind ruffles the limes, the creeping advance of the shade across the cheap seats parallel to the wicket as the afternoon draws on, the cheering sight of the lunchtime special being paraded from the kitchens to The Meet, the heady whiff of old socks and disinfectant issuing from the air conditioning in the indoor schools at the Bennett End.  But I am becoming sentimental.

At least, except when they were having trouble focusing, the fixed cameras spared me the painful sight of what I was being denied.  I have given up attempting to discern the logic behind the ever-changing restrictions, but I cannot understand why lower division football clubs are allowed to admit 10% of their capacity (the other evening I attended a game where the attendance was 230), when County cricket clubs are not allowed to admit any spectators at all, at grounds where the capacity is considerably larger.  I would estimate the capacity of Grace Road to be about 10,000, so application of the same principle would mean that the number permitted to attend would be considerably in excess of any crowd we achieved for a Championship game last season.  There do seem to have been some attempts to circumvent the lockout, including a suffragette-style chaining to the railings on the Milligan Road side, and an occupation of the balcony of the ‘Cricketers’ pub, which offers an unobstructed view of the pitch.  At times the commentary could just pick up the plangent dying fall of Stench’s vuvuzela, summoning up remembrance of things past.  But I am becoming sentimental again.

To look on the bright side, the freakish nature of the season has meant that none of the players has lost out too badly.  Those who have been successful have advanced their cases, while those who have not can write their figures off as being too small a sample to be significant.  Colin Ackermann has made a success of the captaincy, and has largely carried the batting.  Harry Swindells has probably established himself as the first choice ‘keeper in red ball cricket.  Sam Evans, with the bat, and Ben Mike, (mostly) with the ball, have done enough to remain ‘promising’ (though the latter promises more in the shorter forms).  Harry Dearden is inching closer to averaging thirty in a season, has looked good when permitted to cut loose, and should be allowed to try it more often.  Without doing anything startling, Tom Taylor has confirmed that the side is more balanced with him in it**.  Callum Parkinson narrowly missed being our leading wicket-taker, and ought to play for often.

Heading the list of those who might prefer to write 2020 off as a bad dream is Hassan Azad, who, having made 58 in his first innings, made only another 86 in his next seven outings, averaging 18.  Last September I expressed the fear that he could be in for a ‘a testing time next season’ : I could not have predicted quite how testing it would be for all of us, but I hope the cricket gods will accept this as his ‘difficult second season’.  The rot set in against Derbyshire, with a couple of freakish dismissals : in the first he was stumped off a seamer, perhaps having already set off on his post-delivery stroll half way to square leg ; in the second, his logical scientific mind was unable to cope with the nonsensical questions (‘why is a hat stand an otter?’) posed by Leus du Plooy, a bowler whose stock delivery seemed to be the waist-high full toss.  To add a comical irony to injury, he took a wicket, having been brought on as a joke bowler with the aim of gifting Durham runs to expedite a declaration, and nearly finished top of the bowling averages.

Hassan has signed a two year extension to his contract, which requires something of a leap of faith on both sides : on Leicestershire’s that he can overcome the limitations of his game and prove that his first season was more typical than his second, and on his that Leicestershire are going to be able to pay a living wage to a player who is unlikely ever to feature in white ball cricket.  With his qualifications, he cannot, even in the current climate, be short of other options.  Alternatively, another of Willis’s recommendations – that there should only be 24 full-time professionals, with the rest playing as amateurs – might suit his case. 

As usual, various ex-Foxes have come back to haunt us (though we were spared a visitation by Darren Stevens) : one of the more dreamlike images, enhanced by the psychedelic effects on CCTV, was the sight of Ben Raine and Ned Eckersley batting together against us for Durham.  Zak Chappell, too, was back with Nottinghamshire, having undergone a transformation from the slim-gilt youth who used to turn out for Market Harborough into a hulking brute whom you might expect to see appearing under some macabre alias in a professional wrestling bout.  He seemed to have sacrificed a little speed for accuracy (Tom Barber, at the other end, supplied the woolly wildness) : although I feel contractually obliged to wish him ill, I am pleased to see that he took 15 wickets (15 more than last season) and – as significantly – played four consecutive games.  I wish him well.

One of the more attractive features of the BWT is that the format stimulated the teams to make greater efforts than usual to achieve a win.  One memorable image is of Chappell, desperate to continue chipping away at some admirably obdurate last ditch resistance by Leicestershire on the last day, replacing the stumps that Nick Cook (who seemed more inclined to warm his toes in the Umpire’s room) had recently uprooted (and getting a ticking-off for his Lèse-majesté).  Chappell’s urgency may have stemmed from a desire to end Nottinghamshire’s lengthy stretch without a win, which now dates back to June 2018 (having probably had enough of that at Leicestershire, not to mention Market Harborough).

Harborough too had not won since June 2018, until, unlike Notts, they won the last game of the season, against Thorpe Arnold. This was only the 1st XI’s second home game of the season, the scheduled second, against Electricity Sports, having fallen foul of the Leicester lockdown (an additional source of pain in this area).  After an hour, Harborough were 30-odd for 6, with clouds gathering and rain in the air.  I am afraid to say, dear reader, that I decided to cut my losses and caught a bus to the other end of town to watch the football (where Harborough Town won 6-0).  It had been so cold and wet at the game that I assumed the only question was whether Thorpe Arnold had had time to finish us off before the game was abandoned.  In fact, we had, God knows how, made 80 and bowled them out for 67.  You would think that, given that I had been present for most of their home defeats, I might have been entitled to witness their victory, but I suppose it serves me right (O me of little faith!).

My season is, I think, over now, but the season is not : if you happen to be a follower of T20, Somerset or Essex it is approaching its climax, and if you follow the England Women’s team it is just beginning.  September is a poignant time for cricketers (I know this must be true, because I say it every year).  That poignancy usually stems from an atavistic awareness of a long Summer season approaching its end, and is softened by the sure and certain hope that it will return again in the Spring.  This year there has been no long Summer season, the emotions are more mixed, and less simply nameable, and my hope that the season will return is less sure and far from certain.  However, Winter well, as far as you are able.  

*For younger readers, Nimmo was an actor of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who specialised in playing clergymen, and also advertised Penguin biscuits.  Mandrax was a hypnotic sedative, popular as a recreational drug in the counterculture. 

**Since I wrote this, Taylor has signed for Northamptonshire.  It’s enough to unbalance anyone, never mind the team.   

In the Circumstances

As regular readers (if any) will know, one of my perennial complaints is that the English season does not have a proper starting point (at least since the translation of the MCC v Champion County fixture to Dubai), but tends to peter in, to the point where it can be difficult to say whether it has started or not.  In recent years, Leicestershire’s first fixture has usually been against Loughborough MCCU, a game that sometimes has first-class status, sometimes not, but that is sometimes preceded by an intra-squad game, or a friendly game against some other side unlucky enough not to be taking their pre-season in a warmer climate.  In a year when it initially seemed unlikely that the season would be starting at all, it would be churlish of me to make the same complaint, and, I concede, inaccurate : the season began on 8th July in Southampton ; some people’s season will have begun the following Saturday ; my season began on Saturday 18th, in Whitby.

It would not feel like an English season if it did not begin in a state of muddle, bedevilled and bedraggled by rain, and, as I observed of Terence Prittie’s account of the first season after the war, the sure sign that some kind of normality has returned is not that one experiences some huge flood of emotion, but that one forgets to be grateful that anything is happening at all and resumes the everyday grumbling that makes up a large part of any cricket-follower’s usual discourse.  The feeling of gratitude and relief lasted throughout the first morning of the Test, as I listened to Jon Agnew and Phil Tufnell wittering pleasantly while it rained.  A lengthy and indirectly COVID-related telephone call caused me to miss the commentary on the knee-taking, the silence, something (I think) involving Major Tom, and presumably the Jerusalem (a very heavy weight of significance with which to freight such a frail vessel as a game of cricket), but quite soon after the start of play I had returned to my habitual carping about the state of TMS.  I freely admit that is churlish in the extreme, but at the same time, perversely reassuring.

I had originally had some idea about trying to write about the game based on the radio commentary, but after about twenty minutes of closing my eyes and attempting to visualise what was occurring on the pitch I was forced to abandon this futile ambition.  It is true that I came away with some vivid mental images : Jon Agnew flying his light aircraft with his pet dog in the passenger seat ; Isa Guha sprinting to the Post Office to collect some World Cup tickets for her Dad ; Alison Mitchell caught up in some imbroglio involving a pigeon in her bedroom.  These would all have been diverting enough anecdotes if related at a dinner party (which TMS increasingly resembles) ; the trouble being that they came not during an interruption for rain (or a sanitiser break), but in the middle of overs (a not untypical slice of commentary being ‘Bengali cookery uses a lot of fish, as Broad comes in to bowl to Holder)’. 

Now, I am not expecting pretty waitresses and walking sticks, but I would like to have some idea of what the players look like, beyond a brief assessment of their height (Holder, Gabriel and Cornwall, I gathered, are tall ; Dowrich and Blackwood are short ;  beyond that, only that Joseph is ‘wiry’).  This is particularly important, given how few of the West Indians play regularly in English cricket.  The presumption seems to be that the listener will know what they look like from having seen them on the television, but if the listener had a Sky subscription they would probably be a viewer instead.  It cannot help that the radio commentators have (as I understand it) to switch between TV and radio commentary. 

Watching a few of the highlights packages on the TV made the strangeness of the situation more evident than it had been listening to the radio : TMS, if they had chosen to, could (thanks to ‘the hum’) have just about have brought off the illusion that normality had resumed entirely ; the empty stands visible on the TV pointed up the post-apocalyptic aspect of the thing (even to one used to watching cricket at Grace Road).  No doubt, the situation felt even stranger to those actively involved.  Cricket’s elite (players, broadcasters, senior officials) are sometimes accused on living in ‘a bubble’ : to find themselves occluded for weeks in an almost literal bubble, unable to leave, is a scenario that might have appealed to Luis Bunuel.

It goes without saying, of course, that I am grateful that the series took place, and particularly to the West Indies for making it possible.  Not only was the cricket diverting, the participants’ pioneer efforts have made it possible for the lower levels of the game to resume in due course, and, of course, the revenue generated makes it more likely that there will be professional cricket for me to watch if ever the old normal returns.  I am also, in spite of my complaints, grateful for the continued existence of TMS, which at least gives me a chance to complain about something that does not really matter at all, after months of complaining about things that are only too serious.  (The nadir, while I am carping, came when Michael Vaughan seemed not only to have never heard of A.N. ‘Monkey’ Hornby, but to find the very idea of his existence absurd. O my …)

While I would never have foreseen seeing my first live game of the season at Whitby (not a ground or, indeed, a town I have visited before), there are many worse places to do so.  If my first game had been at one of my usual haunts, I imagine that I would have felt more intensely conscious of the peculiarity of the situation : at a strange ground I was less aware of the strangeness of it all. In any case, compared to the febrile atmosphere in the rest of the town, the cricket ground was a haven of normality.  It was not so much that anyone in town was doing anything that they would not normally do at the seaside (drink, eat fish and chips, sunbathe, argue), as that they seemed to be attempting to cram about four months’ worth of each into a weekend.

The ground itself is pleasant, if not outstandingly beautiful, overshadowed on one side by the Towbar Express Stadium (home of Whitby Town FC), although it stands close enough to the sea for those with a nose for it to sense its proximity.  The only obvious signs of the times were some (presumably obsolete) notices that the ground had not yet opened, and a polite request to leave my contact details. I took a while to quite adjust, at first seeing the figures in white as trees walking, but, as I began to grasp the argument of the game (in progress when I arrived), my sight was restored.  Whitby, I gathered from listening to other spectators, were bowling ; Great Ayton 2nd XI batting, and making reasonable progress when I arrived, with two finger spinners operating in tandem, but the return (presumably) of a brisk opening bowler and a run out provoked a collapse, shored up slightly by a last wicket stand, finishing on 168 (reassuring to be able to bring these comfy old clichés out of the wardrobe after so many months).

Not feeling that I could justify spending all day of a family holiday watching cricket, I left shortly after Whitby had begun their reply.  Some of the home crowd seemed pessimistic about their prospects, and they started badly, losing two cheap wickets, though apparently they later recovered to win with overs to spare.  As I left, Charlie (a keen-looking youngster) and Marshy (a burly older man with a shaved head) were opening the bowling, as I imagine any number of Charlies and Marshies were all over the country, in what, in other circumstances, would have been similarly unremarkable games. It was hardly Cardus’s ‘vision of all the cricket fields in England’ from the Mound Stand on Midsummer morning, but it almost did the trick of making me feel that if normality had not yet returned, it was not impossible that it might one day do so.

On the way to the ground I had over-trustingly relied on directions from Google Maps, which had led me through streets of boarding houses (not aided by what seems to be a Whitby custom of streets changing their names half way along their length).  On the way back I followed my nose, which led me along the clifftop, in late-afternoon marine sunshine and a stiff breeze which felt strong enough to blow any lurking coronaviruses harmlessly off into the aether.  Later that evening, a rainbow added colour to an already luminous sunset : the rainbow is another sign that has been over-freighted with symbolic weight recently, but it felt hopeful, as well as beautiful.

Trying to find if any cricket is being played in Leicestershire has been rather like the heyday of rave culture, when would-be ravers would (I’m told) drive hopefully around the M25, waiting to be tipped-off about that night’s location.  The Saturday after Whitby I eventually tracked down a friendly at Kibworth, against Oakham.  Normality in cricket (which, given the quality in Leicestershire recently, is an odd thing to be hankering after) normally involves rain, and this was a lively, but sporadic, on-off affair, which was terminated after 31 overs with Kibworth on 179-2.  A slightly melancholy note was struck by the sight of Rob Taylor, who has fetched up at Oakham, whom I remember, what seems like only last week, as a lively teenage opening bowler, bowling off about five paces and not being treated with a great deal of respect. Time waits for no man, or virus.

All of this had felt like a preamble, or overture, to the start of the season proper, on the 1st August (which was rather late for me, or anyone else), with the first games in the truncated quasi-leagues for both Leicestershire and Market Harborough (my home club).   I felt that watching both had the quality of the subtler sort of surrealism, where everything is at first sight normal, but some details are sufficiently skewed for the experience to be subtly disorientating.  I spent most of Harborough’s game with a couple of old cricket-watching companions, catching up with the news since the end of last season (most of it, I am afraid, bad).  So there was little opportunity to forget about the circumstances, even for an afternoon.

In other circumstances, I would have felt heartened, even mildly elated, about the club’s prospects for the season.  To put this into context, Harborough have only won one game in the last two years, and have suffered successive relegations.  Last season, I tended to make alternative plans for the second half of the afternoon, given that, if Harborough batted first, the game was unlikely to last past 3’o’clock.  After a promising start (we seem to have acquired a hostile opening bowler), the pattern of the game began to revert to type when the change bowlers came on.  Uppingham’s Eddie Tucker (who finished on 153) had officials consulting the regulations to see whether regularly propelling the notorious vector of disease into the road and neighbouring gardens constituted a health hazard (beyond the obvious risk of concussion).  Uppingham finished on 277-6 from their 40 overs, without even the prospect of a decent tea to encourage the home side.

Not unusually, Harborough began well (we tend to top load our batting), but, most unusually, having apparently also acquired some useful middle-order batsmen, they continued well, Uppingham visibly anxious as a fairly ignominious defeat became decreasingly inconceivable.  In the end, it was not quite to be, Harborough falling 31 runs short, but this August could prove to be a short, but (in the circumstances) merry season.

Watching Harborough caused me to miss the first day of Leicestershire’s game against Lancashire, which was being live-streamed (with some admirably cricket-orientated commentary).  Were I truly conscientious, I could have reported on the game in the same way that I usually report the live home games, except that, to employ the Woodcock/Gibson distinction, this was ‘the cricket’ without ‘the day at the cricket’ (how, I suppose, most of its audience usually watches cricket anyway).  It reminded me of one of those ‘What is wrong with this picture?’ puzzles that you used to find in children’s magazines, which offered a picture that, at first sight, appeared perfectly realistic, but, on closer inspection, was revealed to contain a number of incongruities and impossibilities.

The first thing wrong with the picture was that Leicestershire and Lancashire were playing at Worcester (instantly recognisable by the cathedral), another that the artist had erased all the spectators.  There seemed to be no cakes on sale in the Ladies’ Pavilion, and Leicestershire seemed to be using one of the cafes as a changing room.  A four-day game was being played in August.  Most incongruous of all, Leicestershire were much the better of the two sides, and completed a thrilling run chase against the odds to take 22 points.

It should be noted that Lancashire were seriously depleted (all but one of their bowlers would normally be in the 2nd XI), and that 172 of Leicestershire’s first innings total of 409-8 dec. were made by Ben Slater, now of Nottinghamshire (another deliberate mistake).  However, Leicestershire looked to be a well-balanced and competitive side : Hassan Azad continued as he had left off ; Callum Parkinson looked a much better bowler than he sometimes has in real life ; Colin Ackermann made a fine start as four-day Captain, and close observation revealed the detail of his abilities as a batsman.  The unlikely hero of the heroic final hour (when Leicestershire chased down 150 in 17 overs) was Harry Dearden, who had made a stereotypical duck in the first innings, but at the crucial moment in the second burst out of his tortoise-shell to hit 33 from 18 balls, including three sixes (to add to the two he had hit in his previous 37 games).  At this rate we will be losing him to the IPL.

The game supported the theory that, if everyone is fit and in form, Leicestershire are only a couple of high quality players away from being a successful side : it is a lot easier to keep everyone fit and in form over a month than a full season, so we may find ourselves achieving some success in an anomalous competition which, in a sense, does not matter very much, while thinking wistfully of what might have been.  I would love to say, incidentally, that the last hour was so enthralling that I forgot about the current difficulties entirely, but I am afraid that I was called away to deal with a ‘phone call involving an indirectly Covid-related crisis, so missed it completely.  

So, not such a bad start, in the circumstances.


Mr. Nice

Original Spin : Misadventures in Cricket / Vic Marks. Allen & Unwin, 2019

Broadcasters on ‘Test Match Special’ require many attributes.  Some are needed by other sports commentators : a deep knowledge of the game ; a pleasant and distinctive voice ; a gift for description.  The most difficult requirement, and one which I think is unique to ‘TMS’, is that they have to be likeable enough for the listener to want to spend five days solidly in their company.  He might not be the only one of the current crop, but my first choice as a companion for five days at the cricket would undoubtedly be Vic Marks, if only because there would be the least chance of the conversation degenerating into a monologue.  As he says : ‘’TMS’ works better when it is off the cuff and when it sounds as if it is coming from a country pub rather than a pulpit or a comedy club’.

I am not the only one to find Marks likeable.  The description that seems to dog him (it crops up in his entries on Wikipedia and Cricinfo) is Matthew Engel’s ‘a mild, nervy, self-deprecating farm boy with an Oxford degree and no enemies’ ; other common descriptions seem to be ‘mild-mannered’, ‘modest’, ‘self-deprecating’, ‘amiable’ and ‘nice’. If it had not previously been bagged by his namesake Howard, he could have entitled his autobiography ‘Mr. Nice’, instead of the rather disappointing ‘Original Spin’.  His previous book, written, as he says ‘a mere 32 years ago’, had the memorable title ‘Marks Out of XI’, but that one had rather fallen into his lap (he had been commissioned to write about the 1984/5 tour of India, when he was not chosen to play in any of the Tests).  There is a danger that niceness, like happiness, ‘writes white’ : I found that the pervasive amiability and discretion made the book a pleasure to read, but harder to write about than one which is persistently wrong-headed and obnoxious.

Marks (and his publishers) cannot be accused of going for the hard sell.  Apart from the lacklustre title, the cover features an unflattering photograph of the author wearing one of England’s many questionable one-day strips, tossing up a (perhaps anachronistic?) white ball, so that it forms the O of ‘Original’.  The expression on his face may be meant to convey that he is plotting some fiendish variation for his next delivery, but it looks more as if he is squinting into the sun and struggling to stifle a sneeze.  In the first chapter, he provides a kind of reverse trigger-warning ‘do not anticipate passages specifically designed for lucrative serialisations in the national press.  There may be a few insights into some of the foremost cricketing characters of the last four decades ; don’t expect too many revelations’.  (He may have read Derek Pringle’s recent book, and decided that the public’s appetite for sensational revelations about cricket in the 1980s had already been sated.)

If he had wanted to choose a cover image which more accurately represented the contents of the book, he could have chosen the one which appears on the back cover, depicted himself, Vivian Richards, Brian Rose, Ian Botham and Peter Denning sharing a joke on what I take to be a balcony at Lord’s.  Alternatively, he could have gone for the one of Peter Roebuck, himself and Botham, captioned ‘Ian, now playing for Worcestershire, and Pete are not talking. And I’m stuck in the middle.’ Between them, they cover the main themes.  The first sentence establishes two of the main characters, as well as the pervading tone of self-deprecation : ‘’Well, we’re not going to get into the team ahead of him.’ Peter Roebuck and I stared at one another and simultaneously came to the same conclusion’ (‘him’ being Vivian Richards).  The other principal (Botham) makes his entrance on page three.

Although his insights into the characters of Botham and Richards are shrewd enough, I did not feel that I had learned anything new about them. As in most accounts, Richards is portrayed as imperious, supremely self-confident and intimidating (not only to opposition bowlers, but also his own team-mates) : Marks seems to have admired him from a distance, rather than becoming in any way intimate with him.  He also seems to have maintained a prudent social distance between himself and Botham (whom he always refers to as ‘Ian’, rather than ‘Beefy’), bringing off the useful trick of keeping on amiable terms with him, without being drawn too far into his boozy orbit (the main revelation about him being what the index refers to as his ‘cribbage addiction’).  Perhaps the truly great players always seem to have this one-dimensional quality, either because we have heard their stories too many times, or because a lack of psychological complexity is a prerequisite for greatness in cricket, or possibly a consequence of it.

The third main character, Peter Roebuck, also remains an ultimately enigmatic figure, in spite of the fact that Marks spent most of his career playing alongside him, and could claim to have known him as well as anyone.  In his case, the problem seems to have been an excess of psychological complexity, rather than a lack of it : although he paints a vivid portrait, Marks generally declines to play the amateur psychiatrist (some might think that Roebuck would have benefited from consulting a professional one).  When speaking of (or to) him, Marks chooses his words carefully : when told of the decision to dispense with Richards and Garner, ‘my immediate view, which did not change, was that ‘In your shoes I would not do that’’.  Twice, with regard to his partial estrangement from his old friend, he uses similar formations : ‘He always sought affirmation from me that he had taken the right course in 1986 and I was never able to give it to him’ and, later, ‘on that score Pete kept seeking my seal of approval for the upheavals of 1986, without success’.  He is clearly baffled and saddened by the activities that brought Roebuck into conflict with the police, and more so by the ending to his story.

Marks’s England career (6 Tests and 34 ODIs) overlapped with Derek Pringle’s (and he went on three tours to Pringle’s one), but they appear to have enjoyed very different off-field experiences.  Either Marks is too discreet to report on the more bacchanalian aspects, or he may have been temperamentally disinclined to indulge in them (his attachment to his wife, Anna, whom he met at Oxford, and who is a happy presence throughout the book, may have precluded him from joining Pringle in any air-hostess related shenanigans, even if he had had the inclination).  He makes a promising start by receiving his first call-up to an England squad after an evening drinking free Pernod in Bournemouth, followed by an unbeaten 81 and 1-26 in 11 overs in a B&H zonal match, which was fortunately witnessed by the then Chairman of Selectors, Alec Bedser, but after that the nearest thing to a lurid revelation is that some ‘dope’ ‘may’ have been introduced into A.C. Smith’s birthday cake.  (He generally seems quite keen on the stuff (though less so than his namesake), and, in a rare almost controversial aside, suggests that ‘some dope should almost become compulsory after an England ODI victory, especially in Bristol’.)  

I found the sections relating to his England career the least interesting in the book.  He has some acute insights into his fellow-players’ characters (especially Botham’s), and some good stories, but the drawback with waiting 32 years to write a second book is that I seem to have heard most them of them before : I find that there are only so many times that I want to read about Chris Tavare folding his pyjamas, or Eddie Hemmings snoring.  What he does have in common with Pringle is that the heart of his experience as a cricketer lay with his county, and the most rewarding sections of the book (apart from those devoted to his family) are about his days with Somerset.

Even as someone with no connection to that county, I found it pleasantly evocative of the times to read about the ‘couple of sofas and an old gas fire’ in their ‘homely dressing room’, and the ‘dingy stone-floored room, which in later years would serve far more appropriately as modest toilets for gentlemen spectators’ which served as accommodation for newly recruited players (when they were demolished to make way for the new pavilion, ‘there were no preservation orders to overcome in that process’).  I enjoyed being reminded of half-forgotten names : Bob Clapp (‘a gangling pace bowler from Burnham-on-Sea … who would one day become a far better teacher’) ; Mervyn Kitchen (removing his false teeth before going out to face Colin Croft at Southport, and taking his dog Thumper to pre-season training) ; Trevor Gard (‘his sense of fair play could be infuriating’).  I also liked the story about Marks attempting to distract Richards from menacing Jim Lawton (of ‘The Express’) by saying ‘Viv, they’re out there’ (‘a reference to the umpires putting the bails on, which were also the words that often constituted a team talk at Somerset’).  If these sound like some of your favourite things too, you will find plenty more to enjoy in the book.

True to his reputation, Marks rarely has a bad word to say about anyone (other than himself), and when he does, he can usually find some mitigation.  He admits that the young Imran Khan ‘could sometimes appear haughty’, but ‘in part that may have been due to shyness’.  E.W. Swanton ‘was renowned (quite rightly) for his pomposity’, but ‘by the time he reached his eighties he was, I think, prepared to parody himself now and again’.  He even allows that Giles Clarke, who comes in for more sustained hostility than anyone else (going so far as to break out his Latin) was, as Somerset chairman, ‘undoubtedly a positive influence’, but, moving on to his time at the ECB ‘It is not so easy to be positive about his contributions there’.  Daniel Norcross is ‘seldom dull, not a bad attribute for a broadcaster’, and he even manages to describe ‘The Guardian’ as ‘civilised’.  When he disapproves of something he tends to couch it in general terms, without mentioning names, and allows the reader to join the dots : ‘you are on air [on ‘TMS’] for so long that it would be impossible to sustain an act as a clown or a curmudgeon throughout an entire test match’.

It is only when talking about Victor Marks that he allows himself to be ‘brutally’ honest.  He describes his brother’s sending-off of a teammate at Middle Chinnock for ‘boorish behaviour’ as being ‘as impressive as anything I ever managed on a cricket field’.  He admits that he was more effective as a bowler in ODIs than Tests : ‘In Test cricket more was required from a spin bowler, more zip through the air and spin off the pitch that might actually dismiss batsmen when they were defending’.  His first Test wicket ‘- and there would not be many more – was a bogus one’.  Against Pakistan in 1984 ‘my batting was hopeless and my bowling no more than adequate’.  When he plays his final Test : ‘I would have liked to play more Tests but … I can understand why they did not pick me again’.  His self-praise tends to be pretty faint, any blowing of his own trumpet muted.  His 5-20 against New Zealand (a record at the time) was ‘thanks to the sluggishness of the surface and their yearning to accelerate, plus the fact that the off-breaks were landing in the right place’.  On taking 9-28 in Australian grade cricket ‘it must have turned a bit, I suppose, and I did not bowl much rubbish.  Even so … it’s hard to imagine how this ever came about’.  On taking his career-best 8-17 ‘on a worn pitch at Bath’ : ‘the ball spun a lot and I must have bowled well’.  

So, a modest man with much to be modest about? Not at all. His estimate of his Test career may be accurate rather than merely self-deprecating, but his one-day bowling (which he rather underplays) entitled him to respect (both his average and economy rates were superior to his England contemporaries Emburey, Miller and Hemmings).  His contribution to Somerset’s successes went far beyond his skills as a ‘conciliator’ (his word), and he was memorably and unusually (for an Englishman) part of a Sheffield Shield-winning side.  The secret of his success as a journalist is similar to that of his bowling, in that it is based on relentless accuracy (not a bad attribute for a cricket correspondent), combined with the ability to impart an unexpected spin on to an apparently straightforward delivery.

He gives the impression of being a rather reluctant author.  Apart from emphasising the 32-year gap between books, he writes of chairing the Cricket Society Book of the Year award for nine years : ‘The company and erudition of the judges … were always a delight.  So too were some of the books, but not all of them.  And I’m increasingly conscious that I’m now adding to the pile.’  In the same way that he has no pretensions to being a Verity or Laker as a bowler, he does not attempt to compete with his predecessors Robinson-Glasgow and Ross as a writer, and there are few attempts at virtuoso literary effects.  When he does employ a simile (describing Phil Edmonds, who had temporarily lost his run-up, as ‘shuffling one step, like a nervous duckling on a riverbank’) it makes you realise how rarely he uses them (perhaps taking to heart the advice of one of his editors).

His techniques for imparting his spin are harder to detect when reading a single article than they are over the length of a book.  One, as Paul Edwards noted in his review for Cricinfo, is that ‘He is a master of the paragraph that recounts an event only for the final sentence to offer a pleasing contrast or dry observation on all that has gone before.’  Another is that when he wants to make a point, or even just a joke, he tends to conceal it in parentheses (Geoffrey Boycott, in particular, comes in from some quite pointed parentheses).  His mastery of these contrapuntal techniques is also one of the qualities that make him perfectly suited to his role as a radio summariser (he admits, characteristically, that he was less successful as a commentator).

So, a likeable book by a likeable man.  This may sound like damning with faint praise, but in a time when his virtues – modesty, fairness, subtlety, good humour and reticence – are not only often underrated, but even regarded as defects, I intend it as a strong recommendation.  The ending of the book does not have a precisely valedictory tone (he is not intending to say goodbye quite yet), but he is aware that ‘the invitations [to appear on TMS] may not be quite so frequent now’, and that ‘I may be regarded as something of a throwback at ‘The Guardian’ and in the press box’.  We should make sure to enjoy his company while we still can.

Fifty Years On

I have never been much of a collector, but I am something of an accumulator.  ‘Collector’ implies to me that building the collection, with its implication of organisation and completeness, is the primary point of an acquisition, whereas we accumulators acquire objects for their use-value, and build a collection as a by-product, simply because we have not discarded them.  In the world of cricket, I’d say ‘Wisden’ (though far from useless, of course) is attractive to collectors, whereas the ‘Playfair Cricket Annual’ attracts accumulators, of whom I am one.  

I have recently acquired this season’s ‘Playfair’ online, with some regret.  If I can wait, I prefer to buy it from the Friends of Grace Road shop, but, I have regretfully concluded, the season will be almost over before I see that again, if I ever do.  It occurred to me that it is now fifty years since I possessed my first copy of the annual, bought for me by my Father, partly, I now realise, though I did not at the time, to distract me while he attended to his own Father, who was seriously ill.

Fifty years is a considerable period of time, an observation which may seem a statement of the obvious to anyone who has not lived that long.  Although 1970 and 2020 seem to me to be part of the same era in the world of cricket, if we take it back another fifty we are in the immediate aftermath of the First War, and fifty years before that we are at the dawn of the modern age in cricket (Grace’s first year with Gloucestershire, before Test matches or a formal County Championship, and not long after the legalisation of overarm bowling).  So, I find that I have been watching cricket for, at least, a third of the time that the game has existed in its current form.

I can trace the history of my relationship with cricket by looking through my accumulation of ‘Playfair’s.  I originally owned the editions from 1970 to (I think) 1975, by which time it had been superseded as my most-browsed reference book of choice by ‘The NME Book of Rock’, which shared its suggestive, gnomic, abbreviations (bs, vcl rather than LHB, RFM), and ability to make artists (or cricketers) whom I had never seen or heard appear more interesting than they probably were.  I don’t think that I ever saw Billy Blenkiron bowl, but I could have once given you a potted resume of his life and career (he played football for Spennymoor United, you know), in the same way that I could have named all of the albums by Grand Funk (Railroad), though I had never heard their music, and would not have liked it much if I had.

After that, my interest waned, and all the editions between 1976 and 2001 (the year he died) were inherited from my Dad.  I had bought the 1988 and 1990 editions, in a period when there had been a twitch on the thread and I was being drawn back to cricket, but then nothing until 2002, the year I became a member at Leicestershire.  Since then, the fluctuations in my preoccupation with cricket can be gauged by the tattiness of the ‘Playfair’, the tattiest of the lot being 2015, the last year I was at work, the result of my carrying it with me in the overstuffed bag I lugged around on my commute.  I very much did not want to be on that train, or in that office, and lost myself in thumbing through the fixture list, plotting my periodic escapes to Radlett or Finedon. 

The essence of ‘Playfair’ is that, being genuinely pocket-sized, it is designed to accompany a day at the cricket, and, specifically, a day of Championship cricket (as opposed to ‘Wisden’, which I imagine is best read on a Winter’s evening, in an overstuffed armchair, accompanied by a glass or two of port).  Although it does contain scorecards of the previous year’s Tests, international averages and records, the heart of it is the ‘County Register’, which gives the details of all players contracted to a county, and the fixtures, including those of the 2nd XIs and the Minor Counties (these last were omitted one year, in a rare misjudgement, but hastily restored).  At any county ground you can observe the regulars consulting it, enabling them to inform their neighbours that so-and-so’s 37 means that he only needs another 23 for his highest first-class score, or that Snooks and Bloggs are only five away from equalling the record for their county’s eighth wicket (if you hear an outbreak of apparently random applause, ‘Playfair’ will probably be at the root of it).

Both prefaces found the Editors in apprehensive mood.  Gordon Ross’s preface to the 1970 annual is entitled ‘This Difficult Summer’, the cause of the difficulty being the then still imminent tour by the South Africans (pen-pictures of the tourists are provided), and the threat of its disruption by protestors.  As he put it ‘we face one of the gravest situations in the history of the Noble Game … few watchers of the first-class game are counting the days before the first ball is bowled with the relish of summers gone by’.  In his foreword to the 2020 edition, dated 16th March, Editor Ian Marshall writes that ‘Things are expected to get worse before they get any better, so I fear that the fixture list at the back of the book could prove to be a case of wishful thinking’.

In the event, 1970 turned into one of the best Summers of sport I can remember, even allowing for the aurifying distortions of memory.  The South African tour was, of course, called off by order of the Government, to be replaced by a five-match series against a Rest of the World XI under the captaincy of Gary Sobers.  This allowed English audiences to see the South African stars, and enabled them to demonstrate that they were happy to play in a multi-racial team.  There may have been better bowling sides in Test cricket, but I can think of fewer stronger batting line-ups than Barlow, Richards, Kanhai, Pollock (R.G.),  Mushtaq Mohammed, Sobers, Lloyd, Procter, Murray, Intikhab Alam, McKenzie.  Even they, though, were in the shade of the Mexico World Cup, which is generally thought to have featured the best side (Brazil) and the best game (Italy v West Germany) in footballing history.  If only there were a chance that this Summer might turn out to be as ‘difficult’!

A part of ‘Playfair‘’s appeal is that its format is unchanging, conveying a sense of continuity.  Players appear in the Register when they are ‘awaiting First XI’ debut, the length of their entry swells as they reach their prime, before they shuffle off into the ranks of the ‘Released/retired’ in the addendum to their County’s listings, to be replaced by a new generation, in their turn ‘awaiting First XI debut’.  The great cycle of existence unfolds before your eyes, with full career records.

Fifty years is enough for time’s tide to wash away a generation : there is no-one who appears in both the 1970 and 2020 editions.  The oldest Umpire to have played first-class cricket, Jeremy Lloyds (born November 1954) did not make his debut until 1979, Ian Gould, though slightly younger, first played in 1975.  The oldest player in 1970 was Derek Shackleton (born 1924), and the youngest Richard Lumb (1950) : the oldest now is Darren Stevens (born 1976), the youngest Blake Cullen of Middlesex (born 2002).  There is nothing logically surprising in this, of course, but it acquires significance if viewed from the fixed perspective of one born in 1960, having the illusion of standing still while the cavalcade passes by.  In 1970 the oldest Umpire (‘Lofty’ Herman, born 1907) was two years younger than my Grandfather : now, Leicestershire have ten players younger than my Daughter.  In 1970 the youngest player was ten years’ older than me, now there are only six Umpires older.  And so it goes.

The game has not, of course, stood still in the course of fifty years, and ‘Playfair’ has gamely strained to accommodate those changes.  The 1970 edition was 224 pages long, now stretched to 351 (if it carries on expanding like this, it will be shaped like a cube and fit only for the pockets of a poacher) : the ‘County Register’ alone has grown from 83 to 121 pages .  It is true that there is now an extra County (Durham), the details of the Irish men’s team are provided, as are those of the England women’s squad (who last appeared in the large format version in the 1950s).  The county squads have grown (in 1970 Yorkshire made do with 18 contracted players, they now have 31), as have their lists of officials.  In 1970 a Secretary and Captain seemed enough, in 2020 Surrey have a Chief Executive, a Director of Cricket, a Head Coach, two Assistant Coaches and two Captains.  In 1970 there was no need to specify how many Twitter followers a County’s account had (I’m not entirely convinced there is now).

The biggest change that has had to be accommodated is, of course, the proliferation of limited overs cricket.  1970 ‘Playfair’ reported on the previous year’s Gillette Cup, and the first season of the John Player League (which ‘in games affected by the weather reduced cricket to an absurdity’), but did not include any statistics or records relating to limited overs games.  In 2020, there are two sets of career averages for county players and international cricket, and each player’s details are swollen by their best performances in three types of cricket.  As if recognising that a line has to be drawn somewhere, only England’s T20 averages are included, and only the bare figures for the players’ best performances in T20, rather than against whom they were achieved.  And, spying where madness lies, the Editor notes that :

‘For both men’s and women’s IT20 records sections, I have taken the decision to limit the records listed to those games that feature at least one side that has appeared in an official LOI.  While I welcome the ICC’s efforts to broaden the game’s profile, when Uganda’s women can beat Mali’s by 304 runs (after scoring 314-2 – including a run out), you wonder who really benefits here.  Or when Turkey’s men set the three lowest scores on record on successive days, do they deserve to be shamed three times over?’ 

Space has also had to be found for the ‘The Hundred Register’, though not as much as you might think (as the Editor notes, all but eleven of the players are already contracted to one of the Counties, and can be dealt with by a cross-reference).  It does, though, contain the unlovely details of how much they are being paid.  We shall have to see whether this register becomes a recurring feature, or whether its presence makes 2020 a collector’s item.

Not much has been dispensed with to make room for all these statistics.  The University Match has gone, as have the Minor Counties and 2nd XI tables.  There are no advertisements, as there is no room even for the little box adverts that sometimes provided an inadvertent commentary on the text, such as one offering to cure your inferiority complex next to England’s record against Australia, or this, from the 1969 edition (who could have foreseen that outcome?)

In the ‘Register’, the players’ details have boiled down into data, with any hint of subjectivity, embroidery, or narrative eliminated, which is rather a pity.  In the old large format ‘Playfair’, the Editors had room to convey some idea of the players’ styles.  In the 1954 edition, Denis Compton is described as ‘at his best, a genius still’, and Alec Bedser as the ‘greatest RFM in the world today’.  The most common terms are ‘sound’ (defensive) or ‘forcing’ (attacking) RHB, but sometimes a more vivid description slips in : Fred Ridgway (of Kent) is a ‘bucolic RHB’, Reg Perks (Worcestershire) is an ‘antagonistic LHB’, and Eric Hollies an ‘unambitious RHB’.  Occasionally, there is a hint of Julian and Sandy : Haydn Davies (Glamorgan) is a ‘virile RHB’, Tom Hall (Somerset) has a ‘splendid physique’, Doug Wright is the ‘most highly endowed of all … LBG bowlers’, and John Deighton (Lancashire) was an ‘RFM’, who ‘swings both ways’.

By 1970, this practice only applied to fielding (Gary Sobers alone is allowed the additional epithet – ‘outstanding all-rounder’) : players are described variously as ‘useful’, ‘good’, ‘fine’, ‘very fine’, ‘outstanding’, or, in the case of Clive Lloyd, ‘brilliant’ fields.  No-one, disappointingly, is described as ‘slow’, ‘unreliable’, or ‘butter-fingered’.  In 2020, I imagine, it is simply assumed that they are all, at least, ‘useful’ fieldsmen.  Nicknames and diminutives, too, have generally been culled (I think during the Editorship of Bill Frindall, who have may tired of them during his stint on TMS).  I’m not sure Kenneth ‘Ken’ Shuttleworth ever added much, but Norman George ‘Smokey’ Featherstone and David William ‘Butch’ White added a little colour.  At least Edmund John Holden Eckersley is granted his ‘Ned’, though there is no mention of his impressive array of alternative nicknames.

Gone too are the little vignettes of serious injury which used to intrigue me as a child.  As is well-known, Fred Titmus left the 1967/8 tour of the West Indies early ‘through loss of four toes in an accident’, but less well-remembered are William James ‘Jim’ Stewart of Warwickshire who, mysteriously, ‘had big toe of left foot amputated during 1962-63 winter’ (I had always imagined this was the result of frostbite in the cold Winter, but apparently it was not), and Michael Eric John Charles ‘Mick’ Norman (by then of Leicestershire) who ‘missed first month of 1965 season owing to hands being burnt by scalding fat’.  Perhaps improved awareness of health and safety has eliminated such hazards from the lives of our cricketers.  

Other space-fillers to have disappeared are the details of benefits (W.E. Russell’s realised £7,975 in 1967) and occupations outside cricket (Richard Hutton ‘is a chartered accountant’), including other sports (predominantly association football).  Sometimes there is a simple note ‘plays soccer’ (or, more rarely ‘rugger’), but a significant proportion played at least semi-professionally : five members of the Gloucestershire squad had played for either Bristol Rovers or Bristol City, and Barrie Meyer had played for both.  Apart from the lengthening seasons in both sports, I presume 12-month contracts now mean that there is no need to earn a living in the Winter.  More exotically,  David Acfield had fenced for Britain in the Olympics, Don Wilson was a ‘good badminton player’ and George Sharp was an ‘England Boys table tennis player’.

There have been additions, as well as subtractions.  All players now have their schools and universities listed after their name ; in 1970, only a minority.  I would have guessed that it was only those educated at public schools, but that does not seem to have been the case : John D. Gray is listed as having been educated at ‘Woodlands Comprehensive School, Coventry’, for instance.  He was also a pioneer, in being a ‘student at Loughborough College of Physical Education’.  In 1970, the small number of the university-educated had almost all been to Oxford or Cambridge, now a much larger number have attended one of the MCC Universities.  In a similarly egalitarian spirit, all players now have their height noted, whereas in 1970 it was only the ‘very tall’ : we learn that Anthony John Stockley (of Surrey) was 6 ft. 7½ inches, but Harry Pilling’s height is passed over in silence.

Some of the additions have been useful.  The players’ squad numbers are now listed (particularly useful, I find, at second team games, where you cannot always locate a scorecard), and the letters NQ are used to indicate when a player is not qualified to play for England, sometimes with an explanation of why they are not counted as an overseas player either (Grant Stewart, for instance, is ‘UK qualified due to Italian mother’).  Less useful, perhaps, but unavoidable to save space, are the 61 abbreviations of the names of overseas teams listed in the glossary : I don’t know how many of the players have represented the Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL), or the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), but, unabbreviated, the teams’ names would make the entries for some of the more-travelled T20 specialists longer than Gary Sobers’ in 1970.

The 1970 edition did not pack quite the Proustian kick I was expecting it to (the height of my ‘Playfair’ addiction came a little later, I think), but it still possesses the not inconsiderable ability to bring back to life a Summer, and in some ways a world, long gone, even if its original purpose was less elevated.  (‘Wisden‘ is self-consciously a journal of record, with one eye always on posterity ; ‘Playfair‘ achieves it by accident.) My copy of the 2020 edition seems fated to remain a melancholy and neglected object, largely unthumbed, other than for the purpose of writing this article, which, in its own way, will make it a potent memento of a lost season.

Whether there will be anyone who will revisit 2020 ‘Playfair’ in fifty years’ time and compare it to the 2070 edition, I am afraid I doubt.  It is possible that some indulgent father will gift his child a copy, who may have their attention snagged by names such as Felix Spencer Organ, as mine was by John Devereux Dubricious (‘dubious’? ‘lubricious’?) Pember, or be as fascinated by the absurdity of Turkey losing to the Czech Republic by 257 runs in a T20 game as I once was by Victoria’s 1107 against New South Wales, but it is as likely that our child would be puzzled by the notion of paying money for a little book, when the information it contains can all be found for nothing on their ‘phone.

And even if our putative child were to have become an addict, there is no guarantee that there will be a ‘Playfair’ to feed their addiction in 2070.  For all its attempts to accommodate the world of T20, ‘Playfair’’s reason for being is as a good companion to Championship games, and, as I may have mentioned before, that competition seems unlikely to survive another half-century in a form that would have been recognisable to Gordon Ross. But then, as I may have also said before, somebody will have been saying that for the last fifty years, and I am aware that it has probably been me.

Lost Seasons

Lancashire Hotpot, by T.C.F. Prittie. Hutchinson, [1948?]

The Lost Seasons : Cricket in Wartime, 1939-45, by Eric Midwinter. Methuen, 1987.

In ‘Full Score’, published in 1970, Neville Cardus recounted the story, which he had originally told in his ‘Autobiography’, of how he had been in the Long Room at Lord’s in August 1939, shortly before the invasion of Poland, to watch Middlesex play Warwickshire.  Observing two workmen removing the bust of W.G. Grace, an elderly member had turned to him and said ‘Did you see that? That means war’.  Cardus added, rather plaintively, ‘Nobody has believed that actually it did happen, yet it is true’.

The truth of his story has certainly been questioned : Eric Midwinter, in ‘The Lost Seasons’, asserts that Cardus was already in Australia at the time, whereas Christopher O’Brien, in ‘Cardus Uncovered’, prefers the theory that he was on holiday in Derbyshire.  If it is debatable whether he witnessed the last day of the last first-class season in England before the war, there is no doubt that he was not there to see the first day of the first full season after it (by which time he was undeniably in Australia). 

It was, though, witnessed by his successor as Cricket Correspondent of the ‘Manchester Guardian’, Terence Prittie or, as he appears on the title page of ‘Lancashire Hotpot’, The Hon. T.C.F. Prittie (the honorific derives from his having been a son of an impoverished Anglo-Irish peer, as they mostly were, by that point). ‘Hotpot’ appears to be a compilation of pieces written for the MG in the course of the 1946 season, predominantly match reports, mixed (in the manner of a hot-pot) with some player-portraits, and a few opinion pieces.  It is another book that I bought some time ago (2015, judging by the receipt inserted as a bookmark), but have yet to read : now, given that he is describing the return of cricket after a long absence, seemed like a propitious time.

Had Cardus been there to report on the first day of the season, when Worcestershire took on the Indian tourists at New Road (or even if he had been on holiday in Derbyshire), I imagine that he would have summoned his famed ‘lyrical’ powers to convey the joy and relief of being able to watch cricket again after six years of war.  Prittie took a more restrained approach, his first paragraph reading :

The first match of any cricket season is an event.  But the first match of the 1946 season was something quite particular.  For six years there had been no regular first-class cricket, no county championship with its packed programme of matches, which are, in a sense, more vital to the cricket enthusiast than the gladiatorial Test Matches of the year.  To everyone who came to Worcester … the match meant a return to normality, a return to the old way of life in the nineteen-thirties, which may have been bustling but was not necessarily frenzied, lastly it meant a more faithful truce than the VE and VJ days which somehow did not bring the settled reality of peace.’

One might have expected some more extravagant expression of a sense of release, given that the author had been taken prisoner at Calais in 1940 and had spent the rest of the war in prisoner-of-war camps, where he organised games of cricket and, somehow, managed to contribute articles to ‘The Cricketer’. In that time he made six unsuccessful attempts to escape, which makes my occasional trips to Sainsbury’s to buy items that are not, strictly speaking, essential seem pretty small beer.

Prittie’s wish for a return to an unfrenzied normality was partially fulfilled : for the most part, the season he describes might have taken place in 1936, or 1956.  Like any good cricket-writer (or any ordinary spectator), he has his foibles and his favourites, his bugbears and hobbyhorses.  On that first day at Worcester, rather than wasting time in reflecting on the pleasures of freedom, he gets well and truly stuck into Cooper and Gibbons of Worcestershire for failing to take enough short runs (a recurrent theme of his) :

Cooper developed one maddening trick, that of playing a junket-soft stroke to the off-side and then starting off on a meaningless little scamper with his head down – four paces up the pitch and four back again. … This antic of his was as meaningless as the ma oeuvres (sic – standards of proof-reading had yet to the return to pre-war levels) of the Palace guards on the square at Monte Carlo.

… By their studied laziness, Cooper and Gibbons lost 15 runs at least while they were together and as a result their stand of 41 fell below the run-a-minute level.  Cooper at one period went almost to sleep in a small three-foot square vacuum of his own creating.  He seemed no longer in touch with the game outside the narrow orbit of his meticulous but restricted footwork and only a painful deflection on to his own chin brought him back to life.’

This, of course, appears to be a complaint, but it is also a covert celebration : what could better exemplify a return to pre-war normality than being frustrated by slow scoring batsmen, or having nothing worse to worry about than that?

The passage illustrates the essence of Prittie’s style : while less self-consciously ‘literary’ than his predecessor, he was capable of some wonderfully humorous word-pictures, interspersed with some severe, and occasionally gratuitous, dismissals. Although I doubt whether he spoke with quite the same accent, I was sometimes reminded of Terry Wogan’s commentaries on the Eurovision Song Contest. At Worcester, the heavily-sweatered Gul Mahommed ‘was a barrel of white wool’.  Cyril Washbrook’s ‘innings are as tasteful and elaborate as a petit-point design’. In a phrase that seems to compete with (or parody) Cardus, Hammond’s cover drive ‘rippled across the ground as quickly as sunlight falling on lake water’.

Zoological comparisons were a favourite of Prittie’s. ‘Three times’, he tells us, Walter Robins ‘came out to Pollard with a skip and a dive, as light and volatile as a redshank on the saltings’.  Armanath ‘goes for’ Hutton’s legs ‘like a prison dog for a convict’. After some uncharacteristically aggressive strokes, Winston Place ‘like the mole after his sun bath … withdraws to the quiet and stillness of his usual domain’.  ‘Bedser’s antics’ are ‘like a roving retriever’.  Of Hammond : ‘a cricket ball is engulfed by his huge hands with the same finality with which a bun disappears down an elephant’s throat’.

In a survey of English spinners, James Langridge is dismissed as ‘reliable, but ageing and infinitely tedious’.  Phillipson’s defence is ‘exact, but hopelessly senile’.  Mankad is ‘as hard to shift as a piece of dough on the bottom of a frying pan’..  Judge ‘perpetrates his 0 with the same certain regularity as a well-trained hen’.  Roberts is simply ‘negligible and erratic’.

Tails were a curious preoccupation. Lancashire’s is, variously, ‘long and erratically motile’ or ‘quivering’ ; England’s is ‘brawny, but ineffectual’, or ‘long and limp’.  ‘For strokeless ineptitude and a sad lack of resilience, the Middlesex tail-enders were even exceeding expectations’.

Through this mass of detail and stylistic quirks, the retelling of long-gone and mostly long-forgotten games, a season lost to memory re-emerges to replace the one we have so far lost to disease.  Long-gone, and mostly long-dead, players are conjured back to life to fight old battles, rising up from the ground like a skeleton army – and less vividly the immortals (the Huttons, Comptons and Hammonds) than the half-remembered ones (Winston Place, Dick Pollard), and those now unknown  (who, after reading Prittie’s description, would not want to learn more about Cooper and Gibbons, the ‘hopelessly senile’ Phillipson, or the ‘negligible’ Roberts, not to mention ‘Iberian-dusky W.E. Jones and the monastically abstinent Lavis’?)

The frontispiece to the book

is captioned ‘Old Trafford on a damp and dismal day in May.  The roof of the Pavilion is still war-scarred’ and, however strong the desire to return to normality may have been, some of the scars left by the war were still unhealed in 1946 (and were to remain so for some years after).

Military references abound : Roberts lets go of his bat in the course of a hook, and the square-leg Umpire ‘ducked with a wary economy of movement which any man who has watched a V-1 bomb coming at his nose has learnt to cultivate’.  Lancashire go on ‘the offensive, for another cheap wicket would have let their bowlers in among the tail-enders like German panzers in a French digging battalion.’  ‘The Middlesex bowlers launched a final-hour assault which for courageous desperation resembled the German drive in the Ardennes in 1944’.  References to Dunkirk may now have become irksome, but Prittie feels entitled to employ them, as one who may have narrowly missed out on the evacuation.

One side-effect of the war was that Leicestershire were forced to play their game against Lancashire at Barwell (other games being played at Hinckley, Ashby and Melton), having found that when they had reconvened at their Aylestone Road ground it had been damaged by bombing and the electricity works had encroached on to the outfield.  There Prittie, although initially charmed by the rustic setting, was seriously unimpressed by the behaviour of the crowd, leading him to urge that ‘cricket must not … be allowed to become the cockshy of the bucks and bumpkins whose spiritual homes are the prize-ring and the greyhound track’ (some aspects of post-war cricket cannot have been entirely to his taste).

Part of the return to normality was that, for the most part, the counties fielded substantially the same sides that had turned out for them in 1939, the professionals having generally been honourably kept on a retainer throughout the war (minus, of course, those who had died, and a small number who had retired). This meant, in turn, that there were a far from normal number of players in their thirties, forties, and even fifties (J.C. Clay of Glamorgan, one of the leading wicket-takers in 1946, was 52).

Part of the return to normality was that, for the most part, the counties fielded substantially the same sides that had turned out for them in 1939, the professionals having generally been honourably kept on a retainer throughout the war (minus, of course, those who had died, and a small number who had retired). This meant, in turn, that there were a far from normal number of players in their thirties, forties, and even fifties (J.C. Clay of Glamorgan, one of the leading wicket-takers in 1946, was 52).

Prittie (apart from his occasional references to ‘senility’) does not labour this point, but Eric Midwinter, in his invaluable ‘Lost Seasons’, provides the detail.  The Yorkshire side who won the Championship in 1946, for instance, contained eleven players who had featured in their winning side of 1939 : only Herbert Sutcliffe and Arthur Wood had retired, and the replacement for Hedley Verity, Arthur Booth, who had made his 2nd XI debut as long ago as 1923, was older than Verity, at 43.  As Midwinter puts it

A Rip Van Winkle of the 1940s, having avoided military service with the assistance of a six year doze, might have been forgiven for not realizing that time had slipped away over English cricket fields’.

He might, though, have an inkling that something about those sides was not quite right.

The England side that took the field in the Tests against India benefited from a core of batsmen who had made their debuts shortly before the war, and who were now still in their prime, even if they had lost many of what should have been their best seasons : Hutton (30), Washbrook (31), Compton (28), Hardstaff (34) and Bill Edrich (30) to accompany Hammond, who, even at 43, topped the first class averages in 1946 with 84.90.  The youngest four continued to be the backbone of England’s batting for the next ten years.

The bowling, however, had been weakened by the deaths of Verity and Ken Farnes.  Bill Bowes and Bill Voce (both 37) were tried, though Voce had last played for England in 1936, and Bowes’ health had been badly affected by his period in a POW camp.  Dick Pollard and Frank Smailes, neither young nor generally thought to be of Test standard, were given games, as was the 38 year old Alf Gover : only Alec Bedser, making his debut at the age of 27, offered much hope for the future, and he was to have a lot of bowling to do in the immediate post-war period.  Other than Bedser, the nearest thing to a purely post-war cricketer in the side was Godfrey Evans, who had made his debut for Kent in July 1939, and turned 26 on the rest day of his first Test match.

Midwinter identifies the cause of this post-war malaise as ‘the unknown warriors of the lost seasons’ – the players who were too young to have played pre-war, and had no opportunity to serve the usual apprenticeships during the war years, the worst affected being those born between 1924 and 1928.   Although the pre-war generation were enough to carry the batting, the seam bowling continued to be overly reliant on Bedser until the emergence of Trueman, Statham, Tyson and Loader, all born between 1929 and 1931, as were Peter May, Tony Lock and Ken Barrington.  Colin Cowdrey followed in 1932.

Apart from the fact that I am rapidly running out of things to read, I originally dug out Prittie’s book in the hope, I think, of experiencing a vicarious sense of elation at being able to return to cricket after a long period of deprivation and confinement.  More generally, I do not find it helpful to look to the war to illuminate our current predicament (if we employ the coping mechanisms appropriate to wartime we find ourselves in the same position as hedgehogs curling into balls into the face of oncoming traffic), but, where cricket is concerned, it is difficult to think of another precedent.

The parallels are clearly not close, even leaving aside the obvious large disparities in danger, deaths and deprivation.  Even if the entire county season were to be abandoned, there should be no danger of another ‘lost generation’, no test player will lose six years in the prime of his career, and the England team should be able to pick up more or less where they left off in the Winter.

However, as Midwinter’s book reveals, the current situation is, in one respect, worse than in wartime, in that far more cricket took place during the war than is commonly thought, simply not first-class cricket.  Having learned the lesson from the first war, when playing cricket of any description was, initially, severely discouraged, the authorities, recognising the role sport could play in maintaining morale, positively encouraged as full a programme as was practical.  Two all-star teams, the professional London Counties XI and the amateur British Empire XI featured prominently, playing against ad hoc county XIs, services teams, schools, Universities and others.  To have no cricket being played at all is unprecedented.

Enough matches were played for Carlos Bertie Clarke, who had toured with the West Indies in 1939, to take almost 750 wickets for the British Empire XI (he was to stay on after the war, to work as an NHS doctor, and play as an amateur for Northamptonshire).  Pre-war veterans Joe Hume (who went on to manage Tottenham Hotspur) and Harry Crabtree of Essex made over 4000 runs each, and Frank Lee, of Somerset, managed over 5000.  Keith Miller, Trevor Bailey, Alec Bedser and Reg Simpson all did enough to establish reputations.  None of these feats, however, made it into the record books because they were all made in one, or sometimes two-day games (timed, rather than limited overs, and with the unusual playing condition that the side batting second would continue after they had won, to give the crowd a full day’s entertainment).   

Wartime games could attract large crowds, according to Midwinter, often in excess of Championship attendances in the later ‘thirties, when they were (as usual, it seems) in decline.  His contention is that the flowering of cricket after the war (hampered by a sodden Summer in 1946, but definitely in full bloom by 1947) was not so much due to a desire to return to pre-war normality (as Prittie felt) as to satisfy a new appetite for aggressive and entertaining cricket stimulated by the experimental one-day games of the wartime years.

Midwinter is also of the opinion that the resumption of the Championship, much as it had been in 1939, represented a missed opportunity, and a victory for conservatism.  In his view, it would have been the ideal time to, at least, introduce a one-day knock out cup, and – I am afraid – to reduce the number of counties (as recommended by the mercifully forgotten Findlay Commission in 1937).  Inevitably, one of his proposals was to merge Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.  This is, I am afraid, where the contemporary parallels become uncomfortably close.  Even what is likely to be, by comparison with the war, a miniscule rupture in the continuity of first class cricket presents an opportunity to those who would like to see a wholesale reordering of it, and the financial consequences of the enforced break, which were not a factor during the war, make the prospects of returning to the ‘bustling, but not necessarily frenzied’ days of 2019 when cricket resumes precarious.

Prittie appears to have covered cricket for the ‘Manchester Guardian’ for a second year (and authored a second book), before returning to Germany to act as that newspaper’s Bonn correspondent.  A prolific author, he wrote, among many other works about Germany, generally complimentary biographies of Adenauer and Willy Brandt, before becoming a forceful advocate for the state of Israel.  A life well lived, no doubt, but I should imagine that his pieces about cricket were missed.  He was an entertaining and idiosyncratic writer, and I should have liked to have heard more from him.

Glad to be Alive

And then I woke up, and it was all a dream …

Leicestershire (390-3 dec. & 245-0) drew with Loughborough MCCU (152), Grace Road, 2-4th April 2020

I seem to find it harder each year to find something new to say at the start of the season, but then, perhaps, novelty is beside the point.  There, is, of course, the promise of a new start, a clean slate, a blank piece of paper on which any story could be written, but the essence of it lies in the rediscovery of the familiar, of finding that those familiar scenes are still there.  Winter has passed, Spring has returned, as it sometimes felt during the Winter that it might not, and, with it, the cricket.

The first game at Grace Road seldom lives up to our wintry day-dreams of the platonic spring day, if only because it is always against Loughborough University, and the ground is only half-awake.  We enter not through the usual, welcoming, gates, but through a gap in the wall at the end of a bottle-strewn alley, but the first sight of the ground, even if it is yet to cast off its winter weeds, its parasols unfurled, still feels like a release : in our minds’ eyes, we see it, not under grey skies and sparsely populated, but bathed in mid-summer light and humming with life.  It is not the first day itself, but the sure and certain knowledge of the six months still to come that makes us feel newly glad to be alive.

Given the age of many of our members, and most of those who turned up for the first day, ‘glad to be alive’ is not an idle figure of speech : it is always a relief to find that familiar faces have survived the Winter.  Although the general bonhomie may not survive far into the season, its beginning is celebrated with handshakes, backslapping and even the occasional hug, as friends, reunited, congregate in convivial groups, or share their winter-news over a drink in the bar.  I am afraid that we sometimes take these pleasures and liberties, however small in themselves, too much for granted, and the start of the season makes us feel it.

Leicestershire, as is the convention in these games, batted, and the first ball of the season was faced by Paul Horton, who has now been relieved, or possibly relieved himself, of the captaincy.  Unfortunately, perhaps due to the dim light, or the remnants of dew in the pitch, he played down the wrong line to a full, straight, delivery and was bowled.  This was less unpropitious than it might seem, given that the bowler was Alex Evans, who is contracted to Leicestershire and will be available to strengthen the bowling later in the season.

After taking a few overs to acclimatise (Evans’ first three overs were all maidens), the incoming Colin Ackermann then played the hare to opener Hassan Azad’s tortoise, scoring freely on the off-side, in particular, to reach his fifty shortly before lunch, by, rather gratuitously, lofting Leicestershire academician Don Butchart, who had been brought on for the last over, over long on and into the, mercifully underpopulated, car park.  Azad, who had not departed from his trusted techniques of patient accumulation, had then made 17.

During the lunch hour, I dropped into the office (buzzing with anticipation) to renew my membership (excellent value at £99, given the number of days of cricket, particularly in the coming two months, it will entitle me to see), then dropped into the Meet, busy despite its limited menu, and picked up my ‘Playfair’ from the Friends of Grace Road shop, providing its usual reassurance, so little does it change, that, whatever else may be wrong in the world, the cricket season will inevitably return in the Spring.

Shortly after lunch, in a stroke that might have been an act of deliberate self-sacrifice, Ackermann chipped a half volley from Evans straight to cover point.  The manner in which the next man in, Mark Cosgrove, emerged from the pavilion suggested that he felt in the form of his life, but also that he was feeling the cold.  The first two deliveries he ostentatiously left alone, the third tested his powers of abstinence too far, and he was dropped at second slip (the edge was audible to all in the ground, except, if his body language were to be believed, the batsman himself).

After reaching twenty more by luck than judgement, Cosgrove’s co-ordination seemed to return, if not his self-control, and three good balls were stroked, with his usual incongruous delicacy, through the covers for four.  The next ball must have hit some foreign object on the pitch, or perhaps he was unsighted by light reflected off a car windscreen, because it removed his off stump.  He appeared as incredulous at this turn of events as ever, though, given the cold, less reluctant to leave the field.  Cosgrove is no longer quite the batsman he was, but he is still a joy to watch, and we are lucky to have the prospect of at least one last full season in which to watch him.

Harry Dearden came to the crease shortly before 2.15, with the total on 129-3, and Hassan Azad three short of his half-century.  Dearden, who does not have the credit at the bank that Ackermann and Cosgrove enjoy, is in no position to spurn a chance to make a substantial score, and, reverting to his earliest manner, scored at a rate that made his partner look like a chancer : by tea, the pair had crept surreptitiously to 210-3.  With the evening chill creeping in, I crept off too at 5.00, by which time the score was approaching 300, in the stealthy manner of a game of grandmother’s footsteps.  Unfortunately, my departure coincided with the rush hour, and I spent the journey home pressed against a window by a large man with little conception of personal space and a nasty cough.

I arrived a little late for the second day, having stopped off at my favourite Café Roma (cash only!) for a macchiato and a brace of cannoli.  The warmer weather had brought some of the more elderly element of Leicester’s café society out, and we were packed together cosily, like anchovies in a tin.  As I was not expecting any dramatic developments at Grace Road, I passed some time strolling through the crowded lanes, browsing aimlessly.  How pleasant it can be to wander at will through a crowded city, when the weather is fine and the mood relaxed!

When I finally arrived at the ground, Azad and Dearden were, as I had suspected, still at the crease.  The scoring rate had increased slightly, but only in the manner of an elderly and overworked donkey goaded into a jog-trot.  By lunch, the score had advanced to 390 : Azad had made his century at some point in the morning, and  Dearden was closing in on his (assuming the game was first class, his maiden century).  The students must have been wondering whether their turn to bat would ever come, like a younger brother in the back garden.

There had, incidentally, been an amusing incident just before lunch.  You may remember that, in the corresponding fixture a few years ago, when Hassan Azad was still playing for Loughborough, Charlie Shreck, frustrated by his obdurate batting and Loughborough’s failure to declare, had directed a few unfriendly remarks at him (‘The Times’ alleged that he had threatened to kill him).  Umpire O’Shaughnessy reported the incident, Shreck was suspended and Leicestershire were subjected to a points deduction.  Alex Evans (who obviously knows Azad) pantomimed a repetition of the incident : the batsman seemed highly amused, Umpire O’Shaughnessy, perhaps, less so.

To the surprise of most, it emerged that Leicestershire had declared at lunch.  Although I can see why they would have wanted the bowlers to have a run out, it did seem hard on Dearden, who was left on 94*.  It is true that he had every opportunity to make his century over the previous six hours, but we will have to hope that the disappointment will not have the same effect on his psyche as it did on Graeme Hick’s, in similar circumstances.  It was noticeable that he spent his time in the field with hands in pockets, and dropped a couple of catches (though not, perhaps, ones he would normally have caught).

The Leicestershire bowlers did not have the time to put in quite as many overs as they had hoped, although Wright, Griffiths and Taylor (apparently now fit) all claimed three wickets, and Mike (a little loose) one.  Only Joe Kendall, of the batsmen, made more than a start, falling two short of his fifty while trying to reverse sweep a full delivery from Taylor off his stumps.  The innings ended shortly after 5.30, with the score on 152, leaving Azad and Horton to play out the remaining overs (Horton surviving a couple of persuasive shouts). 

If it had not been for the balmy weather, and the general feeling that we were glad just to be there, Leicestershire’s tactics on the Saturday morning might have attracted adverse comment.  Azad was only marginally more fluent than he had been in the first innings, and Horton defended his wicket as if it were his life, against some tired bowling of moderate quality.  In the second hour, Evans, knowing the chink in Azad’s armour, posted two short legs and a leg slip, and bowled short from around the wicket.  Clearly discomfited, Azad fended one delivery just over one of the short legs, another just wide, and then, attempting a pull, deflected the ball hard on to his helmet.  Although he was able to leave the field unaided, he appeared disorientated.

After lunch, Tom Taylor, who had replaced Azad, livened proceedings with some firmly driven boundaries until, bending to tie a loose shoelace, he appeared to put his back out, and had to be helped from the field.  Surprisingly, it was Harry Dearden who replaced him.  As the afternoon wore on, it was clear that he was not inclined to miss another chance of a maiden hundred, and, reverting to his one-day style, hit the bowling to all (or most) parts of the ground.  Justifiably suspicious that Ackermann might be inclined to shake hands on a draw at 5.00, he accelerated further as that hour approached, passing his hundred at 4.50, to wild, and only half-ironical, applause from the few spectators who remained.  The end of play was postponed to 5.10 to allow Horton to catch up and make his century as well.  

There were some worrying pieces of news in the aftermath of the game.  Taylor has apparently suffered a recurrence of the back problem that kept him out for most of last season, and Hassan Azad will have to miss at least the first two Championship games under the concussion protocol.  Alex Evans had been reported to the ECB by Steve O’Shaughnessy, and it is possible that any suspension will mean that he will be unavailable for Leicestershire when term is finished (as it only affects first-class fixtures).  The report in ‘The Times’, which alleged that Evans had kneed Azad in the groin, and threatened to tear him limb from limb and dump the pieces in the Soar, cannot have helped matters.

One or two of the members were also a little perturbed by newspaper reports of a new flu-like virus that had emerged in China in the last weeks of March, apparently caused by someone in Wuhan Province thinking that it would be a good idea to eat a bat.  But I’m sure that it will take more than that to spoil the prospect of a new cricket season.

And then I woke up …

Prospects for the Season (If Any)

Since before Christmas, the BBC has, with monotonous regularity, been broadcasting a self-advertisement, publicising its coverage of sport in 2020, under the slogan ‘Raise the game’.  In it, a bumptious voice informs us that ‘you can’t stop the future – it’s already here’, a future that includes the Olympics, the European Championship finals and ‘The Hundred’.  Apart from being a piece of bombastic pseudo-profundity worthy of ‘Doctor Who’, this has, thanks to Coronavirus, proven to be a little premature, given that it is by no means certain that the first two events, at least, will be taking place.  Not only is ‘the future’ not ‘already here’, it may not be arriving any time soon.  So, I am more hesitant than usual about offering my predictions concerning the new cricket season.

A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the virus should pose no threat to Championship matches at Grace Road, given that our crowds are rarely large enough to constitute a ‘large public gathering’.  At the time, this struck me as rather droll : it seems less amusing now, given that the world and his dog have now made the same feeble joke, and the ECB are, at this moment, mulling over our fate.  I would hope that they will consider the risk low enough for the Championship to continue, but I am not holding my breath (not, incidentally, a reliable test for coronavirus).  We would be even more seriously affected if any of the Test matches, or – perish the thought – ‘The Hundred’, had to be called off, given that we find ourselves even more at the financial mercy of the ECB than usual. 

Over the Winter, we have secured a loan of £1.75 million from Leicester City Council, which should come in handy, particularly to increase our wage bill by half again (at least) to meet the ECB’s new ‘salary collar’ of £1.5 million, as will, of course, the money we are meant to be getting for supporting ‘The Hundred’.  The catch with this loan is that it is secured by the ECB, who will be presented with the perfect opportunity to close us down if we cannot repay it.  We find ourselves rather in the position of the owners of a small trattoria hoping that the local mob’s prostitution racket is doing good business, in case they decide to withdraw their ‘protection’ (*taps nose* – capisce?).

Turning to this year’s schedule, we discover the usual baffling dog’s breakfast.  My spirits rose sharply towards the end of last year when Leicestershire announced that not only would annual membership (excluding T20) be reduced to £99, but, as significantly from my point of view, we would be restoring our reciprocal agreement with Northamptonshire (in addition to the ones we already had with Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Derbyshire).  When the fixtures were announced, I happily busied myself with filling my newly acquired diary with the dates at Wantage Road.

Not unpredictably, however, given that Northamptonshire’s cheapest season ticket costs £175 (excluding T20 and RL50), the offer was soon withdrawn, and I had to go back and, crossly, cross them all out again.  More gratuitously, the agreement with Notts (which has been in place for as long as I have been a member) was reduced to three fixtures.  It surely cannot be beyond human wit to devise some scheme that would allow those of us who would like to watch Championship games at neighbouring grounds, if our own team aren’t playing (a small, but, I’d like to think, not entirely insignificant group), at a reduced price.  As compensation, though, free parking at Grace Road has been restored (not much of a compensation for me, as I don’t drive).   

Peering through the thicket of crossings-out, brackets and question marks, the general outline of the season appears to be much the same as in recent seasons : a slightly thin April (though mainly because Leicestershire have two Championship games away from home), a busy May, a thin June and a thinner July, scattered with 50-over games and a flurry of activity in between the two, when Leicestershire have two home four-day games in eleven days.  August is a parched wasteland, with only the last of the 50-over matches and a game in the women’s version of ‘The Hundred’, featuring the ‘Trent Rockets’ on a Thursday afternoon (which might attract a large paying audience, but only if it doesn’t clash with a display of synchronised nose-blowing in the Lee Circle car park).  Cricket is due to return in September, for those of us who have managed to survive the Summer.

Moving on to Leicestershire’s prospects, one piece of good news, which may have been facilitated by that loan from the Council, is the late announcement that we have secured the services of Janaman ‘The Man’ Malan (having previously been told that we would not be able to afford an overseas player this season), for both white ball competitions and (potentially) three Championship matches.  I haven’t seen him play, but – apart from bringing joy to fans of internal rhyme – he sounds like pretty hot stuff.  I suppose this is the cricketing equivalent of the advice fashion magazines like to give that it is better to buy ‘one really good piece’ than a lot of cheaper items.     

Moving on to the rest of the squad, I am faced with the annual struggle to say something optimistic that does not rely too heavily on the words ‘decent’, ‘handy’ and ‘useful’.  We do, at least, seem to have five decent and useful seam bowlers (Wright, Taylor, Griffiths, Davis and Klein), plus Ben Mike (whose only notable performance last year came, frustratingly, when he was on loan to Warwickshire, but probably has enough talent to be poached by a larger County), plus Alex Evans, who should be available when his term ends at Loughborough.  So, a handy supporting cast, but rather, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, lacking a ‘spearhead’ : a spear without a spearhead would, I suppose, be more like a broom handle, and I am afraid, although they will have their days, that may represent the approximate level of threat posed by our attack to good batsmen on unhelpful pitches.

And so, with some trepidation, to the batting. It would be expecting a lot of Hassan Azad to repeat his performance in his debut season, when he made a thousand runs at an average of 54, but we shall all have to pray to our respective gods that the falling-off (if any) is not too steep.  Unless he has some failure of nerve, he should always be difficult to get out, but his range of preferred scoring shots is so limited that it should not be too difficult to put him (in the fashionable phrase) into lockdown, by employing unconventional fields, as Northants demonstrated last year.  We shall have to hope that no-one else has thought of this, or we could be struggling.

Colin Ackermann, who is yet to average 40, resembles a thoroughbred who looks good in the paddock, is often placed, but rarely wins a race.  Paul Horton (37) and Mark Cosgrove (rising 36),  punters’ favourites in years past, must now both have one hoof in the stud farm.  We can expect hard-nosed captaincy from Horton, and Cosgrove is never less than entertaining, but we cannot rely on too many runs from them.  To extend the analogy, an unkind wag might suggest that Harry Dearden should be giving rides on Blackpool beach, but I prefer to think that he is yet to find his niche.  He is, after all, only 23 in May, and his sprightly performances in last year’s 50-over cup suggest that his talents may be hidden, rather than non-existent.  Our only other specialist batsman is Sam Evans.

Either Harry Swindells or Lewis Hill will keep wicket : Hill was plainly out of sorts and out of form last season, and I should expect Swindells to be given his chance in the Championship, with Hill returning for limited overs cricket.  To fill the unsightly gap between the end of the batting and the beginning of the tail, we have George Rhodes, who was impressively dogged in the three games he played for us at the end of last season, and should be capable of delaying our collapses.  A season-long fit Tom Taylor, who is not only the most dangerous of our seamers, but can make useful runs, would be a great help, but then so would a revived W.G. Grace or all the royalties from the ‘Harry Potter’ series, both of which we are about as likely to get.

The spin option, which is generally given as much priority as the vegetarian option at a Golden Egg in 1974, is likely to be Ackermann in the first half of the season, while Parkinson, who is mutating into a T20 specialist who bats a bit, may re-emerge in September.  Our only wholly new acquisition is a young off-spinner called Tom Bowley, who, like Alex Evans, is still at Loughborough.  I haven’t consciously seen him bowl, although he appears to sport a towering quiff which makes him look like a member of the Stray Cats. I expect that Jack Birkenshaw will have marched him off to the barber’s for a trim before he is allowed to make his debut.

You might be able to detect that I am not taking our chances in the Championship too seriously, but then neither are the club, who seem to have decided to concentrate our limited resources on white ball cricket, which, I would grudgingly concede, makes sense.  Apart from the presence of Malan (and one player of international quality can make a crucial difference), we have the advantage in the RL50 that we are the only County not have lost any players to ‘The Hundred’, and, in some cases, will be playing virtual 2nd XIs.  A trophy would be expecting too much, but qualification for the knock-out stages should not be.  I am no expert on T20, but having a ‘gun bat’ to add to our collection of blunderbusses and air rifles will obviously improve our firepower.

At present, I have to say, all of this seems a little beside the point.  It now seems even less probable that the season will start on time than it did when I began this piece, and, if it does eventually revive, any cricket, even the meagre fare that was served up last year, will feel like a return to the Golden Age.  The financial consequences of an abandoned season might well prove terminal for the club, but not abandoning it may prove terminal for some of our members (including – not impossibly – me, though I would be one of the less obvious candidates). 

Perhaps I need to get my ‘Winter well’ in early this year.

The Casual Knack of Living

Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning

With cracked images, they won’t forget

The confusion and the oily dead,

Nor yet the casual knack of living.”


In the course of a season, I have the habit of accumulating second hand books, found at those grounds that still offer some for sale (the Friends of Grace Road have a good selection, as does the Supporters’ Club  bookshop at the County Ground, Northampton).  I might leaf through them during the occasional longueur during the game (for these have been known, even at Grace Road), or a break for rain, but generally I stow them away, like a squirrel burying nuts in the Autumn, with the intention of returning to them in the Winter ; quite often, like that squirrel, I neglect to do so. This Winter, like a squirrel gratefully unearthing a long and deeply buried acorn during a lean period, I discovered that I owned two unread books by Alan Ross.

That might imply that I own a lot of books by Ross which I have read, but, in fact, I have read very little of his work, having tended to think of him primarily as an editor (both of the ‘London Magazine’ and the anthology ‘The Cricketer’s Companion’).  In spite of that, I find that I have previously described his writing as ‘elegant’, an impression, in so far as it more than a convenient cliché, that I may have formed from having read his biography of Ranji (some years ago), from his ubiquitous photographic portrait, tanned, suave and half-goateed,

or, perhaps, some ancient memory of reading his pieces about cricket in ‘The Observer’, whose Cricket Correspondent he was from 1953 to 1982.

The first book has the spine-title ‘Cape Summer’, hinting at why I have not read more : most take the form of tour books (or books-of-a-series), of which I have a not unfounded suspicion ; even Arlott, who turned out a number of them, could be said to have written his ‘with his left hand’ ; some less distinguished practitioners of the once-commonplace genre appear to have written theirs with their foot.

Although it is ‘Cape Summer’ (an account of England’s 1956-7 tour of South Africa) that appears on the spine (perhaps to lure readers of the straightforward travel books that precede it in Ross’s bibliography), the first half of the book concerns Australia’s tour to England in 1956, which is best remembered, if at all, for Jim Laker’s having taken 19 wickets in the third test in Manchester. In a very wet Summer, in which four of the five Tests were, to some extent, affected by rain, England won the series 2-1, to retain the Ashes they had won in Australia the previous year.

As with most books-of-a-series, Ross reproduces the reports that he wrote about the five Tests as they originally appeared in ‘The Observer’ (‘revising a phrase here and there, for stylistic reasons only, but neither a mood nor comment’).  I would have guessed that he had employed his editorial skills to iron out a few kinks and wrinkles in the texture of his prose, which is as smooth as a pair of cashmere combinations (from somewhere exclusive in Jermyn Street, no doubt), but he appears to have been gifted with an internal autocorrect which enabled him to eliminate any obtrusive vulgarities as he wrote.  (The first sentence of the book is ‘As I write, in an Autumn that has assumed the better manners of summer …’, and he was a very mannerly writer.)

Ross had first made a small name as a poet, taking as his principal subject his wartime experiences serving on destroyers escorting the arctic convoys, and, like Arlott, his cricket-writing is poetic in the sense that he has a gift for precise observation, rather than employing high-flown diction.  In a poem, he describes a fly that has landed on the paper he is writing on : ‘as if carving a joint / It carefully sharpens its legs’.  In a match report, Harvey, Craig and McDonald ‘brought off magnificent one-handed pick-ups. Thus do Cossack riders at brisk canters swoop from the saddle to snatch handkerchiefs from the sawdust’. 

With television still in its youth in 1956, the presumption was that it was the writer’s responsibility to paint a verbal picture for readers who would not have seen the game, whereas contemporary writers (and, worse, radio commentators) tend, at least subconsciously, to assume that the reader is able to see the match, and be in search of analysis and opinion rather than description.  As a result, I find that I now have a clearer mental image of how the young Cowdrey batted than – say – Dominic Sibley.

In an introduction, Ross explains his ambition to do what match reports alone cannot do and ‘elaborate about … scene or social background … convey a feeling of movement, or the personal discovery of place … a sense of a journey … those marginal impressions that make a summer of cricket what it is’, and my lasting impression of the book (perhaps more apparent in retrospect) is of a vision of England in the nineteen-fifties that contradicts the received view of it as stultifying and repressed, always in ‘monochrome’, dozily waiting to be woken into technicolour by the arrival of the Beatles.  Ross’s England is certainly relieved from the strains of war and austerity, but various, both traditional-pastoral and optimistically modern (there is an enthusiastic portrait of the rebuilt Coventry, which reads oddly now), and offering plenty of scope for stylish hedonism for those with a little money (Ross had married Jennifer Fry, the chocolate heiress, in 1949).

Between games Ross motors between grounds, at a time before mass car ownership or motorways, when motoring was an activity that could still be undertaken for pleasure (it is not until page 100 that he reveals he is driving a convertible, but I think that might have been assumed) :

‘Making my way out on the Buxton road, the evening was as clear as a bell.  A week earlier I had been sitting in the warm, riverside darkness of the Trout at Wolvercott, fireflies cruising the banks, and the crowned lion on the island thrusting through the poppies at the marauding peacock.  In hot sun, the hood down, I drove out of Oxford northwards through Warwick and Lichfield, skirting the sunken and smoking areas of the Potteries …’

and on until shadowing the Australians’ itinerary has shown him, as he says, ‘more of my own country than in all the other summers put together’.  A striking thing about these landscapes (and, as his allusions to Claude and Poussin suggest, he was a connoisseur of them) is that they are largely unpeopled : the few human beings who do stray into view are as voiceless as figures in a landscape.  Most travelogues depend for their colour (or ‘social background’) on chance meetings with interesting characters, or overheard conversations ; Ross’s is an interior, if not introspective, monologue voiced over exterior views.

His points of reference, when describing the cricket, sometimes glance backwards to the war : (at Headingley) ‘a cold wind blows up at us as sharply as over the bridge of a destroyer’ ; ‘One felt the bridge telegraph ringing down for more speed, and Lindwall hurled down several at Cowdrey.  The pitch softened them like a head sea …’ ; ‘far from forming the spearhead, they [Tyson and Statham] had ambled up like Base majors just in time for the champagnes of victory’ – allusions, which eleven years after the war had ended, will have been familiar to many of his readers.

Fewer of them will have had first-hand experience of quite the way of life implied by his other points of reference, which are those of a more intellectually sophisticated, less brutish, James Bond (Ross’s friend Ian Fleming later awarded him a cameo appearance (promoted to ‘Commander Ross’) in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, in which he was fed to crocodiles). 

‘Rain had toned up the pitch, acting on the close-cropped, fawn stubble rather in the manner of an after-shaving lotion’ (probably from Trumper’s, and exotic for 1956) ; Graveney’s batting ‘disseminated an air of the Burlington Arcade’ ; ‘a gentleman in white waiter’s jacket who looked as if he ought to have been dispensing Martinis rather than delicately brushing the wicket’ ; ‘fifty-nine runs, as reviving as a Bloody Mary to the appetite, came in the forty-five minutes play’ ; ‘A lot rested on winning the toss first – a simple roulette gamble, but the wheel stuck in mid-spin for a while …’ ; ‘Cowdrey and Richardson … played with such ease of attitude that they might have been club members reclining in favourite chairs, whisky and cigars to hand’ ; ‘one has become accustomed now, at about the aperitif hour, to this ritual procession to the Test match wickets …’ (I would have put the aperitif hour at not earlier than 5 o’clock, but Ross appears to be referring to the scheduled start of play).

The cricket, however vividly and scrupulously observed, features in the narrative only as a part of a civilised, and, apparently, enviable life, and reading the first half of the book offers an opportunity to take a cheap holiday in someone else’s happiness.  One might have expected (and Ross might have been hoping) that this post-war idyll would continue when he followed the England touring team to South Africa the following Winter, but, from the outset, his pursuit of pleasure is undercut by a creeping sense of unease.

The voyage out takes in a (largely) pre-tourist Las Palmas (‘the seedy and depressed-looking port’), passing Dakar two days later, encountering dolphins who are ‘unhindered by the hangovers and accidie of shipboard life’.  In a portent of changing times, he notes oil tankers diverted from their normal route by the Suez crisis (which, as readers of ‘The Observer’ would have been aware, had flared up between the two series).  He arrives at Cape Town twelve days after leaving the Canaries: ‘it has been an overcast and heavy trip, on which all bar records for the line have been broken. One felt oneself gingerly all over every morning and assessed the damage’ … ‘We tie up, and within the dusty howl of the wind, the heat is like an oven’. 

Ominously, before the first Test, ‘Hot Steam, a much-fancied runner in the Johannesburg Summer Handicap, broke a leg and was destroyed an hour after I had backed it.  Its owner-trainer suffered a simultaneous heart attack, as well might I have, as well might I.’ 

As in his account of the Summer, the narrative between Tests is mostly taken up by journeying, though the distances involved are greater : he travels from Cape Town to Pretoria by train, a distance of 999 miles, taking twenty-seven hours, mostly through semi-desert, but, luckily, the catering is well up to standard (‘Meals are six-course and admirable and the bar in the Observation Car sells you almost anything, including sherry at 9d. a glass, and gin at 1/-‘).  The African landscapes are more spectacular, and less unpeopled, glimpses of the native population adding colour to the flora and fauna :

‘The encircling mountains give off a bluish powder, low stony ridges lying like recumbent sphinxes under the afternoon glare.  Beneath occasional eucalyptus, groups of Africans are stretched out asleep.  I lunch on sweet melon, Cape Lobster and Chicken Maryland …’.

Although his natural inclination is to enjoy the sybaritic lifestyle available to English visitors, while painting picturesque word-pictures of the scenery, he cannot ignore the figures at the margins of the picture :

‘The Africans again are conspicuous by their absence, more noticeable sprawling at the roadside on the outskirts waiting for buses to their locations than in the heart of the capital.  They are, or have become, an unobtrusive people.’

Having quoted at length from an editorial in ‘Africa South’, probably by the soon-to-exiled Ronald Segal, written at the time of the ‘treason’ trials (his inverted commas) which coincided with Christmas and the Johannesburg Test, he concludes, with a hint of reluctance :

‘One can no more avoid, if one is a sentient human being, being involved in what goes on day to day than one can avoid being involved in the weather.  One may lunch in the Rand Club, play tennis in the afternoon, bridge in the evenings, and discuss over endless whiskies anything under the sun, but the shadow remains, the issue returns.  Moral problems have a way of refusing to be shelved.’

Although the shadow can never quite be lifted, it can be lightened by good food, drink and other pleasures, even cricket : as he says of the fourth Test (a South African victory) ‘a thrilling Test match has miraculously squeezed some of the poison out of South African life’.

His most memorable journey was a drive of nine hundred miles from Johannesburg to Cape Town, in his new car (a Nash Rambler), as the ‘speedometer needle dances between eighty and ninety’, embarked upon having stayed up all night (‘suddenly it was not worth going to bed at all’) to celebrate England’s victory in the first Test : he observes that ‘its charm, for those of a contemplative nature, is that, for the first eight hundred miles, there is precisely nothing to see.  Nothing, that is to say, which could commonly be called spectacular.’  This ability to derive and convey pleasure from contemplation for its own sake, rather than any inherent interest in what is observed, was to come in handy during the Test series, which contained very little that could ‘commonly be called spectacular’.   

The series was mainly notable for low, and slow, scoring.  Peter Richardson’s century in the First Test was, at the time, the slowest recorded, taking eight hours and eight minutes.  In the third Test, Hugh Tayfield bowled fourteen consecutive (eight-ball) maidens (nine of them to Trevor Bailey).  The fifth Test was the slowest in history, with runs coming at the rate of 1.40 per six balls. (Ross was either unaware of these records, too indifferent to statistics, or too mannerly to mention them.)  Later that year, restrictions on the number of leg-side fieldsmen were introduced, perhaps by someone who had witnessed the defensive bowling to a packed leg-side by Tayfield and Goddard that had stifled England’s batting. 

Ross contemplated Richardson’s innings with the same equanimity as his long desert drive : ‘bare as the Karoo though his innings had been, it was a fighter’s innings and even such spareness had its beauty’.  Bailey’s was of more a test of his patience, and provoked a rare example of Ross expressing overt disapproval, albeit with a lovely image :

 ‘The batting after tea was terrible in its listlessness and passivity.  Not only was no attempt made to score, but it seemed to be a point of principle to avoid runs.  Tayfield was encouraged, rather than allowed to bowl 14 maidens in a row, 9 of them to Bailey … For a whole hour Bailey neither envisaged nor made a scoring stroke … the sharp single had been discarded as a youthful frolic : the hypnotic maidens of Tayfield had become as soothing and necessary to Bailey as opium to a mandarin’.

As for the last Test, he is generous enough to lay most of the blame on the ‘ludicrous’ pitch.

At least at the beginning of the series, Ross was able to spin a silk purse out of this unpromising material, studded with sparkling observational gems.  As the tour progressed, and the length of time away from home increased (he arrived in South Africa on 5th December, and left on 11th March), his mind seemed increasingly to wander from the cricket and on to other matters, the nature of which we can only guess at (the reports on the last two Tests, which England lost, having won the first two, are, by his standards, a little perfunctory). 

On the drive through the Karoo, he had described lizards startled by the sound of his approaching car as ‘shooting into fresh positions with the alacrity of hotel guests surprised in unauthorised bedrooms’ ; from the air, some kopjes appear to him ‘as perfectly formed as the breasts of a Maillol woman’ ; Endean ‘had been on view four hours, and a stationary Follies’ nude does not bear contemplation without greater show of animation for a quarter that length of time’ ; after a burst of scoring, a difficult target becomes ‘like the desired wife of another … an unlikely, but faintly permissible dream’.

In the plane, on the first stage of the journey home with a selection of players from both sides, ‘Nobody has much to say.  Everyone, I think, has had enough, a little more than enough’.

On the cover of the other book I have found I had acquired, ‘Coastwise Lights’, it is hopefully trailed by the publisher as a volume of autobiography, an impression the author corrects in his preface, admitting that it is only ‘incidentally autobiography’.  Although it covers the period when he was the Cricket Correspondent of ‘The Observer’, the subject of cricket makes only a fleeting appearance, but then so does the author. 

The book opens with Ross staying in a shabby hotel in Paris : on a hot night he discovers that, by standing on the lavatory seat and looking through a ventilation grill, he can observe the occupants of a neighbouring flat : three middle-aged French people, mostly naked because of the heat.  By his usual method of close observation and vivid description, he makes their domestic doings fascinating, for a few pages. It seems apt that he was to go on to write for ‘The Observer’.

Looking back at his early book about a trip to Corsica, with the painter John Minton, he writes :

‘For some reason, perhaps out of genuine diffidence, I decided that ‘I’ or ‘we’ should not figure in the narrative, that Johnny and I should be invisible travellers, observing, experiencing, recording, but not intruding.  It was the result, perhaps, of too literal an obeisance to Christopher Isherwood’s method in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, though his ‘I am a camera’ technique did not preclude his own considerable involvement in the lives of his characters. … The best travel books are nearly always as interesting for what the traveller tells us of his own experiences and feelings as for what he says about the country he travels through.’

Although he claims to think this self-effacement a fault, there is little sign that he is willing, or able, to overcome his extreme reticence about too much unmannerly self-revelation.

The book is in six sections : one about the painters Keith Vaughan and John Minton (and his travels with them) ; a British Council trip he made to Iraq ; various ‘drinkers and dandies’ he has known ; being sent by ‘The Observer’ to cover the war in Algeria in 1958, when their regular correspondent ‘went off his head’ (it is hard to imagine Vic Marks being pressed into service in similar circumstances) ; his time as Editor of ‘The London Magazine’ and publisher of London Editions ; his life, friends and neighbours in  Sussex and, finally, anecdotes from his time as a racehorse owner.

Ross seems to have known, or encountered, a remarkable number of well-known writers ; a tribute to his talent for making friends and connections, or, perhaps, the smallness of English literary life.  On a flight to Baghdad, he sits next to Agatha Christie (‘noticing her quiet assurance and fat legs’) ; he rents a villa in Ischia next door to one owned by Terence Rattigan (who ‘only wanted to talk about cricket’) ; John Betjeman (who was Godfather to his son), Stephen Spender and Anthony Powell were friends (originally, I think, of his wife) ; Derek Walcott and Laurie Lee signed his visitor’s book, alongside Len Hutton and Keith Miller. Looking for an illustrator for a children’s book he has written, he is introduced to a young Raymond Briggs.  His chief companion watching cricket at Hove is Jeremy Hutchinson QC (defender of Christine Keeler and Lady Chatterley, amongst others).

In a conventional autobiography this might seem like name-dropping, but in Ross’s it seems more of a ruse to avoid having to talk about himself.  And, rather than the great names, he devotes the most space to more minor figures who had been entertaining drinking companions, my favourite being Bernard Gutteridge, an advertising copywriter and poet :

‘Bernard was an unusual drinker.  He would be sitting happily beside you in a restaurant and bar, seeming to have drunk not very much.  Then, when it was time to go, he would turn rather guiltily and say ‘I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m not going to be able to get up.’  Nor could he.  He would have to be carried out.’

The book does shed a little retrospective light on the composition of the English section of ‘Cape Summer’, which seems to have been a less sunny time than I had supposed :

‘I drove about the country, mainly on secondary roads, trying to see it as if it were abroad … the attempt to write about England through a stranger’s eyes led me to all kinds of places I would never otherwise have seen.  Apart from the cricket it was a solitary, reflective time ; I drove alone through all kinds of weather and stayed in small country pubs when I wrote up the day’s journey.  At the end of it I felt I had learned something about England and something about myself.’

It is characteristic that he is too reticent to tell us openly quite what it was that he learned about himself.  Even when it comes to the more dramatic events in his life, he is the soul of indirection : although he apparently suffered from debilitating bouts of depression (perhaps caused, or exacerbated, by his wartime experiences), the only reference to this (in this volume, anyway) is in connection with Ian Fleming having featured him in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ in return for giving him ‘only too familiar details about ECT’.  His only allusion to his wife having had the obligatory affair with Cyril Connolly is even more oblique (Connolly had given up the editorship of ‘Horizon’, then claimed that he wanted it back when it was offered to Ross) : ‘this was, alas, a typical Connolly reaction, often demonstrated in his relations with women, as I came to know to my cost’.

Occasionally, an observation about a friend leads to a personal admission : having reported Keith Vaughan’s feeling that he was being ‘superseded’ by newer styles of painting, he is prompted to reflect :

‘He was not alone in this feeling.  Like most others of my age, for whom the war had been the central experience of our lives, I too felt myself cut off, before I had even started, from an emerging generation for whom the war was an irrelevance and Britain’s imperial past, on which I had been brought up, an obscenity.’

Hints at this feeling that the world he had known was about to be swept away are sometimes detectable in his account of the South African trip, perhaps triggered by having witnessed Frank Tyson ‘rock’n’rolling’ at a party in Durban given by the Comptons (Ross’s bag was more in the way of blues and jazz). 

Ross had a natural cosmopolitanism, and a classical frame of reference, that was becoming unfashionable in the later nineteen-fifties (the time of ‘The Movement’, decolonisation and the kitchen sink) : like Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Lawrence Durrell (two writers who inhabited a similar mental universe), he had been born in India (and spoke Hindustani as a first language), although, unlike them, he was not actively anglophobic, tethered to England by, if nothing else, his love of cricket, and able to write as lovingly about Hove as they were to write about Greece.

Ross’s obituary in ‘The Guardian’ said of his poetry that it was ‘oddly impersonal’, and the same might be said of his autobiography, but, at a time when self-revelation is hardly in short supply, I find his reluctance to indulge in it more of a relief than a frustration : it is unusual, these days, to finish a book wanting to know more, rather than less, about its author.  Nor do I regret the lack (for all his intentions) of socio-political context in his writings : we are hardly short of that either.  Ross was a fetishist of the particular, a mind too fine to be violated by ideas, and the substance of his writing lies in brilliant images, rather than sustained argument (which is why, as you may have noticed, the best way to illustrate it is by extensive quotation).  So, as a farewell, here is his own farewell to South Africa :

‘But in the end, it is not the problems that one takes away : they are for those who remain, though inevitably in what one writes and thinks and says elsewhere, one carries on the act of identification. There are many sides to every South African question, but problems of behaviour are the same the world over, however unique their context. 

Rather do I think now, with the rain dripping from the plane trees and the mist softening the harsher outlines of mines and suburbs, of that quality of light and landscape which is peculiarly African : the red, grass-brushed earth running away into the purple-blue of the mountains – colours that are indefinable and which do not travel in painting – the flat-topped hills and kopjes, green and curled in Natal, dry and dusty in the Transvaal, the grey-green watered silk of the sugar cane, the terraced vines of Constantia in the Cape that have produced, among a dozen admirable wines, one spectacularly good dry white one, the Residence Montpelier Riesling, from Stellenbosch ; the coast north of Durban, with its pines and rocks and sand firm enough to inscribe with messages between tides, the fresh-scented beginning and end to day in the Karoo, the palm-divided sundowns over Johannesburg.  It is out of these that we make our private image of Africa, these are what sustain the long vibrations and distant drum-beats of the heart.’

I now know whose works to look out for next season, to lighten a dull moment at Grace Road (should there to be any).

Being Boiled

And all around us the challenge of change.” (Tony Blair, September 1999)

In September 1999, with the Millennium imminent, Tony Blair, two years in office, delivered a speech to the Labour Party conference, which verged on the millenarian. He left no doubt as to the enemy – the ‘forces of conservatism’, which were mentioned seventeen times :

‘a New Britain where the extraordinary talent of the British people is liberated from the forces of conservatism that so long have held them back’ …‘modernise the nation, sweep away those forces of conservatism to set the people free’ … ‘to be the progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism’ … ‘For the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism’ … ‘The old order, those forces of conservatism, they held people back’ … ‘these forces of conservatism chain us not only to an outdated view of our people’s potential but of our nation’s potential’ … ‘The forces of conservatism, the elite, have held us back for too long’.

Apart from ‘holding us back’, what had these ‘forces of conservatism’ done?

‘the forces of conservatism pulled every trick in the book … against the creation of the NHS’ … ‘the forces of conservatism allied to racism are why one of the heroes of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King, is dead. It’s why another, Nelson Mandela, spent the best years of his life in a cell the size of a bed.’

The enemy was everywhere :

‘and now having defeated the force of conservatism in granting devolution, let us continue to defeat the separatism which is just the forces of conservatism by another name.’ … ‘don’t let the forces of conservatism stop devolution in Northern Ireland too’ … ‘It would be comforting to think the forces of conservatism were only Tories. But wrong. There were forces of conservatism who said changing Clause 4 would destroy the Labour Party’ … ‘let us take on the forces of conservatism in education, too’

even within ourselves :

‘let’s be honest. When it comes to transport we are all the forces of conservatism.’

Who were these forces?

‘Arrayed against us: the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment. Those who will live with decline. Those who yearn for yesteryear.’

And, so, you gather, in the decade to come, the ‘forces of conservatism’ would be getting it in the neck.

Anyone still tempted to ‘yearn for yesteryear’ after hearing that speech might have been reassured, that September, when the October issue of ‘Wisden Cricket Monthly’ dropped on to their mat, with a picture of Dickie Bird on the cover, smiling benignly.

If they had turned straight to page 22, expecting to find a celebration of the then enormously popular Bird, they might have been discomfited to read a mild twitting of the man and his collected works (his autobiography had recently become the best-selling sports book ever, and another was about to be published) by Editorial Assistant Lawrence Booth, pointing out the extent to which Bird’s books recycled the same anecdotes. Significantly, Booth quotes his biographer, David Hopps as saying :

‘The great sales of Dickie Bird’s book symbolise the nature of cricket’s audience at the moment : romanticised and elderly.’

So there we can detect the enemy – those ‘forces of conservatism’ – in cricket*: the elderly and romantic (who might also have been mildly affronted to see a review of a biography of Colin Cowdrey entitled ‘Cricket’s Queen Mum’). Apparently gratuitously, Booth finishes by saying, in connection with Bird’s next book being about his experiences on the county circuit :

‘Which is probably just as well. Because, if attendances are anything to go by, there’ll be no-one around to verify the stories.’

Rather than gratuitous, this turns out to be a theme threaded through the issue, as if in response to some editorial diktat : Stephen Fay, for instance, signs off his review of Birley’s ‘Social History of English Cricket’ (in itself, intended as a blow against the ‘forces of conservatism’) :

‘… but English cricket would almost certainly not be run by county clubs principally for their few members. No bad thing.’

Elsewhere, Booth is quoted as saying, in response to an innings defeat for Northamptonshire :

‘At a time when the counties are supposed to be fighting for their lives, there’s a lot of supine cricket going on. … As a Northants fan, it grieves me to admit it, but if five counties were abolished tomorrow, my team would be first on the chopping block.’

and, among the ‘Quotes of the Month’, is this, from E.W. Swanton, in response to ‘our suggestion (WCM Sept) that the county programme should be cut in half’ :

‘Outlandish … touched by the confines of lunacy’

(the implication being that if Swanton, the personification of cricket’s ‘forces of conservatism’, thought an idea was mad, it must be entirely sane).

Flicking back to the cover, our reader would discover the pretext for much of this pre-millennial tension in the headline ‘Bottom of the World’. By losing the last Test of the Summer to New Zealand, England had found themselves at the bottom of the Wisden World Championship (WCM naturally attached great importance to this, given that it was an unofficial championship of their own devising). I can verify Steven Lynch’s description of the last day (I had come on impulse, having heard on the radio that there were tickets available) :

‘On the Sunday, around 12,000 came to roar England on – and suffered in silence, punctuated by the odd catcall’.

My memory is that when Mark Ramprakash was out first ball, and his replacement emerged from the pavilion, the large man in front of me (from Derby, I think), who had previously amused himself by affecting to confuse the Kiwi seamer Dion Nash with the Canadian songbird Celine Dion, stood up (with some difficulty) and, exasperated beyond endurance, screamed ‘**** me, it’s ****ing Irani. We’re ****ing ****ed! … **** off Irani, just **** off!’, before collapsing back into his seat, drained by emotion. At the end of the match, a section of the crowd gathered in front of the pavilion, to sing ‘We’re shit and we know we are’, a sentiment that, more circumspectly expressed, pervades WCM.

Editor Tim de Lisle is critical of Chairman of the Selectors, David Graveney : when first appointed, he was ‘genial, decent and modern-minded, in deliberate contrast to his predecessor, Raymond Illingworth’ (‘modern-minded’ might be pushing it, but Illingworth would be justified in taking umbrage at the other two), but had turned out to be, as the headline puts it ‘a Grav Disappointment’, largely, one gathers, because he had dropped Mark Ramprakash.

Others diagnose deeper causes. Alan Lee, interviewing Graham Gooch (who had just been sacked as a selector) reports his view that ‘the county game … must bear heavy responsibility for England’s decline’ ; ‘if the people who control the game – and that’s the 18 counties – really want to have a strong Test side, everything has to be designed to bring that about … The key is to have fewer players on county staffs.’ This theme is developed in a feature entitled, with a Blairish nod to Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream’, which presents ‘three radical solutions’ to the ‘England crisis’.

The first is by Bob Willis (alive when I began to write this), who, quixotically, traces ‘the root of the problem’, back to the abolition of amateur status, which, he feels, discourages those who ‘have better things to do with their lives’ than play full-time cricket, whereas those who do ‘join the ranks of this clapped-out army’ (of County cricketers) ‘quickly kowtow to the system which hatches [a nice period touch, this] Gameboy and personal-stereo addicts, and mollycoddles the boring and uncommunicative.’ So far, so cranky, but what he goes on to say is more in tune with the reformist zeal of the period. He proposes :

  • The abolition of the First Class Forum : instead the government should appoint a ‘board of directors to oversee a change from self-interested and parochial county-led administration
  • The Counties should be split into three divisions, playing ten first-class matches a season, with the players to be provided from ‘fiercely competitive premier leagues around the country’.
  • The only full-time professionals would be an ‘elite national squad of about 24’ cricketers.

He ends by hoping that ‘Kate Hoey … could galvanise this project and be remembered as the sports minister who saved cricket’ (not, perhaps, what she will be primarily remembered for).

If Willis is Dantonesque, the next contributor, Christopher Lane, who was then Managing Director of WCM, goes the full Robespierre, scarcely less incandescent with rage than my Derby-based neighbour at the Oval. His piece ‘Abolish the County Pro’ is a locus classicus of the kind of visceral hatred for the county game that seems to have animated so many of those with a professional interest in cricket.

‘County cricket is an infectious disease, which quickly takes its debilitating grip on any young player who strays into its contaminated zone. Its mediocrity is not a symptom, but the cause of all the problems in English cricket. The 18 counties have ultimate control of every major aspect of English cricket, and as they will never contemplate culling themselves to eight or fewer, the only chance that English cricket has is for the top current players … to be divorced from county cricket.’

To achieve this, he proposes :

  • Five first-class teams, playing eight four-day games a year.
  • These teams to be made up of 55 professionals, contracted to ‘the controlling body’, 15 making up the senior squad, the others young players at an English Cricket Academy.

Unfortunately, he thinks, the counties are unlikely to give up ‘claiming the subsidies which provide a crutch to allow their hopeless businesses to struggle on’, which would ‘instantly produce a natural cull of their numbers’, and ‘more likely, county cricket will survive to clamp England at the bottom of the rankings for years to come. There is a narrow tunnel out of here. But is anyone prepared to grasp the nettle and lead the way?’ (perhaps grasping a torch might have been more useful).

Just in case we haven’t got the point, the third ‘radical solution’ is entitled ‘Merge the Counties’, in which John Brown (at the time the publisher of Viz and numerous in-house magazines, later the Chairman of the Wisden Group), ‘takes a businessman’s approach’. This would involve reducing ‘the number of professional teams to ten, merging eight adjacent pairs such as Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire’, playing nine games a season (‘admittedly diehard members might be put off, but they should be cancelled out by new fans attracted to the higher standard of cricket’). He also cheerfully admits (a true ‘businessman’s approach’) that ‘half the professionals in the game – from ground-staff to administrators – would lose their jobs, but this would be better than all of them over a longer period of time. Obviously … there would be many disgruntled people, but not nearly as many as there will be when the county game disappears into oblivion – which it will over the next 20 years if it does nothing to revitalise itself’.

Elsewhere in the magazine the dramatis personae of the next decade are beginning to emerge, like daffodil shoots in Winter. Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff (both classed as ‘batsmen who bowl’) are in the tour party for South Africa, as, a premature shoot, is Graeme Swann ; Ashley Giles is in the one-day squad ; Trescothick and Harmison (lauded as ‘very lively’ by Martin Bicknell) are in the A team. In Middlesex’s county notes Andrew Strauss is described by Mike Gatting as a ‘youngster’, who ‘needs more time to get up to speed’ ; a 17-year-old Ian Bell made a reasonable showing for the England U-19s against Australia. It is noted, in passing, that Duncan Fletcher, ‘who officially starts as coach in October’ helped to select the England side for the Oval Test.

There are various other features that might be construed as blows against the ‘forces of conservatism’. Tim de Lisle announces ‘just in time for the 21st century’ a Wisden website, which will offer an alternative to ‘the other stuff floating about, largely unedited, on the great ocean of the web’ (the term ‘blog’ was first used in 1999). This included ‘Ethic View’, shared between Orin Gordon (‘a Guyana-born BBC producer’) and Kamran Abbasi, who also contributes a militant ‘Asian View’ to the magazine (‘Imran Khan has more clout these days in Yorkshire than Lahore’), and a ‘Women’s Page’, by Tanya Aldred, who interviewed some of the ‘few women’ at the NatWest final. Now that the amount of ‘unedited stuff on the Web’ has grown, the comments of Holly Brown, 25, might attract some adverse comment from today’s ‘online community’ :

‘You can’t really blame the authorities. They need women to get off their arses and learn that there is more to life than shopping.’ (#arses #shopping)

The signs of a new dawn (or the shadow falling) are also visible in the Championship table, with half the counties (those who were destined for Division One in the next season) in the light, the others in the shade. (With three games to go, incidentally, Leicestershire, who had won the title the previous year, were in second place).

Admittedly, the ‘forces of conservatism’ were mounting a small rearguard action in the classified adverts, where the Dunkery Beacon Hotel in Wootton Courtenay advertised itself as offering touring teams ‘open-ended bar hours for gentlemen drinkers’ (as opposed to ladies or yobboes, presumably) and ‘comfortable beds (when needed)’, for those gentlemen who did not fancy spending all night in the bar.

Come the new Millennium, the ‘forces of conservatism’ were indeed forced to give ground in cricket, as elsewhere in the country. Central contracts were introduced in 2000, partly satisfying Christopher Lane’s demand that England cricketers should be quarantined from the infection of County cricket. The First Class Forum, as advocated by Bob Willis, voted itself out of existence in 2005, by which time, under the direction of Duncan Fletcher, England’s results had improved to the point where, as you may remember, England beat Australia in a series that was generally reckoned to have been the best-ever.

All of this had been achieved without reducing the number of counties (although WCM had taken its own advice and merged with ‘The Cricketer‘ in 2003) : county cricket had, pace Lane, survived, but England had not been ‘clamped at the bottom of the rankings for years’ ; in fact, although there have been ups and downs, they have generally been one of the better sides. So, given that ‘we’ were all agreed in 1999 that the purpose of the county game was to produce a successful England side, and that has been achieved, it would be reasonable to assume that the counties would now be safe, but in 2019, with the ‘Hundred’ in the offing, that is far from being the case. Reducing the number of counties, for the ECB and some die-hard progressives has, it seems, become less a means to an end than an end in itself, an article of faith.

What was not taken into consideration, or even hinted at, in the October 1999 issue (although it had been mooted) was the largest single threat to the ‘forces of conservatism’, the advent of T20, an invention of the ECB’s Marketing Manager, which was voted through (by 11 votes to 7) by the First Class Forum in 2003, shortly before their voluntary self-immolation. The scale of T20’s success, and its proposed, not unpredictable, mutation into the eight-County ‘Hundred’, has confused the issue considerably since the heady days of 1999, and, although some commentators would only confess to being conservative on pain of death, it is making conservatives of many erstwhile progressives.

One comparison I have previously made is that the introduction of T20 into English cricket resembles that of the cane toad into Queensland : the toads were imported from central America to control the native cane beetle, but, lacking any natural predators, multiplied uncontrollably and wrecked the local ecology. T20, too, was introduced with good intentions, and for a specific purpose, but has now run amok, pushing the native fauna of the Championship to the inhospitable extremities of its habitat.

Another amphibian-based comparison that occurs to me is the fable of the ‘Frogs who wanted a King’. The frogs asked Zeus for a King : he sent them a log. At first they were happy with this, but when they realised it was only a log, they mocked it mercilessly, and asked Zeus to send them a proper King. He next sent them a stork, which ate them. For the frogs, read the cricketing public ; for King Log, the MCC ; for the stork, the ECB. (Perhaps also, for frogs, read liberal commentators ; for King Log, Gordon Brown ; for the stork, Boris Johnson.)

And finally, the – I hope – untested – belief that it is possible to boil a frog without it complaining if you turn the heat up slowly enough. The loud and widespread complaints you can currently hear about the ‘Hundred’, from those who had been happy to applaud the establishment of the ECB, the abolition of the First Class Council, the introduction of central contracts, a two division championship, the Sky deal and the proliferation of T20 as blows against ‘the forces of conservatism’, sound to me like the frantic croaking of frogs who have, at the last moment, woken up to the fact that they are being boiled.

*I am not suggesting that this particular animus was directly influenced by Tony Blair, simply that the gospel of always looking forward, enthusiasm for ‘change’ as a good in itself, and reflexive hostility to conservatism in all its forms, seemed all-pervasive at the time, and Blair was its most prominent evangelist. Twenty years on he finds himself allied with that much-mocked epitome of the ‘forces of conservatism’, John Major, with his much-hated warm beer and long shadows on the county ground (both phrases from a speech urging continued membership of the European Union, which he could have made yesterday, to widespread acclaim from ‘progressives’). The creatures outside looked from progressive to conservative, and from conservative to progressive …

Half Man Half Tetley

Pushing the Boundaries : Cricket in the Eighties / by Derek Pringle (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998)

You may have heard of the ‘New Statesman’ competition that asked for the most unlikely combination of author and title : the winner, famously, was ‘My Struggle’, by Martin Amis. An alternative suggestion might be ‘It’s Been a Lot of Fun’ (actually one of Brian Johnston’s many productions), by almost any recent England cricketer.

Although there have always been exceptions, readers of a cricketer’s autobiography used to know what they were in for : a plain (‘My Story’) or punning (‘A Spinner’s Yarn’) title, a discreet acknowledgement of the faithful ghost (‘with thanks to my old pal Ted Corns of the Bolton Evening Gazette for his assistance in writing this book’), then a largely untroubled progress from the cradle (‘Early Years’) to a well-deserved benefit and retirement. Shortly before the Statistical Section (‘with thanks to Irving Rosenwater’), there might be a conclusion along the lines of ‘It’s been a wonderful life, so here’s to cricket – the finest game in the world!”.

The ‘dairy of a season’ genre, which enjoyed a vogue in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties (Willis, Brain, Agnew and (particularly) Roebuck), may have suggested that the lot of a professional cricketer was not always a cloudlessly happy one, but the clouds were rarely darker than boredom, frustration, mild anxiety at a loss of form, or mounting irritation with team-mates. Actual mental illness was largely absent, from the text, at least (historical biographies, from Shrewsbury to Gimblett are another matter).

The first outright cricketing misery memoir I can remember reading was Graham Thorpe’s ‘Rising from the Ashes’, published in 2005. Largely concerned with his marital difficulties, it managed to convey the impression that playing cricket professionally would be an attractive option only if the alternative were being a galley slave. He also, I felt, cut a fairly unsympathetic figure, which was not the case with the title that really opened the floodgates for the genre, Marcus Trescothick’s ‘Coming Back to Me’, published in 2008.

By the time that his book came out it was, I think, common knowledge that Trescothick had retired from playing for England because he found the stress of it had driven him to depression, but the openness with which he described his illness was, at the time, rather shocking, and, as it was often said, brave. Since then, there have been similar accounts by Jonathan Trott, Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and, from earlier eras, Graeme Fowler and Robin Smith. This year’s film about England’s tour of Australia in 2013-4 was entitled ‘On the Edge’ (apparently of a collective nervous breakdown).

I am not seeking to belittle these books, or underestimate the positive effect that they have had in improving the public’s understanding of depression and anxiety. However, they do make me uneasy, in that I am reluctant to feel that I am deriving pleasure from watching a game which drives its participants to the verge of suicide. Even at the time, I found that tour of Australia increasingly hard to watch (or listen to, in my case), as it became clear that several of the English players were being subjected to intolerable mental strain, and were unravelling before our eyes (or ears).

I accept that this feeling is not universal among followers of cricket : there are those who like to think of cricketers as tragic heroes, whose every trip to the crease represents an existential crisis (among them some of our sports-writers). There are also those of us, however, who prefer to think, perhaps deludedly, that cricket ought to offer an escape from gloom, a comedy with occasional excursions into farce, albeit sometimes tinged with pathos. I think it is this latter group that has ensured the notable success of Derek Pringle’s ‘Pushing the Boundaries’.

Even from the cover, there is no mistaking Pringle’s book for a misery memoir, where convention dictates that the author is portrayed in full face, with an expression suggesting that the photographer has written ‘abyss of despair’ on his forehead, and invited the subject to stare into it. A monochrome Pringle is depicted in his delivery stride, watched, like a moth-eaten hawk, by that reliable guarantor of old school japes , Dickie Bird, in a kind of sepia wash. (Bird, in fact, only makes one appearance – the one about water springing up around the run-ups at Leeds, which you may have heard before).

Anyone still apprehensive that they might not be in for a cheerful read would be reassured by the preface, in which Pringle suggests that having played in the Eighties was like ‘being first in the queue at the January sales’, that it ‘wasn’t always pretty but it was a hell of a lot of fun’, and that ‘cricket was about fun, joy and self-expression, not the endless and often futile quest for constant self-improvement’. This period, he feels, came to an end with the arrival of ‘coach culture’, which he dates precisely to being made to do shuttle runs in 90 degree heat in India in 1990 (shortly before his retirement).

As a player, Pringle was classed as an all-rounder, initially miscast as the ‘New Botham’. Botham was one of the rare all-rounders who would have been picked for either discipline ; Pringle one of the more common type (particularly in England in the ‘eighties) who would not have been picked for either (in Test cricket), but was useful for plugging a gap. Not short of self-awareness, he soon abandoned any attempt to become the hoped-for swashbuckler, and settled for being a niggardly line-and-length seamer who could contribute some handy late-order runs. (He also returned his sponsored yellow Porsche to the garage, after Steve O’Shaughnessy had emptied a bucket of whitewash over it).

Looking at his Test career, it is hard to find much retrospective logic to his selection or non-selection. After his first year, when he was taken to Australia, he did not tour (his bowling was felt to be suitable only for English conditions), and came closest to playing a whole home series in 1986, while Botham was serving a ban after admitting to smoking cannabis. Pringle himself admits that ‘the selectors picked Beefy and me … on several occasions, yet at times it was difficult to see why’. Younger readers may also be surprised that a player with a Test batting average of 15, and only one 50 to his name, could be picked as an all-rounder, sometimes batting as high as no. 6. (In one-day cricket, to be fair, he was worth his place).

Purchasers of an old-style autobiography could be confident of finding two things : amusing anecdotes (sometimes gathered together at the end, shortly before ‘The Greatest of my Time’, under a chapter heading such as ‘The Lighter Side of Cricket’), and blow-by-blow accounts of some of the subject’s more memorable games (often cobbled together from old match reports in ‘Wisden’ by a conscientious ghost, to pad out a thin narrative). There are plenty of both in ‘Pushing the Boundaries’, although it is the anecdotes that are the selling point, as if Pring, in return for a few pints of Old Ratbiter, is prepared to tell the one about Derek Randall’s evening as a transvestite prostitute, but only after he has taken you through the closing stages of a tight Benson & Hedges quarter-final against Glamorgan in 1987.

Many of these anecdotes concern one of two subjects – women and alcohol – which tend to feature in new-style autobiographies in the context of ‘problems with’ : ‘by now my drinking was completely out of hand and, in retrospect, I don’t know how Karen put up with me for so long. I must have been very difficult to live with’. Pringle’s approach, on the other hand, is in line with his response to Somerset Chairman, Tony Brown, when asked to apologise for flicking a v-sign at a section of the Taunton crowd (who responded by pelting him with ‘lunchboxes and half-eaten drumsticks’) : ‘I give you the words of Edith Piaf – ‘Je ne regrette rien’’.

One of the few occasions when he does express a hint of regret occurs early on, when he discusses his pre-England relationship with ‘Claire’, a South African medical student, responsible for his notorious ear-stud : his only named paramour, she even qualifies for a photograph. In a rare excursion into Mills and Boon territory, he recalls

‘we shared a sleeping bag under clear desert skies. Naturally I told Andre that nothing had gone on, but heavy condensation on the bag the following morning suggested otherwise. … those seven heavenly days … stirred emotions hitherto dormant’.

Unfortunately, being selected for England turned his head, and, ‘selfish, small minded and weak-willed’ (he is not short of self-knowledge), Pringle threw her over for the shifting cast of air hostesses, ‘models’ (his inverted commas) and camp followers who flit in and out of the rest of the narrative.

Michael Atherton is quoted on the cover as saying that the book ‘is a love letter to … the greatest player of his generation, Sir Ian Botham’. It is true that Botham is a central character, and the source of some of the more lurid anecdotes (most of which prove that, if he took to you, ‘Beefy’ could be a generous, loyal and life-enhancing companion), but, if the book is a love letter to anything, it is one to ale. I think the last time I read a work with quite such a high level of alcohol consumption, it was a biography of Malcolm Lowry, or possibly an autopsy report.

There are the great set-pieces of intoxication, such as the night that he and Botham, after a ‘skinful’ in the local pub and ‘a few spliffs’, polish off a ‘61 Chateau Latour to accompany a late night supper of bacon and sausages, or the time that he drank 17 pints of Tetley’s bitter during the rest day of the 1986 Test against India at Headingley (leading J.K. Lever to dub him ‘Half Man Half Tetley’), but throughout there is the steady drip of alcohol, like water leaking from a cracked pipe. Nor was he alone in this : even the Essex scorer had ‘non-drinking days’, when he drank only two bottles of white wine, and ‘drinking days’, when he would sink at least three quarters of a bottle of whisky (‘preferably the Famous Grouse’).

Nothing disturbs the insouciance with which he surfs this river of booze, not even an encounter with a ‘permanently drunk’ and out-of-control Peter Cook on a trip to La Manga in aid of Botham’s benefit year. After recounting Cook’s atrocious behaviour, which ended in a well-deserved black eye from the wife of the boxer Jim Watt, he observes of this ‘functioning alcoholic’, ‘his actions lacked, utterly, … any kind of judgement or humanity’. Perhaps Pringle felt reassured that, however much Tetley’s he sank, he could never sink quite that low.

Cook is one of a number of non-cricketing celebrities who make cameo appearances. Elton John and Eric Clapton are two of the more predictable : more surreally, he also meets Siouxsie and the Banshees in the lobby of a Sydney hotel, sipping crème-de-menthe (which sounds like the result of a game of Consequences).

Sitting there like the Sphinx of Gaza, [she] rebuffed all attempts at conversation with a wall of silence, her disdain for something as unhip as a cricket team written all over her face.’

She might be similarly unimpressed to find herself in the index, between Singh, Maninder and Slack, Wilf.

Anyone pining for the old-school autobiography will be cheered by the reappearance of some familiar motifs, which tend to be thin on the ground in the more intense variety of memoir : snoring room-mates are dealt with in some detail, as are Keith Fletcher’s difficulty in remembering names, and long car journeys with team-mates who are terrible navigators, or who have conflicting musical tastes. He was, though, slightly too young to have been driven by Brian Close, which always used to be worth a couple of pages.

The only readers who might be disappointed would be puritans who resent the fact that anyone has ever enjoyed themselves without receiving some form of come-uppance, and, to be fair, those who prefer some element of profound self-reflection in their memoirs. One answer to the latter is simply that Pringle has chosen not to write that kind of book, and, as he is writing it himself, there is no-one to encourage him to do so. The death of his father in a car crash, the moment that would have prompted any self-respecting ghost to probe more deeply (‘so, Derek, how did you feel …?’) is passed over in a paragraph. He may not be an unreflective man, but he has not chosen to write a deeply self-reflective book.  (It is also, perhaps, not irrelevant when he observes (of David Gower) that ‘like a lot of public schoolboys of that era, he thought it uncool to care too much about anything, especially something so footling as a game of cricket‘.)

It is, though, difficult for the reader to resist reflecting on the quite remarkable lack of angst, not to mention rancour (few, other than England physiotherapist Bernard Thomas (‘chief sneak to the selectors’) and the ‘sanctimonious clots that populate most national newspapers‘ receive less than generous treatment). Pringle’s own explanation is that the 1980s were a unique decade, when players had been freed from the quasi-feudal restrictions that had once prevailed, but had not yet been stifled by micro-management from over-mighty coaches, enabling ‘mavericks’ to flourish.

Earlier ‘mavericks’, from Lionel Tennyson to Denis Compton, might dispute that there was anything novel about the idea of an England tour as mobile bacchanalia, and there is some reason, on recent evidence, to suspect that excessive hedonism has not so much disappeared, as been forced underground, away from the scrutiny of, not so much the tabloid press (Botham’s nemesis), as its natural successor in combining prurience and sanctimony, social media.

While on the subject of snoring, Pringle does suggest, in passing, that ‘the depression that now seems to afflict so many modern cricketers appeared less prevalent when players shared rooms’ : I suppose being knocked onto his backside by an electric shock from Chris Lewis’ malfunctioning (and superfluous) hairdryer might have acted as an impromptu form of ECT.

Most players of any era, though, would have expressed some resentment at being dropped and called-up so many times, with so little apparent reason : the furthest Pringle goes is recording that his non-selection for the 1988-9 tour of India ‘hacked me off no end’. Some might have been more self-critical about not having made more of the opportunities he was offered (by, perhaps, laying off the ale during Test matches, or learning to swing the ball a little earlier in his career than 1989) : Pringle seems to have taken the robust attitude that he was lucky to have been in the side in the first place, and grateful that it offered him so many incidental benefits.

It must have helped that, before the age of central contracts, Pringle was not primarily an England player : he was an Essex player who was occasionally chosen to play for England. His place in the England team might have been precarious but he was a secure and valued member of the most successful county side of the decade, who seem to have been a companionable, and almost equally bibulous, collection, even if on a slightly smaller budget : some of his warmest, if least sensational, recollections, are of his Essex colleagues, and life on the, now sadly depleted, county circuit. Contemporary England players have fewer opportunities to escape from the spotlight in the company of friends in the familiar surroundings of a homely dressing room, or to refresh their skills in front of a smaller, and less exacting, audience.

When the last chapter, entitled ‘Endgame’, arrives, one might expect the tone to darken slightly, or at least turn a little wistful, but not a bit of it : rather than any lament for failing powers, the book ends abruptly, after an account of the 1992 World Cup final (one of his better games, in which his ten overs cost only 22 runs, and he took 3 wickets), simply noting that it was followed, shortly afterwards, by the retirements of Botham, Gower, Tavaré and Randall, and then himself. He does not quite drink a toast (or 17 pints of Tetley’s) to ‘cricket, the greatest game in the world’, but he does conclude :

‘I spent the next 20 years covering cricket instead of playing it – a job that was almost as much fun. Almost.’

The last time I saw Pringle was at Fenner’s, reporting on the game in which Surrey, lead by Kevin Pietersen, were defeated by the University. I seem to remember him rather ostentatiously standing up when Pietersen came into bat, some time before lunch, and announcing that he was heading to the pub (presumably one of his favourite local watering-holes) : he only returned some time after lunch, by which time Pietersen was out. I expect the presumed next volume of his memoirs, covering his time in the press-box, to be almost as much fun as the first.