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.

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.

Lost Souls

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Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket, by Stephen Fay and David Kynaston : Bloomsbury, 2018.

Four pages from the end of this 355 page book, the authors conclude that “the great biography of Arlott has still to be written”. A surprising assertion, given that John Arlott was primarily a broadcaster and journalist on the subject of cricket, and that, in addition to their own work (a joint biography with that of E.W. Swanton), he has already been the subject of a 377 page authorised biography (by David Rayvern Allen) and a full-length memoir by his son Timothy, not to mention his own half-autobiography, ‘Basingstoke Boy’. It is difficult to imagine any contemporary cricket broadcaster being thought worthy of a single biography, let alone it being suggested, nearly 40 years after their retirement, that two and a half had not been enough to do them justice (and, if the readers of c. 2070 are to be presented with – say – a joint biography of Alison Mitchell and Simon Mann (to select two of the more competent), it is unlikely that anything as grandiose as the “soul of English cricket” will be invoked in the title).

The ideal reader of Fay and Kynaston’s work would be unfamiliar with the earlier biographies of Arlott, and Rayvern Allen’s unauthorised, but surely near-exhaustive, biography of Swanton : I suspect, though, it will mostly have been read by those who, like me, are old enough to have fond memories of Arlott’s broadcasting, and are already familiar with his life-story. Perhaps one reaches a stage in life when – like small children – it is comforting to hear the same story repeated again and again. As I have read all three, I learned little that was factually new about either of its subjects, although I cannot fault the way in which the authors have selected from the earlier accounts and interwoven their subjects’ stories.

 

Although they admit, in their bibliography, that both of Rayvern Allen’s biographies “have been invaluable for our purposes“, elsewhere they are curiously grudging about him, describing Timothy Arlott, for instance, as “the more observant and unsentimental of his biographers” : (Allen, by implication the more unobservant and sentimental, saw, as a friend and colleague, Arlott at his best : as his son, Timothy Arlott also saw him at his worst). They also give some of Rayvern Allen’s more gossipy digressions short shrift : they are clearly less tickled than him by the perfectly plausible suggestion that Swanton was essentially homosexual, for instance.

Perhaps, their conclusion is a simple admission that half a book is not enough to do justice to Arlott, who was, by general assent, a more substantial figure than Swanton : it is Swanton, whose story is less well-known, who rather comes to dominate the book, as, with his stature and “booming”, he tended to dominate any room that he entered. He must, surely, have been the more entertaining to write about, offering considerable scope for the kind of unintentional comedy that arises from the gap between his not inconsiderable self-estimate and the way that he was perceived by others.

Swanton also provides more support for the thesis that the authors propose at the beginning of their book, but only half-heartedly pursue : that Arlott and Swanton embodied two opposed factions within the world of English cricket, and in wider society, and that that division was class-based.

“In those post-war years, England’s class system had a slot for almost everyone. Men and women were identified by where they came from, what they read and how they sounded. Within a few minutes of the start of a conversation about cricket, it would be possible to identify the speaker as an Arlott Man or a Swanton Man, and to make a good guess at the speaker’s education, occupation and politics. Because of their strong personalities and convictions, each had a loyal following.

I am not convinced that the second part of this is true (were there ever “Swanton men” in quite that sense?), and Arlott’s own career suggests that England’s alleged “class system” was by no means systematic : on p. 38 he embarks upon a career as a police constable in Southampton, by p. 43 he is spending the weekend with John Betjeman, and by p. 45 he is hob-nobbing with Constance Lambert and Margot Fonteyn, (although I can accept that hearing a provincial accent on the radio (other than that of Wilfred Pickles) might have seemed more revolutionary when the authors first listened-in in the 1950s than it did to those of us who were growing up with Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis).

Arlott, it seems to me, was too singular an individual to be forced into representing any wider grouping : Swanton, on the other hand, seems quite consciously to have devoted his working life to representing the Voice of the Establishment, although, as the authors reveal, this self-caricature as “patently, a crusted reactionary” was frequently belied by his actions and opinions. It is true, though, that he continued to mount some self-parodic hobby-horses throughout his career, such as his preoccupation with the way in which cricketers dressed (as early as 1961 he was complaining about the standard of dress in the Varsity match –

“One wonders whether it is some strange neurosis or just common-or-garden lack of respect for their elders and betters that is responsible for this cocking of a snook at tradition”).

A game of word association with “Swanton” would immediately throw up “snobbish” and “pompous” (additionally, both Arlott and John Woodcock described him at various times as a “shit”, “Lobby” de Lotbinière, his first producer at the BBC, described him as possessing “an unattractive personality” and Henry Blofeld thought he was a “bully”. Some, but not all, of those who knew him in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp (as unearthed by Rayvern Allen) were even less complimentary. Fay and Kynaston observe that “in office politics [and elsewhere] persistence was Swanton’s main weapon”, although, unlike Rayvern Allen, they do not have the space to reveal the full extent of his manoeuverings and manipulations (his other main weapon was to go straight to the top – when it was proposed to reduce the number of Tests he commented on he subjected the Director General of the BBC to a relentless stream of letters until he relented).

Inevitably, his self-importance and solemnity about small matters attracted the attention of satirists and pranksters. Brian Johnston delighted in pinging his braces while he was preparing to deliver one of his ex-cathedra summaries of the day’s play on TMS (something he would not have dared try with Arlott) (“always fourth-form, Johnston” chided Swanton). Peter Richardson, the Worcestershire and Kent opener, was not only responsible for holding up play until an off-putting “booming noise” from the direction of the commentary box could be traced (Swanton’s voice), but continued to vex him by submitting accounts of the doings of fictitious public schools to ‘The Cricketer’ and comically blimpish letters in praise of Swanton to ‘The Daily Telegraph’.

He did, though, have his admirers. Arlott found Australia uncongenial, and his charm tended to be lost on Australians : he was consistently at odds with Alan McGilvray, for instance, who doubted his knowledge of technique and was impatient with his more fanciful turns of phrase. Gideon Haigh, though, wrote a notably appreciative piece when Swanton died, seeing himself, perhaps, in the same role as Ciceronian consigliere to Australian cricket in its imperial phase as Swanton had sought to play with regard to England in the 1950s.

When it came to the larger issues, although Swanton’s heart may have been on the conservative side of the question, his attitude (as Fay and Kynaston illustrate well) tended to “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. He was, for instance, famously preoccupied with defending the principle of amateurism, and, in particular, amateur captaincy, but when the possibility arose of a professional captaining England’s tour to Australia in 1950, his attitude was equivocal. The obvious option would have been to to opt for a senior professional, but Swanton offered a choice between two successful county captains, the amateur Freddie Brown and the professional Tom Dollery, of Warwickshire (Arlott’s preference, by the way, was for the amateur (or shamateur) Wilf Wooller, a personal friend), concluding

“Good judges and students of cricket who are by no means prejudiced against a professional captain, as such, may well ask themselves whether this particular moment is the time to experiment in this direction.

Swanton, the careful reader will deduce, was a good judge and then was not the time.

In 1952, when the choice seemed to lie between Len Hutton and David Sheppard, Swanton devoted several lines of his choicest periphrasis to implying that a professional would still be unsuitable, while declining to endorse Sheppard either :

Whether it would be altogether fair to him or in the selectors’ best interests in the long run, is the issue for debate.”

When Ray Illingworth was appointed to lead the 1970-1 tour, Swanton, having made it plain that would prefer Cowdrey, posed another of his less open questions :

“Whether the right choice has been made in preferring a man who has been, frankly, a failure on two tours to one who has succeeded on nine only history will show.”

Although he could always be relied upon to deliver a pontifical pronouncement on any subject, he did not reliably take the obviously conservative position, and he was quite capable of contradicting himself (or, to be fairer, changing his mind). In 1961, his reaction to Cowdrey walking when three short of a century against Australia was whole-hearted approval :

“Such is the excellent habit of the modern cricketer. The episode, of course, was completely in character.”

By 1966 he was agin it, as this piece demonstrates. https://backwatersman.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/de-ambulatione-e-w-swantons-1966-encyclical-on-walking/

One question about which Swanton did not affect to equivocate was the introduction of one-day cricket (obsessed as he was, like most of the “establishment” during this period, with the promotion of “brighter cricket”). When the MCC first proposed such a competition (in 1957), he threw his hat in the air

“Hurrah! For the blessing given to a knock-out competition among the counties … the only sad thing is that it apparently cannot be arranged until 1959.”

When it came to the largest issues, Arlott and Swanton tended to take similar positions. Arlott has long been awarded kudos for his vocal public opposition to apartheid : Swanton’s was less demonstrative, but no less sincere (prepared even to make the supreme sacrifice, for such an inveterate social climber, of jeapordising his friendship with the Duke of Norfolk).

Both were deeply apprehensive about the advent of Kerry Packer’s circus, suspecting, correctly, that it threatened damage to the fabric of cricket that would prove irreparable. Arlott’s chief concern was that the affair should result in an improvement in the lot of the average County professional (never a primary concern of Swanton’s), rather than a deterioration : Swanton brought his full armoury of rhetorical questions and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to bear on preserving as much of the status quo as was salvageable.

Perhaps another reason why Swanton is the main focus of the book is that, for older readers, he presents the more encouraging example. Although he retired from his role at ‘The Telegraph’ and from regular summarising in 1974, he sailed on blithely into old age, still pontificating and meddling, apparently not much troubled by doubt, before dying in 2000, at the age of 92. Shortly before he died he had voted for women to be admitted to the MCC. Arlott, the younger by seven years, retired later, in 1980, but died earlier, in 1991. Even before retirement, a note of the “long melancholy withdrawing roar” (or burr) had entered his writing, and he was painfully conscious of failing powers

I can’t do it any longer. I’m not as I was. Haven’t thought of something new to say for ages.”
“As you get older, your techniques get better, but you begin to run out of fresh ideas. It’s time to give other people a chance.”

He did not disappear completely from the public consciousness (his last broadcast words in his lifetime may well have been “it’s a lot less bovver than a hover“), but occluded himself in Alderney, where he seems to have succumbed to a general accidie, exacerbated by ill-health, some of it self-inflicted (apart from his drinking, he had once been a heavy smoker (of cigarettes, rather than the St. Bruno he had advertised)). If one of Swanton’s strongest instincts was for self-preservation (as he had demonstrated during his time as a prisoner of war), Arlott tended more towards self-destruction : immediately after the death of his son, as Rayvern Allen relates

“John would keep his foot firmly on the throttle in the face of heavy traffic when overtaking. Several lorries found the only escape route was by way of a ditch.”

By the time he came to write the story of his life, he had already begun to lose interest in it.

Of the two, it was Arlott, the deep-feeling romantic, who was less able than Swanton, the conservative pragmatist, to adapt to changing times.

“Could they have adapted? Arlott, surely not; Swanton, the great adapter, perhaps. By and large, they were fortunate to live their lives in their own lifetimes”.

I hesitate to guess what a younger reader, unfamiliar with the period, would make of this book, but I imagine that they might be less struck by the strangeness of the general social landscape (which is only lightly sketched) than by the changes in the world of cricket since Arlott and Swanton walked the earth : that they could (in Arlott’s case, at least) have become well-known public figures by broadcasting about cricket on the BBC and writing for newspapers must seem fantastical, as would the seriousness with which their opinions were delivered and received. As for the idea that English cricket might have a “soul” (not so far, after all, from that “spirit”, which is now automatically sneered at), that might seem equally puzzling, confirming the authors’ implication that the two men were not so much struggling for control of the soul of cricket as fighting, in their different ways, to save it, and that it was a battle that they both, with varying degrees of regret, eventually came to recognise that they had lost.

In the Penal Colony

The Roses Matches 1919-1939, by Neville Cardus. (Souvenir Press, 1982)

 

 

I am unsure, when writing about Neville Cardus, how much knowledge I may presume. Although I am willing to be contradicted, my suspicion is that he is, for younger readers, more of a name than a substantial presence, and, perhaps, more slighted than read. The terms most often prompted by his name would probably be “lyrical” or “rhapsodic”. He stands accused of “fine writing” (as opposed to crude writing, or lousy writing, of which there is currently no great shortage) ; worse still, he is suspected of nostalgia.

Puritans of all kinds, from “Ticker” Mitchell to the Leavises, have long found his writing objectionable, and the sophisticated taste used to prefer Robertson-Glasgow, in the same way that it preferred Keaton to Chaplin, or MacNeice to Auden. The reaction set in in earnest soon after his death in 1975, since when it has been obligatory for anyone who fancies themselves as a bit of an iconoclast to have, at least, a side-swipe at him.

Derek Birley (who, I think, sees Cardus as some kind of class traitor) devoted a chapter of ‘The Willow Wand’ to taking a single phrase of his, never meant entirely seriously*, and misinterpreting it. Mike Marquese, in the first sentence of ‘Anyone but England’, refers to him as “that self-made snob Neville Cardus”, which is so gratuitous that he could have achieved the same effect by replacing “snob” with “wanker” or “prick”. More recently there was this outburst by Daniel Norcross, in which he implies that Cardus’s writing is “twee” and like – of all people’s – Lytton Strachey’s (Strachey’s shtick was to debunk revered figures from the nineteenth century, whereas Cardus is usually seen as having been too reverent of them).

A shilling life will give you all the facts of his life (or, failing that, the excellent Wikipedia page)**. He was born in Rusholme, Manchester in 1888 (or 1889), the illegitimate son of a woman who, alongside her sister, supplemented her income from taking in washing by being what Cardus described as a “kind of genteel courtesan” (if he were writing for ‘the Guardian’ today I suppose he would be obliged to describe them as “sex workers”, which seems like a terrible comedown for poor Ada and Beatrice). He rarely attended school and left for good in 1901 (today he would probably have been taken into “care“). After an arduous course of self-education, he obtained a post as Assistant Cricket Professional at Shrewsbury School, then doubled up as the Headmaster’s secretary. When this came to an end, he managed to inveigle himself into the offices of the ‘Manchester Guardian’, initially as a kind of unpaid “intern“.

He was employed as its cricket correspondent, under the pseudonym “Cricketer“, between 1919 (when he was 29, or possibly 30) and 1939. He had originally no intention of writing about cricket professionally, his ambition (fulfilled in 1927) being to become the paper’s music correspondent, but was invited to do so as a way of recovering from some form of nervous collapse (described by him as a “breakdown“), while working as a junior reporter (those aspiring to write about cricket nowadays may envy his ease of entry into the profession).

During this period he published four collections of essays : ‘A Cricketer’s Book’, ‘Days in the Sun’, ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘Good Days’, and an account of the tour to Australia of 1936-7. Having spent the war in Australia, where he wrote his best-selling ‘Autobiography’, he returned to live in London (at the National Liberal Club) and become a full-time music critic. Although he did not abandon writing about cricket altogether, “Cricketer” was retired. He published one new collection (of retrospective pieces he had written for ‘Playfair Cricket Monthly’), as well as further autobiographical writings and a number of new collections, recycling previously published pieces, some already collected, some new.

This habit of recycling older material means that reading Cardus can induce a sense of deja vu (a little like listening to a band such as the Smiths, who produced four or five albums, but whose work has been posthumously recombined in different configurations). He was also, by his own admission, uninhibited about repeating himself, if he felt a point was worth repeating, and always solicitous to ensure that his readers should not have missed out on any of his choicer bon mots. What he rarely recycled, however, were the match reports that he written for the MG (by his own estimation, he wrote 8,000 words a week, or nearly two million in twenty years), so I was interested to come across this collection of reports on the Roses matches of 1919-39, compiled after his death by his “cricket wife”, protegee and literary executor, Margaret Hughes.

In his introduction, John Arlott writes “He created a style of reporting the game ; and then virtually re-created it in the years of his maturity”. Cardus himself, in his ‘Autobiography’ endorsed this view that there were, as it were, two Carduses (in the way that there are meant to be “two Wittgensteins”).

“It was with very conscious art that I entered into my first and “yellow” period as a writer on cricket … I overwrote, no doubt … My first books, ‘Days in the Sun’ and ‘A Cricketer’s Book’are obviously the “literary efforts” of one who is keeping his eye not so much on the ball as on his pen and style … My later writings … were, as far as I could make them, based first on observation … and even then it was humour and irony that guided the choice. None the less nearly all my critics persisted, whenever I produced another book on cricket, with their old labels about my “lyrical muse”, my “rhapsodies in green”, my “heroics”.”

This was first published in 1947, but is still the case today. It is true that Cardus’s most memorable essays belongs to his earlier period. If I ever feel disenchanted by cricket (which, it will come as no surprise to regular readers, I sometimes do) I return to pieces such as ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season’ to remind myself how watching cricket can sometimes be, and how it ought to feel. To read these is to share the sense of release that Cardus experienced when he first began writing about cricket ; release, apart from his mental affliction, from the physical confines of the Guardian’s “Corridor“, and from overwork and poverty (he notes that his new job brought him an increase in pay to £5.00 a week).

Writing about cricket, though, meant not only a release, but the hope of returning to the happiest days of his childhood and youth, when he had watched the great Lancashire players of the Golden Age (a notion he did much to create) playing at Old Trafford. His most lyrical pieces about individuals in this earliest period are about them, and, turning to his journalism between the wars, we find it, too, haunted by the ghosts of MacLaren, Tyldelsey, Spooner and Brearley. His style also harks back to the previous century : in his more high-flown pieces he writes in the vein of Pater, in his more comical aspect (often when writing about Yorkshiremen) he is Dickensian.

It was his misfortune that the cricket he found when he returned was not cricket as he had remembered it (he is not insensible to the possibility that it never had been). The Roses matches of the inter-war period were notoriously dour affairs (their notoriety partly due to Cardus himself), in which winning the points available for a first innings lead was regarded as victory enough. Both sides could count on easily defeating the majority of the other Counties, so felt free to pursue these matches as a kind of private, fraternal, feud.***

A glance at the table of contents indicates the blissful regularity of these fixtures. Every year for twenty years the Roses matches coincided with the Whit and August Bank Holidays (as opposed to today, when the County schedule each new season bears no resemblance to the last). Every game began on the Saturday, continued on the Bank Holiday Monday and finished on the Tuesday. The Mondays could attract huge crowds (he mentions that there were 45,000 at Old Trafford in 1926), the other days rather fewer (only 2,000 on the – admittedly rain-affected – first day at Bradford in 1929).

The next thing that strikes me is the sheer length of the pieces, which generally run to about two thousand words. Presumably, he had Sunday to write about Saturday’s play, but the others must have been written to tight deadlines. Cardus was naturally prone to prolixity (and resented being edited – in his later years he referred to the ‘Guardian’’s sub-editors’ room as “the Abattoir”), but even he had sometimes to resort to padding (in the early years some unnecessarily long quotations from Shakespeare make an appearance towards the end of his pieces). Nonetheless, to write this much so quickly and so well, and for it to remain readable, is an achievement that I could never hope to emulate.

The pieces fall into roughly two periods : those from 1919 to 1929 or -30 and those of the 1930s. The first corresponds roughly to his “lyrical” period, but there is surprisingly little lyricism, or even much enthusiasm about them. The leading characters were survivors from the pre-war period : Wilfred Rhodes and Emmott Robinson for Yorkshire (Robinson had not made his debut until 1919, at the age of 35, but he belonged to the pre-war generation) and Harry Makepeace of Lancashire, together with newer players such as James and Ernest Tyledsley, who tended to bring out the Dickensian in Cardus, but did not make much appeal to his “un-English aestheticism”.

What is notable, for the period, is the absence of moralism (Cardus was an interesting example of someone who was, by conventional standards, almost entirely amoral but also almost entirely benign). The Yorkshire sides of the 1920s were notorious for their bad behaviour : sharp practice, abuse of the opposition, even (as against Middlesex at Sheffield in 1924) insinuations of physical violence on the field (Dudley Carew claimed that they sometimes seemed to be “playing under the skull and crossbones”). Of this, there is no hint in Cardus, certainly no disapproval.

The Yorkshire crowds, too, were known for their hostility (particularly those at Bramall Lane), for barracking both the opposition and their own players and, when especially frustrated or bored, pelting them with orange peel, cinders and other detritus. But again, there is no disapproval from Cardus ; his reports come most to life when he is relishing their partisan vehemence and only become critical when they seem subdued. He is sometimes accused of being excessively “pastoral”, but he was really the laureate of the old North at its dirtiest, as in this description of Bradford (which he didn’t much like) in 1923 :

“ ‘Cricket in hell,’ said a South of England man today, as he saw the Bradford field for the first time … From noon till evening the place has been like some vast underworld, discordant, ugly, uncomfortable. Even before noon the ground was full and the gates locked. Some 26,000 souls were inside making writhing congested ranks, and surely torment was their lot, what with the sun and the heavy air. Outside the unlovely field gloomy chimneys sent out smoke that curled into the summer sky sulkily … The crowd had little of the fluid humour of a Sheffield crowd: it was dull and seemingly a little stupid from its own bulk and unwieldiness. As the day passed on, the crowd broke bounds and overflowed on to the playing piece. Mounted police were called in to drive the derelicts back, and then we saw the green edge of the field littered with rubbish – it was as though a dank tide had gone out, leaving behind its scum.

This may be “lyrical”, but it can hardly be accused of being “pastoral” or “twee”.

In fact, although the writing sometimes flares into life (for instance when he describes Ted MacDonald bowling to a young Herbert Sutcliffe), and there are many nice phrases (many of which he gives us another chance to read), the first half of this book can be a little dull. Cardus was very aware that, for his readers (‘the Manchester Guardian’ was very much a local paper in those days), the Roses Match was the most important of the season, and would be relying on him to provide a detailed narrative of what had occurred. To begin with, he did so lengthily and conscientiously, which would have been interesting at the time, if he were the only source of information, but is less so today. At times he even resorts to statistics.

Even during this first period, Cardus sometimes has difficulty in suppressing his frustration at what he is watching. As early as 1920 he is describing “a day of spineless cricket” at Bradford. At Old Trafford in 1921 he notes that the game was “living, like too many institutions in these days, quite definitely on its past”. At Old Trafford in 1925 the cricket was “futile and hardly worth discussing”. At Bradford in 1926 he complains of “lethal dullness” and the “worst exhibition” he has ever seen by a Lancashire side. By 1928, “the dregs of disillusion were slightly to be tasted in our mouth”. He is, however, still capable of relishing these contests, in a half-ironical way, as exhibitions of character, and seems to be writing as a frustrated, but still hopeful, romantic, rather than one who is decidedly disenchanted.

By the turn of the decade, however, the tone of his writing changed, as he entered his forties, and became actively satirical. The pre-war generation were fading away and being replaced by a new one that did little to fire his admiration (it did not help that Lancashire were now much the weaker side, and – Eddie Paynter aside – he hardly has a good word to say about them). As for Yorkshire, he is strangely unimpressed by Hedley Verity, left cold by Maurice Leland, only respectful of Hutton and has grown disillusioned with Herbert Sutcliffe, with whom, like Hammond, he had a complex relationship, mixed of respect for his ability with a dislike of what he thought he represented (for want of a better word, modernity).****

Sometimes his satirical intent is wittily expressed. The pitch at Old Trafford in 1930 was prepared “under the most modern anaesthetics”, and “humour certainly came in by reason of the contrast between what the crowd was hoping to see and what they were actually getting. The afternoon’s charm and pleasantry were increased by a wind which caused dust and grit to get into the eyes and mouth”. An innings by Gibb was as “post-war as a petrol station”. There is something like this on every page, much of it occasioned by the obdurate Arthur “Ticker” Mitchell, who became his muse, much as Frank Woolley had been in his greenery-yallery youth. “When Mitchell was smothering the ball with his legs I felt a screen ought to have concealed him from from the public gaze” ; “at ten minutes to one, Mitchell’s score [he had opened] moved uneasily in its sleep and went from eight to ten” ; “Mitchell reverted to type and ceased perceptible action”.

As the decade progressed he became quite startlingly scathing. “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is becoming an eyesore and a nuisance ; it is a pity we cannot somehow get rid of it.” “The Yorkshire tail played stupid, nit-witted cricket.” “As to Lancashire and Yorkshire, I am tired of their annual exhibition of ‘dourness’, or – to give it the proper name – its solid witless tedium.” “Saturday’s stupefied assemblage … watched the dreary action in silence, as though at the unveiling of the Cenotaph.” “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is a dreary fraud, and nothing less.” “As soon as the game was over the weather brightened, like the rest of us.” “Cricket at Leeds is like cricket in a penal settlement.” And (cruellest of all) “the occasion might as well have been Lancashire v Northamptonshire”.

By June 1938, it is clear that a crisis was approaching. This is the opening paragraph of his report from Bradford

“Once again a Lancashire and Yorkshire match has been a public nuisance and a bore. I have seldom suffered tedium as dreadful as this. And on top of it all discomfort and shabbiness. The accommodation for the press at Bradford is inadequate, not to say inhumane ; galley slaves are better off than the tortured souls who this afternoon have tried to make a truthful record of an event which ought really to have been forgotten at once. If the good fairies granted me one wish I should ask for freedom to stay away from all Lancashire and Yorkshire cricket matches for the remainder of my days. I never expected to endure tribulation such as Saturday’s – not at any rate in this world. The cricket caused aches of boredom ; the environment in which it was played suited the stunted drabness of it … Whitsun in the North – stupid sport and a crowd silent and dejected. The Lancashire and Yorkshire match should be played in camera, with the players the only spectators : they deserve no better fate.”

By the time of the last Roses match he covered, from 5-8 August 1939, he must have known that the good fairies, in the shape of Adolf Hitler and the Wehrmacht, were about to grant him his wish. On his last day, recapturing that early elation of release, he signed off with “I have seldom seen a day of grander cricket”. As far as I know, he never covered a Roses match again, or not under the compulsion of employment.

Although this would not be the book I should recommend as an introduction to Cardus, Margaret  Hughes did us a great service by collecting these pieces.  If nothing else, they confirm that it is easier to write entertainingly about poor cricket than good cricket, which, to one who tries to write about Leicestershire, is a source of comfort.  For another, very few of these frank expressions of disenchantment were included in the pieces Cardus himself chose to preserve.

It is said that, if women could remember childbirth, they would never have another child, and it is possible that, if we could remember how awful many of the games of cricket we have watched were at the time, we would never watch another one.  So, when next season approaches, I shan’t be re-reading my own accounts from last year, but turning to Cardus’s ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season‘.

Nothing can go wrong with him on this blessed morning …”
* Cardus’s ‘Autobiography‘ is the only one of his books that seems to be unambiguously in print.  This gives you not only the facts, but a certain amount of fantasy.  ‘His Own Man‘, by Christopher Brookes tries to distinguish between the two.
** There is a certain style of self-ironising, provocative, pretentiousness that Cardus often employs which seems to be peculiarly Mancunian.  You can also see it in the work of Factory Records and Les Dawson, amongst others (the title of Dawson’s unpublished ‘”serious” novel, ‘An Echo of Shadows‘ could have served equally as the title for a Durutti Column LP or a piece from Cardus’s “lyrical” period).  As a Yorkshireman, Birley perhaps misinterprets this.

*** Of the 1233 matches Lancashire and Yorkshire played between the wars, they won 585 and lost only 126.  There were only two seasons when Lancashire finished lower than sixth ; Yorkshire never finished lower than fifth, and were first or second 14 times.

**** He has this to say, for instance : “Sometimes Sutcliffe’s cricket, so eternal and complacent and English middle class, reminds me of the Albert Hall“.  Perhaps this is what Marquese meant by “snobbery“.

 

 

 

 

Pessoa and the Lambton Worms

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The Meaning of Sport / Simon Barnes : Short Books, 2006

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters : Travels Through England’s Football Provinces / Daniel Gray : Bloomsbury, 2013 

For the sake of argument, there are two types of argument about sport (as this piece is going to be structured around collapsible binary oppositions, I may as well start as I mean to go on). So, for the sake of argument, two. The first, which – however heated – has the potential to achieve some kind of resolution, is about matters of detail, or means, by those who assume a common goal. In the second kind, the disputants will always be at cross purposes, and the argument can never be resolved, because their motives for following the sport, and the goals they are hoping to achieve, are quite different and incompatible.

For example, if the point at issue is whether the number of First Class Counties should be reduced, to produce a higher quality of cricket and a more successful England side, two people who follow cricket for reasons of connoisseurship (an informed appreciation of high quality cricket), or national patriotism, will be arguing only as to whether that is an effective means to a commonly agreed end. They may reach agreement with each other, but will never agree with someone whose motives for watching cricket are primarily social (a chance to meet their friends, a sense of belonging), or local patriotism. Cricket is, perhaps, more prone to these intractable arguments than, say, football, because, as well as having a broader emotional range, its followers have a wider range of motives.

This thought occurred to me when the happy serendipity of the charity shop led me to read two books, both ostensibly about sport (they were shelved in the sports section). One was “The Meaning of Sport” by Simon Barnes, the other “Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters” by Daniel Gray. Both are described on their cover as “joyful”, but neither author would, I think, be able to extract much joy from the other’s sporting life. I am not intending to review both books. I enjoyed, and would recommend both, but although the authors are of interest as individuals, I am more concerned with them here as types, as extreme cases of two attitudes to sport, or as polar opposites on a spectrum which I hereby, grandly, dub “the Barnes-Gray Scale”.

To begin with the similarities, both books are accounts of travelling to watch sport over a limited period of time. Barnes, in his then-role as Chief Sportswriter for “The Times”, begins his journey in Portugal in 2004 for the European (Football) Championships, and ends in Summer 2006, in Germany to watch the (Football) World Cup. In between, he takes in Wimbledon, the Olympic Games in Athens, the US Open, the Ryder Cup, the European Cup Final in Istanbul, the 2005 Ashes series, the Winter Olympics (from his home in Suffolk), the Test series in India, and another European Cup Final in Paris. In between, he zooms back and forth, in space and time, from Zambia to Zimbabwe to Japan ; he is menaced by a jaguar, kisses Daryl Hannah, falls off his horse and has frequent misadventures with internet connections.

Gray’s book covers roughly (the chronology is a little vague) the calendar year 2011. He aims, as he turns thirty, to visit the football grounds of those teams who finished first, second and last in the four divisions in the year of his birth, meaning that he ends up in Middlesborough, Sheffield, Luton, Ipswich, Watford, Leyton, Chester, Crewe, Hinckley, Burnley, Bradford, Carlisle and Newquay (sharp-eyed readers may be able to spot a couple of anomalies in that list). His modus operandi (although he doesn’t say so, I think he must have been working from Monday to Friday) is to arrive by public transport on the morning of the match, mooch around town, give us a potted history of the town and the club, have a drink, watch the match, go out on the town (on his own), stay in a cheap hotel, mooch around a bit more and head back to Scotland (where he lives). He, too, encounters difficulties along the way : he is annoyed by some mildly racist old ladies and almost has his notebook confiscated by stewards in Luton, and is accused of “looking like Harry Potter” and being “a paedo” in Middlesborough ; he takes in various pubs and social clubs, a Nando’s, a McDonald’s and the Luton Conservative Club.

Barnes writes like a professional (he describes having to write 600 words in half an hour, and how the ability to do so plausibly is the real mark of a journalist). His book consists of 158 short pieces, each about the length of a newspaper column, and containing at its heart one thought, usually epigrammatically expressed. Some of these epigrams glisten briefly, then burst like soap bubbles ; sometimes the pieces are like an elegant display of Barcelona-style tiki-taka that results in nothing, but usually the thought, once unwrapped from its cocoon of words, is worth having (I realised, on re-reading the book, that I have internalised several of them to the extent that I had forgotten their origin).

Gray (and I mean this as a compliment) writes like a blogger : he rambles, meanders and takes detours as his whimsy takes him ; if he comes across something that takes his fancy, then in it goes into his narrative – talking CCTV cameras in Middlesborough, Benedictine drinkers at Turf Moor, the shops next door to the childhood home of Jarvis Cocker. His writing resembles that of Stuart Maconie (though without the mania for puns) and Harry Pearson (and, if you don’t like either of those, you are unlikely to admire Gray), tinged with a zany, Reeves and Mortimer-style kitchen sink surrealism. Occasionally, an overambitious figure of speech is fired high over the bar into Row Z from thirty yards out (lambs glimpsed from a train are “like white mice climbing ladles in a cutlery drawer”) but, mostly, his style is vivid and droll. A typical passage (and, if you can’t see what this has to do with sport, it might suggest you are a Barnes) might include :

Lambton Worms of two-up two-downs once more take me to a home ground … Ticket office girls, with whom I spend more time on Saturdays than my wife, ignore me at first. They have an important matter at hand : one has pinched a bacon Frazzle from the other. ‘That’s my dinner, ger off.’ … At half-time, one, two, three then four people all sidle along to the gangway and slip on a battered haddock, discarded at the game’s start as its eater cheered Crewe’s goal.

The two writers set out their stall in their titles. “Hatters, Knitters and Railwaymen” (the nicknames of Luton Town, Hinckley Athletic and Swindon Town respectively) is concrete, particular and conveys, concisely, that Gray is interested in the way that football clubs preserve the sense of identity that was once generated by local industries. “The Meaning of Sport” is grandly ambitious, abstract, and, apparently, so pretentious that it could, by any other writer, only be intended at least semi-ironically.

Barnes is often accused of pretension ; unfairly, I think, in that he does not pretend to a level of intelligence, or a breadth of cultural reference, that he does not possess. What makes him unusual is that he sees no incongruity in writing about sport in the same way that he approaches high culture, and, therefore, has no sense of the potential for bathetic comedy in doing so (he seems genuinely puzzled and pained by his frequent appearances in Pseuds’ Corner, for instance). He is aware that his habit of selecting a national classic to accompany a tournament, like a gourmet selecting a fine wine to accompany a meal (he takes Pessoa to Portugal, Seferis to Greece, Sei Shonagan to Japan) will strike some as absurd, but he cannot understand why.

Most writers about sport, however high-browed, have, lurking somewhere at the back of their minds, a minatory chorus of stick-giving mates (from the terraces, or the Rugby Club bar), who must be placated with, at least, one layer of self-deflating irony. Barnes, on the other hand, seems to worry that his literary friends will think he is wasting his time writing about sport at all, that he is not being pretentious enough. This is partly, I think, because, unlike Gray, whose first experience of sport was the entirely typical one of being taken to the football (in his case, at Ayresome Park) by his Dad, Barnes seems to have discovered sport by himself, and comparatively late in life. He is not, even subconsciously, worried about what his mates at the football will think, because he never had any. And this, I think, takes us back from the particular to the typical, and my putative Barnes-Gray Scale.

Barnes, as I have suggested, is interested in sport in the abstract, and in, as well as professionally obliged to write about, all sports (if I wanted to risk a trip to Pseuds’ Corner myself, I might suggest he sees particular sports as the phenomenal manifestation of the noumenal essence of sport itself). This does not mean that he likes them all equally (he thinks golf is “silly” and hates boxing). At one point he lists the fifty greatest sporting events of his life : eight are from football, six athletics, five cricket, four from rugby, horseracing and tennis ; there are also entries from basketball, American football, equestrianism, sailing and boxing. What he dislikes is what he terms the “monoculture” of English sport, the “notion that only football matters”. It is possible that Gray is interested in sports other than football, but there is only a passing mention of them in his book ; I am sure he does not believe, as Barnes alleges, that “to admit to a liking for any sport other than football is a confession that you are homosexual”, but I doubt he thinks of any as more than a temporary diversion from the main event.

Other sports do intrude rudely, once, into Gray’s monocultural world in the shape of the 2012 London Olympics. For Barnes, the Olympics represent the apex of sport, the essence of sport, because it is, variously, “a feast of really big fuckers” (an allusion to Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney), because it attracts “10,000 journalists … 10,000 artists, all trying to grapple with beauty and immensity”, because it is “the greatest of all sporting events” and so on (his veneration for the Olympics is one of the leitmotifs that weave in and out of his narrative).

For Gray, “watching handball at midnight suddenly seemed like a rational activity. In itself, that was fine. Delightful, in fact. Then they went for our sport.” He quotes Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing of football as a sport “which sometimes looks like a game owned by crooks and despots and played by racists and rapists” and responds that Wheatcroft is “writing of top-end Premier League, of multi-millionaire players. That is not my game … It is not the football that unites post-industrial towns when so much else is lost to them … Neither is it the football that acts as a social lubricant when I am at a wedding or in the workplace … Rowing and equestrian, incidentally, are none of these things. Yes, I can do class prejudice too.” (Given that “rowing and equestrian” are two of Barnes’ favourites, this might be a rare example of their two worlds colliding.)

The Olympics are only the biggest of the “really big fuckers” that Barnes writes about : in the space of two years he does not seem to have watched any sport below the level of one of the bigger Premier League games. Gray, on the other hand, spurns the one opportunity he has to watch a top-level game : when his schedule should have taken him to Liverpool, he decides, instead, to visit (of all places) Newquay (“ending with a Premier League game would be like finishing a happy, wholesome, happy marriage with a cocaine-fulled orgy”). Whereas Barnes is, in the most benign sense of that vexed term, an elitist, Gray is not only indifferent to elite sport, but actively hostile to it.

It is possible that Barnes was only contractually obliged to write about the great events and spent his days off watching Ryman League football, but I doubt whether he would see the point, or be able to find any meaning in it. For him (and this is another leitmotif) sport is about greatness, or, as he puts it (in a passage that teeters on the brink of self-parody):

It [a tennis match between Sampras and Agassi] was the clearest possible demonstration of the difference between very, very good – and great. And, as I seek constantly a good tale to tell, so I seek – almost for private reasons, for personal rather than public gratification – greatness, I seek an understanding of greatness. I seek, perhaps, the highest thing of all, to write greatness : and write it true. But, above all, I seek to be where greatness is.”

or, again :

Greatness is a great word in sport, a great concept. In a sense, sport is all about greatness : the search for greatness, the falling short from greatness, the rare, rare achievement of greatness. Greatness is elusive of definition …”

and so on. Whatever Gray is looking for when he travels to Burnley or Crewe, it cannot be greatness ; in fact, he rarely makes any comment on, or even seem to notice, the quality of the game he has come to see.

For Barnes, greatness is an individual quality. When he writes about team games, he boils them down, reduces them to the stories of individuals : “at the heart of the story of the Ashes was the story of Andrew Flintoff : the Man Who Changed” ; Liverpool won the European Cup Final because “One man refused to accept the things that were happening before him. Steven Gerrard didn’t like reality … so he changed it.” When he tries to sum up what sport is all about, discover its quintessence, he gives it the name of an individual (the rower, Steve Redgrave).

Redgrave is not only a person. Redgrave is a quality. Napoleon would ask of his generals “has he luck?”. I ask of athletes “Has he Redgrave?”.”

Gray has so little interest in individuals that he does not once name the players in the matches he sees (which he could have discovered by buying a programme). I can work out that Sheffield United’s “beanstalk forward” who will “end the season in prison for rape” must be Ched Evans, and can have a stab at one or two others, but otherwise they remain anonymous. It is not, though, that he is interested in the team (as in team-work, team-spirit or tactics) ; he is interested in the club. The team is a particular collection of individuals at a given moment in time ; the club is a collective entity that transcends time (always changing, always mysteriously the same) and (as any football fan will tell you) it is the fans that make the club. A team is a managerial entity ; a club a social one.

Barnes repeatedly, and deliberately, distances himself from any notion of belonging. The first section finds him in a cafe in Portugal, reading Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, in the company of “men with very little hair and very considerable bellies. This evening England play Croatia : if they (should I say we? Definitely not) win or draw …”. At Wimbledon, at the height of Henmania, he concedes that “I am no more like these tennis followers than I am like the football people I scowled at in Lisbon”. He explains his dislike of golf by his “media-pinko” parents’ “dislike of suburban values … and clubbability : no. Not my way”. “I wasn’t brought up with the nation of supporting a football club … Perhaps fanship is like acquiring language : it has to be done at a certain, and very young age, or it simply doesn’t happen” ; “Do I sound like an Arsenal supporter here? I am not. I am a supporter, I suppose, not of Juventus, but of juventus …” and, a phrase he repeatedly employs,My patriotism for the nation of excellence …”.

If Barnes is, in his own eyes, the cat who walks alone (all teams are alike to him), for Gray the search for a sense of belonging is the whole point of football, the whole meaning of sport. In his conclusion, he writes :

Away from the jaded cynicism of its highest reaches it [football] remains a social movement I am honoured to be part of. Down in the provinces, it is affordable and accessible. Contrary to my fears, young people are still catching the bug. No computer game can beat the thrill of … being an active part in a bustling community of interest … in an England of flux, where no job is certain, families break up or live far apart, community or church is loose or weak, football is more important than ever. It breeds belonging in an uncertain world.

What is striking is how mutually exclusive their two worlds seem. Barnes spends 365 pages looking for the meaning of sport, and never thinks of looking where Gray finds it, either physically (in Crewe) or mentally. Sport, in all its 158 Barnesian aspects, scarcely seems to exist for Gray, except as a pretext for something else. Although Barnes nods to the contemporary pieties about race and gender, he is essentially apolitical : Gray is political in the both the obvious sense (he is an ex-member of the SWP, he is angry about Hillsborough and Thatcher, he writes about the Chartists and the post-war Luton riots) and the more radical sense that he discovers the meaning of football in the civic, the social, a matter of the polity.

You might, I suppose, extrapolate from this a divided nation, and there is certainly an aspect to their differences which is to do with regionality and class. Barnes (a middle class product of the South London suburbs) is an authentic example of a minority who are genuinely globalised, individualistic, floating free from inherited attachments and historic resentments : Gray, self-consciously working class and Northern (his family “miners turned bus drivers” from Teeside via Yorkshire), sees football as a way to cling to them.

But that, I suspect, is a rather weak correlation (there must be many working-class Barnses and middle-class Grays), and most of us are neither purely Barnes nor Gray, but somewhere on a scale between the two. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would place myself somewhere nearer Gray’s end (I am mostly indifferent to sports other than cricket, football and rugby, often irritated by the Olympics, not overly preoccupied by greatness (which is just as well, given the teams I support), more attached to clubs than individuals, and am less interested in sport for sport’s sake than as a pretext for other things (though those other things are not quite the same as Gray’s). I do, though, exhibit more of (to use his formulation) the quality of Barnes when it comes to cricket, the sport I know and care about the most.

If you have a moment, you might find it amusing to try to place yourself somewhere along my scale.