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“.

 

 

 

 

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Beer and Balti and Eve Pudding and Gravy

Leicestershire v Durham, County Championship, Grace Road, 6-7 August 2017

Leicestershire v Yorkshire, T20 Blast, Grace Road, 12 August 2017

In my last post, I pictured the stand-alone Championship fixture against Durham, beckoning from the horizon like an oasis in the cricket-desert of mid-Summer. In the event, it turned out to be something of a mirage, or, at best, a roadside burger van that had run out of sauce. The most memorable moment of my two days at Grace Road was witnessing the ‘Leicester Mercury’’s roving reporter insisting on having gravy, instead of custard, on his eve pudding. Having nothing to do but watch cricket all day undoubtedly permits the full expression of one’s eccentricities, but I sometimes cannot help wondering whether that is entirely a good thing.

The match was, as anyone who had read the weather forecast would have known, a priori doomed (as predicted, days three and four were washed out). The same could be said of Durham’s season (even more so than Leicestershire’s) : having been relegated, by order of the ECB, a further imposition of a 36-point penalty means that their chances of promotion are negligible. In addition to having Stokes, Wood and Jennings on loan to England, they have been compelled to release Stoneman and Borthwick (along with Jennings, their leading run-scorers last season). Hoping, at best, to regroup, and find some replacements for their missing stars, they have struggled to the extent that only Leicestershire lie below them in the table.

This might go some way towards explaining their tactics, which seemed to disregard the issue of points altogether, as irrelevant to their situation (or perhaps they simply hadn’t read the weather forecast). If they were in contention for promotion, they would, having chosen to bat, have been well-advised to move smartly enough along to gain maximum batting points, declare, and hope to bowl Leicestershire out, if not twice, then quickly enough to bag three bowling points.

As it was, their openers, Cameron Steel and the New Zealander Tom Latham, batted serenely through the first two sessions, and gave every indication of carrying on in that vein until the rains came. In the event, Latham, who had been the more energetic of the two, tired late on the first day and departed with the score on 234. Steel, however, carried on until, shortly after he reached his double-century, a switch was thrown and Durham began to hit out (not, I think, Steel’s strong point), before declaring, unnecessarily late, on 525-8.

Steel has come to the North-East by a circuitous route (born in California, childhood in Australia, Millfield, Middlesex, Somerset and Durham University). He is clearly run-hungry and risk-averse enough to make a significant score against some undemanding bowling on a predictable pitch, but whether he is capable of doing so regularly is hard to say. He might turn out to be the new Andrew Strauss, or he might find himself relegated to the 2nd XI when Jennings returns. If he turns out to be any good, of course, I suppose he will end up at Surrey.

Leicestershire, weakened further by injuries, gave the impression that they would rather be anywhere other than Grace Road. In the field they were all but silent : Ben Raine, their usual cheerleader and irritant, who has now been out since June, prowled the boundary, looking as though he’d like a few words with someone he suspected of pinching his wallet. Perhaps he might be positioned on the dressing-room balcony, where he could offer encouragement through a loud hailer (though I imagine the ECB might take a dim view of that).

At the beginning of the season, I wondered how Leicestershire would find room in the side for all the seam bowlers we seemed to have acquired. Having lost Shreck (retired in disgust), Burke (returned to Surrey, now released from the game), Jones, Raine and Chappell (long-term injuries), and with McKay and Pillans also nursing ailments, the flagging Klein, who is not suited to being a stock bowler, and the tireless Griffiths (who is), were unexpectedly reinforced by, of all people, Ajmal Shahzad, who has, apparently been released by his third county, Sussex. It must seem a very long time to him since he was playing for England.

With the clouds already beginning to gather, Leicestershire went through the motions of a match-saving reply, with Harry Dearden making 30 from 109 balls. While I was watching him bat, Geoffrey Boycott was on the radio, asking whether there is anyone in county cricket capable of batting two hours to make 30.   I’m not sure Dearden is quite what he had in mind.

A happy feature of the game was that Neil Dexter, who has been out of the side “for personal reasons” was back on the pitch. When Durham came to throw the bat, it was mostly at his bowling, and he picked up 5-71. The gods of cricket, so often accused of cruelty, can also be kind, sometimes.

Part of the reason for Leicestershire’s distracted air against Durham might have been that the game had come as something of a distraction from their T20 campaign, which, although I have not been following it too closely, has been more successful than their efforts in the Championship. They won their first four games, all away from Grace Road, then lost the next four at home, in dismal weather, mostly narrowly, or in vaguely farcical circumstances. The previous evening they had defeated Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

It was something of a revelation to see them in action in a different context, rather like seeing one’s work colleagues, freed from workaday constraints, out for a night on the town.  Colin Ackermann, whose batting is usually the soul of restraint, gaily flicked the ball over his shoulder, with the air of Maureen from Accounts tripping the light fantastic in fishnets and a feather boa.

In fact, the afternoon was, to a T20 novice, a revelation in a number of respects. Grace Road had been transformed into a cross between a holiday camp and an airport food court. I didn’t notice any eve pudding and gravy on offer, but most sane culinary tastes were catered for : beer and balti, the Spice Bazaar, a burger van, a hog roast and an ice cream van, and, for the more traditional fan, lashings of delicious lager. Various antic young people patrolled the perimeter on stilts, others fired T-shirts advertising Pepsi Max into the crowd from small bazookas (perhaps they should try firing MCC cravats into the pavilion at Lord’s).

Slightly to my surprise, the Yorkshire supporters were heavily outnumbered by Leicestershire fans. It must have helped that Leicester City had played at home the previous evening, whereas most of Yorkshire’s football clubs were playing that afternoon. Another factor may have been that Yorkshire had played and beaten Lancashire the previous evening and some of their supporters may have been in no fit state to make the journey.

Once the match started, I was struck by how negative the tactics were, given that the game is sold on the basis that it consists of all-out attack. It resembled a kind of asymmetrical warfare, whereby a weaker side (Leicestershire) can overcome a stronger enemy (Yorkshire) whom they would have little hope of defeating in an open battle (or a four-day game) by successfully harrying and frustrating them.

Yorkshire batted first, and, though Kohler-Cadmore (who began the season playing for Worcestershire) made the highest score of the day (75 out of a total of 182-5), their innings never quite got going, and none of their more fluent scorers were able to flow. Leicestershire used seven bowlers (3 seamers, 3 spinners, 1 medium pace), swapping them at the end of almost every over. I could see nothing obviously innovative about the bowling, or indeed the batting, just a lot of niggling and nibbling, gouging and scuffing and general frustration.

An effect of Leicestershire’s predominance in the crowd was that, although the small children enjoyed the boundaries (marked by a quick burst of what sounded like “Club hits of 1992”), the real appreciation among the aficionados was reserved for the bowling of a “dot ball”. In this respect Gavin Griffiths, bowling exactly the kind of good honest fast-medium stuff he’d been peddling to so little effect against Durham earlier in the week, was the hero of the hour, as half of his 18 deliveries resulted in no score. If anyone had succeeded in bowling a maiden (no-one did, though Adil Ali nearly managed it with his occasional off-spin), I imagine the expression of collective joy would have been on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When Leicestershire came to bat, the game was as good as settled in the second over, in which off-spinner Azeem Rafiq served up an entire over of delicious tripe, which have-boots-will-travel Austro-Kiwi Luke Ronchi, pausing only to stuff a napkin down the front of his shirt, tucked into to the tune of (I think) 22 runs. Leicestershire were well ahead of the required run-rate (scoring at over ten an over) until the mid-way stage when, with their three big-hitters gone, Colin Ackerman was left to shepherd the potentially wayward flock home. Renouncing his earlier flamboyance, he seemed to be, with the help of a succession of short-lived assistants, trying to get them in singles, finally overtaking Yorkshire’s total with two balls to spare.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. The weather was fine, the crowd in amiable mood, I had a delicious chicken curry for lunch and – crucially – Leicestershire won. It was even over in time for me to catch the last bus home.

I would not say, however, that it has done anything to assuage my anxieties about the future of County cricket.  As, say, a once-a-fortnight Saturday afternoon diversion, T20 has its attractions, but if it were ever to become the only form of cricket available, I think that would be the end of my interest in the game.

I also wonder about the future of the new city-based competition.  T-shirts and face-painting will only go so far to attract the new child-centred audience it is intended to attract, and some further tweaking of the rules may be required to ensure a regular supply of the boundaries they have been promised.  The dot-ball enthusiasts, on the other hand, are only enthusiastic because it is Leicestershire delivering them : some amorphous regional entity based in Nottingham is unlikely to attract this faction either.

Still, at the time of writing, Leicestershire are hopeful of qualifying for the quarter-finals and, if they do, I am very tempted to watch them.  Just call me a glory hunter.

 

Super Heroes and Scary Creeps

There comes a point in every season when it starts to curdle.  In a hot Summer (which, in our case, we have not had), hot for too long, the grass scorches, flowers wilt and go to seed, rivers choke, tempers fray ; a feeling of satiety, and beyond satiety, excess. Too much heat, too much lager, too much sun, too much fun, just too much ; too much ice-cream, too many chips, too many runs, too many sixes, too much cricket.

The feeling will pass (has passed) : a palate-cleansing visit to an outground, a nip in the air, the first leaves of Autumn creeping on to the outfield, will makes the passing season seem precious again, but, while it lasts, the spell is broken and I see cricket through the eyes of one who cannot see the point.  What does it matter if those three little sticks get knocked down?  What is so clever about hitting that ball so far?  What is the point?

I usually reach this point at about this time, and it’s often at a 50 over game : this year, I pushed my luck by watching three in the space of six days.  I witnessed two (I believe) record-breaking innings and more sixes than you could have seen in an average season forty years ago, and, with the exception of one multi-faceted gem, my overwhelming feeling was one of futility, satiety, just too much.

England Lions v Sri Lanka A, Wantage Road, 21st July

Lions fixtures attract unpredictable crowds.  I once, for instance, saw Joe Root play one of the best innings I’ve seen, against a strong New Zealand side, in front of a crowd of about 20 at Grace Road ; a few months later, he was playing much the same innings with tens of thousands all ROOOOTing  loudly for him. Perhaps because it was a one-day match, perhaps even because it was a day-night match, or perhaps just because it was free, there was an unusually good turnout at Wantage Road for the visit of a poor Sri Lanka A (I’m not sure I want to see Sri Lanka B).

There were quite a few children there (who, as children will, seemed more interested in their own games than the one on the pitch). There were clean-cut young men with a certain swagger, a lot of Jack Wills and Abercrombie and Fitch and yah-ing (and these can’t all have been friends and team-mates of the players).  Mr.and Mrs. Percival Bell-Drummond were there, as always, dressed as if for a garden party at Buckingham Palace. The Northamptonshire loyalists had turned out specifically to see Ben Duckett, and then there were a few “passionate England fans”.

On my way in, I passed a couple of elderly regulars, packing their kit up into their old carrier bags and shuffling off, like tramps moved on by the police.  One said to the other “imagine having that in your ear all afternoon“.  In their usual roost behind the bowler’s arm sat a fat man in a replica shirt bawling into his ‘phone in an estuarine accent “so he said the £40 million was all down to Brexit, so I put the ‘phone down on him“. I didn’t wait to find out whether he did keep it up all afternoon, but I imagine what followed was his idea of a good time.

The first ten overs (the “powerplay”) followed the usual formula.  Bell-Drummond played well enough, placing the ball accurately through the gaping holes Sri Lanka were forced to leave in the outfield, most memorably with the sort of bottom-handed gouge that now rivals the traditional cover drive.  He is a good player, but this, against some moderate pace bowling, was like playing tennis with no net.  Fortuitously, he was stumped for 52 soon after the powerplay had ended and the spinners (Sri Lanka employed four) had come on.  This brought the man whom the crowd (including me) had come to see to the crease, to much applause.

This was the second time this season I have seen Ben Duckett play a one-day innings of any length.  I have consulted his “waggon wheel” to confirm my memory of it, and there it is, like some exquisite tropical fish, with a fan tail of straight drives and two feathery fins square of the wicket, composed of dismissal-defying cuts, sweeps and reverse sweeps, mostly from turning balls in front of his stumps.  Of his eight fours, four were behind square on the off side, as well as two scoop-cum-ramps back over his head off a returning paceman.  Once or twice he missed or mis-hit, but, with the luck of the brave, he survived, only to fall to a tame caught-and-bowled, for 61 (which seemed a bit like Al Capone being done for tax evasion).

Duckett is not, as both the Northamptonshire police and Brett D’Oliveira will attest, always innocent of displays of gratuitous bravado, but the beauty of his innings was that the match situation enabled him to put his undoubted virtuosity at the service of the needs of the team, to avoid getting bogged down in the slough of the middle overs.  It seemed, as the best batting does, successful against the odds, even if only the narrow ones of some better than inept bowling on a wicket that was taking a little turn.

It was at the same time modern and reminiscent of Jack Hobbs in his fleet-footed pre-War prime, when his party trick was to skip out to leg and cut the ball to the boundary off middle-stump (for which he, like Duckett, was often berated by sober critics for showing off).  It was also, unlike those that followed, an innings that he could have played with a Herbert Sutcliffe Autograph. What followed was Dawid Malan’s innings (with Sam Billings in a supporting role).

The facts are that Malan scored 185* off 126 balls, with 8 sixes and 16 fours, the most memorable of which were struck off the front foot back over the bowler’s head. It is a style of batting that would have been entirely familiar to “Buns” Thornton in the 1870s, and would have been warmed the heart of that redoubtable proponent of Golden Age batting, E.H.D. Sewell. The difference is that dear old “Buns”, unlike Malan, would not have been armed with a G&M Maxi F4.5 (or similar) and would have expected to perish somewhere in the outfield before he had reached 50.

E.H.D. Sewell

E.H.D. Sewell

The crowd, who did not seem to have been drinking too heavily, seemed rather blasé about this record-breaking innings, though there were a few murmurs of “Yah, gun bat” from the Jack Wills crew, and the children were distracted from their games when they had to scatter to avoid being brained by one of Malan’s sixes. I found it as entertaining a sporting spectacle as someone taking a twelve-bore to a farrowing shed, and was not too sorry when I had to leave before Sri Lanka began their hopeless attempt to overhaul England’s total of 393-5, as the clouds that were to curtail the evening began to loom.

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Leicestershire v Yorkshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road, 24th July 2016

This Sunday had been designated as Superhero Day. Other than Charlie Fox (who was dressed as Superman), only about ten people had come in costume, but there was something appropriate about the theme, in so far as superhero films represent something essentially infantile, but hyper-inflated by technology and hype.

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Yorkshire’s innings started entertainingly enough, with Adam Lyth run out in the first over for 2 (he consoled himself by buying a bacon cob from the burger van), and Alex Lees (upright as always) making 32.

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After that, Travis Head (who sounds like a permed AOR one-hit wonder from 1978, but is actually an Australian), and Jack Leaning played essentially the same innings as Malan, only this time in stereo. Again the statistics tell the whole story : Head made 175 off 139 balls (4 sixes and 18 fours) and Leaning 131* off 110, with 5 sixes and 7 fours. Yorkshire finished on 376-3. A few years ago these figures would have been extraordinary, but today are anything but.

In the interval Charlie Fox raced a bear, representing a local charity, and various groups of (mainly Muslim) schoolgirls played organised games in the outfield.

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It was all very inclusive, and accessible, and sweet, but it seemed, as we settled down on the pop side after the break, that it had not met with universal approval. Two women wearing niqab walked by. “It’s a disgrace. Shouldn’t be allowed” was one loudly voiced opinion from a group of Yorkshire supporters. Shortly afterwards, I heard a woman (whom I did not recognise) complaining to a steward. The only part of her complaint I could hear was “It’s just horrible”.

Another, larger, male steward was summoned and spoke to a well-dressed man, who received the news that he was being asked to leave impassively, as though being thrown out of the ground were an unavoidable, minor irritant of the cricket-watching life, on a par with rain, or bad light. He drained his pint and handed the glass to the steward (without even asking for the £1 deposit back). “I’ll just get me things” said his wife, and off they went.

The fact that their side was taking a drubbing did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Leicestershire’s Ultras.  Early season favourites “Jamie Vardy’s Having a Party” and “We Want Our Country Back” had been mothballed, but any tentative chant of “York-sheer” was met with “Flat Caps and Whippets” and “You Haven’t Even Got a Football Team“.  There was some mirthful stuff about burkas, and AIDS ; it wasn’t “racist” (apart from anything else it’s a multiracial group), not even “offensive”, because none of it made any sense.

A woman with short, bleached hair walked past, accompanied by what might have been her grand-children, on the way to the ice-cream parlour.  An imagined resemblance to Annie Lennox was spotted, and, on her way back, she was met with a loud chorus of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”.  She looked embarrassed, the man in front of me was literally crying with laughter, and I’d had enough.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the far side of the ground, a long way from the action, but pleasantly sunlit, as Leicestershire went through the motions of a reply before subsiding, chiefly to Adil Rashid and Aseem Rafiq, after 33 overs.  “Leicestershire La La La“sounded quite soothing from over there.

Leicestershire v Lancashire, Grace Road, Royal London Cup, 26th July

I’m not quite sure why I turned up for this one.  In the morning, I had to see a woman about a dog,

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so only caught Lancashire’s reply to Leicestershire’s 307, which struggled to get going against a makeshift attack devoid of conventional straight-up-and-down pace (Neil Dexter’s medium pace claimed 4-22, and even Paul Horton took a wicket).  If I had stayed to the end, I would have seen Leicestershire win by 131 runs (their first 50-over victory for two years), though their interest in this competition (small as it was) ended some time ago.

One source of the batsmen’s discomfort was the debut of Dieter Klein, the German-South African who bowls briskly off five paces, and still has the element of surprise.  At one point, he fielded a firmly struck cover drive off his own bowling and was back at his mark before the batsmen had decided whether to run or not. If nothing else (and he did take 2-38), he offers a one-man solution to slow over rates.

I was also intrigued by the appearance of a half familiar bearded figure, a cross between Bob Dylan and a Renaissance Christ, acting as a substitute fielder for Leicestershire.

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Who was this apparition?  Well, that’s a story for next time.

Bittersweet Summers : Seaside Special

Yorkshire v Middlesex, Scarborough, County Championship, Sunday 3rd July 2016

“While I have had the best of cricket in my lifetime, there will be lifetimes to come when it will be good enough.” – J.M. Kilburn

I have left it late in life to watch cricket in Scarborough ; also, at least, forty years too late.  At the ground on Sunday I bought a copy of “Sweet Summers“, a compilation of the writings of J.M. Kilburn, for many years the Cricket Correspondent of the Yorkshire Post (owing to some terrible mix-up it had been signed by Geoffrey Boycott, but I kept it anyway).  Kilburn was the Laureate of Yorkshire cricket, and, in particular, the Laureate of Scarborough and its Festival, which sometimes tempted him into a slight relaxation of his scrupulously decorous prose style.

In an essay originally published in 1937 Kilburn wrote:

“Not to be concerned with cricket in the first days of September is to be an outcast in Scarborough, a stranger in a strange land without reason or justification for existence.  There are cricket dances, cricket banquets, cricket celebrations of every possible kind, cricket is first and last in the mind of every public entertainer.”

This was not the case over the week-end (the entertainer in our hotel, a Doncaster songbird, seemed more concerned with the deficiencies in her love-life) and I doubt whether it is any longer even true during what is left of the Festival proper, now shrunk to five days in August.

 

We stayed in the Grand Hotel (historically, an essential part of the Festival experience).  So intense was the interest in the players who were staying there that a special room (“the Cricketers’ Room”) was set aside for them to escape pestering.  It closed in 1979, by which time public interest in cricketers had, presumably, subsided sufficiently to allow them to eat their breakfast unmolested.  In 2016 I doubt whether even Joe Root would be greeted by more than a flicker of recognition over his cornflakes, and I wonder how many visitors would be able to name this character, who gazes, all lordly, down at them as they make their way to their rooms.

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lf I am forty years late for the heyday of the cricket festival, I am about a hundred and forty late for that of the Grand, which, after various changes of ownership, now combines the architecture and décor of a Belle Epoque spa hotel with the ambience and amenities of an English holiday camp (a sort of L’Année dernière à Pontins effect, “grand” in both the French and the George Formby senses).

In a small history of the hotel on sale from reception Nikolaus Pevsner describes it as

“a High Victorian gesture of assertion and confidence, of denial of frivolity and insistence on substance than which none more telling can be found in the land.”

I was initially puzzled by that phrase “denial of frivolity” (the Grand struck me as a vast monument to frivolity), but I suppose what he means is an undertaking that is essentially frivolous, yet taken entirely seriously.  Which brings us neatly on to Yorkshire cricket (and Kilburn’s writing about it).

In a series of tributes at the end of “Sweet Summers“, David Frith writes that he prefers Kilburn to his Lancastrian contemporary Neville Cardus “for the simple reason that he did not indulge himself in fantasy”, nor, he might have added, whimsy, comedy or aestheticism.  Yorkshire cricket (in the person of Kilburn) demands that the game be respected as an essentially serious undertaking : Lancashire cricket (in the writings of Cardus) has a deep-lying sense of its own essential absurdity.*

Lancashire cricket has accommodated exquisites such as Reggie Spooner, who would be dismissed as poseurs in Yorkshire, irresponsible egotists like Archie MacLaren, who would be taken down a peg or two, buffoons of genius like Flintoff, amateurs, dilettantes, piss-artists and assorted comedians who would all be regarded with grave suspicion the other side of the Pennines.

It has also (perhaps because its two main cities are ports and its main industry relied on an import) been more outward-looking and accommodating to outsiders : Lloyd and Engineer looked no more out of place than Ted McDonald had fifty years before.

Yorkshire is not simply inward-looking, but it does have a sense of unselfconscious mental self-sufficiency that is, I think, found nowhere else in England.  (Kilburn, unlike Cardus, never left his native county, and never saw any reason to.)  If Scarborians are insular, that is forgivable in a setting where the sense of living on an island is so intense, where Europe seems so far away and the open sea so inescapable.

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The atmosphere at North Marine Road is not, perhaps, entirely representative of the Yorkshire attitude (Scarborough is, as Kilburn says “Yorkshire cricket on holiday”) but there was no mistaking that it was a Yorkshire crowd ; not unthinkingly partisan, but, as he suggests elsewhere, more deeply and personally identified with the fortunes of their team than the supporters of other English counties.

The ground itself was larger than I had expected, with a capacity roughly equal to that of Grace Road (apparently the crowd on Sunday was 3,500, Yorkshire’s largest of the season) and more modern.  There was one wooden stand (where I spent most of the day), and an expanse of wooden banking (where the rowdier element congregated), but there were also new stands with plastic tip-up seats and, rather to my disappointment, no deckchairs (and no brass band).

The first ball of the day saw Adam Lyth play the archetypical Yorkshire opener’s shot – the leave.  Unfortunately, the ball, from Tim Murtagh, moved in at him, kissed the face of his bat and dropped neatly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves.  This brought Kane Williamson (appreciated in the same way as a good club professional, though I don’t suppose he is expected to help roll the wicket) in to join the other opener, Alex Lees.

Everything about Lees (one of those players to whom I have a not entirely rational attachment) is ramrod straight, from his stance at the crease

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to the arc of his strokes.  He bats as if inside an invisible sentry box and, if (perish the thought!), he had walk-on music, it should be “The British grenadiers” (“Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules“).  He hits his boundaries with a crack like a pistol shot, whereas Williamson strokes them silently, as if batting with a giant feather.

Lees and Williamson’s partnership proved the most enjoyable part of the day (though not, I think, the crowd’s favourite).  Williamson was out in exactly the same way as Lyth, which brought Gary Ballance to the crease.  Lees had not looked in great form, but compared to Ballance, he seemed to be batting as if in a dream.  Ballance is always an awkward, limited player but, at the beginning of this innings, he seemed like a child playing with a bat two sizes too big for him.  Observing his slow progress to a century (shortly before the close) was like watching a three-legged donkey giving rides on the beach : inelegant, at times painful to watch, but astonishing to see it done at all.

After Lees had gone (for 63), and Gale soon after, Ballance was joined by Tim Bresnan.  Although Ballance is an old Harrovian from Zimbabwe, he embodies enough of the stubbornness of the stereotypical Yorkshireman, and makes enough runs, to have won the goodwill of the crowd : Bresnan is echt-Yorkshire and claims it as his birthright.  As the day wore on (and, between Ballance’s scratching and poking and Roland-Jones’s lackadaisical traipse back to his far-distant mark, it might have seemed a long afternoon in less pleasant surroundings) Pevsner, had he dropped by, would have detected many of the same “gesture[s] of assertion and confidence” in the crowd as he had in the architecture of the Grand Hotel.

As it was, Ballance’s painstakingly constructed platform was, eventually, to be washed away, like an afternoon’s sandcastle erased by an evening tide.  I should also say that, as on every occasion I have seen them bowl together, Tim Murtagh was more effective than either Finn or Toby Roland-Jones.  I have never heard Murtagh mentioned as a potential England player (and now he never will be), whereas, as I have learned  while writing this, both Finn and Roland-Jones (not to mention Ballance) have been included in the squad for the next Test match.  Murtagh, I suppose, “doesn’t look like a Test bowler“.

I walked back to the Grand, not, as I had arrived, along North Marine Road, but along the seafront.  A woman, having drained the weekend to the dregs, had collapsed outside a pub and was receiving medical attention on the pavement, some Italian goths were photographing Anne Bronte’s grave, another drunk was groping blindly in the gutter for something to throw at his companion and, at the hotel, a man in an MCC panama, with the glint of happier days in his eyes, was checking.

And on all of this, it being only July, the evening sun shone brightly and high in the sky ; there were no long shadows on the outfield, no sun setting over the bays, no chill in the air, none of what Cardus called “the ache of festival cricket“.  If I want that, I suppose, I shall have to come back later in the year, or another year, which I should like, if it is not too late.

*(A declaration of interest : I spent most of my childhood in the vicinity of Blackpool.  Although I have never considered myself a proper Lancastrian, no doubt some of their influence has rubbed off on me.  I prefer Cardus.)

 

Cricket, Proper and Improper

Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 3rd May 2016

Northamptonshire v Derbyshire, County Ground, County Championship, 4th May 2016

I’m sure you’ve heard the distinction made before between “the cricket” and “a day at the cricket” (John Woodcock said that, whereas he wrote about the first, Alan Gibson wrote about the second).  “Good day at the cricket?” is not the same question as “Cricket good today?”.

On Tuesday, for instance, when I went to Trent Bridge to watch Notts play Yorkshire, the cricket was good, right enough.  In fact, as George Dobell wrote on Cricinfo, it was “a perfect advert for Championship cricket”.  I can’t speak for those who were there on the other three days, but, as a “day at the cricket“, the third day was little short of purgatorial.

It was a match  with everything : quality players (seven on each side with international experience (and two more, Lees and Ball,

Jake Ball

likely to join them), Hales and Broad starring for Notts,  Ballance, Root, Bairstow and Plunkett for Yorkshire) ; context (the current Champions taking on one of their most plausible challengers and historic rivals) ; narrative – an even contest where the advantage changed hands by the hour, both sides capable of winning as they went into the last session and the result in doubt to the last ball – yes, all of that.

Anyone who was following the game on TV, or online, must have wished they could be at the ground to see it.  Anyone who turns to the relevant page of Wisden in years to come will wish they had been there.  It must even have looked good from the warmth of the pressbox.  As a game, it made for great reading, and, for those with the ability to concentrate exclusively on what went on between the wickets (the cameraman’s view), great viewing.

Trent Bridge TV

It even began well ; at the start of play I was in the middle tier of the Radcliffe Road Stand and down to one layer, but by lunch a leaden pall of grey cloud had covered the sun and the cooling breeze had turned into a nasty, insidious little north-westerly wind that seemed to be trying to insinuate itself into any gap in the spectators’ layers of insulation.

Not everyone would agree, of course.  Most of those who had begun in the Radcliffe Road (Middle or Lower) stuck it out there all day and were probably rooted to the same spot for all four days.

Radcliffe Road

Without wishing to stereotype the Yorkshire crowd too much, they must have been sustained (in addition to a proper cap and muffler and frequent recourse to the thermos) by the fact that the afternoon session was proper cricket.  After the loss of two quick wickets, Alex Hales and Michael Lumb (two notorious sloggers, of course) dug in good and proper against some relentlessly accurate seam bowling from, in particular, Jack Brooks and Steven Patterson

Hales forward defensive

The first 20 overs yielded 32 runs, which must have puzzled anyone whose previous experience of cricket was of the 20 over variety.

It was an afternoon for the purist, a day for the connoisseur, and, if it had only been a little warmer, it would have been a day for me.  As it was, I took what turned out to be a brief abandonment for bad light and drizzle as a sign that I should make my excuses (“sorry – I’m not from Yorkshire“) and scuttle off back to the warmth of the Railway Station and Leicestershire.

The Trent Bridge match vindicates one of the arguments of those who favour a Two Division Championship.  There were no easy, devalued, runs against two attacks with four near Test-quality seamers (Willey, Brooks, Patterson and Plunkett on the one side ; Ball, Broad, Gurney and Bird on the other).  The drawback is that the concentration of the top bowlers in the First Division (Brooks and Willey were lured from Northamptonshire, Broad and Gurney from Leicestershire) threatens to leave the Second Division as an environment stripped of its apex predators, in which some fairly unfit-to-survive batsmen can graze and thrive.

Wednesday at Wantage Road was, I suppose, in the wider scheme of things, a nothing match between two nothing-in-particular teams.  Derbyshire have been de-fanged by the loss of Footitt to Surrey (their opening bowlers were those old partners-in-crime Fletcher and Carter, last seen at Radlett https://newcrimsonrambler.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/304/) . Northants’ bowling, with Ollie Stone sidelined, might as well have left its dentures in a glass at the side of the bed.  The first three days had seen a glut of runs, elongated by rain, and the chances of a result were slim or none when I arrived, but so too – oh the relief! – were the chances of bad weather.

Slim left town shortly after lunch, by which time Derbyshire had reached 100 for no wicket and – armed with a copy of Alan Gibson’s ‘Growing Up With Cricket’, which I had found in the Supporters’ Club bookshop, and a delicious vanilla cone from that Queen of its Species, the Gallone’s ice-cream van

Note gardener’s thumbnail

I settled down, high in the new stands on the Eastern side, far from the action but catching most of the warmth and light, to bask like a sand lizard, secure in the knowledge that the players wouldn’t be allowed to come off the pitch until 5.00.

Shortly before tea, when both openers (Chesney Hughes and Billy Godleman) were making stately progress towards their centuries, all Hell broke loose (or as much Hell as about a hundred elderly people can raise).  I hadn’t caught what had happened (I may have been absorbed in my book, I might have dozed off), so I asked my nearest neighbours (about ten yards away) what all the fuss was about, but they hadn’t seen it either.  Eventually it transpired that Jake Libby (on loan from Nottinghamshire) had claimed a catch on the boundary, but the batsman (Godleman) was doubting his word and refusing to go.

In a televised match the incident would have replayed and analysed endlessly and inconclusively, in an Ashes Test it would have led to a week-long Twitter war between pro- and anti- Spirit of Cricket factions.  As there were no cameras here, and the Umpires seemed to feel unqualified  to make a decision without their assistance, it led to a ten minute argument out in the middle, to the accompaniment of slow handclapping and cries of “disgraceful” from those in the crowd who had been nearer to the incident than they had.

In the event, the Spirit of Cricket was to have her revenge on Godleman.  On 94, with time running out, he looked to reach his 100 by aiming a majestic heave at one of the aggrieved Libby’s strictly occasional off-spinners, but succeeded only in wrecking his own wicket.  He returned to the pavilion to the accompaniment of what the official web site politely described as “catcalls“.

At ten to five, as I was making my way to the exit, the final sign that the Muse of Comedy had taken over came with the solemn announcement that Josh Cobb would be taking over the gloves from Ben Duckett*.  Duckett would be bowling.  Chesney Hughes (who had already reached his hundred) prodded forward respectfully to his second delivery, the ball spiralled gently into the lap of first slip, who juggled and dropped it like an electric eel, at which point they shook hands (grudgingly) and called it a day.

“Proper cricket” be damned.  I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

*(I maligned Duckett in an earlier post by describing him as a “rotten wicket-keeper”, by the way.  He ‘kept very well in this match.)