The all-too-short English summer is waning as I write, and with it the sound of willow upon leather. It was bitterly cold when India played England earlier this week, clear indication that the cricket season was being prodded in its back by Premiership football. Soon the flannels will be mothballed away for the winter, and the terraces will ring with hoarse but curiously musical renditions of Come On You Reds or The Fields of Anfield Road.
As someone who loves watching both cricket and football, I have often wondered if we respond to these two games differently. The pauses and periods in cricket certainly offer more scope for contemplation, whereas watching football is a hectic and intense activity. Does this explain why it is difficult to write about football, as opposed to cricket' I have in front of me the autobiography of Neville Cardus, music and cricket writer with the Manchester Guardian, from 1916 to 1975. It is, quite simply, the best book to be ever written on cricket.
Let me give one example of Cardus’s style, and the effect it has on me. One of the mind games I play with myself goes as follows: suppose I were given a time machine solely to watch cricket. What test matches would I choose to see, which innings or bowling spell, which passage of play' There is a small list I have made, and most of the choices are quite predicable: Victor Trumper’s century before lunch against England at Old Trafford in 1902; Ranjitsinghji’s majestic 154 on debut against the Australians in 1896, at the same ground. Specifically, I would want to see the pre-lunch session of the second day, in which Ranji moved from 41 to 154.
But over and above everything, the one innings I would wish to see is Gilbert Jessop’s century at Kennington Oval in 1902. On a treacherous wicket, Australia declared their second innings at 114/8, leaving England with 263 to win. They were soon five down for 48. Enter Jessop. This is what Cardus wrote:
‘Jessop came forth, and he at once took the game out of the prison of cause and effect; he plunged it into the realms of melodrama, where virtue is always triumphant. Before he came to the wicket on this lurid afternoon, the Australian team had been a ruthless machine — the unplayable ball and the clutching hand in the slips. In a short period this same Australian team had been reduced to a rabble. Jessop scored 50 in 55 minutes, and then another 54 in ten minutes… Kennington Oval that day went crazy. People had been leaving the ground in thousands. Jessop caused delirium; perfect strangers embraced.’
If there is better writing on cricket, I am ignorant of it. Bring on the time machine.
(The author teaches English at Jadavpur University)