Imperial ambition

Douglas Jardine: Spartan cricketer

Christopher Douglas <em>Methuen, 222pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0413

Douglas Jardine was one of the great England captains. Some would say the best of them all. His record as captain was: played 15, won nine, drawn five, lost one. He won the Ashes in Australia 4-1 in 1932-33. He was also in the team that had won them there in 1928-29, by the same score. A number five batsman, he played in 22 Tests and averaged 48. Tall and straight, he was capable not only of defensive resilience, but also of attacking brilliance as the situation demanded. Bradman described an innings of his in Sydney against New South Wales as one of the finest exhibitions of stroke-play he had ever seen. Such achievements place him in the vanguard of cricketing greats. Is there any English cricketer of the recent past to bear comparison? Mike Brearley as captain, perhaps, but not as batsman. And that's about it.

Jardine was born in Bombay in 1900 and educated at Winchester and Oxford. His biographer emphasises two facets of his background: first, that he was a son of empire; second, that he was very much brought up in a physical culture, the extraordinarily robust vision of Victorian education, which combined rigorous learning with rigorous sport to produce the "well-rounded individual". Recently, the Australians have adopted the ideal of rigorous sport, while passing over the Greek, Latin, logic and arithmetic. The Americans have adopted the ideal of the extremely well-rounded individual who knows nothing save his own weight. The British have, alas, foregone the ideals and illusions of greatness. Harold Larwood described Jardine as "truly a great man". It is impossible to imagine any contemporary sportsman who merits such an epithet.

It is strange what posterity can do to a man. It is as though there has been a conspiracy to denigrate Jardine's achievements. Something to do with Anglo-Australian diplomacy? Or is he a victim of post-colonial correctness, which insists that anything to do with empire is necessarily inexcusable and an embarrassment? Jardine falls perfectly into the stereotype of Edwardian imperialist, upright, aloof and contemptuous of the natives. Humour, invention, resolution, nobility, courage, kindness, coyness even, do not fit the stereotype, so are best overlooked and ignored.

All that remains is the myth: the Machiavellian who broke the moral laws of cricket to subdue Bradman and win the Ashes. The ironic thing is that Jardine would have been one of the few batsmen equipped to take on short-pitched legside bowling. Brave enough, too. Unlike Brian Close against the ferocious West Indian pace attack of 1976, he would have protected himself with his rigidly straight bat. Like Close, he would not have flinched either.

Jardine died of cancer in 1958, after unspectacular careers in business and journalism. He and his 1932-33 team are either neglected or condemned. This is ludicrous; the team included three fast bowlers who could knock over any opposition - Larwood, Bill Voce and Gubby Allen. Some impression of their pace is given with reports of the slips standing at third man, of stumps catapulted halfway to the boundary, of Larwood sending one bail flying 60 yards.

It is contentious whether leg theory was necessary to win the series. No team like being flattened by fast bowlers, the match-winners par excellence. The Australians have terrorised in turn, with Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, and Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Then they have returned to whingeing when obliterated by the barrage of the great kings of the West Indies.

But the question is: what would Jardine - or any of the great captains (who mysteriously always had teams of great players) - have done with a team who are palpably inferior to the opposition? Nasser Hussain, inventive and audacious, has excellent plans, but does not have Larwood. It is easy to imagine him ruminating over the opposition's weakness, as did Jardine in his cabin on the long voyage down to Australia. Hussain, one senses, does enjoy Jardine-like qualities: excellent man management, self-possession, obsessive fascination with each game, calculation, tenacious nobility, and sportsmanship.

Perhaps he needs a Harlequin cap to enrage the Australians and their crowds. Sartorial eccentricity on the cricket field is underrated. This writer was privileged to play alongside a vast, bespectacled toff with a shudderingly posh voice who played in red tracksuit bottoms. His presence riled the opposition, but was undermined by his ineptitude with the bat: it flayed the air (beautifully) while the ball flayed his stumps. A similar ploy was often used by the state schools against which I played as a schoolboy on the Isle of Man; they took the field in black trousers and tie, as if it was not worthwhile changing into whites to dismiss the opposition. Sadly, they were always anti-cricketers who had been press-ganged into playing. No, nothing would be more pleasing than to see four old Wykehamist quicks in Harlequin caps pasting the flat-track bullies of the Aussie batting line-up - and then to hear them whinge. In truth, anything would do rather than having to endure the present humiliation.

Henry Sheen has completed a novel set in Lisbon