How's that!

Runs in the Memory: County Cricket in the 1950s

Stephen Chalke <em>Fairfield Books, 204pp, £15.95<

These books, to be honest, are for cricketing anoraks, and romantic, nostalgic ones at that. But there are many of us around - capable of recalling exactly how Richie Benaud bowled Peter May round his legs for a duck at Old Trafford in 1961 - and it is extraordinary that Stephen Chalke failed to find a conventional publisher for his work. He had the ingenious idea of getting retired cricketers to recall their favourite County Championship matches from the 1950s and 1960s, and the result is nearly always delightful, often dramatic and sometimes moving.

It can also be very funny, particularly since cricket's quaint snobberies were still very much alive when these games were played. My favourite concerns Roly Jenkins, a Worcestershire professional, who wrote an article on spin bowling for a magazine. R W V Robins, a Middlesex amateur, said: "That was a very good article, Jenkins. Who wrote it for you?" Jenkins replied: "I wrote it myself, sir. Who read it for you?"

But these books are also irritating for the glow in which they bathe the past: as the old pros tell it, the sun was always shining, the crowds always enormous and the players always jolly good chaps. Indeed, the worst that can be said of a cricketer of the 1950s and 1960s is that he was "an enigma".

And that, I think, gives the clue to everything that is wrong with English cricket, to the extent that our Test team is now the worst in the world. I cannot think of anything in the sporting world quite like the English county circuit. For four or five months, young men live, day in and day out, in one another's pockets, playing cards, drinking riotously, driving recklessly, screwing promiscuously. They have, as the players in these books never tire of telling us, a marvellous time, an adolescence that can go on and on, at least until their 40th birthdays. What Chalke's interviews make abundantly clear is that, to most county cricketers, life will never be as good again. That there is such a high number of suicides among retired cricketers compared with other sports, the former Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper David Bairstow being the most notable recent example, is further testament to the cloistered nature of the county game.

So if you are a county professional, how will you behave? You will try to be one of the lads, you will look out for your mates, you will do everything possible to maintain an acceptable level of performance - but you won't want to stand out in a way that threatens other people. Above all you will hate, resent, absolutely loathe, the keen, ambitious, dedicated young player who might bounce you or your friends out of a job. And if you are that young player, you will quickly decide that, rather than let those old pros make your life a misery, you might as well fall in with the general, easy-going mediocrity and, if necessary, wait your turn in the second XI.

Nobody actually says that in these books. But it is implicit in every paragraph. Players are celebrated as "lovely fellows" who could drink and laugh and sing with the other lads, but nobody is ever praised for ambition or single-mindedness. The Glamorgan cricketer Peter Walker comes closest to the truth, near the end of the second volume: "Being a first-class cricketer was like being in a protected Masonic-type club, a sort of Brotherhood of Man for pro players. It was a fabulous life, provided you weren't a battler. If you held your own with the bat or ball, it was a super way of wandering your way through from April till September. And it was a wander. It really was. Delightful."

It may be objected that, in the 1950s, England had the best Test team in the world, that my thesis doesn't account for the present decline. I would answer that this brief supremacy was a freak, that, given our population, facilities and history, we have nearly always underperformed against other nations. Now, like so many other British industries, cricket suffers from increased international competitiveness, but unlike others it has failed to adapt.

So read Stephen Chalke, enjoy his lyrical accounts of long- forgotten summer days and treasure this unique heritage. But don't look further for an explanation of why England can't win a Test series.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.