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From the NS archive: Cricket’s bright strangers

31 May 1963: What is the point of cricket, if not to entertain?

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At the beginning of a cricketing summer, JPW Mallalieu asked what the point of the game might be if it wasn’t to entertain? With this in mind he looked forward lip-smackingly to the Test series between England and the West Indians. The visitors, he said, were “a troupe of entertainers” who “made the cricket live”, brought spectators to the game and then engaged them from the field. The West Indies side was full of rare talents, including Wes Hall, Frank Worrell, Garfield Sobers and Charlie Griffiths, and, thought Mallalieu, they played with spirit and fun: he hoped it would prove infectious.

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For at least a hundred years, all Frenchmen, those Americans who live outside Philadelphia, and three-quarters of the rest of the world have annoyed the faithful by asking what on earth is the point of cricket. Now some of the faithful, after seasons of generally dreary play and dwindling attendances, are beginning to ask themselves much the same question. For example, is cricket a game for players only, to be watched, if at all, by a refined few who peer at its progress with the silent concentration of spectators at a chess match? Or should it be mass entertainment, with players setting out to please spectators by big hitting, sporting declarations and decisive results at all costs?

Mr Alan Ross gives one answer, at least for test cricket, in his latest book, Australia 63, which covers last winter’s MCC tour. “Captains of Test Teams,” he says, “consider themselves to have two responsibilities: one is to lead their countries to victory and, secondly, failing that, to avoid defeat. No one could possibly quarrel with this. At no stage does the obligation to entertain, as separate from either of these tasks, come in it. Nor should it.”

One man who does quarrel with that is the Australian spectator who, after the last Test at Sydney, took the Australian cricket authorities to court in an effort to get his money back. Cricket, he thought, ought to be a gay battle of a game, not just a private war of attrition between two prestige-absorbed captains.

This, clearly, is also the view of Mr Freddie Trueman, who pins all defensive captains to the sight-screen with a soaring bumper. “Cricket should be played aggressively,” he says. "It is an attacking game in which both sides should devote 100 per cent effort to forcing a result – in their own favour, of course!” Negative cricket, cricket without risks, is just a bore to Freddie; and it is a bore to Mr CLR James. James, too, looks for victory, sometimes the victory of one individual over another, as in duels between a great bowler and a great batsman, more often the victory of his own team going out to win from the first ball and scorning the crawl to the funk-hole of a draw. But James sees much more in cricket than that. His latest book is remarkable for many things that at first reading have little to do with cricket. It is about the West Indies and a partial revelation of one West Indian but cricket pervades it. James’s cricket is not just a game: it is an assertion of West Indian self-respect, an assurance that West Indians can show the world. It is no accident that Mr James, living for a time in Lancashire, should spend some of his evenings talking to groups either about cricket or about West Indian independence. For him, the two subjects were intertwined.

Unhappily, I know little about the West Indies. But I know two things: (1) that the West Indians went to Australia and so showed the Australians how cricket should be played – with determination lit by gaiety – that at the end of the tour something like half a million Australians poured into the streets to shout their pleasure and their respect; (2) that every cricket lover in England this summer is hoping that the West Indians will show us how our own game should be played. Will they do it?

So far I have only seen them three times. At Fenner’s, only one Cambridge player, the South African White, was capable of drawing out the best from top-class opponents. At Lord’s, no one, not even the natives, could show well against a cold wind and driving drizzle. And yet... there was something. There were, of course, the two fast bowlers, Griffith and Hall, some way removed in custom, though not in venom, from an earlier line of West Indian fast bowlers who were at their best only in bare feet. Griffith treads delicately back for his run-up, as though the ground was hot. The tall, lean Hall shambles back like a comedian, spinning the ball from right hand to left and back again, as though his forearms were twisting snakes. Griffith moves slowly into the attack, wasting, it would seem, much of his run, but at the final moment his arm swings like a catapult. Hall, with a run so long that he seems to be using the sight-screen as a springboard, takes off quickly, rakes in the distance to the crease with those long legs of his and suddenly, a second before the moment of delivery, gives a little shudder, like a tightly coiled spring about to burst. Then he does burst; and the twang reverberates all over the ground.

Then there’s Frank Worrell. This season I have not so far seen him bowl or bat but my memory brings up the word “immaculate”. All that I can immediately report of him, perhaps to James’s dismay, is that as a fielder and as a captain, he is every English schoolboy cricketer’s ideal of what an English captain should be. That is, he stands at silly mid-off, or some such place, with his hands in his pockets against the cold and when the ball is slammed at him he picks it up as a Savile Row gentleman might deign to pick a blade of grass from the crease of his trousers. He directs his team, on the field, with so little show that spectators, if elderly, need binoculars to see what he is ordering. The other day I had the luck to catch the least obtrusive of signals which inclined Butcher 10 yards to the right; and, the very next ball, Barber slammed one straight to Butcher’s left hand and was out. This was no windfall. It was a deliberate plucking from the tree. Hall, Griffith, Worrell, Sobers – and Kanhai, too. This season I have only seen him on television and there he sometimes looked ungainly, seemingly scooping some of his shots off the back foot. But how effective and what fun he was! All these players tingle with skill. Every individual one of them wants his side to win and loves the game, so that from the moment they step on to the field they look as though they are trying and are having fun. When a slip fieldsman let a fast snick through his numbed fingers at Lord’s, he chased it to the boundary’s edge and just scooped it off the line; and there was his fellow slip who had chased behind him to pick up and fling a return to the wicket-keeper – two men bursting themselves with effort for the enjoyment of saving one run.

They would show as much zest if they were playing without spectators; yet in an empty ground their most engaging characteristic would be lost. Other countries have individual players who, however absorbed they may be in the game, still need active and continuous contact with the crowd. Keith Miller of Australia was one. Freddie Trueman of England is another and will go on being one however much the prissy infant-teachers of the MCC may try to stand him in the corner. When such players are on the field the whole ground becomes alive.

All the West Indians are players like these. They stimulate the crowd. They get stimulus from the crowd until the game becomes, not just an affair of 22 men in flannels but of an eagerly participating community. I saw this for an hour or two even in that easy-going haven of Fenner’s, when Hall, bowling to White, drew schoolboys from their lollipops and retired clergymen from their thoughts of the next world and made them all join in. I saw it even more at Lord’s. That was a day when bumpers could do no more than crack the icicles that hung from a batsman’s chin and when bowlers at the Nursery end had to bowl not only into the wind but also into the rain. Yet the West Indians made the cricket live. They are not only a team of cricketers. They are a troupe of entertainers; and the presence of even a few hundred of their own countrymen was quite enough to bring all their talents bubbling to the surface. If they can do this in the rawness of early May, what will they do if ever summer comes? They will show England, as they have already shown Australia, what cricket really is. By so doing they will not, I think, be asserting their national independence. Rather they will be showing how interdependent players and spectators can and should be. This will be great fun; and if English players and crowds learn what the West Indians can teach, the fun should continue for many a long summer.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)