In the last summer before the Second World War, a writer signing himself with the initials YY meditated on the joys of speeded-up cricket. In 2020 there may prove to be no English cricketing summer at all, but in 1938 the game was an important feature of national life. What YY watched unfold on his local village ground though was not the sedentary play of the county and Test-match game, but a carnival of motion – six-hitting, running, fielding and fast bowling: everything at full tilt. Decades before the invention of limited overs cricket and the 20-20 format the writer, with prescience, relished the joys of an all-action game.
Sitting under an ash tree in the garden, I spent the better part of Whit-Monday watching the cricket match that was being played on the common. What a charming picture the words “village cricket” conjure up! They seem to breathe the spirit of summer in England – of leisurely good nature handed down from sire to son during the centuries, of hard but genial contest in the sunshine on the greenest grass on earth, of life disporting itself within view of a beautiful old church surrounded by peaceful graves and within reach of the ale in that close neighbour of the church, the village inn.
The English have in recent years, as a result of Mr Shaw’s teaching, come to be regarded as a sentimental race, and there is nothing about which they are more sentimental than village cricket. How often, in railway trains and in public-houses, have I fallen into conversation with an Englishman during a Test Match season and heard him confessing, with a soft eye and a reminiscent shake of the head: “I tell you what I like – village cricket.” I suspect many of the Englishmen who made this remark to me of never having sat through a cricket match in their lives. But their confession was none the less honest on that account. Deep down in his heart, the natural Englishman does love village cricket. It is his perpetual daydream – the earthly paradise of his imagination, a piece of his inherited piety.
Mr Ivor Brown, eminent enemy of humbug, has told us that there is a great deal of nonsense talked about village cricket, and that village cricket can be not only extremely bad but extremely dull. Not that Mr Brown fails to appreciate the flavour of good village cricket, but he is lacking in piety towards village cricket as a thing in itself. On this point, I am inclined to side with the humbugs and to maintain that village cricket, good, bad or indifferent, is justly an object of national pride and affection to Englishmen.
At its worst, it is not so dull as dull county cricket. For one thing, it is possible to watch an entire game from start to finish in a single day, whereas at a day’s county cricket the spectator often sees only an inconclusive exhibition of uninteresting batting and bowling. I cannot help thinking there is something wrong with a game at which at least half the spectators cannot expect to see the finish. It is said of some games that the game is for the players, not for the spectators; but this is obviously not true of county cricket. Hence it seems to me that rules should long ago have been devised which would have created a game that could be finished in a single day.
It may be, of course, that the framers of the rules of cricket were prophets who foresaw the coming of an age of leisure in which thousands of citizens, with time hanging on their hands, would be able to spend three days a week looking at a cricket match. I doubt this, however. The three-day cricket match, I fancy, originated in an age of leisurely aristocracy. A hard-working democracy, with only half-holidays to amuse itself in, may learn to love such a game, but would scarcely have invented it.
So I mused – mistakenly, it may be – as I sat under the ash-tree and watched the wickets falling on the common. Not that the batting was reckless or incompetent. On the contrary, much of it was extremely enjoyable. But no batsman came in with a feeling that he had the whole day before him and that he could well afford to spend an hour or two wearing down the bowling.
Every batsman was keen to get runs as quickly as possible, and every bowler was keen to get wickets as quickly as possible; the fielders did their work like a Chapman or a Hendren, who had only a couple of hours in which to get the other side out. Hence there was a fine succession of boundary hits, fallen wickets, quick throws-in, and infallible catches.
I do not know bow the game stood at teatime when each side had had an innings, but,after the tea-interval, what cricket we saw! The spirit of tip-and-run had entered into the game. The batsmen stole runs at the peril of their lives. Not that any of them aimed at scoring a single: every man of them struck out at every possible ball with a view to a boundary.
And it was astonishing to see how many boundaries they scored. It was as though, having abandoned prudence, they batted with all the greater assurance. They had taken for their motto: “Every man a Jessop”, and, like Jessop, they scored more runs in five minutes than a careful batsman could score in half an hour. Naturally, they quickly got themselves out, as who would not, with one of the bowlers taking tiger-springs like Gregory as he bowled and aiming well and truly at the stumps?
What I liked particularly, however, was that, when a batsman got out, he ran like a hare to the pavilion and was met by another batsman running like a hare to take his place. The whole game during this period was played at a run. At the end of an over, the fielders ran to their new positions. The wicket-keeper ran down the pitch so that no time might be wasted before the next over. Even the umpires, one of whom was smoking a cigarette, ran, their white coats flapping in the breeze.
The end of an innings was declared, and the game became more exhilarating than ever. The ball on the bat sounded joyfully, and a good crack sent it to earth far out in the long grass of the common. To save time, one of the umpires produced another ball from his pocket so that the game could go on without the waste of a moment. Another ball was slogged into a clump of bushes and lost. Two players went to look for it. The others did not mind their absence; they went on cheerfully with their game.
And so it continued, every batsman enjoying a short life and a merry one, with another batsman running from the pavilion to take his place and succeed to his Achillean fate. “This,” I said to myself, as the game ended, “is the most enjoyable cricket I have seen for years. You never see cricket like this at Lord’s.”
There is, it must be admitted, a peculiar pleasure to be got from the spectacle of fast play. Even the inexpert feel it: possibly, they feel it more than the expert, who are more interested in the fine points of the game. As one of the inexpert, I confess to a longing to have been at Lord’s on Saturday, when Smith of Middlesex scored 68 runs in 20 minutes in the match against Sussex. To see Smith hitting one of his sixes is one of the minor pleasures in life in modern London.
And yet, once when I praised Smith to an expert, he laughed at me and said: “He can’t bat. He has no strokes.” It is true, I suppose, that, if everyone batted in the spirit of Smith, we should have no Woolleys or Macartneys. Edrich, if he batted like Smith, would not now be the rising hope of England, or what is called England when Test Matches are being played.
Probably, in cricket as in a symphony, it is best to have a mixture of the slow and the fast: no one would like symphonies to be one eternal prestissimo. It would be possible to write a defence of slowness as one of the conditions of grace and fine workmanship. We who were young in the Nineties certainly belauded slowness as the duty of the good writer. We venerated Flaubert and Stevenson as masters who waited, however long, for the right word.
Even those of us who loved Scott agreed with the critic who deplored his “fatal facility”. We felt that he wrote too much in the slapdash mood of the slogger in village cricket. We demanded of writers that they should emulate the tortoise rather than the hare, though, of course, we expected them to be much more brilliant than the tortoise. Style and haste, we told ourselves, are incompatible. And, like the cricket experts, we insisted upon the importance of style.
Whether we were right or not, I do not know. One of the most famous living novelists has said that a novelist ought not to have too much style, and it may be that a too-laborious style slows down the narrative. If Scott had been as patient a writer as Stevenson, he might have been a duller storyteller. It is, in fact, absurd to idealise either speed or slowness as a good thing in itself.
This is probably as true of cricket as of prose-writing. Village cricket is good; but first-class cricket has also something to be said for it. Still, as I sat under the ash-tree on Monday and watched cricket being played at a gallop, I became for the moment an ardent convert to belief in the beauty of speed. Let a little of the same spirit of reckless haste be infused into first-class cricket, and we shall never again see, as I saw a year or two ago, spectators at a Test Match at Lord’s lying on the grass below the press box sound asleep.