Never, I should think, in the last five-and-twenty years have English cricketers felt more dissatisfied and disappointed with a season's play than in 1909. It was not merely that we lost the rubber. Such an experience is no new thing for us even at home, as in 1899 the Australians won the only Test match that was played out, and in 1902 two out of the three finished matches. In both those years, however, there was a good deal to compensate for defeat - a record score at The Oval in 1899, and in 1902 a glorious win at The Oval, after England in the series of games had had to battle against about the worst luck ever experienced in international cricket.
Last summer things were very different. Allowing that fortune in the shape of Hayward's lameness, Blythe's uncertain health, and G. L. Jessop's accident told against us, there was an angry feeling that our downfall was courted by mismanagement. Complaint has been made that the Selection Committee came in for unfair attack, but I do not think the complaint can be justified.
To this day the extraordinary blundering in connection with the team for the Test match at Lord's - the game that was the beginning of England's troubles - remains unexplained. Lord Hawke was away from England at the time, the responsibility for the selection of the XI resting entirely on C. B. Fry, H. D. G. Leveson Gower and A. C. MacLaren. How these three gentlemen came to make such a muddle of the business no one has ever been able to understand. As regards the omission of one indispensable player, G. L. Jessop has assured me positively that he was not asked to play at Lord's. In the columns of Country Life MacLaren, in reviewing the Test games, stated - a fact that had previously leaked out - that on the morning of the match he asked Walter Brearley to play. He did not, however, explain how it was that in the original list of players Jayes was picked as the fast bowler and Brearley left out. A good many people, including P. F. Warner, thought that even though his invitation was delayed till the last moment, Brearley ought to have played. Perhaps he should have thrown personal considerations on one side, but it is easy to understand his refusal. At that period of the season he was at the top of his form and he felt that in leaving him out the Selection Committee had deliberately slighted him.
The mistakes over the match at Lord's did not end with the omission of Jessop and Brearley. By a sad error of judgment George Gunn was given the preference over Rhodes, the result being that England's bowling depended wholly upon Albert Relf, Hirst, Haigh, and King. If the catches had been held, the bowling, as things turned out, might have proved equal to the occasion, but that does not alter the fact that a great risk was run. After a tremendous rainfall the weather had improved and, failing Brearley, Jayes ought clearly to have played, a right-handed fast bowler being, according to nearly all expert opinion, an absolute necessity at Lord's. It is hardly necessary to explain that Blythe, after having had a big share in winning the match at Birmingham, was practically forbidden to play by the doctors.
If I have gone at rather undue length into this old story it is because the match at Lord's proved the turning point of the season. I may be wrong, but I cannot help thinking that the Selection Committee, like the general public, were inclined at that time to under-rate the Australians, and thought that they would not require much beating. Cricket, like whist, does not forgive, and a very high price had to be paid for the mistake. The Australians were delighted beyond measure at a victory they had not expected, and thenceforward they could do no wrong.
In the matches at Leeds and Manchester the Selection Committee made the best use of the material at their command, but at The Oval a fatal blunder was committed in leaving out Buckenham - a blunder for which it was generally understood that MacLaren was responsible. Experts occasionally do strange things and this was one of the strangest. The idea of letting England go into the field in fine weather, on a typical Oval wicket, with no fast bowler except Sharp touched the confines of lunacy. The despised man in the street could not have been guilty of such folly.
I must not be understood as wishing to take away in the smallest degree from the credit due to the Australians. Even when they lost three matches in a fortnight I personally felt no doubt that they would prove themselves a very fine side. All I contend is that with a wiser choice of players England would not have fared so badly. In theory the plan of choosing the Selection Committee entirely from men engaged every day in first-class matches is quite sound, but somehow it does not work out very well in practice. At any rate, I think we should have been better off last summer if the Selection Committee had been helped by the saving common sense of Lord Harris, A. G. Steel, or John Shuter. Events proved that it was a mistake to make MacLaren captain, but on this point, remembering what that great cricketer has done in the past, one does not wish to dwell. The misfortune was that he never got into form, and that his presence always involved some better batsman having to stand down.
The fact is not generally known, but I have Lord Hawke's word for it, that after the defeat at Lord's MacLaren offered to resign his position. The Selection Committee, however, would not agree to this, thinking that such a course, with the record standing at one game all, would be ungenerous. On the subject of England's loss of the rubber there is no need to say much more. Winning by two to one, and having all the best of the drawn games at Manchester and The Oval, the Australians played magnificent cricket, their fielding, for sustained excellence, surpassing anything I can remember in a series of Test matches.
Since the season ended there has once more been a good deal of talk of dividing the counties into two divisions, a strong hint in this direction coming from Yorkshire. Personally I hope nothing of the sort will come about. My own idea is, that county cricket needs to be a little more elastic than it is at present, and that anything in the shape of increased rigidity should be avoided. For this reason, I can never get up the least interest in the discussion so often raised about the defects of the M.C.C.'s method of deciding the Championship. It is enough for me that under the existing system no county has won the Championship without fairly deserving the honour.
Rather than propose fresh rules and regulations I would, repeating what I said in Wisden last year, discard decimal fractions altogether, and let the Committee of the M.C.C. decide on the general result of the season's play which was the champion county. As the rules stand at present it is enacted that after the close of each cricket season the committee of the M.C.C. shall decide the Championship, the method of deciding being afterwards given in detail. In any case, there would, of course, have to be a minimum number of out and home matches, so as to guard against a county being reckoned champion without having played enough cricket to earn the distinction.
I do not think that county cricket is in such a bad way as has been represented. The financial losses involved in a wet summer have, I fancy, made people unduly pessimistic. The best remedy I can suggest for the evils that exist is that committees should, as far as possible, encourage the amateur element. A side composed almost exclusively of professionals seems bound, sooner or later, to show some want of enterprise in its cricket, and play too cautious a game. We have seen this during the last two seasons in the case of Yorkshire. Amateurs are never prone to accept a draw when there is a chance of winning, and as a natural consequence the matches in which they take a prominent part are seldom open to the charge of being dull.
Of course, as the Yorkshire committee have found out, it is not always possible to get amateurs of sufficient class, but county committees should offer every inducement to University and Public School men to take part in county matches. There is no other way half so effective of enlisting local support. In proof of this one has only to look at what happened last season in connection with Hampshire and Somerset - two counties largely dependent on amateur assistance. Hampshire, apart from their grant from the Test match receipts, made a profit on the year's working of the club, and Somerset placed themselves in a better financial position than they have been in for a long time. The encouragement of amateurs, moreover, may in a measure counteract the insidious fascination of golf, which from all accounts is becoming a real danger to cricket.
One fact in connection with the season I must not allow to pass unnoticed. W. G. Grace was not seen in a first-class match, his career, which practically began in 1864, thus coming to an end. As he only played in 1908 in the Easter Monday match at The Oval the difference between one year and the other was trifling, but one did not know till last summer that, so far as public cricket was concerned, he had done with the game. Dropping out in this gradual way he took no formal farewell. Perhaps, like many famous actors and singers, he kept on a little too long, but everybody could understand his reluctance to leave the scenes in which for so many years he was supreme. I shall always think that his career really terminated in 1906, when, on his 58th birthday, he played such a remarkable innings for the Gentlemen against the Players, at The Oval. He made his first appearance for the Gentlemen at Lord's and the Oval in 1865, his association with the representative match at the Oval thus extending over a period of 41 years. He played for the Gentlemen at Lord's for the last time in 1899, and, but for an unhappy run-out, when firmly set, would very likely have finished with a hundred. There will be great cricketers in the future as there have been in the past, but it is safe to say that we shall never see another W. G. Grace.
Apart from his unequalled genius as a player, he had an enthusiasm for the game that never waned and, in his prime, a stamina that few men have possessed. It is a curious coincidence that in the year in which for the first time W. G. is missing from the scores in Wisden, E. M. Grace should have retired from his position - held since the formation of the County Club - of secretary to Gloucestershire. Thus for the time being the name of Grace disappears from cricket. Opinions differ on the point, but I think that, as match winner and a personal force on a side, E. M. Grace never had a superior among English cricketers except his own brother. To realise what he was at his best one must look up his doings in 1862 and 1863.
Just one note as to the future. The next series of Test matches in this country will be played either in 1911 or 1912, everything depending on the acceptance or rejection by Australia of the Triangular Scheme. Whichever be the year it is evident that we shall want practically a new England Eleven. Several of our most famous players have no doubt been seen in Test matches for the last time. Never has there been such an opening for the young men.
Whether the time comes next year or in 1912 I hope the authorities will profit by the bitter lessons of the past season and condescend to organise. We ought to have a real England Eleven, and not a series of experimental teams. The best available side should be chosen in the middle of May, and given a couple of trial games before the first Test match. The gain to the fielding and the help to the wicket-keeper of such a plan are obvious, but I dare say we shall muddle along in the old way.