Australian Summer August 9, 2008

Local colour

Scyld Berry
Cardus' account of the 1936-37 Ashes tour gives rein to his desire to write about more than just the cricket



Nobody who has written about cricket has written finer English prose than Neville Cardus. In his Autobiography I don't believe there is a word or comma out of place. Australian Summer is beautifully written too, about the tour of that country in 1936-37 by England, or MCC as they were then called

Cardus was not greatly interested in the play, in what bat and ball did. He was interested in Australia the country and its attractions and the great cricketers of his day and their effect upon him. He was lucky, too, in being able to write about what he wanted to write about. No editors telling him what subject matter and how many words. No television, with replays, to contradict his version of events. Cardus could be as impressionistic as he liked and made the most of it.

The passage I always remember concerns the voyage out from England to Perth on the SS Orion. The party of cricketers and a few journalists reach the Cocos Islands on a windy morning, and two rowing boats come through the waves to pick up a barrel of food - quarterly rations for the few inhabitants. "And the last we saw of the little boats was their plungings and swayings as they returned to the island, with the men waving farewell in return; there was not a person on board the Orion who did not feel the emotion of the scene. 'It makes a lump come into your throat,' said William Voce of Nottinghamshire."

The reader keeps wishing for more of the same, for more local colour rather than cricket. But Cardus knows what Dr Johnson did: if you want to bore the reader, put in everything. The England, or MCC, party journeyed from Perth to Adelaide by train, and Cardus devotes nothing more than a paragraph - but what a paragraph - about a cricket pitch made in the middle of the Nullarbor out of railway sleepers.

It was a great series to write about: the only occasion still, I believe, when a team has come back from 0-2 down to win a five-Test series. Unfortunately it was not England. They ran out of petrol, and luck, while Don Bradman refuelled his tank. England's batsmen could not play legspin: some things haven't changed. Even Wally Hammond was completely tied up when Bill O'Reilly attacked his leg stump.

Cardus was near to his inspired best when he wrote Australian Summer, and at his best when he returned to Australia during the Second World War and Autobiography followed. A few have equalled his writing; none, in modern times, has surpassed.

Australian Summer: The Test Matches of 1936-37
by Neville Cardus

Jonathan Cape, 1937

Scyld Berry is the editor of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack