The Willow Wand September 27, 2008

The anti-romantic movement

In an attempt to separate cricket reality from myth, Derek Birley ruthlessly questions, if not busts outright, many of the game's idyllic beliefs

An excellent antidote to the books that make absurd claims for the game. Cricket, as the author points out, is not an ethical religion nor is it a natural source of sportsmanlike winners of wars or builders of empires. The essays here focus on the gap between the game's myths and reality. The title is from Kipling ("Give me a willow wand and I/ With hide and cork and twine/ From century to century/ Will gambol round my shrine"), whose other contribution to the game is the phrase "flannelled fools", so beloved of cricket haters.

"If [the book] is critical of the sacred cows that have been allowed to stray on to the pitch," writes Birley, "it is deeply respectful of the hallowed turf itself." The sacred cows include WG Grace, Plum Warner, Lords Harris and Hawke, and Neville Cardus; and the disturbances to the hallowed turf were created by such events as Bodyline, imperialism, South Africa, and the Packer affair. Birley deals with each of these in the spirit of the revisionist historian, with impressive research, marvellous control over language, and a gentle humour that keeps the ideas from skewing into painful solemnity.

Birley's masterpiece is A Social History of English Cricket. Both books are written with a combination of cool detachment and passionate involvement.

Long before Mike Marqusee was whipping the mask off English fairplay and the empire's synthetic concerns, Birley was already at the job. In de-mythologising the game and its heroes, the book renders a great service. The essay on Plum Warner, the establishment man's establishment man, ends with a plea for a redefinition of the phrase "it's not cricket": "not the kind of thing which those who claim that cricket observes exceptionally high ethical standards happen to approve at any given moment".

In the essay titled "Cardus and the Aesthetic Fallacy" Birley argues that Cardus was often a "blatant purveyor of debased romantic imagery", who was capable of "shameless if sometimes skillful assemblages of emotive language". At its worst, wrote Birley, "Cardus' writing is like advertising copy. He exploits the nostalgic green-on-white rustic bliss, dreaming spires and village inn images that can be relied upon to evoke deep and satisfying emotions in cricket-lovers just as a television commercial exploits sex or greed".

Birley makes a fine case for a reassessment of Cardus as a writer, pure and simple, as opposed to the mythical figure he had become to cricket lovers.

From the book
Cricket is not very old. This has been a disappointment for some and a few have sought to overcome it by seeking out possible references to some remote ancestor-game in classical texts or by looking for legbreak bowlers in old tapestries... In the sixth book of Homer's Odyssey, there is a famous misfield. Naussica, daughter of King Alcinous, was besporting herself on the seashore: she and her maidens 'were playing with a ball'... until the princess passed the ball to one of her maids; she missed it and dropped it instead into the deep and eddying current."

"Lord Hawke's autobiography ... is full of tributes to himself. One of the best sentences is about the great Wilfred Rhodes: 'The presentation of his portrait to me was the crowning tribute to his wonderful career.'"

The Willow Wand: Some Cricket Myths Explored
by Derek Birley
Macdonald and Janes, 1979

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore