June 14, 2009

Gold from the Ashes

Celebrating Cardus' evocations of cricket's premier contest

Writing in the Times on the eve of the Cricket Society Book of the Year function in 2006, Christopher Martin-Jenkins observed that it was curious that none of the accounts of the previous year's England versus Australia Test series was included in the shortlist of nominees. This despite the fact that the Ashes line-up included such writers as Andrew Flintoff, Graham Thorpe, and Duncan Fletcher, all of whom rushed into print with their version of the events. Indeed, already these books - and others that were collections of newspaper reports - appear dull and dated.

As a new Ashes series begins, presumably there are a few more players walking around with publishing contracts in their pockets. Will their efforts last the decade? I am not trying here, as Cyril Connolly did in Enemies of Promise, to write "a didactic inquiry into the problem of how to write a book which lasts ten years". Good books, whatever their subject matter, survive. So do bad books, but this is not about that.

I have been rereading Neville Cardus - as some of us do from time to time - especially Cardus on the Ashes, put together from his newspaper- and other reports over a period of half a century, and I am struck by how well it has endured. As far back as in 1930, Cardus wrote, "If modern Test matches are not so interesting as they were of old, it may be because the Press has so drenched players in limelight that they have grown immobile through self-consciousness." Ahem! Now as in 1930. The only change is that "press" is no longer written with a capital "P", and in fact seldom written at all, having been replaced by the larger term "media".

The golden age of cricket has always been the one that thrilled our grandfathers and great grandfathers. Doubtless today's game and its players will qualify for the tag two or three generations hence. Writing in 1971, for example, Cardus said, "On the whole I am glad I was born at the right time and could sail to Australia with an England team containing Wally Hammond, Maurice Leyland, Joe Hardstaff, Voce, Ames, Allen - to play Australia embattled with Bradman, McCabe, Brown, Fingleton, O'Reilly, Fleetwood-Smith and Bert Oldfield - all characters as well as cricketers."

But there was one trip Cardus did not make - the Bodyline tour. If his second-hand reports are any indication, it is possible that his presence there might have toned down some of the reaction to Bodyline. Without actually condoning it ("Larwood's achievement can be called creative. He has altered the entire face of Australian cricket. He has conquered the perfect wicket… "), Cardus seemed to suggest that Australians may perhaps have been overreacting to Bodyline.

Cardus on the Ashes begins with the 1902 Old Trafford Test that Australia won by three runs, a "match designed surely by the gods for their sport". It is evocative, unsentimental, and written with a passion that only a true lover of sport can conjure up. Cardus was 13 when the Test was played; he had made his first visit to the ground to watch cricket two years earlier and had been enchanted. He had the emotion at 13, but lacked the words to describe the match until years later. That emotion never left him, and the descriptive ability only got more refined and mischievous.

His profiles are a study in verbal picture-painting. He begins an essay on Clarrie Grimmett thus: "He is an unobtrusive little man, with a face that says nothing to you at all; seldom is he heard by the crowd when he appeals. He walks about the field with the soft fastidiousness of a cat treading a wet pavement. He is a master of surreptitious arts; he hides his skill, and sometimes when he is on guard at cover, he seems to hide himself. He knows a trick of getting himself unobserved, and he darts forward to run a man out like somebody emerging from an ambush."

Cardus is no master of the surreptitious arts; he is conspicuous. Cardus on the Ashes is as much about the matches as about the players, and importantly, the writer himself. Edited by his friend (and possibly lover) Margaret Hughes, it is a fine antidote to the modern perspectives of England-versus-Australia encounters.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore. This article was first published in the print version of Cricinfo Magazine in 2006