May 31, 2009

Golden amateur

A businessman, a soldier, a lavishly talented cricketer: Stanley Jackson embodied one of cricket's greatest ages


Stanley Jackson was the face of the golden age, as a prodigiously talented, stylish player and man who wore his gifts lightly © PA Photos
 

Cricket has been blessed with many golden ages. If the writer AA Thomson is to be believed, then midway through the last decade of the 19th century, there was even a "diamond" age. The quarter century leading up to the first World War is generally regarded as the golden age of golden ages. Grace, Ranji, McLaren, Fry, Richardson, Lockwood, Lohmann, Barnes, Hirst, Rhodes were the great players of the era.

The finest amateur allrounder was Sir Stanley Jackson, who captained Harrow, Cambridge, Yorkshire and England; then became the chairman of the Conservative Party and Governor of Bengal. In some ways he was the face of the golden age as a prodigiously talented, stylish player and man who wore his gifts lightly, and who never gave the impression that cricket was the be-all and end-all of life. Perhaps only CB Fry matched that nonchalance or that range, for Jackson was a businessman and soldier too.

He was a member of Lord Hawke's team that toured India in 1892-93, a tour that is one of the most significant in the history of Indian cricket, for it saw the natives - the Parsees, in fact - thrash the visitors by 109 runs in one of the 23 matches. It caught Hawke by surprise, for he had prepared a "winning speech" for a dinner at the Yacht Club that night, and had to quickly amend that. While the impact of that tour on India has been recorded, its effect on the English - apart from the inevitable blow to the ego - has not been given much importance. In FS Jackson, A Cricketing Biography, James P Coldham sets about correcting that imbalance.

The previous year, Jackson, while captaining Cambridge, had overlooked Ranji - later to be called the magician and one of the all-time greats of the game - saying how he had not been "particularly impressed" by the batting of the Indian prince. "To the end of his career," writes Coldham, "Jackson regarded unorthodoxy as the bedfellow of frivolity, as something not to be entirely trusted." Things changed after that Indian tour.

"Jackson recanted," writes Coldham, "[He] set aside his mistrust of unorthodoxy and included Ranji in the team. His travels in the subcontinent had given him much food for thought about the merits of Indian cricket as played by Indians." It was just the start that Ranji needed. A couple of years later, he was in the England side, made a century on debut and cricket was never the same again. Jackson and Ranji became good friends, and the Governor of Bengal consulted the Indian prince on matters political.

Jackson is best remembered for the 1905 series against Australia, when as captain he won the toss in all five Tests (there is a lovely story about how the Australian captain, heartily sick of this sequence, invited Jackson to a wrestling bout in lieu of a coin toss but was dissuaded when Jackson suggested that he might ask the rather better built George Hirst to go for the "toss"). He also scored 492 runs with two centuries, at an average of 70.28 and picked up 13 wickets with his fast medium bowling at 15.46. Shades of Garry Sobers.

This is a cricketing biography, and although that limits the personality, it is in sufficient detail to satisfy the pure cricket fan. Jackson's role in the Boer War is touched upon, as is his stint as Governor, but only briefly and for record purposes. By focusing on the cricket, the author is able to bring into the story the backdrop of a time and place - the Golden Age in England - and highlight the activities of the other actors as well as their contributions to it.

Sir Francis Stanley Jackson epitomised an era, an era that with every passing generation seems more mythical and out of reach. Jackson himself was a "walker", and once deliberately gave a catch to a fielder near the boundary because he had been forced to drop one off the previous ball by spectators who had advanced onto the field. Perhaps that is what made Jackson the ideal - he was both talented and possessed the idealism that some of the others were not so troubled by.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore