No. 9 February 20, 2010

The golden age

Before the First World War came a period in cricket marked by the brilliance of dashing amateurs

1890-1914

The period 1890 to 1914 has long been referred to as cricket's Golden Age. Viewed against subsequent eras through a mist of nostalgia it seems untarnished and therefore attractive. Those years were replete with dashing amateurs who did not depend on the game for a living. And since it came to a jarring end with the outbreak of the most horrific of wars, a unique poignancy attaches to the period.

The stars of the Golden Age were predominantly English. Apart from the occasional shock administered by the Australians, the mother country stood supreme, spreading cricket and much else to all parts of the globe. The central, god-like figure was the mature WG Grace, the Gloucestershire doctor who revolutionised and dominated batting for some decades. He shared the Golden Age with polished and carefree batsmen such as FS Jackson, AE Stoddart, AC MacLaren, LCH Palairet, CB Fry, RH Spooner, GL Jessop, RE Foster and the diminutive genius from Nawanagar, KS Ranjitsinhji. This forest of initials now seems pretentious. But a hundred years ago they bestowed a touch of aristocracy. And these batsmen batted with the dash and elegance of d'Artagnan.

There were hardworking and highly skilled professionals too, batsmen and bowlers, and the roll call could easily run well beyond the space available. Suffice to name Shrewsbury, Gunn, Tyldesley, Hayward, Woolley and Hobbs, batting heavyweights all, and SF Barnes, Hirst, Rhodes, Blythe, Briggs, JT Hearne, Peel, Tom Richardson and Lockwood, all world-class bowlers, equipped to be champions today if they were given a week to familiarise themselves with modern gimmicks and tactics.

Add the Australians - Trumper, the Trott brothers, Giffen, Noble, Armstrong, Joe Darling, Syd Gregory and so many more - and Faulkner of South Africa, and remember that they performed on pitches often sploshing from the latest shower, and you have an enchanting era that, alas, is unrecorded on videotape. Neville Cardus' romantic prose continues to sustain the colourful panorama, but something that JB Priestley wrote in 1978 helps explain the appeal: "I cannot believe that there is another game in the world that releases so many floods of nostalgic reminiscence."

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly