An elegy for cricket as she was
Anyone who has watched cricket from the prim old Ladies' Pavilion at Worcester, gazing through the green-and-white canvas to the cathedral and river beyond, will appreciate that such moments are made for profound thoughts on the best-loved game.
Duncan Hamilton, whiling away a dreamy afternoon and doubtless awaiting the homemade cakes, found himself musing on what it is that sets Anglo-Australian rivalries so distinctly apart. "Beneath the thick crust of cynicism England and Australia are like the two old men in Somerset Maugham's short story "The Sanatorium", who squabble and feud, complain about and provoke one another - mostly over trivialities. The fractious relationship gives meaning and purpose and identity and definition to both their lives."
It was a summary to linger in the consciousness, encapsulating the work of a book that achieves more than its ambitions. Hamilton, already the recipient of five prestigious book awards, can confidently expect more to follow for this lyrical, evocative but absolutely timely volume, a kind of travelogue of the English cricketing summer of 2009.
His inspirations were threefold: first his grandfather, who had introduced him to cricket and whose memory lives with him still; secondly JB Priestley's English Journey, a ramble round a changing land in 1933; finally Hamilton's deep fears that the rhythms and romance of the game were about to be lost forever, bulldozed by rampant commercialism.
Because cricket has, indeed, become avaricious and celebrity-led, Hamilton's thoughts are not fashionable; these days the banal soundbites of Freddie or Jimmy or KP are so much easier to market. If sales of this book suffer for that, however, it will be the greatest shame. Everyone who loves the game, and especially those who administer it, should read this and prepare to weep.
Hamilton admits he is something of a modern misfit. "To describe oneself as a 'cricket purist' these days risks derision. You're dismissed as ultra-conservative, unprogressive and as fogeyish as a pocket watch and chain. I am that cricket purist." He calls himself a "raving sentimentalist" and adds: "I am always measuring today against yesterday. I know there are times when it makes me sound one hundred years old."
And, yes, just occasionally, he does get almost tiresomely wistful, straining a shade too far for the right, regretful image. There is, too, the odd misspelling of a player's name to irritate.
Mostly, though, his comparisons are sharp and his longing for the eroded joys of the county game shrewdly expressed. Unsurprisingly he reserves his bile for Twenty20, and specifically for the noise and ballyhoo seemingly inseparable from it. He loathes "the show-off announcers" and the "acts of forced jollity", comparing the experience to "someone at a party constantly blowing a streamer in your face and telling you to enjoy yourself".
Hamilton regards the IPL as "plastic cricket, pre-packaged and oversold". The domestic product, he warns, has already been given undue priority. "Twenty20 is barging in on every summer like an exasperating holiday guest; not only demanding the best room in the house but insisting that everything is run to fit around its whims."
His graphic disapproval of the beer-drinking marathons that have been allowed house room in English cricket will strike a chord with many. He experienced it at the Edgbaston Test and reports his revulsion at the abuse and "rank obnoxious" conduct of the drunks. "If the ECB ignores the drinking culture, or allows it to go unchecked, it will at some stage find itself trying to explain away a profoundly serious incident."
Hamilton starts his odyssey at Lord's, for the MCC v champion county fixture, and ends it at Canterbury deep in September. He is at his best and happiest away from the rowdy throng - at Colwyn Bay, for instance, earwigging on endearing conversations in the crowd, or at Scarborough, where his cricket-watching routines are engrained.
At Cheltenham he reflects how county cricket has lost so much of its character through the steady elimination of outgrounds. He steals a look at a 1978 Wisden and counts 26 that have since disappeared. "It is as if cricket's own version of a flint-eyed and unfeeling Dr Beeching stared at a map of England one summer's day and tut-tutted his disapproval."
Hamilton feared the end of the line for the cricketing time tables he reveres. Most of us join him in hoping he is wrong.
A Last English Summer
by Duncan Hamilton
This review was first published in the September 2010 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here