Keep cricket a game, 1955

Twilight reflections

Sir Pelham Warner

In the late evening of my life, when memory is a comfort and a companion, I cherish many delightful thoughts of the game with the beautiful name. Ever since I took my first steps on a marble gallery in Trinidad, where I was born, I have been devoted to cricket, not only as a game but for what it stands for and means in England and the world over. It is no exaggeration to say that there is not a single moment in any hour of any day in which cricket is not being played in some part of the world. England has taught the world cricket, forging a chain around the globe which nothing in life can sever.

I went to Rugby in September, 1887. Rugby was reputed to be a rough school and, in a way, I suppose it was, for summer and winter we had to be in chapel at seven o"clock every morning except Sundays. This alleged roughness was largely due to Tom Brown"s Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes, captain of the XI in 1841; because of Flashman, who tossed our Tom in a blanket to the ceiling of a School House dormitory and who took the leading part in roasting him before the fire in the School House Hall. But no one in Mr. Robert Whitelaw"s House ever looked like roasting me, or tossing me, or anyone else, and I look back on my Rugby days with every sort of happiness.

And there in the famous Close was Tom Emmett, my cricketing Headmaster--a character if ever there was one, and a personality. Very erect, with a Yorkshire cap covering his well-shaped head and with his cheery laugh, he was beloved by every boy who came under his sway. He was a sound coach whose accent was on the essentials rather than the technicalities. "Lash her," was a favourite expression of his, and I can see him now saying: "See here, Mr. Warner; if you come to her, come. You may as well be stumped by two feet as by two inches."

Then to Oriel College, Oxford. Among my contemporaries was the great C. B. Fry, the first scholar of his year at Wadham, a First in Honour Moderations, Captain of Cricket, of Association Football, and President of the Athletic Club, who only missed a Rugger Blue because of an injury a fortnight before the University Match. And there were the Palairets (L. C. H and R. C. N.), G. J. Mordaunt, H. K. Foster, F. H. E. Cunliffe, J. C. Hartley, G. O. Smith and H. D. G. Leveson Gower.

In 1894 I made my first appearance for Middlesex, against Somerset at Taunton, under the captaincy of A. J. Webbe. There were seventeen amateurs in the two teams, nine Somerset, eight Middlesex. Dark and Light Blue caps, Harlequin, Authentic, Quidnunc, I. Z., Free Foresters, were scattered over the field. Middlesex had no county cap until 1898! At that time there were only nine first-class counties, Surrey (Champions), Yorkshire, Middlesex, Kent, Lancashire, Somerset, Nottingham, Sussex and Gloucestershire, who each played sixteen matches. Now there are seventeen counties who play twenty-eight matches.

The late Lord Harris once said that "the more cricket played the better for everyone," but I think this great increase has brought some disadvantages. It makes difficult the selection of England teams to meet Australia, South Africa, West Indies and others, while a good deal of county cricket nowadays is not of a high standard. The need, I believe, is to play more representative games--not only Gentlemen v. Players at Lord"s but also at The Oval; North v. South, and England v. The Rest. Here, in a higher sphere of skill, would be tested the cream of English cricket. To ask seventeen counties to give up twenty-two men between them for such matches would be no real strain on them, and England surely comes first.

Do we play too much cricket? The Australians and others of our opponents across the seas play far less than we do, yet often are more than our equals. From May 1 to the middle of September our cricketers have a heavy strain put upon them and tend to regard some of their fixtures not as an event, but as a sort of routine. Yet the large majority of the counties, despite the recommendations of the Findlay Commission, reject a shorter programme. J. H. Fingleton asserts that our system should be scratched or amended, and with the march of events and the world as it is today, his views may find support.

When I began playing first-class cricket, some two hundred amateurs took part at one time or another during a season. Today, we find perhaps forty at the end of a season. Before the Universities come down and the Schools break up, we are lucky if twenty amateurs are seen in county matches.

The game is enriched by the amateur and I know this view is shared by many famous professionals. It is interesting to remember the number of Oxford and Cambridge cricketers who have played in Gentlemen v. Players and for England, both here and in our Dominions and Colonies, and the many England captains they have produced. Naturally, they did not learn all their cricket at the University, but they developed it there. Apart from the game itself, no man who plays in the Parks or at Fenner"s leaves those beautiful grounds without being the better for it, with the glamour, tradition and beauty which the two great Universities have to give. I recall a famous Yorkshireman saying to me not so many years ago in the pavilion in the Parks at Oxford: "What a wonderful place! I wish I could play most of my cricket here." Yes, the amateur brings much of value to the game, but we must not forget the professional. Few, if any, men owe more to the professional cricketer than I do. I have travelled with him the world over and played with and against him in this country. I have always found him loyal to a degree and a splendid, happy companion both on and off the field.

Selection of England teams is obviously of the highest importance. Before 1899 there were only three Test Matches--v. Australia at Lord"s, The Oval and Old Trafford. The teams were chosen by the authorities of M.C.C., Surrey and Lancashire. This system seems to have worked well, and so far as Lord"s was concerned Mr. Henry Perkins, Secretary of M.C.C., told me that "Gilbert"--he was one of the very few men who called W. G. Grace by his Christian name--"and I chose the teams and we did not lose any matches." In the main this is true, for we lost only one match, that of 1888, of the first six played at Lord"s.

However, during the winter of 1898, M.C.C., at the request of the counties, formed a Board of Control with a committee of three to select the England sides in England and this came into force in the following summer when Lord Hawke (Chairman), W. G. and H. W. Bainbridge, of Warwickshire, were appointed selectors, with the captain co-opted. This number remained in force until 1938 when a fourth selector, for no clear reason, was added, and this has been the constitution ever since. By this time, South Africa, West Indies, India and New Zealand had all been given what is called Test Match status, the number of Test Matches having first been increased from three to five in 1899, except in the case of India and New Zealand and now Pakistan.

The captain of the England team had a casting vote and this, I think, is a mistake. If this be conceded, why have a selection committee? It would be more logical to leave the selection to one man. This casting vote got us into trouble in England in 1935 (v. South Africa) and in Australia in 1936-37. Now the views of the captain must obviously be given the greatest weight and the closest consideration--he has to lead the side in the field--but why put him in the position of a virtual dictator? A committee which has worked together throughout the season, seen a lot of cricket, and thought about it in conjunction with the captain should be very close to each other and intime. They should never be forced into a position where an individual has the power to say: "I wish So-and-So to play" and cast aside the views of the other selectors.

The Australians have only three selectors and the probable captain is not co-opted. They select the team and give the names to the captain they have appointed. I do not think myself that this is a system which would appeal to us here in England, but what I do stress is that the captain should not be in a position to dictate. I hasten to add that I have not served on the Board of Control Test Selection Committee since 1938, and merely give my own experience gained as one of the Committee in 1905 and as Chairman of it in 1926, 1931, 1932, 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1938.

It may surprise many people to learn that what may be called the first international cricket match was played against America and Canada in 1859--two years before the beginning of the North and South war--when George Parr, The Lion of the North, a famous Nottinghamshire cricketer, captained the English side, and from that time until 1903 English tours abroad were organised and led by individuals: H. H. Stephenson in 1862 to Australia, and subsequently by George Parr again, W. G. Grace twice, James Lillywhite, Lord Harris, A. Shaw twice, Arthur Shrewsbury, Lord Darnley (then the Hon. Ivo Bligh), Lord Hawke (then the Hon. M. B. Hawke), A. E. Stoddart twice, and A. C. MacLaren.

In 1903, however, a departure was made from precedent and the M.C.C. undertook the management, financing and selection of teams abroad and have continued to do so ever since. By the way, in that year, when I went to Australia, there was not a single cricket correspondent from an English newspaper accompanying the team and this continued until, I think, 1932, when two or three made the voyage. Before 1932, descriptions of the matches were done by Reuters and Central News representatives in Australia, and very excellent and accurate were their criticisms.

In September last, thirty correspondents left England in the Orsova and on arrival in Australia were joined by representatives of the Australian Press. They form an army in themselves. Many of them are very good indeed and help us through the winters of our discontent, but others indulge over-much in personalities and are not always accurate. They tend to cheapen the game. A terrific amount of limelight beats on the cricketers of today and their private lives are invaded; this may, and in fact does, lead to irritations and misunderstandings. In the world as it is today, any individual who happens for the moment, however briefly, to be in the public eye, has about as much privacy as a goldfish. The newspapers and the B.B.C. wield great influence, and in all matters the greater the responsibility the greater the care.

Spectators of cricket today are many more than they were and the large increase began, so far as Test Matches are concerned at any rate, in 1896 when H. Trott"s fine Australian team were here. The reason was the tremendous interest created by A. E. Stoddart"s team in winning the rubber in Australia during the winter of 1894-95. Wisden tell us that the crowd at Lord"s was estimated at nearly 30,000... the field of play was seriously encroached upon and it is to be feared that a good many people saw very little of the cricket.

Lord Harris wrote in his most interesting book, A Few Short Runs, published in 1921: "An enormous crowd presented itself at the turnstiles and when the later arrivals of the afternoon did get on to the ground, they found every point of view already occupied. Consequently, spectators by degrees invaded the match ground, and eventually the ring encroached so much that cricket was almost a farce. It was a dreadful sight for those who love the strictness of first-class cricket as played at Lord"s; and the Committee felt that every effort must be made to prevent the repetition of a scene so deplorable."

When the Australians came again in 1899 the Mound Stand had been built on the side of the ivy-covered tennis court, with the clock in the middle, and since then a new grandstand, with Father Time crowning it, has arisen, the stands at the north-east corner have been improved and a bigger and better stand erected on the right of the Pavilion. But even with all these additions Lord"s can accommodate little over 32,000 spectators. It has this great advantage, however, in that it is probably the most comfortable ground in the world. It still cannot house all who would like to be there and the gates often have to be closed before a ball is bowled. Further accommodation must be provided, but the special glamour, charm and atmosphere of Lord"s with its long history and great traditions must be preserved. A recent visitor who had never before seen Lord"s remarked: "This place has something about it which no other cricket ground in the world can touch."

There have been many changes in the Laws of Cricket during the last sixty years. In 1889 the over was increased from four balls to five, and the bowler was allowed to change ends as often as he pleased without bowling two overs in succession in any innings. Further, for the first time a batting side was allowed to declare. Five years later the limit for a follow-on was increased from 80 to 120 runs in a three-day match; and in 1900 the enforcement became optional for the side in the lead--for a three-day match 150 runs, for a two-day match 100 runs, and for a one-day match 75 runs. The over was increased from five balls to six.

In 1902 the bowling crease was lengthened to 8 ft. 8 in.; at various stages the stumps have been heightened and widened and the bowler"s run-up to the wicket, together with 3 ft. 6 in., not more, in front of the popping-crease, covered. But perhaps the most important change of all has been in the L.B.W. Law which, after two years of experiment, came into force in 1937. It has been debated for many years and though some very able and knowledgeable cricketers do not favour the alteration, it seems to have been generally accepted and looks as if it has come to stay.

Recently there has been a move to cover the whole length of the pitch and, under pressure from the Australians, the M.C.C. agreed to accept this during the recent tour as an experiment. At the time of writing it is not known whether the experiment is likely to win favour, but many cricketers of experience and repute in both countries have expressed strong opposition to it. They argue that it would make cricket a mechanical and plumb-wicket game and create nothing but dullness and tedium.

Many indeed are the instances of tense and dramatic moments and hours produced by rain and sticky wickets; they live in the history of the game. No covering has yet been invented which prevents heavy rain seeping under the covers, so it might often happen that the bowlers would find themselves using a slippery ball on a perfect wicket. I wonder what they would say to that? And surely the real test of a batsman is his ability to make runs under difficult conditions. Moreover, variety is the very essence of cricket.

If we are not careful, we might eventually come to a type of indoor game with a glass roof over the whole of the ground. I fear that £ s. d. is at the bottom of these ideas, and when finance--too much of it--comes in at the door, the best interests of cricket may well fly out of the window. To my mind it is not cricket as it was intended to be played. Those who advocate covering the pitch in our Dominions and Colonies are, at the moment, averse to bringing it into force in England. How long could we tolerate a system which has a different law for Test Matches in different countries?

While on the Laws of Cricket, I must express my opposition to the eight-ball over in use in Australia and South Africa. I am sure that it sabotages a bowler"s best efforts and wastes a great deal of time. There is no doubt that fast bowlers, in particular, feel that six deliveries are enough for anyone and most of them in the eight-ball game bowl only six genuine fast ones and hold themselves in reserve with the other two. If bowlers have to conserve themselves in this way, the game must inevitably suffer. It may be argued that bowlers are expected to put everything they have into every delivery, but they are only human after all, and an eight-ball over under a sweltering sun is a stern trial for the strongest man. When it was first introduced one of the greatest fast bowlers said to me: "I don"t like it. I shall bowl six of them fast and the other two will be slow ones." I have long contended that the basic laws of cricket should be the same the world over and believe this matter should be examined thoroughly by the representatives of England, Australia, the Dominions and Colonies.

I believe that England is just entering an era of great fast bowlers. Back in the 60"s and 70"s, W. G. had killed the fast bowlers and there were few in the 80"s, but S. M. J. Woods emerged in the Cambridge XI in 1888 and there followed a succession of fast men right up to the First World War. Nearly every county was blessed with one--Surrey had both Richardson and Lockwood--and if you could not play fast bowling you had no claim to be a batsman. After a rather lean period there came a revival about the middle 20"s of this century with Larwood, Voce, Allen, Farnes, Howell, Clark, Read, Copson, Bowes and Nichols, if not really fast, very nearly so.

Today we have almost a plethora of them, all really fast. Finer bowling of this type I have rarely seen than that by Statham and Loader for the Players at Lord"s last summer. They were "quite fast," as W. G. would have put it, and they bowled with great vim, determination and accuracy. In fact we are equipped at the moment with a strong contingent of bowlers of various styles, the leg-break googly bowler excepted, and it seems as certain as anything can be in cricket that the England attack will severely test the best opposition for years to come.

We have, too, many superb fieldsmen, but I am not so sure that fielding has been kept sufficiently in mind. A year or two ago we had one of the finest fielding sides, but for various reasons which were perhaps inevitable this has been broken up. Happily Evans remains, as he has done for many years, a great wicket-keeper.

A type of bowling which has not been seen for many years is the lob. During part of my playing days there were two lob bowlers, D. L. A. Jephson and G. H. Simpson-Hayward. Before them in the 80"s was Humphreys, who met with considerable success, but Simpson-Hayward was generally considered the best. He had very powerful fingers and got most of his wickets with an off-break spinning off the pitch at a great pace, though he was far from reliant on one kind of ball. He bowled several different off-breaks, one turning a foot, another six inches, and a third an inch or two. Now and again there was a straight ball which dipped to the top of the stumps after soaring in the air. Many of the best batsmen were his victims. Jephson relied chiefly on the leg-break. In the Gentlemen v. Players match at Lord"s in 1899 he took six wickets for 21 runs against a powerful Players XI which included ten men who played for England and one, Albert Trott, for Australia.

The great left-handers of my early days, Peel and Briggs, were followed by Rhodes, who was very annoyed if he bowled a ball which could be hooked, Blythe and others.

Then, in 1902, Bosanquet arrived with his googlies, which the South Africans promptly copied. P. W. Sherwell"s XI of 1907 had no less than four--Vogler, Faulkner, White and Schwarz. The last-named was not a genuine googly bowler, for though he had a pronounced leg-break action he turned the ball only from the off. On the matting wickets then in South Africa they were effective, and here, in a summer of many sticky wickets, they met with tremendous success. The Australians also adopted this new style of bowling--Hordern, Mailey and others--but on their cast-iron wickets the googly has never been a really telling factor.

Probably the best googly bowler on English wickets was Freeman, of Kent, but he met with no success under Australian conditions; nor did J. W. Hearne. Wright, of Kent, however--even though his actual figures may not be impressive--was held in the highest regard as a potential match-winner, and at the age of forty stands out as the best of his type in England today. It always has to be remembered that such bowling requires adroit captaincy.

During my playing days the attack was largely concentrated on the off-side, but it is a mistake to imagine that it was entirely so. I have by me as I write a photograph of the placing of the field to Hirst"s bowling, fast left-arm with a pronounced swerve, in a Test Match in Australia as far back as 1903 showing six fieldsmen on the on-side, while right-hand medium-pace bowlers like J. T. Hearne, of Middlesex, and Haigh, of Yorkshire, on a sticky wicket, had the same number of on-side fieldsmen. In recent years there has been a marked development of these tactics. Right-handed bowlers on a hard, true wicket, swerving the ball into the batsmen, start the innings with a leg-side field set so close to the bat that their positions look extremely dangerous. Some people dislike these methods, but they have proved remarkably successful. After all, the object of a bowler, and his captain, is to make run-getting difficult, and I am one of many who think these tactics have added interest to the game. It may cramp stroke-play and upset people who want to see quick scoring, but every now and again there comes a really magnificent catch by one of these brave short-legs; and to me, at any rate, it gives a thrill.

Some counties--particularly Glamorgan, Surrey and Derby--have brought these tactics to perfection, as did the England XI of a year or two ago. Some people complain, or used to complain, that the batsman had it too much his own way; if they are logical, I do not see why they should object to a field-setting which worries the batsman and cramps his run-getting. I carry in my memory many quite amazing catches by these short-legs. I am opposed to using this type of bowling wide of the leg stump in order to ensure a drawn match, but as an attacking force aiming at compelling the batsman nearly always to play at the ball, it surely may be commended. I would suggest that the tactics of cricket, which obviously includes placing of the field, are more carefully studied today. This is clearly to the benefit of the game.

Fashions change and will, no doubt, continue to do so, and one of the most marked changes is in setting the field to slow and slow-medium left-handed bowlers. Rhodes, Blythe and others almost invariably had a long-off and a deep extra-cover. Today one sees bowlers of their type with no one in the deep field. It is a sight to astonish the older generation, who maintain that the vast majority of modern players do not use their feet and allow themselves to be pinned in their crease. And one often sees a sort of stab stroke to a good length ball on a true wicket. There is, of course, the forward stroke and the back stroke, and the half-cock stroke on a turning wicket--much favoured by W. G. and Sir Stanley Jackson--but today there is little attempt to force the good length ball through the covers on a true wicket. There are exceptions--Compton, May, Graveney, Cowdrey, Hutton, at his best--but it is not, I suggest, to be gainsaid that they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Perhaps safety first is the culminating idea, but, whatever the reason, one of the most beautiful strokes in the art of batting is neglected. Nor are the on-drive and the straight drive into the untenanted parts of the deep field exploited as they used to be, though there has been an increase in these lovely and profitable strokes during the last season or so. May and Cowdrey are superb drivers.

It will generally be agreed that our batting at the moment is not so strong as it was. It suffers from a lack of balance and there is a lack of solidity in the middle of the order. Compare an England XI of today with, for example, that which played against Australia at Lord"s in 1938--Hutton, Barnett, Edrich, Hammond, Paynter, Compton, Ames, Verity, Wellard, Wright and Farnes. And before that there was Chapman"s great M.C.C. side in Australia in 1928-29 and Jardine"s in 1932-33. A good start to an innings, of course, is half our battle and our batting has suffered through not being given those lucrative opening partnerships consistently provided by Hobbs and Rhodes, Hobbs and Sutcliffe, and more recently Hutton and Washbrook.

No recorded memories of mine would be complete without reference to the incomparable, the immaculate, the prolific John Berry Hobbs. No one could bat better, not even the mighty Bradman.

I am by no means a laudator temporis acti. On the contrary, I think the modern generation play just as well as their fathers and grandfathers, and in some respects better, though the batting of England teams since the 1939-45 war has not been up to standard; and it is a fact that it is the batting, not the bowling, which has caused our failures in recent Test Matches. Our batting in the last Oval Test against Pakistan was probably the worst ever seen in an international match, so far as England is concerned, at any rate. Three batsmen--May, Simpson, Compton--scored 188 runs between them; the others a mere 77!

Can anything be done to improve the general standard of modern-day batting? Established cricketers will, I suppose, pursue their own bent, but we can point the way to the youngsters coming on. In my schooldays we did not have the advantage of the modern boy who can attend the spring classes at Lord"s and other places, and in recent years there has been a great increase in the number of playing-fields all over the country.

The M.C.C. cricket scheme, of which H. S. Altham, the M.C.C. Treasurer, is the ruling spirit, is doing splendid work, for it not only coaches the boys but gives guidance to the coaches. Mr. Altham puts cricket within the reach of every boy between eleven and eighteen with all that cricket can mean in terms of health and comradeship, character and zest. It is in this field that we have the opportunity to ensure that our batting is fashioned in the right mould. But we must guard against our coaching becoming too regimented. Natural talent and ability must be allowed to develop without too much attention from the theorists. I believe that greatness can be diminished by too much theory.

I would warn, too, against the restless camps who never seem to be content unless they are advocating some change in this wonderful old game of ours. Now is the time to settle down to an era of sound, quiet government, counting our blessings and marshalling them and consolidating for the future. There will always be the clamour of the theorists and the revolutionaries and of the people whose parochialism engenders too much feeling, but I urge them to do nothing to imperil the distinctive character and charm of a game which has spread so much pleasure and understanding across the world.

So my final plea to player, spectator and administrator is: Keep Cricket a Game.

© John Wisden & Co