The long nightmare of the War has come to an end, and in the coming summer first-class cricket will again be in full swing. I have a very strong opinion that a grave mistake has been made in not letting the game alone. The restriction of all county matches to two days strikes me as being a sad blunder. I can see most weighty objections to the scheme, little or nothing in its favour. Let no one in future repeat the stale old fable that the County Championship was only kept in existence for the benefit of the newspapers. By their recent action the Advisory Committee have made an absolute fetish of the Championship, risking on its behalf famous county matches that can boast a tradition of over fifty years. There was the less reason to take such a drastic step as county cricket in 1919, after a blank of four seasons, was bound to be a very speculative and experimental business. To my thinking it would have been far better to drop the Championship entirely for one year, allowing all the counties to make such arrangements as seemed best fitted to their own needs, while the game was being gradually brought back to its old footing. Most of the counties, however, were bent on having a systematic competition, no matter how imperfect it might be, and the final effort to save the three-day county match proved a dismal failure, the majority that on the 5th of February confirmed the original resolution of the Advisory Committee being, I believe, eleven to five.
As things turned out it was very unfortunate that Middlesex accepted the two-day plan without realising all that it involved. Their change of view was quite understandable, but they could not carry many counties with them. My own impression is that the strength of the feeling behind the two-day scheme was much under-rated. If from the first, Surrey, Yorkshire, Kent, and Middlesex had stood firmly together, and put a counter motion on the agenda paper at the first meeting of the Advisory Committee in December, something effective might have been done, as the united opinion of four such clubs could not have been lightly disregarded. No concerted action was taken in advance of the meeting, however, and the majority had their way. Kent were very half-hearted in the matter, Lord Harris's view being that as one season's experience would show the folly of the plan, the counties that were so determined on two-day matches should be allowed to go their own road. I quite agree in thinking that the two-day scheme will be a failure, but the great danger is that in the event of any heavy financial loss being sustained the counties twelve months hence will be far worse off than they are to-day. The Surrey Committee were, with good reason, strongly opposed to the sweeping change. They pointed out that the loss of the third day would in 1914 have cost them a thousand pounds.
Apart from the inordinately long hours of play that, subject to modification, have been resolved on, the objections to the two-day county match are quite obvious. First, and in a monetary sense most important, is the question of the weather. In the event of a match being seriously interfered with by rain on the first day a financial disaster will be almost inevitable. In such cases the attendances on the second day, unless I am altogether mistaken, will be very meagre indeed. If on the other hand we have a real summer, like that for example, of 1899, the position will also be full of difficulties. The counties have agreed to decide the Championship by wins only, such wins to be counted on the percentage of matches played, nothing being allowed for a lead on the first innings. Given any long spell of fine weather I shall expect a large proportion of drawn games. Much of the play on the second day, when a decision is seen to be out of the question, will be utterly futile--a weariness of the flesh alike to players and spectators. It is significant that, apart from school matches, the M.C.C. are giving no countenance to the new scheme. All their own first-class fixtures at Lord's have been arranged for three days. One result of this divergence of view will be rather comical; the Yorkshire eleven will have a three-day match with the M.C.C., but their more interesting match with Middlesex at Lord's will, of course, be limited to two days. The provisional matches arranged for the Australian Service Team in the tour that has now been given up were fixed for three days each, so that we had the glaring anomaly of big county matches that have delighted the public for generations being placed in a position of inferiority.
On two points the Advisory Committee at their second meeting departed from the rules they had previously laid down, allowing Saturday starts, which they had abolished, to be made optional and consenting to the retention of the tea interval. On the question of the tea interval I can never manage to get up any strong feeling one way or another. Far too much fuss has been made about a very ordinary matter. If play is to go on until half-past seven it is surely not unreasonable, when there is no prospect of an innings ending, for the fielding side to ask for a little break in a very long afternoon.
Personally I always preferred, for the reason that it avoided having the ground cleared, the plan followed at the Oval, when I was a boy, of sending refreshments out to the players on the field, but in those far-off days the habit of taking tea at cricket matches was almost unknown. As I understand the arrangement, the tea interval this year will, as before, be dispensed with when, after four o'clock, the end of an innings seems to be in sight.
The Championship scheme as arranged for this season is full of pitfalls. Some of the counties have secured little more than a qualifying programme--the minimum being six out and home matches--and it is quite possible that some modest side, going through the summer unbeaten against weak opponents, may come out with the best percentage of wins in matches played, and so stand at the top of the list. I repeat that it would have been far better to put a formal competition aside for one year, allowing two or three-day matches according to the wishes of individual clubs. Many of the counties are quite in the dark as to what their strength will be. New teams will have to be built up and trials given to many inexperienced players. In this connection Gloucestershire seem likely to have the most arduous task of all. Deprived, by illness, of Jessop, so long their sheet anchor, and also it is to be feared of C. O. H. Sewell, they will, indeed, have to search far and wide for new talent. In some other cases--Notts for one, I am told--the difficulties arising out of demobilisation may affect the return of old players. Turning from purely County Cricket it is a hopeful sign that in all directions there is a keen determination to carry on the game as if it had never been disturbed by the War. All through last summer the Public Schools, though weakened by the loss of many boys who would in ordinary circumstances have been the mainstays of the elevens, set a splendid example.
By some evil chance, cricket, alone among our games and pastimes, has since the signing of the Armistice been signalled out for adverse criticism. Racing men, rowing men, golfers, and lawn tennis players were eager to get back as soon as possible to things as they were before the War, but it occurred to some peculiar people that cricket stood in need of drastic alterations. Personally I could not find any sound basis for their arguments. So far as I know the game was flourishing, when in August 1914 the world was suddenly turned upside down. Be this as it may, the resumption of first-class matches was no sooner announced than all the faddists in Great Britain began to fill the newspapers with their ideas of what they were pleased to call reform or reconstruction. Some of the suggestions, such as the penalising of the batting side for every maiden over played, were too preposterous to be worth a moment's consideration. Still, even the most fatuous proposals found supporters. We were advised to play by the clock and, regardless of weather and wicket, to rule a batsman out unless runs came at a certain fixed rate per hour. Then followed a determined agitation to get the boundaries shortened. I confess I was astonished to find among the advocates of this most mischievous proposition the name of F. S. Jackson. Short boundaries are open to three fatal objections. They would inevitably lead to higher scoring, the batsman's task being rendered still easier than it is to-day; they would kill slow bowling, and they would practically destroy fine out-fielding, the ball getting to the ring too quickly for mortal man to cross it. As a rule the best cricket I ever see is at the Oval, the reason being that the boundaries are deep enough to make the hits worth the value placed on them. Many people seem to regard cricket purely as a spectacle, never giving a thought to the game itself. They need to be reminded that boundaries are quite outside cricket, being only rendered necessary by the presence of the crowd of spectators. When as a small boy I first went to the Oval, and for years afterwards, the only boundaries were the Pavilion and the refreshment tent. Fieldsmen used to jump over the single row of seats and return the ball from beyond the ring. Batsmen could get five, six, or in rare cases, seven runs for a big drive, but they paid the price in hard running between the wickets. With ten thousand or more people on the ground a return to the old system is impossible, but that is no reason why batsmen should be given increased facilities for getting four runs without moving a yard from the crease. Among all the famous cricketers with whom I have talked about various points of the game, no one was so insistent on the importance of making batsmen work for their runs as V. E. Walker. Everyone agrees that in modern cricket--given dry weather--the bat has an undue advantage over the ball. Shortened boundaries would increase that advantage to an intolerable extent.
A proposition came before the Advisory Committee as their first meeting in December suggesting that in county teams the professionals should be limited to three or some such arbitrary number. It was promptly ruled out as it well deserved to be. I wonder if those who favoured such a crippling measure realised that English cricket of the highest class was never so dependent on the leading professionals as at the present time. If we wanted to put a representative England eleven into the field during the coming season I doubt whether, strictly on their merits, three amateurs could be given places. After a blank of four years we find ourselves, as regards amateur talent, very weak indeed. Time does not stand still, even for the most gifted cricketers, and in Test Matches we do not want men of over forty. Our pressing task is to find worthy successors to the old heroes, and it may prove a long business. I hope that in choosing the Gentlemen's teams against the Players at Lord's and the Oval, every possible encouragement will be given to the young men, even to some who are only just leaving school. Recognition of this kind is a great spur to ambition. During the War many of our school players did brilliant things in their own class of cricket, but they were not put to any searching trial. Outside school matches they played for the most part against teams composed entirely of aged warriors--enthusiastic to a degree, but not exactly smart in the field. Of one thing we may be certain; school batsmen and bowlers who are qualified for first-class counties will have a better chance of distinction than ever before. The demand for fresh talent is almost bound to exceed the supply.
Of all the things said about cricket within the last few months, by far the most significant, to my mind, was Tom Hayward's admission, in an interview, that during his career his legs had saved his wicket hundreds of times. Such a confession on the part of one of the greatest of batsmen is enough to prove that the existing law as to leg before wicket is not fair to the bowler, and that those who plead for change have a good case. In the earliest published Laws of Cricket the batsman was out, who with design stopped the ball with his legs and prevented it hitting the wicket. The umpires in those primitive days, when of course only under-hand bowling was known, had to decide the question of the batsman's intention. Could modern umpires be safely entrusted with the same power?
In a delightful article in Punch--it appeared on the 4th of December--Mr. E. V. Lucas, after pouring scorn on the iniquitous proposal to banish the left-handed batsman, put the case for cricket in words that I cannot resist the temptation to quote. They should be treasured by every newspaper editor who is pestered with foolish letters decrying out National game.
"Cricket is an intricate, vigilant and leisurely warfare, and the fact that every moment of it is equally fraught with possibilities and openings for glorious uncertainty makes it peculiarly the delight of intelligent observers, none of whom finds dullness in the spectacle of a batsman, no matter how stubborn, defending his wicket successfully against eleven opponents. Nor does it occur to them to ask him for gallery effects. First-class cricket calls for such very special gifts of temperament and skill that only the fittest survive; and all their actions are worth study."