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Everyone will agree that the cricket season of 1920 was exceptionally brilliant and interesting. In a long experience I can recall nothing better than some of the afternoons at Lord's and the Oval, and county cricket has never finished up in such dramatic fashion as with the match between Middlesex and Surrey. That wonderful Tuesday was a day in a thousand. Perhaps the happiest feature of the season was the remarkable support given to the game by the public all over the country. Never has there been a more dismal failure than the crusade against cricket after the Armistice. The people who had clamoured for drastic alterations in the game and argued that cricket, as we had known it, would lack its old charm and attraction, found themselves utterly routed, and all through the season they preserved a discreet silence. It was just the same with regard to the ill-starred experiment of the two-day county matches in 1919. The return to the pre-war condition of things was equally welcome to players and spectators, and it certainly led to better cricket. Though things were in most respects so satisfactory, however, we must not delude ourselves with the idea that in the quality of all-round play we got back to the level of 1914. We had some glorious county matches, but the damage done by four blank seasons could not be so quickly repaired. While the last sheets of Wisden were passing through the press the news came that the M.C.C.'s team in Australia had been beaten for the third time in the Test Matches, and had thus lost the rubber. This, to say the least, was calculated to damp the pleasure we all felt over our cricket in August. I have no wish to make excuses for the defeat, but I think I am right in saying that if left to themselves the M.C.C. would have preferred waiting another year before sending a team to Australia. They felt that there had not been time to find young players good enough for Test Matches. Still, they acted in the best interests of the game, the Australians being so desirous of renewing the old rivalry at the earliest possible moment. That the Australian authorities knew exactly the feeling of their public was proved by the tremendous crowds that saw the Englishmen beaten at Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. In the circumstances it would be very unsportsmanlike to complain. We must put up with our defeats and make the best of them. Personally I think that in one or two instances the team might have been improved, but the difference in all-round strength could not have amounted to much.
The strength of our cricket last season certainly lay in the wealth of professional batting. In their matches with the Gentlemen at the Oval, Lord's and Scarborough the Players could have put into the field--without any leading batsmen playing more than once--three sides rich in run-getters. As proof of this one has only to remember that while we sent Hobbs, Hendren, Hearne, Woolley, Makepeace, and Russell to Australia, we had at home George Gunn, Holmes, Mead, Brown, Sutcliffe, Sandham, Lee of Middlesex, and Ernest Tyldesley, to say nothing of Seymour, Hardinge, Ducat, Roy Kilner, John Gunn, Hardstaff, and Hallows. In a collective sense professional batting can seldom have been so formidable. Roughly speaking, the best went to Australia, but I could not understand why the M.C.C. gave the preference to Makepeace over Holmes.
In contrast to all this run-getting power the Gentlemen last summer were weaker in batting than at any time for nearly sixty years. At Lord's Donald Knight alone represented the best-class batting of pre-war days, and though he played well in his first innings he failed to approach his success of 1919. I believe he went up to Sheffield to play for Surrey against Yorkshire without having had much practice, and he was only beginning to find his form when he received such a terrible blow on the head at Hastings in August, that he had to stand out of Surrey's remaining matches. This question of amateur batting is for the moment our greatest difficulty. The Oxford and Cambridge elevens were full of talent, but A. P. F. Chapman alone suggested the likelihood of developing into an England batsman. I hope and believe that G. T. S. Stevens will--before very long, possibly this year--play for England, but he is essentially an all-round man. It would be a great misfortune if the fascination of batting led him to neglect his bowling. As he proved over and over again in the Middlesex matches he is one of the best change bowlers we have, capable of sending down an undeniable ball on even the most perfect wicket.
Amateur bowling last summer was, I think, distinctly higher in class than the batting, J. C. White, C. S. Marriott, Stevens, Douglas, Falcon, Fender, E. R. Wilson (in August), and the Australian R. H. Bettington, making up quite a strong group. Louden, of Essex, was disappointing, but in some of the Surrey matches first-rate work was done by G. M. Reay. Gibson, who had earned such a tremendous reputation at Eton, did well in two or three of the Cambridge matches, but on the whole he fell far short of his reputation. I only saw him bowl at Lord's and it struck me that he was much slower than in his school-days. The Public Schools were admittedly weaker in individual talent than in 1919, but in this there was no cause for surprise, so many of the best players of that year having gone up to the Universities. There was, however, one exceptional batsman in G. L. Bryan, the Wellington left-hander. I did not have the good fortune to see him play, but his performances speak for themselves. He did wonders in school matches, and when tried for Kent at the end of the season he made a hundred against Notts. When school batsmen do that sort of thing there can be no doubt as to their class. It is rather curious that Chapman, the best University bat of the year, and Bryan, the best schoolboy, should both be left-handed.
A disappointing feature of our otherwise brilliant season was the extreme disparity between the strongest and the weakest counties. Out of twenty matches Northamptonshire won only three, Worcestershire out of eighteen won one, and Derbyshire, also with eighteen fixtures--one of them abandoned through rain without a ball being bowled--met with no success at all. Even Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, though they won a fair number of matches, could do nothing when opposed to really powerful sides. I should be the last to throw cold water on county cricket, but there is no getting away from the fact that since the scope of the Championship was so widely extended a lot of our so-called first-class cricket has been quite second-rate. As M. A. Noble--a very keen judge--pointed out when he was last in England, the effect is bad, the leading teams being so often engaged in soft matches which under equal conditions of weather they can scarcely help winning. Things will be worse than ever in the coming season, Glamorgan having secured sufficient fixtures to rank as first-class. I confess I have no remedy to suggest, as it is quite clear that the Championship must be kept open to new aspirants. Still, I think we are more and more in our cricket sacrificing quality to quantity. I had hoped that with the Australians here we should have had a little less county cricket this summer, but the fixture list is more overcrowded than ever. More than that, there are two or three deplorable clashings. The most glaring example is that the fourth of the five Test Matches is to be played on the same days as Surrey v. Kent at Blackheath. Even at the eleventh hour something might surely be done to remedy this blunder. The Surrey and Kent match at Blackheath is always one of the county fixtures most eagerly looked forward to, and it is pitiful to think of Surrey going into the field without Hobbs and Kent without Woolley. On the same day as the Kent and Surrey match Notts meet Yorkshire, so it is quite possible that in fixtures of the utmost importance all four counties may be at less than their full strength.
As regards the Test Matches themselves, we are, as usual, leaving everything to chance. I am no believer in trial matches of a formal kind, as we always know the players who are good enough to be picked, but I do think a preliminary match for the England eleven--preferably at Lord's--would be of great value. As it is, we may very likely, at Nottingham in May, see our wicket-keeper taking one or two bowlers with whom he has never before played on the same side, and men fielding in positions to which they are not accustomed.
I do not wish to make excuses in advance, but I have a strong feeling that in regard to Test matches in these days the excess of county cricket places us at a serious disadvantage. In the coming seasons the Australians will concentrate on the five big matches and make everything else in their tour subservient to them. Caring comparatively little for their ordinary fixtures they will see to it that Gregory, or any other indispensable bowler, is kept fresh for the all-important games. Our best bowlers, on the other hand, will as likely as not step into the Test match team immediately on the top of a hard day's work for their counties.
It may seem a quaint thing to say, but it is none the less true, that the task of putting the best England side into the field for a special match would have been a far easier matter in the early '60's than it is to-day. In the All-England and United All England elevens we had two highly-organised teams, and either of them, strengthened by a couple of the best amateur batsmen, would have been equal to all emergencies. Looking up the scores of the matches at Lord's between the two elevens from 1857 to 1866 I have been struck by the complete equipment of the sides at every point. Each had at least five regular bowlers--nearly every one of them first-rate according to the standard of those days. How those bowlers would have fared on modern wickets is nothing to the point. I am not pretending to make any comparison between the players of the past and those of our own time. All I suggest is that present-day cricket suffers from the fact that our best men--"the pick of the county elevens"--do not play together sufficiently often.
One small point occurs to me. There is a prejudice nowadays with regard to matches against odds but it can be carried too far. The Australian programme this year includes matches with Northamptonshire, Durham, Scotland and South Wales. Now these fixtures, arranged on level terms, are almost farcical. On the handicap terms of eleven men against fourteen they might produce some keen fights. The whole cricket world would roar with laughter at the idea of a match between Northamptonshire and England, but where the Australians are concerned we take quite seriously fixtures just as absurd.