By an odd chance, at the time the special Commission appointed by M.C.C. were investigating the problems confronting the first-class counties, cricket in England proved keener and more interesting than for several years. It must be accepted as a healthy sign that while experts were engaged in research to get to the root of the financial and other difficulties of the county clubs, the cricketers themselves did much towards increasing public interest in the game by introducing more spirit and adventure into their play. It was particularly gratifying to see County Committees insisting upon attacking batting and upon more regard by the players to their implied obligations to those who pay to watch them. There was also an all-round effort to cut out unnecessary intervals and delays, and we were favoured with many tense struggles and fine personal feats in the County Championship with a wonderful fight for supremacy between North and South as represented by Yorkshire and Middlesex.
Complete financial figures of the counties are not available as I write, but there was a definite rise in attendances at cricket. That came naturally, for the weather was comparatively fine. Often, a decline in cricket crowds has been attributed to atrocious weather, and if in 1937 a number of the counties failed to pay their way, the trouble cannot with fairness be ascribed to any marked falling-off in the attraction of the game as a whole.
Treasurers naturally hoped to put a better face upon their financial statements with the aid of the grant expected to be forthcoming from the record profit on the M.C.C. tour in Australia last winter, and they must have been flabbergasted when in December the Cricket Commission recommended that these assets should be diverted to form a County Cricket Fund and that another source of revenue--the profits from Test Matches in England--should be raided of 10 per cent to provide further capital for this proposed fund.
It is possible that before Wisden reaches the public this specific recommendation may have been turned down, either entirely or in part, but it is of sufficient importance to warrant comment here. M.C.C., of course, have full control of the profits from a tour which they finance and, although counties themselves have power to throw out the proposal for altering the present arrangement of dividing profits from Test Matches at home, this part of the scheme is relatively unimportant. The difference suggested in the basis of distribution will mean only a few pounds less to the Clubs.
Personally, I am very doubtful whether this financial plan as a whole is a wise one. The Commission thoroughly examined the figures provided by the counties. They also ascertained that certain counties were not in a position to stand the financial strain, but how many clubs are unable to make the game self-supporting is left unrevealed. Examine the scheme as one may, it does not appear to offer relief to counties in urgent financial need. The idea is that a regular source of revenue be withheld temporarily and that for the next four years at least the clubs must keep going on the receipts from their county games, members' subscriptions and from a reduced share of the proceeds of home Test Matches. If, as the report states, some of the counties are unable to bear their financial obligations, having proper regard to the heavy cost entailed by participation in the County Championship, the adoption of this particular recommendation might very easily force the extinction of a club or compel counties to amalgamate. The Commission declared they found no sign of extravagance in any direction as a result of examining the balance-sheets of the clubs, and so it may be taken for granted there can be no further economies.
I note, however, an important suggestion by the Commissioners in connection with the qualification rules, aimed at reducing the high cost and delay in qualifying players with neither birth nor residential qualification--a contributory cause of the lack of support to cricket in certain counties. Any move directed at lessening the disparity in strength of some of the elevens taking part in the Championship will be welcome. The best sides often have very easy tasks and batsmen and bowlers get false reputations. As I have written in a previous edition of the Almanack, the real reason for poor gates is often overlooked. In few counties is there a commanding personality about whom everyone talks and wants to see. A fresh registration scheme ought to be framed so that counties at present unable to enjoy the assistance of talented players may obtain, quickly, the services of good cricketers who do not possess a birth qualification.
The counties, through the Advisory Committee, will decide their own future, but I fear the burden will eventually prove too heavy for more than one of their number. Because of that, the idea of amalgamations ought to be considered seriously. In both Rugby and Association football, combined county teams have been competing for years. Fusion with a Minor County would not, in my view, effect the results desired.
A new scheme for the scoring of points in the County Championship was included among the recommendations of the Commission, who rightly claim that it should produce more finished matches. Thirteen different methods of reckoning have already been tried out, from the simple rule operating up to 1887, whereby the smallest number of lost matches decided the order of merit, to the more complicated systems which have governed the competition in post-War seasons. The arrangement put forward is just as elaborate as that in force in recent years, but there are undoubtedly important advantages in it. One is the abolition of points for a loss on the first innings; another is the award of points to a side which leads on the first innings but in the end suffers defeat. If these two rules become operative, there will undoubtedly be a real inducement for both elevens to strain every nerve for victory. It is too much to hope that, in connection with a game which is at the mercy of the weather, a fool-proof scheme will be found, but only in one respect does the proposed system appear to me to possess a weak point. That is in regard to the clause that, should there be no result on the first innings, the match shall not be included in the table of results. A similar rule has governed Minor Counties' matches for several years and may be said to have been well tested. Nevertheless, I fear that--especially in a rain-spoiled game--it leaves the way open for one side or the other to adopt negative tactics with the idea of avoiding a first innings decision and so preventing reduction of average. In all other respects, the scheme is calculated to strengthen the competitive spirit.
At the time the report was published, hardly any attention was directed to the suggestion that 10 per cent of the nett gate receipts from county matches starting on Saturdays against teams from overseas should be paid into a pool with the proceeds of fixtures against overseas teams arranged to commence on Wednesdays, and that the total sum should be divided equally among all those competing in the Championship. Here, the Commissioners revealed a laudable desire to assist the poorer sides who are usually allotted a Wednesday start in fixtures with teams from abroad.
The Commission deserve hearty congratulations on the exhaustive nature of their report. Many, if not the majority of their recommendations are well worth a trial, and will, I hope, be put into action. Particular stress was laid upon the large number of unfinished matches as one of the causes of county cricket losing support from the public. As the Commission based their findings upon results up to the end of the 1936 season, it is important to point out that whereas, in 1936, 118 matches were brought to a definite decision, last season 159 Championship contests were finished, 47 of them in two days' play.
A warning note is also sounded concerning the effect on the counties generally of any serious decline in the popularity of Test Match cricket. Consequently the news that, for the Test matches of 1938 with Australia, agreement has been reached again to restrict the games to four days apiece and to reduce the hours of play by one and a half hours in each match, came as a surprise. A reason advanced for the change is that neither Australian nor English cricketers relish a period of two and a half hours play before lunch-time after the first day. To my mind, it is a retrograde step. There is no gainsaying the assertion that the long pre-lunch spell imposes a severe test upon bowlers, but the policy is directly opposed to the movement in England to revive the interest of the public in the game of cricket. Are we to have another run of purposeless drawn games with the possibility of one play-to-a-finish Test deciding the rubber? Not since 1905 has an England- Australia match at Old Trafford produced a definite result and the last three encounters at Leeds were drawn. Who can argue with conviction that a reduction of the time in which a Test Match has to be decided is on all fours with the urgent need to enlist more support for the game generally by getting more definite results? It has been encouraging to note the growth of favourable opinion, both in England and in the Commonwealth, upon the idea of allocating more than four days to all Test Matches between England and Australia in this country, and events during the series of 1938 may bring further support for the suggestion.
If, as yet, we cannot have uniformity as regards the duration of Test Matches, hours of play, etc., something might be done to check the increasing use of special laws for cricket in relation to the number of balls to an over. Special dispensation was given for an eight-ball over in all matches played by the M.C.C. team in Australia last winter; South Africa, after a season's trial, have, with official sanction, adopted the extended over for Currie Cup games, and the M.C.C. team which visits the Cape next winter will play in accordance with this decision. More recently, the New Zealand Cricket Council approved the use of the eight-ball over for first-class cricket in the Dominion after once having changed their minds on this matter by reverting to six balls.
It was rather surprising to read that the Commissioners had not found any demand in this country for an increase in the number of balls bowled in the over. Since the issue of their report, Lancashire and Derbyshire, I note, have expressed themselves in favour of the alteration and Sir Pelham Warner commands a deal of other backing in his appeal for the change to be tried as an experiment. That time is saved with an eight-ball over in operation has been proved, but I gather that opposition is inspired by the belief that, to fast bowlers in this country, playing six days a week for four months with hardly any respite, an eight-ball over might possibly bring about diminution in effectiveness. Not having seen the longer over bowled in a match, I have an open mind on the question, but laws are amended for present requirements, and there is no strong reason why this experiment should not be tried. There were plenty of objectors when the trial of the revised l. b. w. rule was made, and yet the law ultimately underwent change by unanimous vote.
The fact remains that three of the Empire countries with whom Test tours are exchanged with England teams are in future to play their cricket with a special Law 13 in force--a powerful argument for advocates of the alteration being extended to our county fixtures tentatively. The meeting of the Imperial Cricket Conference next summer might well form a suitable occasion for an exchange of views on the subject between representatives of the countries; and while appealing for an effort to ensure that cricket, so far as possible, is the same game the world over, I am firm on the point that no change should be carried into effect without thorough and exhaustive trial. Nor must we treat the game exclusively from the point of view of the first-class players.
Each year brings with it the disappearance of familiar figures from the cricket field and the loss to the game in this way since the close of the 1937 season has been unusually severe. Remarkable farewell tributes were paid to Hendren, of Middlesex, by cricket crowds in London, but most unfortunately no hint of the retirement of Sandham, of Surrey, was given until the county programmes had been completed. J. C. White, Somerset, Tate, of Sussex, bowlers of totally different type, and George Duckworth of Lancashire, all players who have done splendid deeds in Test and county cricket, are others whose careers in the game seem to have closed. Several others of less fame have left county cricket. All these talented and deservedly popular players will carry with them in their retirement the good wishes of those who have enjoyed their prowess on the field.
Looking to the future, I find cause for optimism because our biggest problem for several years--that of opening batsmen--appears to have been satisfactorily solved. Hutton, of Yorkshire, has made such great strides that, given continued good health, he should be an automatic choice for England teams, with the responsibility of opening the innings with Barnett, or possibly R. E. S. Wyatt. A player who, from what I have seen of him, may rise to a high place in cricket is N. W. D. Yardley, the new Cambridge captain. The distinction of being selected for a Test eleven while still in residence at the University is uncommon, but Yardley's form for Yorkshire and Cambridge has been so good that if it is maintained I should not be at all surprised to see him playing against Australia. Gimblett, of Somerset, and Compton and Edrich, of Middlesex, must also be regarded as in the offing of selection, and should Ames, for any reason, be unable to play, there is C. R. Maxwell, who already in representative matches has shown all the necessary attributes for the position of wicket-keeper.
It would be idle to pretend that England can command such a wealth of spin-bowling as is possessed at the present time by Australia in O'Reilly, Fleetwood-Smith, Grimmett, Ward and Chipperfield. On the other hand, apart from McCormick, the Australians appear to have no fast bowler of real class. Of the 84 England wickets that fell in the most recent Test series in Australia, 55 were taken by slow spin-bowlers; of the 83 Australian wickets that fell, England slow bowlers accounted for no more than 17. Admittedly, the weather and pitches influenced these statistics to some extent, but the facts are certainly illuminating. Most people will probably agree that our bowling in Australia last winter was definitely better than anticipated. One could wish for another Richardson, or Lohmann, a Peel or a Rhodes and, in the coming series of representative games with the old foe, the hour may yet produce the man. An intriguing and vital question at the time of writing is that of the captaincy. On this point, much has been said and written regarding W. R. Hammond, who in future will play as an amateur. As everyone realises, the post is no sinecure, inasmuch as it involves heavy responsibilities and many cares. Without going into the question as to whether Hammond possesses the essential qualities for leadership, I am strongly against him being saddled with the task of leading England. Hammond once more should be free to concentrate upon batting and be spared anything prejudicial to his individual prowess. It is true that the batting abilities of Bradman did not decline after he assumed the captaincy of Australia. But Bradman had for some time led the South Australian team and he undertook his more responsible post after a good deal of experience in leading an eleven.