It is one of life's little ironies that if you would write about the summer game for Wisden you must do it in the depth of winter. Your words will not be read until the winter is past and the rain is over and gone and the time of the singing of birds is come; but you write them when the winds blow and the rains fall and the clouds lie very near to the earth. It is perhaps just as well that this is so, for in winter the love of cricket can be a rampart to the mind. Memory can bring back the sunlit fields, and Imagination can conjure up in anticipation the joys that belong to the English spring, and cricket played between the showers.
At any rate it is so with me, and though the love of cricket has been sung ever since James Love set down his opening line more than two hundred years ago--
Hail, Cricket! glorious, manly British game!--
and though the songs and the writings are in four thousand volumes in the British Museum, the theme never grows old, and will no doubt continue to be sung long after we are all gathered to the pavilion of a better world and gaze out on Elysian swards.
I have assumed, of course, that all who read these words are genuine lovers of cricket, for otherwise all that I have written is vanity and vexation of spirit; my words are intended for those who are of the household of faith, and even in that house there are many mansions. The great John Selden who came from the Inner Temple, I am glad to think, and gave us the famous Table Talk, reminded us some centuries ago that whilst all men are equally given to their pleasures, one man's pleasure lies one way and another's another. What makes one man a lover of cricket with a passionate intensity, and at the same time makes another equally good man quite indifferent to it, is past all finding out. One man's meat is another man's poison has been true in all ages and is now proverbial. It applies to the major as well as to the minor pleasures of life, and only one thing is certain and that is--
Never lad that trod on leather
Lived to feast his heart with all.
But the lovers of cricket make up a very great company, and a delightfully mixed one. Over the past two hundred years the poets and the prose writers have been chanting the love of cricket until there is no human experience, grave or slight, that has gone unrecorded. Think of the ecstasy with which Norman Gale celebrated the feat of bowling three curates with three consecutive balls--
I bowled three sanctified souls
With three consecutive balls!
What do I care if Blondin trod
Over Niagara falls?
And think of the grave John Nyren compiling the only true cricket classic we possess, and creating one of the immortal books of the world because of the unquenchable love of cricket it breathes in every word and line.
John Nyren with the help of Cowden Clarke, or Cowden Clarke with the help of John Nyren (the mystery will never be solved), produced The Cricketers of my Time but the genius of the book extends far beyond the playing of the game, and makes immortal the men of Hambledon who played at Broadhalfpenny Down and Windmill Down in the remote Hampshire countryside. Because of Nyren, Harris and Beldham are as real as Grace, and with the cheering hosts who watched them play, crying Tich and Turn, as Silver Billy ran, they still stir the imagination with delight.
Today most people love the game of cricket because they play it. Happy indeed are they. They fill the schools, and the Universities, and the Clubs, and the Village sides, and even the streets where the three chalk marks on the wall serve as wickets. For the most part they are young men and women rejoicing in their youth; but there are some who no longer can be counted young, who find their names getting nearer and nearer to the Byes in the batting order as the years pass. Saturday afternoon for such as these is still the great day of the week, and the cricket pitch what the Bat and the Ball Inn was to Nyren, a little Heaven below.
After all, the great W. G. made 69 runs in the last match he ever played, and was then not out; and he was 66 years of age. At the age of 48, when playing against Somerset, he was c Palairet b. Woods for 186, having batted for four hours fifty minutes, and went on to take six Somerset wickets for 64 runs in 48 overs.
No doubt those who love cricket because they play it love also the setting of the game, and find this particular love to grow and develop with the years. They love their own ground set in our incomparable English countryside; they love the companionship of their fellow players, this, too, growing stronger as time passes, and memories accumulate of fine and gallant stands in critical moments, and of wonderful loyalties displayed; they love the long days in the sun, and the curious charm that belongs to a May day of showers; they love the moments, fielding at the boundary's edge, when they have time to see the great white clouds overhead as miracles of beauty; and they savour with keen pleasure all the joys that belong to the best months of the year, and which the summer brings to the true cricketer. Cricket has imperishable memories and indestructible traditions, and the lover of cricket enters into them and makes them his own.
The window of the room where I write these words commands a distant view of the Chiltern Hills and the long sweep of the Misbourne valley. Today, as I write, the familiar scene is almost blotted out with dark low-lying ominous clouds, and the rain beats on my roof with a fierce insistence. Yet down there in the valley, lying close to a beautiful old town, is a cricket field of a singular beauty that I know well. It was once part of a vast park and is set amidst noble trees with the Mansion on the hill-top still to be seen. There is a small pavilion with a little white verandah, and a flag pole where the club colours fly when a match is being played, and attractive wooden benches are set at intervals round the lovely turf.
It will be a desolate scene this morning, I know, although I cannot see it, yet here in this book-lined room I can recall this ground, sunlit and radiant, as I have so often seen it, and as it will soon be again. But if you would know how deep and universal is the love of cricket you must know that one of the great highways to the north passes the very edge of the ground. From April to October, when matches are being played, and the white figures of the players can be seen through the trees, then the cars come to a stop at the side of the road, and the occupants watch, if only for a few overs, and enjoy a few moments in this essentially English scene.
Farther up the valley is another lovely ground which adjoins the railway. And there, whenever a match is being played, and a train passes, the passengers crowd to the windows in the hope (usually vain!) of seeing at least one ball bowled, or one run made, or a catch taken. (Curious how often when a train passes it is the end of an over or a wicket has fallen a few moments before!)
It was a sure instinct which made J. M. Barrie picture the dead returning to old and familiar scenes, and the Englishmen dropping out on the endless march to lean over the gate to watch the cricket on a village ground. It was the same instinct that led T. C. P. Wilson to write his lovely but little-known verse of the war heroes who were making the same endless and eternal march, who suddenly exclaimed in recognition--
God! but it's England,then they said,
And there's a cricket field.
But many lovers of cricket turn to the great contests staged at Lord's and The Oval and the great grounds whose names have power to evoke the most fragrant memories. It has long been remarked how certain words can stir the emotions in the most remarkable way. To the cricket lover Lord's is such a word. Lord's belongs to the whole cricketing world as does no other place. It is not only filled with memories of Grace and Hobbs and a thousand more, but it belongs to Bradman and Victor Trumper and Learie Constantine and George Headley and Nourse, too, and that great company of men from almost every nation under heaven, where English is spoken.
Lord's holds very special memories for all those who were ever there and in whatever capacity. For myself, I think of Bradman coming out of the shade of the pavilion on a June Saturday night more than twenty years ago, before the applauding thousands, and driving Verity for three successive fours off the first three balls he received. It was thrilling beyond all telling. I have seen Bradman make his double centuries, but that moment of mastery on the greatest ground in the world on that June night remains in the memory for ever. He made 36 runs only, and the experts say that he didn't make them very well; but for me it was an innings of beauty and power in an unforgettable setting. And a hundred great moments come to the mind unbidden when the talk is of the love of cricket.
The first sight of MacLaren at Old Trafford; Hammond and Paynter in their noble stand at Lord's in 1938; Denis Compton coming out of the pavilion to a perfect storm of shrill, schoolboy cheering; Jack Hobbs at the wicket or at cover point; Frank Woolley standing up to the fearsome attack of Gregory and McDonald; the fielding of Jack Fingleton; Pellew racing along the boundary, as Clem Hill must have done when he caught Lilley in the most famous Test match of all; Patsy Hendren running between the wickets with his scampering, twinkling feet; Peter May, Tom Graveney, Colin Cowdrey, all visibly in the great tradition; David Sheppard standing firm in a crisis; and a great host of cricketers of every rank and clime. Some lovers of cricket love to read the annals of the game; and some find pleasure in just watching cricket wherever it is played, with a preference perhaps for the lovely little ground tucked away in the countryside.
But to all lovers of cricket there is a kind of music in the sound of the great names, the sound of Grace and Hobbs, the sound of Trent Bridge and Old Trafford; but the greatest music of all is the sound of the bat against the ball. Mr. Ratcliff Ellis expressed this idea to perfection in his lines--
The merry click of bat against the ball,
The expectant hush, the cheering that proclaims
Skill of the greatest of all English games;
Flutter of flags, the branches of the trees
Swaying beneath the gentle summer breeze;
No sweeter music in the world is found
Than that upon an English cricket ground.