Cricket - an enduring art

Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Aus

For me to quote statistics in a contribution to Wisden would indeed be to carry coals to Newcastle. I have neither the facilities nor the inclination. To browse through the records in Wisden; to snatch down a volume to settle an argument or to be reminded of great feats of the past; to revisit the glimpses of the Five Cricketers; these things are great fun for the cricket-lover. But may I venture upon a heresy? Averages don't prove much, except to more unimaginative selectors.

Men are more important than figures. Quality is even more important than quantity. Victor Trumper's batting averages in England in 1899, 1902, 1905 and 1909 were 34.57, 48.49, 36.54 and 33.37. In England-Australia Test Matches his average was 32.79. Yet those who remember him playing cannot speak of him, even now, except with the emotion which is the final tribute to sheer artistry.

For one of the great things about cricket is that it is an art even more than it is a science. The scientific batsman who hits every ball with precision to its appointed place is a great man to have on your side. He will win matches. He will take a high place in the records. But unless he adds art to science, humanity to skill, his glories will soon fade.

For a great artist is not content to move along the orthodox paths. His daemon possesses him. He must experiment. He must essay the unexpected. He must know his medium, but it must be his servant, not his master.

If Trumper's averages were modest by modern and affluent standards, it was largely because of the artistic temperament. To hit the same ball in the same way each time was, for him, tedious. So he hit it to vastly different places, for the fun of it.

If the art of cricket is to survive, many people must contribute to the survival. The spectator naturally loves a good swiping innings, with a few sixes thrown in; but he must also have time and intelligence to admire the artistry of non-scoring defence against aggressive and shrewd bowling.

Cricket-writers also have their part to play. In modern times they have become a numerous brood. They include in their numbers some who are sensitive observers and writers of distinction. But they include far too many who live for sensation and, if possible, scandal; to whom cricket is a sort of warfare to be conducted on and, principally perhaps, off the field; who are incapable of understanding art; who think in headlines.

I sometimes wonder if such onlookers realise what harm they do to cricket. Take an example. The cut, particularly the late cut, is one of the lovely things in cricket. When McCabe made his famous innings at Trent Bridge, I saw him repeatedly late cut lovely out-swingers from Kenneth Farnes. It was sheer ecstasy to see them.

But I am sure that there were plenty to say, as I have heard it said of many another batsman, "That's a dangerous stroke. He should cut it out!" And when fifty or a hundred runs later, that batsman is taken in the slips, they say "I told you so", and marvel at their own perspicacity.

If all batsmen had acted on such pusillanimous principles, the loveliest shots would have long since disappeared, and cricket would have died of its own dullness; averages without spirit; performance without pleasure.

My memory of Test Cricket goes back over half of the Wisden century. The batsmen who stand out clear in my mind are the artists; the takers of calculated (and sometimes uncalculated) risks; the men of colour and character who have rescued cricket from its occasional and inevitable periods of drabness and decline.

I have no doubt that England-Australia cricket has contributed much to the close association of the two countries in world affairs. There have been, of course, some unhappy experiences, from the 1879 Sydney riot, when Lord Harris's team played New South Wales, to the celebrated body-line controversy of 1932-3. But such matters were eddies on the surface of a broad and flowing river, which, like the Thames in the famous phrase, is liquid history.

Why should I feel able to attach to a game such significance? That question deserves a considered answer.

I will first answer in the broad. Cricket is, as I have said, a great art. It is the mother of great traditions. It dwells in the eye and in the blood. The relative slowness of its tempo induces observation and enables its subtleties to be seen and noted. It has evoked, from writers of talent, a considerable literature.

Let me elaborate a little.

I know that the ancient phrase, that art is long, meant that in a short life it was difficult to achieve art. But art is long in another sense. So that it be true art, it has a long life of its own. It dwells on in the eye, in the ear, in the spirit. It perpetuates itself.

When white-haired men like me, during some winter's evening, fall to thinking of cricket and cricketers, what do we remember? Record scores? Averages? Results? Not at all, for these are matters for occasional argument, not reflection. Across the mind's eye passes a panorama of art and artists.

Take the great art of batting, with its infinite complexity. To hit the ball to any one of three hundred and fifty degrees out of the full circle. To accommodate the feel and the stroke to the vagaries of the pitch, and to the pace, length, swing, dip or spin of different bowlers.

So far as I know, no mathematician has calculated all the possible permutations and combinations of batsmanship, but the possibilities must be fabulous. It is small wonder that, against the lovely back-drop of the green sward and the white-clad figures, still or swift, the eyes of memory sees, as vividly as if it were yesterday, the great batsman as a great artist.

It was no mere eccentricity which made Neville Cardus a superb cricket writer and a music critic of eminence. It was, on the contrary, an almost inevitable conjunction of the planets for all save the most narrow-minded of highbrows.

Though possessed myself of no executive cricket competence, but fortunate enough to have a strong visual memory, I could without difficulty describe the great batsmen and bowlers and wicket-keepers and fieldsmen of my half-century, and see them clearly as I described them!

Indeed, the art of cricket, unlike some others, retains its hold upon the art-lover of all generations because its basic elements do not go out of fashion. He does not suffer the puzzlement and frustration of the man who has learned to love and to live with the great works of the impressionist painters and is then called upon to bow (for fashion's sake) before the abstractionists of the modern school.

This conception of cricket as an enduring art is one of the elements we have in common, wherever we may live. In a world in which differences are emphasised and get the headlines, it is more than ever important that we should cherish our unities and keep them in good repair.

I said earlier that cricket is the mother of great traditions. That its history is studded with unsporting incidents cannot be denied. That they are -- as I have already said -- occasionally magnified into a species of warfare by some press writers must regretfully be admitted.

But I have yet to see a match in which the warmest popular approval has not been reserved for the feat of true skill or the honest and sportsmanlike conduct of some player. There is, as one finds in reading them again, a touch of self-conscious pomposity in some of the remarks of schoolboys in the old school stories. Yet Tom Brown was right, when he said at his last school match: "It's more than a game. It's an institution!"

And, like all great institutions which are part of our inheritance, it gets into the blood, and can even invade the seats of judgment. I will illustrate this by an experience I had in my earlier days at the Victorian Bar. The story will be thought scandalous by some, and perhaps it is. But it is true, and it makes my point.

I had been appearing a good deal before an elderly judge who was not a great lawyer but who had for a brief period been a better than average cricketer. He was somewhat pernickety and abhorred slang expressions, but he was always approachable through his three special hobbies: roses, poultry and cricket.

I suppose that purists will say that no advocate should play upon the weaknesses or foibles of a judge. My reply is that any advocate who does not study and know his Judge or Judges is going to lose many cases, most needlessly.

Anyhow, my story is this. I was for the defendant in a civil action which arose out of events in the neighbourhood of Ballarat, the famous old gold-mining city. My client, as I discovered after a conference with him and his solicitor, was a very decent and honest, but dull, man, quite incapable of stating the facts in any coherent or consecutive fashion.

Right through the first day of the hearing, the plaintiff and his witnesses were heard. I cross-examined with no particular success. Yet I had a feeling that my bucolic client was right, if he could only register himself with the judge. The plaintiff's case closed just on the adjournment.

The judge looked at me, kindly enough (he approved of me because he thought I spoke good English!), and said: "Mr. Menzies, I think I should tell you that I find the plaintiff's case and witnesses most impressive". With my usual air of confidence, I replied: "I would ask Your Honour to suspend judgment until you have heard my client, who will, I am sure impress you very much!"

After the adjournment, I led the solicitor and client (we had no other witness) down to my chambers. All efforts to extract coherence from the client failed. I then produced my cards.

M. Mr. X, have you ever grown roses?
X. I think the wife has some in the garden.
M. But can you distinguish a La Belle France from a Frau Carl Drushki?
X. Not a hope!
M. Do you keep fowls?
X. The wife has a few.
M. Can you distinguish between a White Leghorn and an Orpington?
X. Not for the life of me!
M. Have you ever played cricket?
X. Ah! Now you're talking. I played for Ballarat and District against Ivo Bligh's Eleven!
M. Good. Conference ended!

The next morning I opened my case and called the defendant. He was quite dreadful as a witness. At one stage it became necessary to ask him about a date. Before he could reply I said, in the most helpful manner: "Take your time, witness. I know that dates are not always easy to remember. Now, if I were to ask you about the date when you played cricket for Ballarat and District against Ivo Bligh's eleven, that would be much easier!"

The judge, beaming with excitement and delight, switched round in his chair and said "Is that so? Tell me about the match. Were you a batsman or a bowler?" And at once they were into it.

Who was the fast bowler? How many runs did the defendant get? For half an hour we had cricket reminiscences galore. By the time my client, completely relaxed, had returned to and concluded his evidence, the judge turned to the plaintiff's astonished counsel and said: "Of course, Mr. Y., you may cross-examine if you like. You have a perfect right to do so. But I think I should tell you that in all my years on the bench I have never been more favourably impressed by any witness."

It is hardly necessary to add that the defendant won and, I think, rightly, on the merits. But it was cricket that did it!

While I am in this mood, I crave leave to record another reminiscence of cricket and the law.

A case had occurred, well over thirty years ago, in the local court at Mildura, the famous irrigation settlement in the far North West of Victoria, on the River Murray. The Mildura solicitor concerned on the losing side, an old friend of mine, wanted to obtain, in the Supreme Court, an Order Nisi to review the decision.

But he overlooked the time factor -- the Order had to be applied for within 30 days -- and filed his papers and briefed me almost at the last moment. But it was Christmas time, and the Supreme Court was not sitting! But there was a Test Match on at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and Mr. Justice Cussen was the President of the Club.

I hared off to the ground; it was my only hope. The judge was in the Committee Box. I waited until the end of the over, and then caught the eye of the judge. Happily he was a patient and generous man. I told him the circumstances. He at once caught on. "I quite see the position. Have I your assurance that the necessary papers are filed?" I assured him that they were. "Very well," he said, "I think the rule is that if you formally apply within the time, and the papers are in order, I can note the fact that you have applied, and adjourn the actual argument to a future date!" I vigorously agreed. He noted the application, turned to the field, and said with a smile: "That was a fine bit of bowling, wasn't it?"

In my own time I have seen splendid South African teams play in Australia. The first was enriched by such players as Schwartz, Faulkner and Sherwell. The last, under Cheetham, was not so rich in individual stars, but was quite magnificent in the field, and of great team character.

India have played here. The West Indies have been here three times. The last occasion was quite historic. It produced the famous Test Match tie at Brisbane; some fantastic bowling by Wesley Hall; great batting by Kanhai and Sobers; a spirit of dash and attack which seized the Australian imagination and drew large and eager crowds. It must be confessed that the return to Australia in 1961-2 of these three players, added to the new standards of aggressive captaincy set by Benaud, made the Sheffield Shield season the greatest popular success since the days of Bradman.

But in spite of all this, the Test Matches are those against England. For England and Australia are the founding fathers of international cricket. Their contests provide the standard of excellence. True they sometimes fall grievously below the standard when the will to win gives place to the will not to be beaten -- a very different and, I fear, a very dull thing.

Yet I would take leave to say that the greatest ambition of every young cricketer in England is to play against Australia; while, for the young Australian, selection against England in a Test Match, and above all selection to tour England, is the ultimate goal.

Even the statistics man, now that Test matches are so much more numerous and therefore new overall records are established, will agree that the records of England v. Australia Test performances are in a category of their own.

There are, of course, many reasons for this. There are many new nations in today's world; many forms of government; many historical and intellectual backgrounds; a New Commonwealth which comprises both the old monarchies and the new Republics. But Great Britain and Australia are of the same blood and allegiance and history and instinctive mental processes.

We know each other so well, that, thank Heaven, we don't have to be too tactful with each other. If, occasionally, we feel disposed to be polite and formal, some of our more warlike cricket commentators will, like the false doctor in Molière, soon change all that.

Cricket tradition, fashioned over the better part of a century, is a powerful thing. In Australia, in the Sheffield Shield, there is a special flavour about the matches between New South Wales and Victoria. They are the ancient rivals.

You have your own wars of the Roses, in which no impertinent outsider can safely intervene. Between us, we have the England v. Australia Test Matches. True, cricket may go through a dull patch; captaincy may become too negative; attendances may fall off for a time; some reformer wants to revive cricket by altering the rules instead of by livening up the players and the play.

And then, a year or so later, great new players emerge, and all is different. We have all seen this; you with the emergence of a Tate, a Larwood, a Hammond, a Compton, a Bedser, a Statham, a Dexter; we with a McDonald, a Mailey, a Bradman, a McCabe, a Grimmett, an O'Reilly, a Harvey, a Lindwall, a Davidson, a Benaud.

The great Test matches have a magnetic attraction which will vary, but will never disappear.

I may be wrong. It is possible that people of my generation tend to be laudatores temporis acti. But I believe that the great cricketing names which we have known or read about, are part of our stream of consciousness, which will not, in the minds of our grandchildren, dwindle to a mere trickle.

I remember that, about 25 years ago, I was speaking at Chatham House in London. At question time, a polite but nervous man got up at the back of the hall and asked me -- with suitable hesitations and apologies -- whether it was true that the earliest settlers in Australia were convicts.

I said promptly that many of them were; that he was not hurting my personal feelings, for my own grandparents had gone to Australia of their own accord; but that the records would show that of all the persons convicted of crime in England during the brief period of transportation to Australia, the great majority remained in England!

I thought all too late, by a sort of esprit d'escalier, that I should have added that cricket was also transported. The regiments stationed in Sydney were playing cricket by 1803!

© John Wisden & Co