Bowlers: artists and workmen in one, 1963

The joy of cricket

R.C. Robertson-Glasgow

It was, I think, the Reverend Sydney Smith who said that his height of human happiness would be eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.

This, I admit, might be a pleasurable combination. But, better still, I would like to have bowled the one and only Victor Trumper for 0 in a deciding Test Match.

Cricket has very various meanings and delights. I suppose the most popular dream of boyhood's cricket is to be making a hundred in a Test. The ambition of most young cricketers seems to concern batsmanship. But, myself, I would always rather have sent the stumps than the ball flying.

Modesty, no doubt, should forbid mention of any example of such a performance. But the bowler has to work for his great moments, and I don't see why he shouldn't mention some of them, without being condemned as an intolerable bore.

My own moment of greatest joy should have been at The Oval in 1920, when, aged eighteen and very absent-minded, I had Jack Hobbs caught at mid-on for 0. But, oddly enough, I didn't believe it at the time, and, in spite of the printed word, I don't believe it yet. At best, it was a fluke.

In a bowler's triumph there should, I feel, be an element of violence. For which reason, the greatest moment in my cricketing life was when I pitched a ball on the middle stump of the left-handed Australian master, Warren Bardsley, and knocked the off-stump past first slip.

Perhaps it was his green Australian cap that helped towards the pleasure. Perhaps. But no; most of all, it was the sheer violence of the assassination that thrilled me. It was in 1926, at Taunton. I suppose that the great man, at 42 years, was then going over the hill; but, to borrow Sir Alan Herbert's words, "This is the day I shall remember the day I am dying." As a pilgrim of the ball I had travelled far in the wilds before that moment of triumph. Forgive my selfishness.

Cricket, for all its admirers may say, is a selfish game. Certainly, bowling is. How often, in my cricketing life, I watched others taking wickets that I regarded as mine by rights. Daylight robbery.

There is nothing to equal the joy and sensation of personal triumph. And the nearest that I've been to a heaven on earth was when walking back to the pavilion at Lord's after making a fifty against Cambridge for Oxford, with a borrowed hat.

I fancy that I hear a somewhat pompous voice attacking such heretical views. "Cricket," says the voice, "is, above all, a Team game; a builder of character." This is not always so. Cricket has murdered many a sunny afternoon for the schoolboy who cannot bat, is not asked to bowl, and does not wish to field. To enjoy cricket, you must be good enough to partake in the ritual. You must be, so to speak, in use.

No; I would not rate Team Spirit as the most ennobling part of cricket. The best part of cricket is the Tour Spirit. No one who has not been on a Cricket Tour, however humble, has tasted the full felicity of the game.

The Cricket Tourist can discover the joy of irresponsibility and detachment. If he be wise, no correspondence, threatening or otherwise, will be forwarded to him. If he be wiser still, he will have told his employers and his relatives that the tour is in North Wales, whereas in fact it is in Jersey, perhaps the most hospitable of all European Islands.

In my memory, a little clouded by banquetings, the sun always shone on Jersey. There was magic in its air. However beautiful had been the preceding night, we were always ready to repeat the words of the great Oscar Hammerstein -- "Oh, what a beautiful morning!"

In Jersey, too, the newspaper reports of cricket, when they chanced to appear, were full of praise for the visiting team, even if we were all out for 70 and had missed a dozen catches.

In which connection I recall a great cricketer who had remarked to a friend, "Never read newspaper reports of a cricket match unless you've done something very good." A few days after he'd made this comment, he scored a century on an alien ground, and the local Evening paper's sole remark on the feat was, "How -- ever makes a century with so peculiar a style must remain a mystery."

We wander from the title, The Joy of Cricket. My own summit of surprise mingled with pleasure was reached in the Parks at Oxford, 1920. I had not foreseen any chance of playing for a County when the Oxford v. Cambridge match was over. Yet at the end of an exciting game with Somerset, their captain, the inimitable and often unrepeatable John Daniell, asked me to play for Somerset.

"But, I said, I was born and live in Scotland." "You mind your own -- business," replied my benefactor. "I will," I said. There was a pause. "But," he continued, "have you no ruddy relations at all around Somerset?" "Well," I admitted, "I have a cousin who is, at the moment, M.P. for Bath." "Good enough," said John D.; and it was.

Somerset have never won the County Championship; but, for the beauty of scenery combined with variety of cricketing styles, Somerset has no equal at all. Win, lose or draw, every day's cricket for Somerset was an indescribable joy. I found myself received with a humorous and unsurprised kindness. Wit and laughter abounded.

The standard of cricketing skill ranged from the highest to the lowest, from Jack White's slow left-hand bowling to... well, never mind what. Most particularly do I recall that some of our best batsmen, such as M.D. Lyon and J.C.W. MacBryan, and Tom Young, never seemed to practise. There was a tendency to go to bed late and to rise just in time for the resumption of play.

Then there was that great all-rounder, Len Braund. In the autumn of his career he still caught catches at slip which others wouldn't have touched. He also missed a fair number; and I remember with pleasure his remark to me after he'd missed a sitter -- "Slip fielding's like fishing; let the little ones go." A philosophy that was not shared by the suffering bowlers.

Humour was, so to speak, both parent and son of Somerset cricket; though I doubt if our captain unreservedly agreed with this view. John Daniell had a most expressive face, as well as vocabulary. He was a magnificent leader, whose team so seldom seemed to come up to his expectations. Perhaps he expected just too much, and was still living in the days of Lionel Palairet and Sammy Woods.

We wouldn't have had him otherwise; fielding brilliantly under a Trilby hat, and scowling at the batsman. Once when the Sussex opening batsman snicked the very first ball of the innings for four past his leg stump, John said to the bowler, "When the hell are you going to bowl straight?" And the bowler shouted back, "And when the hell are you going to wear white trousers instead of yellow ones?"

Then there was the beauty of the surrounding country. Mr. Neville Cardus has written memorably on the effect of environment upon the type of cricket played, with special reference to Old Trafford. At Taunton, on the horizon rose those lovely hills, the Quantocks; in themselves, surely, a romantic inducement to the cricketer. And the villages around are so aptly named. Combe Florey and Bishop's Lydeard, somehow suggested immortal summers.

Country House cricket abounded; that game of long intervals, variegated blazers, and dubious decisions. The most eccentric match that I ever played in was at a Country House, near Maiden Erleigh, in Berkshire, then the home of Mr. Solly Joel.

I arrived on a temperamental motor-cycle, with my cricket bag precariously strapped on behind. There was an absence of teetotalism. Instead of a tea interval we went off to bathe in a Neronian Swimming-pool, knocked back a drink or two, and returned unpunctually to the fray.

When play at length resumed, I recall that Jack White had placed a couple of fielders in an adjoining meadow, to await a catch from that remarkable hitter, P.G.H. Fender.

I never had the luck to play cricket in distant parts of the globe, such as the Antipodes, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and the West Indies, though I do remember that several of us, late one night in our College at Oxford, discussed the possibilities of introducing cricket to China. It remained a possibility.

I have always regretted that the Chinaman, who has given his name to a certain type of left-handed delivery, should never have played the game nationally. To-day, there seems less chance than ever of his doing so, as Communism and cricket do not seem to be happy bedfellows.

I have played in Portugal, on matting wickets, at Lisbon and Oporto. One of our faster bowlers was erratic both on and off the field, and a source of anxiety to his worthy captain. It was thought that he had missed the ship at the very start, but he was found later playing Jazz on a musical instrument to a partially reluctant audience of fellow-travellers.

On one occasion he did appear, late in our opponents' innings, and bowled one of the fastest, shortest and widest overs that I ever saw. He was, nevertheless, an inimitable companion.

He was a Scratch golfer; and when, on our overland return journey we stopped for a few days to play golf at St. Jean de Luz in the Pyrenean country, he surprised even his elderly and experienced caddie by his skill at improving with the foot the lie of the ball in the rough. He was straight from a P.G. Wodehouse book; and, but for cricket, I would never have known him.

Perhaps the greatest joy in cricket is experienced by the sheer bowler who, by some quirk of providence, finds himself to be an unexpected batsman. I hope I may be acquitted of pride when I say that my most pleasurable times in County Cricket were when I was batting around number ten or eleven and achieved success above my station.

As a very late batsman you are welcomed at the crease rather in the same manner as the Walrus and the Carpenter welcomed the Oysters. The bowlers regard you as a benefactor. The umpires smile appreciatively, because soon now they will be able to take the weight off their feet. The wicket-keeper probably asks after your wife and children, if any. You are given guard, middle-and-leg, as a formality rather than a convenience.

Your earlier scoring strokes are greeted with tolerance, or even with open laughter. But, after half an hour or so, you become a guest who has outstayed his welcome. The bowlers begin to Scowl, and to tire. Yet your performance is not entirely unappreciated; and I remember a fielder, in the West Country, who evidently thought little of the bowler then in use, saying into my ear at the end of an over, "Good going; now hit the -- for six.

When fate decides that you've gone far enough, the axe descends. But you are a happy man. And, somehow, you are not at all tired. Within a quarter of an hour or so, you take the new ball and run up to the crease breathing fire and slaughter, and appeal for l.b.w. like a bomb exploding, while the batsman ruefully rubs his thigh.

Then, when playing days are over, dull must be he of soul who cannot derive pleasure and amusement from his fellow-spectators. No other game so richly produces eccentricity among its watchers.

Rugger and Soccer crowds tend each to conform to a particular pattern. But, at cricket matches, you find infinite variety and oddity: cabinet-ministers and crossing-sweeps, lunatics, lovers, and poets; men who watch all day through field-glasses and say nothing, female statisticians, who long to be contradicted; odd spectators who keep warm in spite of semi-nudity. All are, in their way, contented; all seem to have absolutely nothing to do in this world except watching cricket.

But, once more, it is the bowler in cricket who knows the deepest joy; because he can hit his victim and pretend to be sorry about it; because he is artist and workman in one; because he can make mistakes and yet suddenly enter the paradise of triumph.

Myself, I go back once more to Taunton in 1926. Clarence Grimmett, who could bowl deadly spinners from somewhere near his right kidney, was at the wicket. Not a great batsman, Clarrie; not even a fairly good one. Never mind. He had raised his bat to cut me square. The ball chose to come in from the off, and it knocked out his middle stump. Leonardo da Vinci should have been there, to paint the incredulity of the batsman, and the unconfined joy of the bowler.

Rejoice, then, cricketers; but, most of all, ye bowlers. For, whatever the books may say, yours is the best part in the best play yet invented.

© John Wisden & Co