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As my father was secretary of the Warwickshire County Cricket Club from 1895 to 1944, it is not altogether surprising that the game was a frequent topic of conversation at the family meal table: cricket was our bread and butter.
Reaching double figures in the early 1920's, I naturally heard a good deal about the achievements of Hobbs and Sutcliffe, and, in the cricketless winters, learnt from my father, and from the yellow-backed pages of Wisden, about Grace and Spofforth; Ranji and Fry and Jessop; Blackham and Lilley; and of course, "My Hornby and my Barlow long ago".
I knew about the cricketing giants of the past before I had learnt about Gladstone and Disraeli, and, looking back on those days of enchantment, and with all respect to those eminent statesmen, I have no regrets.
We had in our living-room a formidable Victorian bookcase, its shelves protected by glass shutters. In one of these shelves, overspilling into a second, were editions of Wisden, it strict chronological order -- and woe betide anyone who took out a copy and put it back into the wrong place: a bad school report might on some rare occasion be forgiven, but to cause havoc in the thin yellow line of Wisdens -- that was another matter!
It was always a red letter day for me when our stock was increased by a new volume, and father announced "I've got the new Wisden!" with the same quiet pride that Disraeli -- whom I eventually did get to hear about -- would have announced that he had secured shares in the Suez Canal. My excited request to peruse the magic pages was always countered by my father with dark allusions to homework; but the reply deceived neither of us, for we both knew that he wanted to read Wisden first.
We all have our foibles about the Almanack. For each, of course, his own county. We study our own side's home matches times without number, paying scant attention to the achievements of the other counties. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who played for the M.C.C. and for Sussex, who had W.G. as one of his victims, and who wrote The Missing Three-quarter, might well have written a cricket detective story, entitled, say, The Missing Mid-on. It would go perhaps something like this.
"Did you not observe, my dear Watson, that in the library were 37 editions of Wisden?"
This makes Watson forget the Afghan campaign. "By heavens, Holmes, then the man was possibly interested in cricket?"
"More than that, my dear Watson. I noticed that in all these editions the home matches of Loamshire were heavily thumbed. This put me on the scent of the miscreant." The possibilities seem endless!
Sherlock Holmes, in any case, is not unconnected with Wisden. In the Births and Deaths section of earlier editions will be found the names of Shacklock, F. (Derbyshire, Notts. and Otago) and Mycroft, Thomas (Derbyshire), who inspired Conan Doyle to use the names Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes for his detective stories.
Perhaps Sir Arthur played against them: certainly the line "Doyle, Sir A.C. (M.C.C) b. May 22, 1859" appeared for many years in Wisden. Incidentally, could not space be found for the famous though fictitious Raffles in the Births and Deaths? He would enjoy being on the same page as Ranjitsinhji!
For each, too, his favourite editions of Wisden. If I were permitted to take eight editions of the Almanack with me to some remote desert island, I would find the task of selection an extremely difficult one. To choose the first half-dozen, recording the most absorbing of the England v. Australia Test match series, would be a tricky enough problem in all conscience.
What of the final pair? The first of all the Wisdens? -- the current issue? -- the copies recounting Warwickshire's Championship triumphs of 1911 and 1951? -- the 1915 edition, in which batsmen were laconically recorded as "Absent" during the fateful first week in August? -- how does one choose only a couple from these?
But if on my desert island I could have one Wisden and one only, then there be not the faintest tremor of hesitation: I would plump for the issue of 1903, recording that superb vintage year (1902) when the Australians came over with Darling, Trumper, Noble, Clem Hill and Warwick Armstrong, and when, during the course of the series, the English selectors could actually leave not G.L. Jessop, C.B. Fry and Ranjitsinhji, from sides that were to do battle for England.
This, the fortieth edition of Wisden, informs us of marquees to be bought for £10, tents for £5, lawn tennis nets for five shillings. Lord Harris eulogises Bartlett's Repercussive cricket bats, on sale at prices varying from nine and six to a guinea. Cricket balls can be bought for tenpence, leg guards for three and six. Peru House Private Hotel, Russell Square (for convenience, quietude, comfort and economy) offers Bedroom and Meat Breakfast for four and six.
The real feast, of course, is provided in the Test match accounts. Of the first Test match, played at Edgbaston, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 29, 30 and 31, the Wisden chronicler writes most evocatively, and many authorities have since considered that the team that played for England in this game was the greatest ever to represent the Mother Country -- A.C. MacLaren, C.B. Fry, K.S. Ranjitsinhji, F.S. Jackson, J.T. Tyldesley, A.A. Lilley, G.H. Hirst, G.L. Jessop, L.C. Braund, W.H. Lockwood, W. Rhodes.
"A beautiful wicket had been prepared," says Wisden, "and when MacLaren beat Darling in the toss for innings, it was almost taken for granted that England would make a big score. In the end expectation was realised, but success came only after a deplorable start, and after the Australians had discounted their chances by two or three palpable blunders in the field. Fry was caught by the wicket-keeper standing back in the third over; a misunderstanding, for which Ranjitsinhji considered himself somewhat unjustly blamed, led to MacLaren being run out, and then Ranjitsinhji himself, quite upset by what had happened, was clean bowled, three of the best English wickets being thus down for 35 runs."
England recovered and finished the day with 351 for 9, Tyldesley scoring 138 and Jackson 53. Owing to rain the game did not commence until 3 o'clock on the second day. "Some people expected," continues Wisden, "that MacLaren would at once declare the English innings closed, but acting, it was understood, on Lilley's advice, he decided to let his own side go on batting for a time, so that his bowlers might not have to start work on a slippery foothold. He declared when the score had been raised to 376 and then followed one of the chief sensations of the cricket season of 1902, the Australians being got rid of in less than an hour and a half for 36, Trumper, who played fine cricket for seventy minutes, alone making a stand." Trumper made 18. Wilfred Rhodes returned the extraordinary figures:--
In 1961, when Australia were batting against England once again at Edgbaston, I had the privilege of meeting Wilfred Rhodes, sole survivor of the twenty-two players in the struggle of 1902, and observed that we sorely needed his 7 for 17.
"Ah, yes," said Wilfred Rhodes reflectively, "you know how we got them out, don't you? We changed over!" Len Braund, who made an immortal slip catch to dismiss Clem Hill, had bowled one over to allow Hirst (3 for 15) and Rhodes to change ends. Following on, the Australians had scored eight for no wicket at close of play.
Writing in Wisden, 1936 (Trials of a County Secretary) the writer's father has this to say about the third day: "Torrents of rain fell overnight, and at 9 a.m. the ground was a complete lake. Not a square yard of turf was visible and play was, of course, out of the question that day. The head groundsman agreed: 'I paid off half my gatemen and dispensed with the services of half the police.' It proved to be a 'penny wise pound foolish' action. The umpires arrived; the players arrived -- the captains were there. I have never known any men more patient, more hopeful than those umpires and captains. They just sat still and said nothing most effectively. At two o'clock the sun came out and a great crowd assembled outside the ground. What I hadn't thought of was that two umpires and two captains would sit and wait so long without making a decision. The crowd broke in, and to save our skins we started play at 5.20 on a swamp. The game ended as a draw with Australia 46 for 2."
The second Test match, says Wisden, "was utterly ruined by rain," the third "a severe disaster for England" and we lost by 143 runs. Of the last agonising over in the fourth Test, when England had nine wickets down and eight to win, Wisden relates: "Tate got a four on the leg-side from the first ball he received from Saunders, but the fourth, which came a little with the bowler's arm and kept low, hit the wicket and the match was over."
For the fifth Test match Ranjitsinhji was left out! England, set 263 to win, were saved by G.L. Jessop with possibly the most superb innings of his life. "He scored," says Wisden, "in just over an hour and a quarter, 104 runs out of 139, his hits being a five in the slips, seventeen 4's, two 3's, four 2's and seventeen singles."
Hirst and Rhodes, the last pair, scored the necessary fifteen runs to win. It was of this occasion that the apocryphal story "We'll get them in singles, Wilfred!" is told. Wisden, preferring accuracy to romance, records "Rhodes sent a ball from Trumble between the bowler and mid-on, and England won the match by one wicket."
Yorkshire's victory over the Australians, who were dismissed for 23 in their second innings, is described as "a big performance"; an Australian victory over Gloucestershire is chronicled in a burst of Edwardian prose -- "the Colonials had no great difficulty in beating the western county in a single innings"; and of a match against Surrey we are told "Trumper and Duff hit up 142 in an hour and a quarter" -- this against Richardson and Lockwood!
The historian is chatty and informative about the match with Cambridge University. "So greatly were the Australians weakened by illness that they had to complete their side by playing Dr. R.J. Pope, a cricketer, who it will be remembered, appeared several times for H.J.H. Scott's eleven in 1886. Dr. Pope came over from Australia for a holiday mainly to see the cricket, and was a sort of general medical adviser to the eleven." Anyway, he made 2 not out!
The 1923 edition contains the saga of the Warwickshire-Hampshire match at Edgbaston; surely the most extraordinary game of county cricket ever played. Warwickshire, batting first, were out for a mediocre 223 on a good wicket. They then proceeded to dismiss their opponents in 53 balls for 15. The analyses of Howell and Calthorpe speak for themselves:
Hampshire followed on, and lost 6 wickets for 186. However, as Wisden observes, "Brown batted splendidly for four hours and three-quarters and Livsey made his first hundred without a mistake". Brown made 172, and Livsey 110 not out; Hampshire made 521, got Warwickshire out for 158 and won by 155 runs. "The victory, taken as a whole," says Wisden, "must surely be without precedent in first-class cricket." And has there been anything like it since?
Not long ago I had the good fortune to discuss the match with the late George Brown in his house at Winchester, where, appropriately enough, a framed score-card of the conflict hung in the hall. He contended that Hampshire should have been out for 7 in their first innings, explaining that Tiger Smith, while unsighted, had let a ball go for four byes, and that Lionel Tennyson was missed at mid-on, the ball then travelling to the boundary.
The chief joy of reading Wisden is also the chief snare -- once you have picked up a copy you cannot put it down. How many wives have become grass-widowed on account of the limp-covered, yellow-backed magician it is impossible to say.
A teasing problem crops up -- when was W.G.'s birthday? Who captained the Australians in 1909? Who won the championship in 1961? "I won't be a minute," says the cricket enthusiast, "I'll just look it up in Wisden" -- and he disappears in search of his treasures. And, of course, he isn't a minute: he may be away for an hour or for the rest of the day. He may even never return.
There is one thing that you can be quite certain of in looking it up in Wisden and that is that you will pick up a whole miscellany of information before you find the thing you have been looking for.
Suppose, for instance, that you want to look up the match between Kent and Derbyshire at Folkestone in 1963. You pick up your Wisden for 1964, open it at random, believing firmly that the problem will be solved in a matter of seconds, and you find yourself confronted with a Lancashire-Yorkshire match at Old Trafford.
The result is a draw. Forgetting now altogether about Kent and Derbyshire at Folkestone, you next turn up the Table of Main Contents to see if you can find out how Yorkshire and Lancashire have fared over the years in their Roses battles.
On skimming down the Table of Contents, however, you come across a heading about Test Cricketers (1877-1963). This immediately starts you off on a new track, and you turn to the appropriate section to find how many cricketers have played for their country.
The names Clay, Close, Coldwell, Compton, Cook, Copson leap up at you from the printed page: memories of past Test matches dance in bright kaleidoscopic colours before you. Wisden, you feel, is as exciting as a Buchan thriller. The word Buchan leads logically enough to Midwinter.
Midwinter -- of course! -- now, didn't he play for England v. Australia, and also for Australia v. England? Research confirms that such was indeed the case. You look him up in Births and Deaths; but this entails searching an earlier edition. At random you select the issue for 1910; and sailing purposefully past an offer on page 3 of a free sample of Oatine (for Men after Shaving) you find that Midwinter, W.E. was also a regular player for Gloucestershire and for Victoria. Meanwhile, you have hit upon another Test match series.
In the first of this series of Tests England were trying out a twenty-six year old opening batsman named Hobbs (Cambridgeshire and Surrey). He made a duck in his first innings, but did better in the second. "England wanted 105 to win, and as it happened, Hobbs and Fry hit off the runs in an hour and a half without being separated."
There are now two tracks that lie ahead. You can follow the Australians on their tour, to find that they won the Ashes but came close to defeat against Sussex and Somerset, and also played some unusual sides -- Western Union (Scotland), South Wales, two rain-ridden draws against combined Yorkshire and Lancashire elevens, and, towards the end of the tour, Mr. Bamford's eleven at Uttoxeter.
The other track, of course, is the golden trail of the Master's 197 centuries!
Wisden's attractions are endless. A county cricketer of former days recently told me how much he enjoyed browsing over the Public Schools averages "so that I can see how my friends' sons are getting on."
Even the briefer obituaries are always interesting to read, and, when occasion demands, amusing -- as surely obituaries should be. To return again to the 1903 edition, we read of the Reverend Walter Fellows, described in Scores and Biographies as "a tremendous fast round-armed bowler". For Westminster against Rugby (1852) he took nine wickets in the first innings and six in the second. However, in the course of so doing he bowled 30 wides, "thereby giving away as many runs as Westminster made in their two innings combined."
In 1856 he hit a ball 175 yards "from hit to pitch...In 1863 he emigrated to Australia, and joined the Melbourne Club the following year. He was interested in the game to the last. Height 5ft. 11 ins., and playing weight as much as 16 st. 4lbs."
And again, in the 1961 edition there is the superb obituary of Alec Skelding. Of the many selected tales Wisden recounts of him, perhaps this is the loveliest: "In a game in 1948 he turned down a strong appeal by the Australian touring team. A little later a dog ran on to the field, and one of the Australians captured it, carried it to Skelding and said: 'Here you are. All you want now is a white stick!'"
Wisden is indeed better than rubies. Wisden is an inexhaustible gold mine in which lies embedded the golden glory of a century of cricketing summers. In the 1964 edition (page 1024) we read the brief statement "Wisden for cricket". I think that sums it up.