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Four years away from cricket is a long time, and after such a break the enthusiast returns to the game with a more open mind and with clearer standards. In exile from reality his imagination has given him the best of cricket. So he comes back inclined to be more critical, less ready to be blind to faults which, from long familiarity, had formerly been taken as a matter of course. Yet at the same time he is also inclined to be more appreciative of the many virtues of the game.
Summers spent with the Army in the Orkneys, the North of Scotland, the mountainous part of Wales and the West Country kept me at a distance from the war-time brand of one-day cricket. So I saw it--and played in some of it--in its fifth season as something fresh, its good and bad points perhaps more obvious to me than to one who had known it since its birth. As a makeshift it clearly has been good entertainment, but could lay claim to no lasting virtues. Despite the recommendations of its friends I could not see it ever being welcomed generally as a regular form of entertainment in the more spacious days of peace. Its very nature, that of a sprint race, takes away many of the best features of the first-class three-day game.
As I saw it for the first time last summer it struck a slightly spurious note. It was not a true test of skill. The policy was to get away to a good start, go like the wind before declaring, and hope that the other fellows would get themselves out while having a beat for victory. The skill lay not so much in the play but in the timing of his declaration by the captain. As a spectator I found that my eyes were constantly wandering to the clock, and I was clock rather than cricket conscious. To a player the time could be an even more distracting factor.
Certainly this one-day cricket has been good stuff for the casual Saturday afternoon spectator, and for the out-and-out enthusiast once a week under existing conditions, but it could hardly be expected to appeal as a regular dish. We should soon tire of seeing the skill of a Hammond, a Denis Compton or a Hutton being cast into the maelstrom of this hastily concocted game.
Most of us delight in seeing a great back-to-the-wall innings against bowlers enjoying conditions made to their orders. That is one of the things which we cannot have in the brief hours of the one-day match. To a large extent the sticky wicket is ruled out by the overnight covering of the pitch before a match. And, if rain comes during a game, there is then no time left for the bowlers to use it or for the batsmen to attempt their innings under difficulties. Similarly other great features of the three-day game are smothered out of existence.
The grandest match I ever saw was the 1938 Test at Leeds between England and Australia. The first day was dramatic, the second tense, the third a pleasurable agony of suspense. No other sport--and I have watched many--has given me such a thrill. My telephonist that third day found much difficulty deciphering my agitatedly scrawled report. And my excitement was no more than that experienced by everyone else of that day's crowd of over 30,000--judging by the strained atmosphere. The suspense of that great match could have been built up only over a period. Nothing comparable is possible in a game lasting a single day, which, at best, can give the fleeting excitement of a sprint of victory, but has no time in which to develop into a memorably great match of the 1938 Leeds variety. That was cricket, embodying all its great features.
On my return to cricket last summer I found that the broad outlines of the play largely came up to my expectations, but, where previously I had been indifferent, I now noticed the smaller faults. Slight perhaps, but, none the less, of considerable importance. One dirty button on parade is a small matter in itself, but it can mar the whole appearance of that parade. So with cricket.
One failing seemed to stand out in particular. That was indifferent running between the wickets. Now that I come to think about it the running was no better in 1939, but was accepted from long acquaintance. There is room for very great improvement in this branch of the game. During last summer I did not see half-a-dozen batsmen who ran really well between the wickets. This was a notable feature of the play when Robins enlivened the game before the war, and he still ran with the best but was not so ready to chivvy the laggard partner.
The best running during the season was done by Fishlock. During the second of the August Bank Holiday games, in which an England side met a Dominions team, he had a long partnership with Simpson, the young Nottinghamshire batsman and a product of war-time cricket. They were together while upwards of 170 runs were scored, and in that time Fishlock taught Simpson how to run. Simpson was inclined to lag behind his standard at first, but gradually he found an understanding with Fishlock. And then the running was perfect. I do not think they could have squeezed out another run. Yet neither was ever in any serious danger of being run out.
Whereas most batsmen run as if they think a mistake by a fielder is impossible, Fishlock was always prepared to take advantage of such a mistake. When, for instance, his partner played the ball straight to the man on the boundary behind the bowler, Fishlock raced down to the other end, turned quickly and started back. If the fielder fumbled, Fishlock took a second run. And it is surprising how often the chance of a second run presents itself to the batsman on the look out for that chance.
Fishlock showed all the running virtues; quick and definite in his calling, he ran fast without looking back to follow the course of the ball and, unless the ball was being returned to his end, he turned immediately and did not stop running fast until there was no likelihood of getting another run.
The faults of most other batsmen are obvious. The slowly taken first run, which causes a possible second or third to be wasted, is one of the commonest. In the same match in which Fishlock and Simpson ran so well, Dempster, of the Dominions team, lost his wicket on the fourth run. There were four runs there comfortably, but Dempster and Workman took the first leisurely and too late began to run in earnest. That was rank bad running, punished by a very fine throw from the long-on boundary by Mallett and good work at the bowler's wicket by Robins.
Another common fault is that of watching the ball and the fielder at the back of a batsman while he running. The batman's pace is inevitably reduced and with it the chance of further runs. In such circumstances it is the other batsman's duty to watch ball and fielder and to estimate the possibilities of another run. A third failing is the habit of grounding the bat at the end of a run and looking back over the shoulder before deciding whether to venture again or not. Think of the time lost against the time saved by a quick turn and a few non-committal steps down the wicket while the decision is taken.
Failure on the part of the non-striking batsman to back up by advancing down the wicket when the ball is bowled is all too common. On one occasion during the season I called my partner after pushing the ball slowly to the off. Having reached almost halfway I was sent back and yet had time to stroll to the crease. Sorry, I wasn't ready, said my partner; an astonishing admission by a man who played not infrequently for his county before the war, and an indication of the neglect shown to this important branch of the game. It is akin to the neglect shown by Rugger players to the importance of kicking.
Few batsmen venture on the sort of sharp runs by which Hobbs and Sutcliffe used to rag the Australians. Any number of runs can be taken for prods and pats on the off side of the wicket, but they can only be successful if started the moment the stroke is played. Really it is possible for a couple with a good understanding to run for almost anything.
Will anyone who saw Hobbs get his hundredth run in the 1926 Oval Test match against Australia ever forget it? Hobbs played the ball very slowly and almost directly towards T. J. E. Andrews at silly mid-off. Hobbs was into his running stride with the stroke, and Sutcliffe, moving when the shot was made, got home easily before Andrews, an artist in that position, could return the ball to the stumper.
To those who seek to excuse laggard running by the claim that it conserves a batsman's energy during a long innings I would quote the example of Bradman. He played long innings more consistently than any other batsman. Yet throughout them, in Test and lesser matches alike, he was an unsparing runner. His exceptional judgment, allied to speed between the wickets, gave him many runs which would have been missed by most other players. He, like Fishlock, made the most of his own and his partner's strokes.
During the Public Schools games at Lord's last summer the running was anything but good. There was strange reluctance to take safe runs, and more than once a batsman was dismissed when he should have been down the other end. M. J. E. Swiney, for instance, played one ball to extra-cover standing very much on the deep side. No run was taken, and Swiney was dismissed by the next ball.
People may say that running between the wickets is a minor point so far as the spectator is concerned. So it is, and the spectator is not likely to voice his disapproval of any but the worst failings in that direction. On the other hand really good running can add very materially to his enjoyment, and this is true of all the minor points of cricket which we tend to overlook.
I have dwelt on this weakness because it was so noticeable to me, returning after a lengthy absence. But I could as easily have dwelt on the many things which were so obviously right with the game. That cricket is all set to resume in a big way after the war is certain. It was most encouraging during the season to see the keenness of the many very young spectators, boys and not a few girls, many of whom carried their enthusiasm to the length of keeping their own score-books.
That cricket is so well prepared for its post-war activities is due to such as Sir Pelham Warner, who have kept it so vigorously alive during the emergency years. The game was healthy in 1939, and thanks to them it should be sound and fit when it again resumes its three-day normality.