Then and now

The title of this short article suggests that someone of riper years is seizing his pen to tell disbelieving juniors that those, and none other, were the days. Nothing of the sort. For these are just a few impressions from one who loves cricket of any age for its own sake and who can still admire, and even envy, its players both expert and inaccurate. And, touching on inaccuracy, the writer craves, as a gentler age used to say, the indulgence of his readers for any slip of memory. At the hour of composition he was some 14,000 miles from those comfortable books of reference whose proximity can invest the critic with the agreeable, if deceptive, appearance of omniscience.

Lasting Friendships

Like Mrs. Malaprop, I shrink from caparisons. They are heating and delusive. But, to one who looks only a little way back, to the decade 1920-1930, two large truths at once present themselves. First there were more amateurs in the county game then; secondly, how greatly did they and the professional cricketers enjoy and profit from each other's company both on and off the field. Certainly the professionals and amateurs in these times still tended to issue from separate quarters and different gates on to the field--a slightly feudal proceeding; but, though our starting points might be some way apart, our hearts were together. We were united in local patriotism; both the local and the patriotism. Those friendships have lasted--outlasted, indeed, the bodily presence of some of the friends; and I still remember the song that our opening batsman, the Bath professional Tom Young, used to sing in the train after defeat. After victory, his quixotic nature might decide on silence. And I remember the curl of Ernest Robson's early Edwardian moustache when, at a vivid moment of crisis, he said to number eleven down the pitch, "You leave this to me, sir."

Faster Pitches

I have a notion that there were more fast and true pitches in the county game just after the first Great War, to say nothing of fast untrue. A medium or fast-medium bowler had a reasonable chance of success if he pitched the ball well up and used slip fielders rather than an agglomeration of leg-side waiters. Conversely, the batsman, if so minded, could make strokes, as they say, especially by a bold forward meeting with the ball. In the days of Maurice Tate, who came faster from the pitch than any bowler of his sort that I've seen, the forward stroke, controlled and immediate, was the best method for those who wished to score and survive. The back-stroke, even as played by eminent practitioners, was apt to lead only to the death rattle. Slower pitches, deadly true, fatally allied to week-long Test matches, have doubtless improved the standard of back-play and the state of the exchequer. But, for many, they have quenched the brighter flame of cricket and substituted competence for panache.

But there were plenty of stickers in those years--batsmen who rated the cut as perilous, and the full drive as almost irreligious. There were those who would as willingly have given the bowler a view of their wickets as a Victorian lady would have conceded a glimpse of ankle to her coachman. Once more, I am sure the pitches must have been faster then, or we would never have prised these obstacular masters from what to them was a lair rather than a crease, and sometimes we did.

Their method so far favoured the bowler in that the ball could be pitched almost to a half volley with impunity; but as against this the old l. b. w. law still operated, and no ball pitched--even fractionally it often seemed!--outside the off stump might stir the umpire to say out. Praise be to Mr. R. H. Lyttelton, who, after crusade and brochure, persuaded the law-givers to award the bowler what he had earned. A year or two before this Charter of Liberty was granted, I remember a Somerset bowler saying, with so quiet a voice and smile, to a certain batsman from the North, "Excuse me, but is there anything in the nature of stumps between you and the wicket-keeper?"

Inswing Experts

Field placements in these years were more orthodox; that is to say, they answered the still current orthodoxy of pitched-up bowling. There were exceptions, notably in the case of Somerset's W. T. Greswell, the best medium inswing bowler I ever saw. For him was placed a field little different from that placed for the modern inswinger; but there was this difference: Greswell swung in very late with his flight, acutely, and he pitched the ball right up. His would-be successors tend to swing, if at all, from near the start of their flight and to bowl just too short. As dangerous as Greswell, at a faster pace, was Fred Root, of Derbyshire, Worcestershire and England. But a bowler, anyhow in county cricket, gets the sort of field he needs. Field placements are the reflection of the batsman's answer to the bowler's style. Conclusions may therefore be drawn from the recent tendency to crowd the close leg-side positions. How far these conclusions are favourable, and to whom, is a matter that falls beyond the scope of this light article.

Time and a natural desire for novelty have brought in a few new names for fielding positions. Leg-slip is perhaps simpler than close fine-leg. What used to be called silly point is now silly mid-off or short mid-off. Short or silly, long or wise, what's in a name?

In the matter of benefit matches the professional to-day is far better placed than once he was. Such matches now receive more competent advance publicity and are organised more shrewdly. There is improvement in the timing and frequency of ground collections. There can seldom be occasion for a repetition of a famous West County professional's remark when asked if he would like to receive a second benefit: "No, thanks; I don't want to be ruined twice." All this is to the good in days when every million pounds count. But it could go too far. First-class cricket could be spoilt by money as well as by poverty.

Were we happier then than now? Philosophers since the world began have asked and been asked that question in vain. So how can mere cricketers answer it? All I can say is that we were happy in our cricket, happy as only those can be who laughed and sweated, loved and strove, quarrelled and were reconciled, got the softest bed and the best breakfast for 10s. 6d., and, at the advice of immortal Mrs. Beeton, ate Christmas Pudding (Rich), sufficient for eight to nine persons, at 1s. 10d.

© John Wisden & Co