Cricket, more than any other game, is able at its best to rise above competitive appeal and results; it can show its fine arts entirely for our pleasure--our aesthetic pleasure. In fact as a game, pure and simple, dependent on who loses and who wins, cricket is often a poor substitute for football, tennis, racing or tiddly-winks. I am, of course, discussing first-class matches running to three days and more; the crowd is usually largest on the first day when there's no prospect of a decision. A third afternoon, promising a fight, is played to empty benches and to the apparently homeless ancients of the pavilion.
Obviously a game that absorbs so long a time for a match, so that the end is not clearly seen in the beginning, must, at bottom, depend on a spectacular and human interest; the players must possess something about them that allures us, apart from what the score-board says.
Cricket is in full attractive health when all its departments are being exhibited by exponents with a personal touch; we will gladly forget the clock and the fact that no finish is likely to be approached until tomorrow at the earliest, if all the time there are strokes to look at, good bowling of variety to look at, and good swift fielding in all positions to look at. No game equals cricket for range of technique and duration of scene. It cannot hope in the present age to hold its own with other and faster competitive games unless also the players are constantly interesting in themselves.
Of how many cricketers at the moment may we say that they are worth watching for distinguished individual skill? Of how many contemporary batsmen may we say that if they stay at the wicket an hour we are sure to see fine free strokes? I can't think of six. Hutton, the master, is not certain in an innings of three hours not to bore us and deny his powers.
Nobody ever saw an innings by Woolley that, given half an hour's duration, was not glorified by at least three glorious hits. The same can be said of Duleepsinhji, Hammond, Barnett, Dacre, Cyril Walters, Bakewell, Bowley of Sussex, Ernest Tyldesley... but I could fill much valuable space with the list, all names more or less of cricketers in action in the same seasons.
Any organism to be really vital must function in all its parts. Masterful batsmanship does not mean the ability, patience and endurance to amass runs. The art of batsmanship comprises strokes to all parts of the field. Everybody has heard of the square-cut. But how many times do we get the opportunity nowadays to applaud the flashing beauty of it?
Years ago J. T. Tyldesley of Lancashire scored 165 against Surrey at Old Trafford, and when he was out there was a streak of white powder in front of the rails of the pavilion (the pavilion at Old Trafford is square to the wicket). Tyldesley's square cuts had knocked the paint off. Is it argued that bowlers these times can't pitch to the off? Very well, then; genius is resourceful and discovers other ways and means.
Batsmanship signifies square cuts, drives, straight and to the on and off, on the ground or over the in-fielders' heads, leg glances and leg-hits; hooks and pulls. I do not exaggerate if I say here and now that it is possible to go to a cricket match in our present period and not in a whole day witness half the strokes that are the game's crown jewels; what is more, we won't see many attempts to perform some of them.
So with bowling. The art of bowling comprises pace, spin, medium and slow, left or right-hand, variations of flight, and all the rest. English cricket, as I write these lines, lacks a great fast bowler, lacks a great slow left-hand bowler. How, then, is it arguable that the contemporary cricket is as good as ever and in a state of health, if in so many of its departments there is no life, no distinguished executant?
You wouldn't say of a man that he was proof that the human physique is as good as ever it was if he happened to be deaf, unable to walk well, but was sound of heart. You wouldn't maintain that an orchestra was as good as it might be if it didn't have any good brass nowadays, and no first flute.
And without strokes in all directions, fielding is bound to lose power to charm the eye for want of opportunity. And good fielding is essential to cricket as a constantly entertaining spectacle, guaranteed to convey pleasure to thousands, runs or no runs.
The tendency to put emphasis on cricket as competition, an affair of match-winning and percentages, is dangerous, and if it is not checked the game may easily, as a three-day matter, become obsolete after another decade. The result is important; we all want to win. But by its constitution, cricket must retain its unique fascination as spectacle, as pageant in summer time, and medium or vehicle for the expression of character in action.
I can't believe there is less innate talent for cricket in English boys and men to-day than in the past. But I do insist that the atmosphere and general governance don't bring the best out of a gifted player. The pressure of the spirit of the age hinders freedom and individuality. Life in this country is rationed. Can we blame Bloggs of Blankshire if in a four-hour innings he lets us know that his strokes are rationed?
The times we live in are against the bold extravagant gesture. Our first-class cricketers seldom are allowed to play for fun. Their committees are shortsighted enough to imagine that the crowd will flock for ever to sit in silence while batsmen wait for the shine to wear off and then dig themselves in; while bowlers wheel them up mechanically on the short and safe side. The multitude storms your gates in a season when your team is winning the County Championship. But you can't hope to win it every year....
The future of the game in its present first-class shape and procedure is dependent on the revival of personal art and initiative. In 1905 the Australians discovered that Frank Laver had learned to swing the ball dangerously. The English air and the green turf helped his swerve, and for weeks he carried all before him. When he arrived at Old Trafford he clean bowled my hero, R. H. Spooner, for 0. Johnny Tyldesley came in next and he and A. C. MacLaren sternly watched the new ball demon and defended with unusual asperity. After a quarter of an hour, though, nothing had been done to clear the atmosphere; the score-board stood menacingly at 7 for 1. Then, while the Australian field changed over, MacLaren and Tyldesley held converse in mid-wicket, and what they said was audible to every one present, including Laver.
"Johnny," said MacLaren, "I propose to drive this fellow." And Tyldesley replied: "You'll, of course, do you please, Mr. MacLaren; but I'm going to cut him."
You see, they were free enough, and men and cricketers enough, to form an individual plan. Whether it would succeed rested with the hazards of sport. The point is that they did not intend to submit to bondage or negation. The style is the man himself, in cricket or in any other occupation. Too much is said to-day of the material setting and organisation of cricket; of schools and coaching.
But what is to be taught? Technique in the abstract, divorced from spirit, tradition and faith in the impulse (and native skill) of a born player of games? Was Woolley coached or Macartney or Compton or Gimblett or Keith Miller or Victor Trumper or McCabe? Or Grimmett?
More than all material factors, cricket is in dire need of a great personal example. Most young folk are imitative to begin with: they'll push from behind the crease, content to wait for the loose ball, if that's the way their betters behave. They'll rub the new ball on their trousers, like so many bereft Alladin's rubbing the lamp, for want of a better trick, for so long as no master of more artistic accomplishments is there to inspire them.
Where there is no vision... certain as to-morrow is it that, failing a renaissance of the game as art and spectacle, with character and the personal touch dictating and directing the competitive issues, cricket's days are numbered, or at any rate likely to be chequered.
Already it lives more or less on the profits which come from the Test matches. The first sign of the renaissance will be heralded when once more a Test match does not give us a different kind of cricket from that of a county match, but is an ordinary first-class match in apotheosis.
In the past, great players didn't think that in a Test match they were under an obligation to deny their best gifts and to inhibit themselves for safety's sake, Grace, MacLaren, Ranji, Trumper, Hobbs, Woolley--and on and on to yesterday--found the challenge of a Test match an incentive to their greatest deeds. What has been done in the past by mortal cricketer it is possible to do again, given the love and the desire. At least--as Pooh-Bah would say--a man might try.