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One of cricket's rare fascinations is the way it responds to atmosphere, and is quick to express scene or character and even a national spirit. After all, a great game is an organism in an environment, so we need not be surprised if players change according to the pressure of circumstances in which they find themselves, technical and psychological.
By no accident did men such as A. C. MacLaren, F. S. Jackson, C. B. Fry, K. S. Ranjitsinhji, R. H. Spooner and G. L. Jessop lord the green earth of our cricket fields in the opulent years of the Edwardian high noon and the glowing Victorian sunset.
Two wars have altered the economy of living, have altered the attitude to living. MacLaren and Ranji and others of that breed played the game, even in a Test match, much in the same mood in which they went to Ascot or Goodwood; it was for them a summer pastime. They set the tempo of cricket, and it moved to the same rhythm as that of the privileged world they dwelt in.
The professionals had to go with them at the same pace--and how admirably they emulated the amateur tradition! Johnny Tyldesley, George Hirst, David Denton, Ernest Hayes, Frank Woolley, Jack Hobbs before 1914--no batsman, not MacLaren himself, made strokes more splendid, more daring, more intensely infused with the true blood and spirit of cricket, than the strokes of these, all of them cricketers for a livelihood, in a period when sport was by no means the paying proposition it is to-day.
I once saw MacLaren drive the fifth ball in a Test match straight for four; an over or so later he was caught near the sight-screen, trying to repeat the hit, only aiming higher and farther. Such an extravagant gesture would scarcely meet the approval of the modern policies; indeed, I am certain that if MacLaren were playing nowadays he would be called ham by the present generation, just as they would call Henry Irving ham. (I find it ironical that in a half-starved rationed time of the troubled history of the world, the term ham should have been used as a term of contempt to apply to any excessive sign of a generous and romantic nature!)
It is bad criticism to set the masters of one period against those of another and to blame, say, a Hutton or a Hassett for not indulging the gestures and points of view of a MacLaren or a Jackson. MacLaren and Jackson were representative men in a particular national scene and atmosphere; Hutton and Hassett each are, in relation to the contemporary environment, equally as representative. The style is the man himself. Nobody by evidence of statistics or by aesthetic argument can prove that Jackson was greater as a batsman than Hutton. All that a critic as seasoned as myself is entitled to say is that he preferred the richer and hammier sorts of cricket to the scientifically-rationed products of later origin.
Lindsay Hassett might serve as a perfect example to point our moral: that cricket reacts to the social and economic pressure of life, and that inborn skill is very much swayed by external compulsion. Hassett, in his first seasons, promised to join the ranks of the quicksilver rapier-like users of the bat, kindred with Macartney, Tyldesley, Hendren, a little terror, five feet six of aggression, pertinacity and brilliance. I have seen Hassett lay into W. J. O'Reilly even as Johnny Tyldesley once laid into Colin Blythe and Warwick Armstrong.
When Hassett arrived fresh to England in 1938, he at once became renowned for combined consistency and beautifully-poised swiftness of stroke-play, an enchanting late-cutter and a vehement hooker. Following 43 at Worcester, he scored 146, 148 run out and 220 not out in consecutive innings. At the crisis of the Leeds Test match the same summer, Australia in their second innings had lost four wickets for 61, needing 105 to win on an unpleasant pitch, in a dreadful light. Douglas Wright, bowling then with nothing less than genius, overwhelmed Bradman and McCabe. With thunder in the air and in a tension unbearable, Hassett drove and pulled with the ease and confidence of nature. He won the match, plucked the brand from the burning--though as a matter of course, all in the afternoon's work.
Hassett was born in 1913, and therefore the foundations of his technique and approach to cricket were laid during a time still enlivened and ennobled by traditions and memories of Australia's greatest stroke players. Not yet had Test matches lost the fresh impulse of pleasure and sport from the first ball bowled. The idea never occurred to Trumper, Macartney, McCabe, MacLaren, Tyldesley, Woolley to play in a Test match extending over several days a different game from the one they played in three-day matches. It is generally forgotten that all Test matches in Australia, until the second war, were played to a finish. But because there was no time-limit Victor Trumper did not dawdle at the wicket; it was not in his nature to do so.
No great cricketer compromises his true character or his instinctive technical capacity. And if his technique doesn't work by instinct, he isn't a master. Hassett was born to natural elegance and boldness as a batsman; he found himself caught after 1939 in a tremendous transition, both in cricket and world environment.
Nothing could have signified more emphatically his resources, as man of character and cricketer of innate flexible skill, than his adaptation to an altered scheme of things, a changed and less individually enterprising view of Test cricket, a view putting value primarily on security and team-work. He never lost lightness of touch, though, no matter how for the cause's sake, he controlled himself, bat in hand, often seeming to hide himself behind it, over after over.
There was no sullenness about his slow scoring; we could get the flavour of a humourous principle behind it all; it wasn't himself that was bearing the cross of long patience stonewalling but the crowd! And he knew it! I once stopped him in North Terrace, Adelaide, after he had batted all day on a perfect wicket, scoring about twenty runs an hour, mostly in singles, and, weary in my soul I asked him: "Good gracious, what's the matter, Lindsay?..." With a twinkle he replied: "Wore out. Just wore out!"
In his career he scored 16,890 runs, average 58.24. Against England, here and in Australia, his figures are 42 innings, 1,572 runs, average 38.34. But to discuss Hassett statistically is a waste of time and sense. He played cricket with the wit of his mind. At Melbourne in 1951, when England won a Test match after years in the wilderness, Hassett went on to bowl at the finish, just to provide generously the winning-hit in a kissing-cup, so to say. With eight wickets in hand England wanted only another three or four. But Hassett set his field very mathematically, moving men about to an inch. Then he solemnly measured out his run. And then, before bowling--an old ball, of course--comic inspiration visited him; he rubbed it vigorously on the right side of his stomach.
Australia has sent to these shores no captain of cricket who shared Hassett's secret into our English ways--knowing it without any surrender of Australia's own related yet not entirely similar ways. He could be open-hearted, apparently casual, even complying. But, at the pinch, he would put on his poker face--and now--not Armstrong himself could have been more obstinate. It is because of Hassett's influence that Test matches between England and Australia are emerging from the mechanically stupid to a condition not unconnected with volatile sport as conceived by the present generations.
An Australian of Hassett's vintage likes to win, we may be sure, and, moreover, does his damndest to win. But should the luck go the wrong way, well, there's always the consoling thought that, come to think of it, we've been playing a game; and none of us is the worse for it and some of us much the better. And there are friends as well as runs to be got out of it. Lindsay Hassett goes into retirement to the good wishes of far more friends all over the globe than all the 16,000-odd runs he accumulated, at his leisure and according to his own sweet will, at the wicket.