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Our local newspaper in Selkirk, just inside the Scottish border, runs one of those "100 Years Ago" columns. Last year, it told of how, in 1898, the Selkirk cricket XI, returning from a victory over Hawick which had enabled them to win the Border League for the third time in its four-year history, were greeted in the market square by the town band and an exuberant crowd. The story would surprise many who think of cricket as a game with shallow roots in Scotland.
It didn't surprise me. My first cricketing heroes were Bill Edrich, Jim Donald and Davie Ewen. Bill Edrich needs no introduction; it was his defiance of the Australian attack in 1946-47 which won him my regard. Jim Donald and Davie Ewen are rather different They played for Kintore in the Aberdeenshire Grades. Davie Ewen was a postman who bowled fast off a very long run. Jim Donald, who was the school janitor and whose wife used to come to clean for my mother, was a tall left-hander who always promised to hit sixes over long-on into the neighbouring hayfield, and sometimes did so. Cricket was played and followed with great intensity in Aberdeenshire. Kintore, a small burgh with a population of 800, then fielded two XIs every week. The Aberdeenshire Grades - three or four divisions with promotion and relegation, and a Reserve Grade too - were very competitive. I suppose the term "Grade" was borrowed from Australia, though I have occasionally played with the fancy that the Aussies took it from Aberdeenshire.
I soon found myself also watching cricket in Aberdeen, at Mannofield, where Aberdeenshire played in, and then usually won, the Scottish County Championship (founded in 1902). There I got myself a new hero - Alma Hunt, the club's Bermudan professional, a fast bowler and fast-scoring left-handed bat. In those days, trams used to run up and down Aberdeen's Union Street with a placard proclaiming "To and From the Cricket Match". A crowd of 5,000 was not uncommon. Further south, the Perthshire--Forfarshire derby games would draw almost twice that many. Gradually, in the 1950s, television, the greater variety of occupations, the disappearance of petrol rationing, and the encroachment of football either end of summer, killed Scottish club cricket as a spectator sport.
Interest in cricket of course survived. More people, it is claimed, play club cricket in Scotland today than play rugby. Certainly cricket clubs are older than either rugby or football clubs. If 18th-century matches recorded in Scotland were mostly between teams drawn from regiments stationed here, there are nevertheless clubs which can trace a continuous existence since the first half of the 19th century: Perthshire and Grange (in Edinburgh) both date from the 1830s.
Most of Scotland was playing competitive league cricket by the end of the century. The Western Union was founded in 1893; so was the North of Scotland League. The Border League followed in 1895, the County Championship in 1902, and the Strathmore Union (covering the north-east) in 1929. Only Edinburgh, until 1953, held out against league cricket. The Edinburgh clubs prided themselves on a gentlemanly approach, Grange being known as the MCC of Scotland.
For this reason they disdained professionals. Other leagues permitted each club to field one professional. Some were very distinguished. The young Wilfred Rhodes played two seasons, 1896 and 1897, for Gala in the Border League before being required by Yorkshire. It was Galashiels folklore that they taught him all he knew. Rhodes finished his career in Scotland too, in 1931, with Perthshire, and was still taking wickets for less than ten apiece.
Scottish cricket owes much to English county pros, especially to Yorkshiremen like Tom Lodge, who contributed to Perthshire's great record in the 1950s, and now to Jim Love, the Scottish Cricket Union's director of cricket, who has played a very big part in Scotland's emergence in international one-day cricket. Apart from their playing ability, veteran county pros have helped by their talk to make Scottish cricketers feel they belong to the great family of cricket. No great performer myself, I still got a touch of this from our school pro, Frank Matthews, a Nottinghamshire fast bowler of the 1920s. His memories of George Gunn and Arthur Carr were as much part of my cricket education as reading Cardus.
Recently, fewer pros have been old county players, as clubs have looked overseas instead: to Australia, India, Pakistan, as well as the West Indies. These pros are usually young, regarding a season or two in the British Isles as part of their cricketing education. They have included Test players like Kim Hughes, Sadiq Mohammad, Abdul Qadir, and Bob Massie, who went on to take 16 England wickets in the 1972 Lord's Test. He wasn't always so successful when he played for Kilmarnock. Middle-aged men in Perthshire still like to recall how one of the Laing brothers gave him stick in a Rothman's Quaich match.
There have been plenty of good native cricketers. Foremost must be the great John Kerr of Greenock, whose 147 against Warwick Armstrong's 1921 Australians was reckoned by them to be as fine an innings as any played against them that summer. Kerr also hit four centuries in Scotland's annual three-day Test match against Ireland. Then there was, after the Second World War, the Rev. James Aitchison, a Church of Scotland minister who, on his best days, played as if the Calvinist doctrine of predestination ensured he would make a century; which indeed he often did, notably against the 1956 Australians. There can have been few more complete cricketers than Jimmy Allan, slow left-arm bowler and dogged bat. He took 171 wickets for Scotland over 20 years at an average of 22 and, in 1955, one of his few complete first-class seasons for Oxford University and Kent, finished only five wickets short of the Double. He was followed into the Kent team by Mike Denness, who went on, of course, to captain England.
No surprise there; though some Scottish nationalists may delight in supporting whoever is playing against England, the majority of Scottish cricketers and cricket followers have agonised over England's fortunes and misfortunes as intensely as anyone in Yorkshire, Lancashire or Surrey. Indeed, most cricketers in Scotland keenly support an English county, selected for some reason or other. Since Len Hutton superseded Bill Edrich as my boyhood hero, there has scarcely been a day in the cricket season when I haven't looked first to see how Yorkshire are faring. My elder son, however, supports Somerset, on account of Botham, and my younger identified from an early age with Kent, for reasons neither he nor I can recall.
The climate does often make cricket hard going in Scotland, calling for the exercise of Spartan virtues, and enough sweaters to make fieldsmen resemble the Michelin man. More damagingly to the standard, wickets are usually slow, at least till late July, and in recent seasons summer rain has shown a dismal habit of concentrating on Saturdays and Sundays. Nevertheless, cricket is widely played. I have even heard of games in Orkney and Shetland, though organised club cricket tails off north of Inverness, and in the West little is played north of the Firth of Clyde.
Crowds may have gone, as they have, of course, even from county cricket in England; and the development of the game has certainly been hampered by a lack of media interest sometimes, it seems, founded on the prejudice against cricket as not a Scottish game. Historically untrue, this has been rendered absurd by the recent improvement in the level attained by the national side, first in domestic one-day tournaments, and now demonstrated in Scotland's qualification for the World Cup. That was no mean achievement.
It is unlikely that a full-scale professional game will ever develop in Scotland, and participation at Test level is still well beyond the capabilities of Scottish cricket. Until even a couple of years ago it would indeed have seemed an absurd ambition. But who knows? The same would have been said of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe not long ago. Now, in a world where Sri Lanka can beat England by ten wickets, and Zimbabwe win a series in Pakistan, anything seems, suddenly, possible and no ambition unrealistic.
Allan Massie is a novelist and journalist, occasionally permitted to write about sport for The Scotsman. In his youth he bowled chinamen, more relished by batsmen than by his captain.