The cricket season of 1906 was by general consent one of the most brilliant of recent years, and yet strangely enough, it opened amid all sorts of gloomy forebodings. A north-east wind of a peculiarly searching character had the not unnatural effect of keeping Lord's and The Oval rather empty in May and various persons, who ought to have known better, jumped to the conclusion that cricket was losing its attraction to the public, and needed drastic alterations. Those who had in many previous years noticed exactly the same state of things in unseasonably cold weather, regarded these lamentations as sheer nonsense, and felt convinced that when the sunshine came all would be well. As might have been expected they were perfectly correct in their view of the situation. A bright pleasant Whit-Monday saw Lord's, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge, Leyton, Brighton, and other grounds thronged with people, and no more was heard as to cricket being on the wane. I cannot help thinking that some of the foolish remarks that appeared in print were inspired not so much by genuine conviction as by the desire to create at any cost a newspaper sensation. Among all the things that were said, only one strikes me at this distance of time as worth recalling. I was utterly surprised to find two first-rate experts - G. L. Jessop and A. O. Jones - advocating shorter boundaries. No proposal so mischievous has, I think, ever been put forward by such high authorities. Nothing could be worse for the game than to make boundary hits easier than they are at present. Under ideal conditions every hit would be run out as in the old days, when only a thin fringe of spectators surrounded the playing area and nothing prevented the fieldsmen chasing the ball. Of course with modern crowds this is impossible, but to my mind it is essential that boundaries should be as deep as possible, so that hits may be worth the runs given for them. One has only to watch a day's cricket at The Oval, with deep boundaries all round, and then see a game on a small ground to appreciate the enormous difference. Short boundaries, by decreasing the opportunities for good fielding, rob cricket of half its charm. The proposal put forward last May is not likely to be heard of again, and I only mention it here because it received support in such unexpected quarters. There was no point in cricket on which the late Mr V. E. Walker insisted so strongly as the advantage modern batsman derived from scoring again and again without the fatigue of running.
No season goes by without producing some discussion as to the County Championship, and 1906 was no exception to the rule. It was rather surprising, however, to find a proposal to arrange the Championship in two divisions, after the style of the Football League, emanating from W. G. Grace. I am, as everyone must be, quite conscious of the anomalies inevitable in a competition in which sixteen counties play an unequal amount of matches, but for the two division suggestion I have no liking whatever. I cannot bring myself to look with any favour on a scheme which might, as the result of one unlucky season, involve the most famous counties being put down into the second rank. The traditions of cricket are against such a system. One has only to think of Surrey, Notts, or Kent, with the splendid records of half a century and more behind them, being suddenly degraded to feel that the system would never work. Personally I see no reason why the Championship should be made more rigid than it is at present. One important point to bear in mind is that under the rules laid down by the M.C.C. in October 1894, the first place has never been gained by a county that did not fully deserve the distinction. There has not in any year been a case of injustice. The plan, whatever its theoretical defects, has worked out well and fully served its purpose. Of course, the competition was much simpler and more complete when eight or nine counties played out and home matches with each other, but that state of things could not go on, as it was impossible to ignore permanently the claims of Essex, Warwickshire, Leicestershire and other clubs. Another point, and a very important one, is that the Championship is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Its existence has been justified, I think, by the immense growth of county cricket during the last twenty years or so, but it must not be made into a fetish. If it were abolished to-morrow the game of cricket would go on just as before, and we should soon find something to put in its place.
One subject has come up for discussion since the end of the season. At the meeting of the Advisory Committee at Lord's on December 19th, a proposal was brought forward by Kent that in the case of a cricketer coming to this country to make a livelihood out of the game the period of qualification should be extended, this being substituted for a far more drastic proposition of which Essex had given notice. The proposal was lost but only by a majority of one, there being seven votes in its favour and eight against. Indeed, but for the fact of Mr. Jessop losing his train and being late for the meeting the decision, as a recommendation to M.C.C., would, it is understood, have been decided one way or the other by the casting vote of the chairman. The question is a very delicate one and there is much to be said on both sides. No one I think wishes Australian or other Colonial players to be excluded absolutely from our county elevens but at the same time there is a very strong feeling that the free importation of ready-made players does not make for the good of county cricket. Counties like Yorkshire and Kent that do all they can to encourage and develop home-grown talent feel that they are exposed to unfair competition. Moreover, there is a conviction in many quarters that a healthy state of things can only be brought about by limiting the choice of players to those who have some real connection with the counties they represent. It was certainly not a good thing for county cricket that Gloucestershire should years ago have made their unfortunate arrangement with poor Ferris or that in more recent days Lancashire should have brought Kermode all the way from New South Wales. The voting on the Advisory Committee having been so close it is not at all likely that the matter will be allowed to drop. If opinion be too much divided to admit of legislation I still think that some agreement might be arrived at. The county captains got rid of unfair bowling directly they met round a table and agreed to concerted action, and it seems to me that in the same way some general arrangement to check the importation of players could be come to individual advantage being sacrificed for the good of county cricket.
While the last pages of the Almanack were passing through the press Mr. W. W. Read died after a brief illness. There was no time to prepare a special biography, but I have printed a notice of the famous batsman that I wrote the day after his death.