There is no need to adopt an attitude of sackcloth and ashes in commenting upon the cricket season of 1938. Not only did county cricket become more interesting, mainly because of the change in the method of awarding Championship points, but on the renewal of the rivalry between England and Australia in Test Matches several young players, batsmen and bowlers, proved themselves in every respect worthy of selection. Fears were expressed by a member of the Australian Board of Control that the standard of English cricket was declining. There was perhaps some justification for such an idea three years before but after the building up of England's batting strength to which I referred in Wisden 1938, pessimistic utterances were quite out of place.
This was emphatically proved when the big matches came along. Everyone will agree that the Englishmen had amazing luck in winning the toss on each of the four occasions when Australia were met, and when endeavoring to form an opinion of the merits of the two teams the fact that England always secured first innings makes a decision difficult. However, the rubber was drawn and, while we ought not to delude ourselves with the idea that in quality of all-round play we are at the moment superior to the Australians, the results of the recent series of Tests and the many fine performances achieved in them by young England cricketers have done much to restore our self-respect, rudely shattered in 1935 when South Africa for the first time won a rubber in England.
Before the 1938 season was begun, the highest innings played by an Englishman in a home Test Match against Australia was 182 not out by C. P. Mead at the Oval in 1921. Last summer, no fewer that four different batsmen beat that record. Paynter made 216 not out at Nottingham, W. R. Hammond scored 240 in the Lord's Test and in the memorable Fifth Test at the Oval both Leyland (187) and Hutton (364) surpassed the figure reached by Mead seventeen years previously. The phenomenal innings of Hutton, who exactly doubled Mead's score and set up an individual total unapproached by any other player in a Test Match, may stand for all time. It is fully described in another part of the Almanack and is so fresh in the memory of cricket lovers as to need no further reference in these notes. Sir Pelham Warner uttered no foolish prophecy when he said that Hutton will plague the Australians for many a year. It is true that while England possesses plenty of good young batsmen the supply of first-class bowlers does not afford so much satisfaction. Far too many promising bowlers in their eagerness to experiment get away from first principles. Wright, of Kent, over-praised, I thought, in some quarters, did extremely well in his baptism of Test cricket but his form varied a lot. As he is only 24 years of age, probably the best has not yet been seen of him.
While, happily, the standard of English cricket in general is on a more elevated peak, there exists a danger of the Test Match drifting into a dull, monotonous exhibition. The Cricket Commission appointed in 1937 did not over-state the position when reporting that the effect on the counties generally of any serious decline of the popularity of Test cricket is so apparent as to need no further comment. To many of the recommendations of the Commission the counties turned a cold shoulder and at present, with a substantial sum from the profits of the England- Australia matches in 1938, the majority of the clubs are more or less free from financial worry. It therefore seems an appropriate time to sound a warning note. The late A. G. Steel wrote: Cricket to maintain its hold on the national character must be eager, quick and full of action. When cricket ceases to provide excitement for the spectator, when it not once but continually allows working days to be monopolised by two or three batsmen, the rest loafing in the pavilion, then it will cease to attract. In another part of the Almanack, D. G. Bradman contrasts the exhilarating cricket of the Leeds Test with the dullness of the 1934 and 1938 games at Kennington Oval. On one ground, the bowlers always had a chance, on the other their efforts were rendered almost futile because of the way in which the wicket had been prepared.
To only a small extent are the players responsible for the slow cricket so often seen in Test Matches of recent years. It is in the want of liveliness and elasticity on artificially prepared wickets that the reason for the often unequal struggle between bat and ball is to be found. Whether bowling is as good as it was twenty, thirty or forty years ago is beside the point. If all Test Matches were contested with the spirit shown by Barnett of Gloucestershire on the opening day of the match at Trent Bridge last June and by McCabe later on in that game, or were productive of such an intensely close struggle as occurred at Leeds in the third meeting of England and Australia, all fears of interest waning would disappear. It is true that attendances at the Test Matches last summer were generally higher than before, but it must not be overlooked that practically all the best cricketers in the world were taking part in the matches. This will not be the case during the next three series of Tests in England and only the possibility of really interesting, keenly competitive cricket is likely to draw the crowds. Successive Editors of Wisden have pleaded again and again for some limit to be placed on the preparation of wickets and I make no apology for returning to the subject.
The overtures to the Australian Board of Control on the question of the duration of the Tests are welcome for the reason that with a regulation time of thirty hours allotted to each fixture as has been suggested, the chance of a definite result would be greater. Similar ideas were held when the games were extended from three days to four and meantime the groundman's influence has increased both here and aboard. While these notes were being prepared, the second of the Test Matches in South Africa, like the first, had been left drawn and it is obvious that the groundmen in the Union are becoming as proficient as those in England and Australia in the preparation of a perfect wicket. One may logically assume that unless the work of the groundman is to be controlled the aim to bring about more results by extending the number of days allotted to a Test match will once more be defeated.
Surely, there must be in existence a body of experts who could supply advice for the preparation of a turf wicket which would have lasting properties over a certain number of days and at the same time possess a degree of liveliness sufficient to ensure a more even balance between bat and ball than is held on many grounds where cricket is played. So long as material is used to modify the pace of the wicket, leaving, I am told, a greasy film on the surface, it must remain not only unresponsive to the art of spin bowling but prejudicial to the making of strokes. It is significant that both Bradman and Sutcliffe, two batsmen of the highest repute, have come out strongly on the side of those who condemn doped and over-prepared cricket pitches. Other Test batsmen also have referred to the difficulty of stroke play owing to the ball coming so slowly off the pitch and to the necessity of waiting for the runs to come, so bringing about dull cricket. Sutcliffe did not exaggerate the position in the least when he said: the sooner the authorities take the matter up and groundmen receive drastic instructions, the better it will be for the game, the players and the spectators.
A very ticklish problem for the Selection Committee was solved when Walter Hammond announced that he intended to play in future as an amateur. At the time, I was among those who felt doubtful whether he should be saddled with the responsibility of the England captaincy. Fortunately, events proved that opinion wrong. Hammond last summer showed unmistakably that he was well fitted for the post; indeed, having regard to his limited experience of leading an eleven before he took charge of the England side in all the Test Matches, he surprised his closest friends by his intelligent tactics. Undoubtedly Hammond proved himself a sagacious and inspiring captain. Directly he announced his intentions, there was only one possible choice for the leadership. It is common knowledge that the number of amateurs who can devote the necessary time to the game is not increasing. If this fact is disquieting to sticklers for tradition, the end of the convention which for so many years has directed the England's captain must be an amateur is by no means in sight. Unfortunately, the subject has been misrepresented and I have read one suggestion that in the past a captain has been appointed when strictly on cricket merit he was not worth a place in the side. A study of the list of players who from time to time have led England will speedily show that there are no grounds for the assertion, even though the best captain has not always been chosen. It is different, of course, in county cricket and the difficulty of finding an amateur who can spare the time for the very full county season does not decrease, but this state of things may change and at any rate the victory of the Gentlemen over the Players last July is no weak answer to those who exaggerate the decline in amateur talent.
Including three men who were engaged in first-class cricket, the Selection Committee was admirably equipped for its onerous task. More than once original intentions were knocked on the head owing to a key player being unfit and injuries to Hutton, Leyland, Bowes, P. A. Gibb, Ames and Wright all upset prearranged plans. The loss of both Hutton and Ames from the England team at Leeds must have had an important bearing upon the result of that game and also of the rubber. The amount of work which falls to the lot of those who choose England teams is by no means realised by the public and by many of those who, when things go wrong for England, shower destructive criticism upon the Committee. It will be no easy matter to find a competent successor to Sir Pelham Warner, whose decision not to seek re-election on the Committee has been received with widespread regret. The game owes much to his devoted work, his encouragement of young cricketers and to his ever-optimistic spirit. First appointed a Selector as far back as 1905, he has acted as chairman in six of the last eight years. It is a tribute in itself that on those occasions when Sir Pelham has assisted in choosing a team to oppose Australia in this country, England has never lost a rubber.
The winning of games between England and Australia is not the beginning and end of cricket but a little more co-operation between county authorities and the Board of Control is not too much to expect. Members of the public learned with astonishment that the Board were unable to arrange for a variation in the hours of play in a county match, immediately preceding the Test Match at the Oval last season, in order to permit chosen England players taking part in that county fixture to arrive in London on the night before the crucial struggle with Australia was due to begin. Fortunately, outside influences went to work to ensure that the England captain and some of his team would be spared a train journey through the night, and as it happened the county game referred to did not extend over two days, thereby rendering the special travelling arrangements unnecessary. The whole affair, however, created a rather bad impression and it could easily have been avoided with a little foresight.
This reference is not in any way a plea for the subordination of county cricket to the demands of Test Matches--far from it. But the counties themselves asked forty years ago for the formation of the Board of Control and it is reasonable to look for a closer working between the clubs and those responsible for the representative games which, I must repeat, so considerably influence the finances of the clubs. After the end of the season, a proposal was put forward for stronger representation of the counties on the Board. Present rules allow for a minimum of ten, governed by the positions held by the clubs in the Championship table for the previous season and it is possible for fourteen of the counties to have a place on the board. In some quarters, this move was represented to be an effort to weaken the position of M.C.C. on the Board of Control, whereas it would appear to have been directed towards securing the representation thereon of all the seventeen first-class counties. The Advisory Committee already provides a medium for the consideration of all cases arising out of county and other cricket; a decision by that Committee led to the Australian Board of Control being approached for thirty-hour Test Matches at home and aboard. I see no sound reason for enlarging the membership of the other body. Quite rightly, to my mind, the Board turned down the proposal and thus guarded against an unnecessary overlapping in the work of the two authorities.
I am not in a position to make any comparison between the players of the past and those of the present time but the attempt of certain writers to The Times to compare by statistics the doings of W. G. Grace and D. G. Bradman in matches between England and Australia is unfortunate. For this reason; W. G. began playing for England against Australia in 1880 when 32 years of age and continued until he was 51; Bradman began when 22 and is now 30--two years younger than Grace was when, in the first contest with Australia in England, he scored 152. As Wisden has been quoted in the published correspondence, it is interesting to recall that Sydney H. Pardon, then The Times cricket correspondent, wrote of W. G. as follows: His early fame as a batsman culminated in the season of 1876 when in August he scored in successive innings 344, 177 and 318. Soon after that, he passed his examination as a surgeon, thinking to settle down as a general practitioner. That he changed his plans was mainly due to the appearance of the first Australian eleven in England in 1878. The most brilliant part of his career ended before this invasion, and in 1880 he was very heavy for so young a man.
It was gratifying to learn of the carrying at the autumn meeting of the Advisory Committee of a proposal for the preparation of a registration scheme for county cricketers. Nothing surprised me more when the report of the Cricket Commission came up for discussion by the Committee than the lack of enthusiasm shown concerning the Commission's recommendation on this important point. In 1921, Lord Harris, at the request of the counties, drew up a registration scheme which was rejected, one of the strongest arguments against it being the fear that it would open the door to financial dealings for the services of cricketers of established reputation. By the latest decision there is now a probability of some of the suggestions of the late Lord Harris being carried into effect. The Harris scheme provided for the registration of players by a tribunal appointed by the M.C.C. Committee. If such an effective safeguard for preventing undesirable conditions creeping into county cricket forms part of the final plan and the other general lines of the 1921 scheme are closely followed, the existing qualification rules for county cricket can be scrapped without fear that the welfare of the game will be damaged. Qualification for the Minor Counties competition and for Overseas cricketers wishing to play for a first-class county will, of course, require special treatment.
As a two-thirds majority of representatives present at an Advisory Committee meeting is necessary for the alteration of any rule of County Cricket, I am not optimistic about any change in the immediate future. Moreover, at the time of writing these notes, the sub-committee to be entrusted with the preparation of a registration scheme has not been appointed so that for the season of 1939 existing rules are almost certain to be in force. Nevertheless it is undoubtedly high time something was done to save the expense and delay in the qualifying of players; another point to be stressed is that a registration scheme on the lines discussed would have an influence also on the problem of amateur talent being available for big cricket.
I must not forget to congratulate Sir Home Gordon upon his latest work, Cricket Form at a Glance for Sixty Years. It must have involved stupendous labour. Details of the performances of more than 3,600 cricketers, home and overseas, in first-class cricket, are given in the book. Other statistics indicate the credit due to the various public schools for producing first-class amateurs; with Eton (172) leading the list and a novel method is adopted for easier reference to an amazing mass of figures. The Committee of M.C.C. has undertaken to distribute to cricket charities the proceeds that would accrue to Sir Home Gordon through the publication. Just as valuable an addition to a cricket library is a new edition of A History of Cricket, by H. S. Altham and E. W. Swanton, who have accomplished a gigantic task in giving an account of the progress of cricket from its primitive stages to the present day. The counties, public schools, Universities, Gentlemen v. Players matches and, of course, Test Matches are dealt with in a most comprehensive manner and every cricketer of note, past and present, is analysed impartially. Some chapters, notably The Coming of W. G. give such an insight into cricket matters that they might well be framed and hung in every pavilion. New Zealand Cricket 1914-1933, by T. W. Reese, is another well produced publication which, with its wealth of information tracing the progress of the game in the Dominion and some splendid photographs of grounds and players, should have a wide appeal to cricket lovers.