Never a season so disheartening as that of 1921

Notes by the Editor, 1922

Sydney Pardon

During all the years I have edited Wisden there has never been a season so disheartening as that of 1921. England was not merely beaten but overwhelmed. The drawn games at Manchester and The Oval did something to restore our self-respect, but at best they afforded small consolation for the crushing defeats at Nottingham, Lord's, and Leeds. We had, of course, wretched luck in having to play without Hobbs - when at last he took the field at Leeds he was suddenly attacked by serious illness - but the loss of his invaluable batting, though a tremendous handicap, did not wholly account for our failure. We had no Test match bowlers of the pre-war standard, Parkin being by far the best of the various men tried, and our fielding compared with the brilliant work of the Australians was very second-rate. At Lord's the contrast was humiliating. Never before was an England side so slow and slovenly. I cannot help thinking that if when the fixtures were arranged in December 1920, our authorities had had any idea of the Australians' strength, something in the nature of systematic preparation for the Test matches would have been decided on. The five defeats in Australia of the M.C.C.'s team showed us plainly enough what we should have to face, but the revelation came too late. Everything had been left to chance and we paid the penalty. It seems to me that there is a good deal of misapprehension as to the real meaning and value of trial games. No sensible people, I take it, imagine that cricketers of the first rank would, in any literal sense, have to play for their places. That is an absurd idea, but there cannot surely be two opinions as to the desirability of giving the selected players a little preliminary work together. Even one game would be very helpful in accustoming men to unfamiliar positions in the field and giving the wicket-keeper a chance of studying bowlers to whom he may never have stood up before. The fact that thirty players appeared for England in the Test matches last summer is in itself proof that we had not a real eleven, but a series of scratch sides. Even at The Oval, when our fielding as a whole was better than in the previous matches, we could not boast a cover-point worthy the name. In saying all this I have no with or intention to depreciate the Australians. Far from that, I was among those who regarded them, at any rate on hard wickets, as one of the finest all-round teams that ever went into the field. All I contend is that our cricket authorities played into their hands by treating the Test matches from the first so casually. I do not think that in any circumstances, with our weak bowling and Hobbs disabled, we could have won the rubber, but given reasonable preparation, we might have made a much better fight than we did.

The members of the Selection Committee had a difficult task and it would be ungracious to find fault with them. Still I have a feeling amounting to conviction that they lacked a settled policy. They were inclined to catch at straws, and allowed themselves to be influenced too much by the latest form. An example of what I mean was the preference given to Dipper over Holmes in the match at Lord's. Dipper batted uncommonly well in his second innings but perhaps because he could not be put in his proper position, he was a long way below England form in the field. I regard Holmes as having been the least fortunate of our Test match players. He stayed in for an hour and a half at Trent Bridge when Gregory and McDonald were at their deadliest, and yet he never played again. Certainly he was as much entitled to a second trial as Donald Knight and he would have helped the fielding - our weakest point. It is easy to be wise after the event but, as Mr. Spofforth pointed out, it would perhaps have been better from the first not to lean so much on the players who went to Australia. The fact of having been on the losing side five times was not calculated to inspire confidence. I must admit, however, that the position was very awkward. As the first Test match came so early in the season - far too soon in my opinion - there was no form to go on in picking new men. The great experiment that the Committee ventured on - the choice of Tennyson to play at Lord's - turned out, by happy chance, a triumph. If early in his second innings Tennyson had not been missed by the wicket-keeper - quite an ordinary catch - we should have seen no more of him in the Test matches. As it was he scored 74 not out and made himself indispensable. His success at Lord's, Leeds, and The Oval was a severe indictment of modern methods of batting. He played the fast bowlers in the old-fashioned way, trusting to honest driving and not trying to pull balls that came along at sixty miles an hour. Modern batting is far from being the tame unaggressive thing that some critics represent it - the huge scores prove that - but the experience of last summer revealed it as dismally ineffective against bowling of great pace. While watching the feeble efforts to play Gregory and McDonald, my thoughts often went back to the Gentlemen and Players match at Lord's in 1895. I recalled the way in which W. G. Grace and Stoddart, on a rather fiery wicket, treated Tom Richardson and Mold. One more word about our Test match teams and I have done. I could not, holding firmly to the belief that in any circumstances the best wicket-keeper should be played, reconcile myself to the policy, after the match at Lord's, of substituting Brown for Strudwick. Brown might very well have been picked for his batting and his fearless fielding at mid-off. His selection was a success, one good effect being that we so constantly had a left-handed batsman in at one end to worry the bowlers. The transfer of the captaincy to Tennyson after the second defeat could not be regarded as an affront to Douglas. In the hope of changing the luck something had to be done.

It is quite clear that when the Australians come here again the programme will have to be very differently arranged. A day must be kept clear in advance of each Test match. We do not want a repetition of the farcical cricket seen in the match with Kent at Canterbury or of the squabble that preceded the second game with Yorkshire. I cannot imagine why, as the Australians were so insistent on the point, Mr. Latham was not advised before he drew up the fixture list. A brief cable message would have solved all difficulties. The Australians were so immeasurably superior to nearly all the sides they met that the trouble threatened by restricting the hours of play in all games other than the Test matches came to nothing. Still, Armstrong and Mr. Sydney Smith - an admirably efficient manager - might well have given way in the case of the match with the M.C.C. at Lord's. It was neither wise nor tactful to force the M.C.C. to issue an apology to the public.

In one respect things turned out exactly as I ventured to predict a year ago. The Australians, even more than in previous tours, made everything subordinated to the Test matches, Armstrong seeing to it that Gregory and McDonald should be fresh and able to keep up their full pace on the big occasions. We unfortunately had no one of the same type to trouble about, but our teams suffered a good deal from the casual and unsystematic way in which things were managed. Men ought not to be in doubt twenty-four hours beforehand as to whether they are going to play in a Test match. I think the side should always be chosen well in advance of the day, an extra bowler being held in reserve in view of a sudden change in the weather. I notice that on reaching home Armstrong paid a well-deserved compliment to his two fast bowlers for the splendid way in which they stuck to their work till the rubber was won. Of course, it is a comparatively easy task to lead a team when all the men can get runs and nearly everyone is a star fieldsman, but Armstrong struck me as being in every way a first-rate captain. Leading off with a run of success, only checked by the drawn game at Attleborough, he was never faced by the troubles and difficulties that Noble surmounted so triumphantly in 1909, but he always seemed to do the right thing at the right time. In particular he managed his bowling changes with the nicest skill. In retiring from the game he will leave behind him a record that is never likely to be approached. Under him Australia won eight Test matches in succession - five at home and three in this country.

On the vexed question as to whether or not Test matches in England should be played to a finish, no matter how many days they last, opinion here is a good deal divided. At their meeting at Lord's in December the Advisory Committee of the Counties were strongly in favour of continuing to restrict the matches to three days with, of course, unlimited time in the final match when the rubber depends on it, but some prominent cricketers take the opposite view, and agree fully with the Australians. Personally I am inclined to think that if we in the future give up the three-day system the Test matches should, as in the tours from 1884 to 1896, be limited to three. I do not see how in our short season the counties could be asked to let their best players off for five weeks. Looking at the matter in its purely financial aspect, the share of profits from the Test matches would not compensate for such an upset of the ordinary programme. There is no real analogy between the state of things in this country and Australia. We have first-class cricket at a great number of centres, whereas in Australia all the cricket that counts is played at Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. When we send a team to Australia there is no difficulty involved in playing the Test matches to a finish, as apart from the English fixtures only half a dozen Inter-State matches have to be provided for. Happily there is plenty of time to discuss the subject in all its bearings before the Australians come here again. It is hardly likely to be a burning question when the South Africans visit us in 1924.

As regards our county cricket I have a strong feeling that the time has come when the admission of a county to the first-class should not be determined wholly by the ability to secure the requisite number of fixtures. There ought surely to be some clear proof of first-rate form. Far be it from me to discourage ambition, but as a matter of fact there was not sufficient justification for the promotion last year of Glamorgan. They had done nothing out of the common in 1920 in the Second Division competition, winning four matches out of eight, losing two, and winning twice on the first innings. As the result of their modest efforts they finished up with a worse percentage than five of their rivals. The County Championship must not be a close borough, but there is an obvious danger in treating teams as first-class when they are really nothing of the kind. English cricket has not gained in quality by the huge increase in county fixtures. The reason, as I pointed out in Wisden last year, is obvious enough. The best sides have too many easy tasks and as a natural result batsmen and bowlers get false reputations. What we want is more cricket of the highest class but, with the pressure of county matches, it is difficult to see how we can get it.

While the last pages of Wisden were passing through the press two items of news came to hand from Australia. One was that the bonus to the members of the Australia team was £300 each, not £200 as at first cabled, and the other that McDonald had decided not to return to England to play for Nelson in the Lancashire League. The non-fulfilment of the contract he had signed will, it seems, involve on his part a forfeit of £200. I confess to feeling extremely glad he is not coming back. To me there was something distasteful in the idea of a Test Match bowler of the highest class going to the importation of Australian players. Clubs with money to spend should encourage native talent and not buy cricketers of established reputation. Partly for the reason that it would open the door to financial dealings I was glad that the registration scheme drawn up at the request of the counties by Lord Harris and brought forward in December, was rejected by the Advisory Committee. I quite see the hardship of keeping out of county cricket young amateurs with no qualification either by birth or residence, and only a few years to spare for the game, but the welfare of cricket far outweighs occasional cases of this kind. It was impossible to confine the scheme to amateurs, and the absence of restriction with regard to professionals would at once have increased the power of the purse. Even at the risk of being described, as I have before now, as a hide-bound Tory, I must affirm my belief that the two years' residential qualification is a great safeguard in preserving the true spirit of county cricket.

Reading much that is written about our great game I am struck by the tendency to regard English cricket as having been more or less negligible till the first visit of the Australians. Young people not versed in cricket history might well gather from what they are told that nothing of real importance happened prior to 1878. This, of course, is an utterly fallacious view. The absurdity of it is proved by the fact that W. G. Grace had passed his best before the Australians came here. They gave a fresh spur to his ambition but, though he did brilliant things against them and was their most formidable opponent in many tours, he was never, by reason of increased weight, in the same physical condition as in his younger days. In comparing the past with the present Lord Harris, with his long experience and undiminished interest in the game, is a safe guide, and in his book "A Few Short Runs," he maintains strongly that the great batsmen of a past generation - R. A. H. Mitchell, Yardley, Ottaway, and A. P. Lucas among others - would on the wickets of to-day have easily held their own, with W. G. Grace as unrivalled as he always was. One point I cannot pass over. I was frankly astonished to read one day last summer that Blackham taught Englishmen to keep wicket. To those of us who could recall Pinder, Pooley and Pilling in their prime this was too much. Pilling came out for Lancashire in 1877 - the year before Blackham was seen here - and potentially great in his first match. Blackham was by general consent the best of all wicket-keepers, but he did not discover a new art. The whole science of wicket-keeping does not consist in dispensing with the long stop and as a matter of fact Pinder was the first to do that in a North and South match at Prince's. One can say without much risk of contradiction that Tom Lockyer during the tour of George Parr's team in 1863-64 taught the Australians to keep wicket. It is quite possible that Blackham as a child saw him at Melbourne. By the way it may not generally be known that when Tom Lockyer died in 1869 a leading article in The Daily Telegraph was written in his honour by W. J. Prowse - author of the immortal verses on Alfred Mynn. Even in those far-off days cricket played an important part in English life.

In conclusion there is one point on which I will touch. I wish the M.C.C. would do a little more on their own account and not let the attraction of cricket at Lord's, apart from Oxford v. Cambridge, Eton v. Harrow, and Gentlemen v. Players, rest so entirely in an ordinary season on the Middlesex matches. They might with great advantage revive their old match with Colts of England who have never played at Lord's, and they should also strive to put proper teams against the Universities. I should also like them every year to play a match at the height of the season between England and the Rest, and so keep an England Eleven more or less in being. In choosing the Hon. F. S. Jackson as President last year the M.C.C. paid a fitting compliment to one of the greatest of cricketers.

© John Wisden & Co