Cricket and Christianity, 1970

And Gilligan led them out

Rowland Ryder

On Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, May 17, 19 and 20, 1924, Warwickshire played Sussex at Edgbaston, and won what was very nearly a rain-ruined match by nine wickets. They were lucky to get a result. Warwickshire made 201 in reply to Sussex's 120, but there was only an hour and a half's play on the Monday, and no play before 3.30 on the third day: "Sussex had to bat under difficult conditions on Tuesday afternoon," says Wisden, "the sun shining down on a wicket drenched by rain on the previous evening."

Sussex soon lost seven wickets in their second innings, but thanks to Col. A. C. Watson, who made a blistering 32 in less than no time, they eventually made 94, leaving Warwickshire 14 to win with nearly an hour left for play.

But rain, which was never far away from Edgbaston in the early summer of 1924, returned at the end of the Sussex innings, and within a minute of the players reaching the pavilion it was pouring with rain. A hundred or so bedraggled spectators glared at the heavens in frustration; about fifty of them left the ground. There could be no play now, that was obvious; nonetheless, some fifty of us stayed on, hoping for a miracle to happen. A miracle did happen. Suddenly, the tolling of the pavilion bell was heard -- we looked at one another in astonishment and faintly flickering hope; surely it was a mistake? -- and the rain came down more heavily. But there was no mistake. The umpires came out, and behind them, laughing and chatting as they threw the ball to one another, for all the world as though they were about to start a homely knock-about on some sun-drenched Sussex hay meadow, came Gilligan and his men -- his own brother A. H. H., Col. A. C. Watson, A. J. Holmes, J. K. Mathews, E. H. Bowley, George Cox, Tommy Cook, H. E. Roberts, W. Cornford, and -- the knowledgeable said he would one day play for England -- a fast-medium bowler named Maurice Tate.

Warwickshire lost one wicket for eight runs in six overs from Gilligan and Tate; the former then put on his picnic bowlers and the match was over. The Sussex team returned to the pavilion with their heads high. They were soaked to the skin, but there was sunshine in their smiles. The spectators rose to them -- all fifty of us, "Well played, Mr. Gilligan," called a voice in a rich Birmingham accent. We buttoned up our mackintoshes and went home in the never-ending rain, warmed by the sunshine of Sussex.

By the middle of June it had actually stopped raining, and Tate and Gilligan were back at Edgbaston. They skittled out South Africa for 30 in the first Test Match; Gilligan took six for 7 and Tate four for 12 -- was this achievement a reward from providence?

Gilligan's gesture at Edgbaston was typical of a great many cricket teams, whatever their standard; typical of cricket. It also seems to be an example of something more than mere sportsmanship, an example of Christianity itself. Sporting gestures are still -- thank heaven! -- commonplace on the cricket field, but there was more to it in this Warwickshire - Sussex match of 1924. Gilligan had obviously said to his team that Warwickshire deserved to win, and, rain or no rain, Sussex should give them the chance: it is obvious, too, that he had full support from his side. "I always like to think that cricket and Christianity are closely allied," he wrote (October 18, 1968) in a letter referring to this particular match.

Another Sussex and England captain, E. R. Dexter, discussed the subject of cricket and Christianity with Colin Cowdrey in a wireless broadcast (Subject for Sunday, April 1968). Dexter's own view is that Christianity comes into the actual playing of cricket --literally into batting and bowling: "I feel that Christ has an opinion about the use of bouncers and how much you appeal to the umpire, and whether you walk when you've hit it, and whether you are a selfish or an unselfish player." He quoted John Arlott's statement: "If you are to understand Colin Cowdrey you have to understand Colin Cowdrey's Christian faith and the way it affects his life."

Cowdrey himself goes deeply into the subject: "I was in some state of confusion on leaving Oxford as to whether one was justified in giving one's life to cricket. One of the tenets of the whole Christian faith is that life is a service, and could one honestly justify standing at first slip for two days of a Test Match and touching the ball three times and then making nought and one and taking a week over it, and then in the evenings having the good fortune to meet with gifted people in other walks of life -- perhaps a gifted surgeon who had just saved three lives and worked nine hours a day sweating flesh and blood in a tremendous life of service." Cowdrey recounted that he went to see Cuthbert Bardsley, the present Bishop of Coventry, who was then Bishop of Croydon, for advice. "One of the things he did say was that this [cricketing ability] surely must be one of the gifts that I'd been given, and that if I were to play cricket for a certain number of years then I must give myself a hundred per cent to it."

Cowdrey also made this vividly evocative statement: "Batting in a Test Match, the build-up, the waiting for two or three hours at Melbourne, I think that's a picture which comes to mind with 70,000 Australians clamouring for an English wicket, or perhaps two or three wickets fall quickly and you are not the next one in, but the next after that, and the tension is built up, the radio's on in the home and you know that 20 million at home are listening in.... One is terribly alone. And I think these are the moments when one desperately needs this abiding Christian faith which brings, I think, a mastery of oneself ... without that feeling I think you are desperately on your own. I think you are in the jungle."

The Right Reverend David Sheppard, of Sussex and England, for twelve years Warden of the Mayflower Family Centre and now Bishop of Woolwich wrote (1961): "I have often been asked if religion and cricket can mix. Brian Booth, one of Australia's great batsmen, was taken to task by a newspaper for saying that God wielded his bat for him. I believe that by leaving out other things he said at the same time they made this appear to mean something he did not intend. Brian is a great friend of mine and we have discussed this at length. Certainly as a Christian he believes, and I believe, that health, strength, quickness of eye, all come from God. Success comes from God -- and so too can failure. If I say my prayers faithfully this is no guarantee that I shall make a hundred next time I go in to bat. I may make a duck. But I can make duck or hundred to the glory of God -- by the way I accept success or failure." *

*Parson's Pitch, by David Sheppard. Hodder and Stoughton.

Ted Dexter feels the same: "Cricket, perhaps more than any other game, has its ups and downs for the individual," he writes (October 17, 1968). "A hundred one day, nought the next. A brilliant catch is followed by dropping a 'dolly'. Keeping a sense of proportion and a level head is half the battle and I find that it helps to remember Christ in these separate moments of elation and distress."

Returning to David Sheppard, it is interesting to learn that as a cricketer he found himself talking about the Christian faith with other cricketers. These were not only convinced Christians, like Brian Booth, Colin Cowdrey and John Dewes, but many who had half a faith or none, but wanted to see what Christianity had to say to their situation.

I asked him now that he is Bishop of Woolwich what he has learned from his cricketing years; "It was through cricket that I began the process of learning to respect other men for what they are and not for the colour of their skin or for the school they went to. Living for the last fourteen years in inner London, Islington, Canning Town and now Peckham, that process has been accelerated. I hope that I have learnt much more to meet all people on level terms. More than ever I believe that Christ calls in question all our attitudes and actions. If God is the God of all the earth, there can be no dividing our life into compartments which we label 'sacred' and 'secular.'"

Another cricketing clergyman -- of a previous generation -- is the Reverend Canon J. H. Parsons, M.C., Hon. C.F., who was born in 1890 and was a member of the Warwickshire championship side of 1911. He joined the Warwickshire Yeomanry as a Trooper in August 1914, served in Egypt, Gallipoli and Salonika, took part in the last charge ever made by a British cavalry unit, played for the Players against the Gentlemen and for the Gentlemen against the Players; scored 39 centuries in first-class cricket, hit four 6's in succession against the West Indies (1928), became ordained in 1929, as a Senior Chaplain he was torpedoed in the Second World War, arrived at last on land, he gave Holy Communion to 1,200 German P.O.W.'s. At the age of 70 he played against Solihull School -- and scored 65 in 45 minutes.

"I like to look back on the early days of cricket," he writes, "to the days when it first started on the village greens of this lovely England of ours, for that is where it undoubtedly started, later it spread to the Rector's Glebe and the Squire's Home Meadow, and as someone once said 'Cricket was invented by gentlemen, gentlemen born in a cottage as well as in a castle.' One has only to go back within one's own lifetime to remember village cricket teams usually had the Rector or Vicar of the Parish playing, and in long vacation his sons home from school and the University also joining in. The church was very much to the forefront of cricket in those days, and it is my firm conviction that on those old village greens of England the great principles of the Christian religion were inculcated into the great national game of cricket."

"Those of us who played County cricket at the beginning of this century were privileged to experience cricket as it should be played, which gave tremendous enjoyment both to those who played and to those who watched."

"The most remarkable thing about all that was the complete absence of fuss about rules and regulations. The game was played by people who were only concerned with playing the game according to the principles of the game."

That is obviously not so today. In fact it appears to be all a question of what new rules and regulations can be introduced to bring 'life' back to the game. What we have to relearn, both in our cricket and our Christianity is how to hit straight sixes and revive the great principles of life, as laid down by Christ.

Cricket, of course, like Punch, is not what it was: it never has been. We see cricket today and sigh for the days of Hobbs and Sutcliffe, of Tate and Gilligan; in the 1920's we told each other that the game had sadly deteriorated since 1902, and we talked of Trumper and Noble, and Jessop and Fry and Ranji -- and so on, working backwards, to the time of the Hambledon men. But though the implements and the rules of cricket have changed, I believe that, in general, the attitude of cricketers has always been very much the same, so that the expression 'It isn't cricket' --with its obvious implications -- has become part of the language. "The cricketer must be cool-tempered, and in the best sense of the term, MANLY, for he must be able to endure fatigue, and to make light of pain," wrote Charles Cowden Clarke in his introduction to John Nyren's classic, The Young Cricketer's Tutor, and isn't what he said in 1833 very similar to what Cowdrey and Dexter and Sheppard have told us today?

Christianity and good sportsmanship cannot be equated; on the other hand it is difficult to draw a dividing line. Perhaps it is fair to say that whereas all good sportsmanship has its roots in Christian behaviour, the intention behind an action -- and the attendant circumstances -- is more important than the action itself. Here are some incidents connected with the cricket field that are not only examples of good sportsmanship but can also be acclaimed as instances of Christian behaviour.

H. L. Higgins, playing for Worcestershire v. Somerset, was on a pair in his first county match, in 1920. John Daniell, the Somerset captain, said to him: "Hit one to me and run." H. L. Higgins did so, and John Daniell successfully fumbled the ball. David Sheppard was in a similar position in his first county match playing for Sussex v. Leicestershire in 1949. "Les Berry, the Leicestershire captain, said 'There'll be a run for you on the off-side if you want it.' I said, 'Thank you very much.' All the fielders went back a few yards so that I could push an easy single." Colin Cowdrey recalls a similar incident: When the West Indies Test batsman, George Headley, was recalled from England in 1953/4 to make a comeback against Len Hutton's M.C.C. team, he was cheered all the way to the wicket on his return appearance in Test cricket. Tony Lock was the bowler. Len Hutton pushed the cover field back, asking Tony Lock to bowl a half volley, wide of the off stump, so as to give Headley one run off the mark. This spontaneous action was warmly appreciated by the crowd.

The cricketer often observes the spirit rather than the letter of the law. H. L. Higgins found himself again in luck, this time against Gloucestershire. "After playing forward and missing a ball outside my off stump, and lifting my back foot to re-take my stance, I heard Col. Robinson [the Gloucestershire captain] say,'Don't lift your foot until I have returned the ball, or I shall have to stump You.'"

A superb example of this kind of incident took place in the England v. Australia Test at Nottingham in 1964.

"Just before the Duke of Edinburgh piloted his helicopter round the ground," says Wisden, "the Australians raised the biggest cheer of the day's cricket for a genuine act of sportsmanship. Grout could have run out Titmus when Boycott placed Hawke towards mid-on and both batsmen dashed for a quick single. Hawke dived for the ball and in the process knocked Titmus over from behind. Titmus was far from home when the ball landed in the wicket-keeper's gloves, but Grout let him reach the crease and England were credited with a single." By a sad coincidence, Colin Cowdrey wrote about this gesture on the very day of the late Wally Grout's death, stating that he paused for a moment with his hand over the wicket and then threw the ball back to the bowler without removing the bails. It was a marvellous example of the true spirit of cricket.

Playing on in the rain--as Gilligan did -- so that a side that has deserved to win can actually do so, is another example of a Christian attitude being part of cricket. Colin Cowdrey recalls a similar occasion during Peter May's M.C.C. tour to the West Indies in 1959-60, when the team were outplayed by Barbados, who needed 58 to win in their second innings. "With twenty runs to make it was a downpour, but Peter May and I felt that their victory had been deserved and we stayed out in conditions where one would have been justified in coming off."

These incidents do not always follow stock patterns, there is an infinite variety. I shall never forget the occasion when C. L. Vincent, the South African Test player, was caught by T. Collin of Warwickshire, at Edgbaston. Vincent had made a terrific cover drive, Collin had managed to half stop it, the ball flew into the air, and Collin caught it as it fell, with his hands behind his back! It was C. L. Vincent, half-way down the pitch, who put down his bat, and led the applause.

And a story I love is that of Fleetwood-Smith showing a special, secret grip, I think, to Verity. When one of his team mates suggested that such actions wouldn't do Australia any good, Fleetwood-Smith replied simply "Art is universal."

But cricket isn't always fun. "It was in the last Test match of the M.C.C. tour of West Indies in 1934-35," writes R. E. S. Wyatt, "that I was hit in the jaw by a ball from Martindale. It was not a bouncer but was short of a length and lifted quickly. I sustained a double compound fracture of the jaw (actually broken in four places).... I do remember that the day I was injured I was quite unable to speak and was supposed to be replying to a toast at an official dinner. Errol Holmes deputised for me and I sent a message to Martindale emphasising that it was a fair ball and that I attached no blame to him and had the greatest respect for him as a cricketer. This message, I was told by Errol, brought tears to his eyes." A few days later Wyatt was taken straight from hospital to the boat at Port Antonio: Martindale was there to see him off.

"The Church and the Game have been close down the years," writes Leslie Deakins, the Warwickshire secretary; there is plenty of evidence to prove his words. The Reverend James Pycroft spent sixteen years of research (1835-1851) in compiling his classic The Cricket Field, thus rescuing much of the early History of the game from oblivion, and it was he and Bishop Ryle who in 1836 revived the Oxford and Cambridge match. Famous cricketing families like the Lyttletons and the Studds have been active in the cause of Christianity: the game is charged with the Christian ethos.

The examples quoted in this article are examples only -- any cricket lover will be able to think of plenty more -- but they are, I think, typical of the attitude that has pervaded the game from the time of John Nyren to the present day.

© John Wisden & Co