Frank Woolley : The Artist Before The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction

Frank Woolley

“So, what was Woolley like?“, as I used to ask my Grandfather (to be answered, usually, with an enigmatic smile) …

Well, he was like this …

“Cricket belongs entirely to summer every time that Woolley bats an innings.  His cricket is compounded of soft airs and fresh flavours.  The bloom of the year is on it, making for sweetness.  And the brevity of summer is in it too, making for loveliness.  Woolley, so the statisticians tell us, often plays a long innings.  But Time’s a cheat, as the old song sings.  Fleeter he seems in his stay than in his flight.  The brevity in Woolley’s batting is a thing of pulse or spirit, not to be checked by clocks, but only to be apprehended by imagination.  He is always about to lose his wicket; his runs are thin-spun.  His bat is charmed, and most of us, being reasonable, do not believe in charms … but for that matter, all the loveliness of the world seems no more lasting than the dew on the grass, seems no more than the perfume and suppliance of a minute.  Yet the miracle of renewal goes on, and all the east winds in the world may blow in vain.  So with Woolley’s cricket; the lease of it is in the hands of the special Providence which looks after the things that will not look after themselves.”

and like this

Woolley and Fielder

but then

“The score-board does not get anywhere near the secret of Woolley.  It can tell us only about Bloggs; for him runs and results are the only justification … An innings by Woolley begins from the raw material of cricket, and goes far beyond.  We remember it long after we have forgotten the competitive occasion which prompted the making of it; it remains in the mind;  an evocative memory which stirs in us a sense of a bygone day’s poise and fragrance, of a mood and a delectable shape seen quickly, but for good and all.  Some of Woolley’s innings stay with us until they become like poetry which can be told over again and again; we see the shapeliness of his cricket with our minds and we feel its beauty with our hearts.  I can think of cricket by Woolley which has inexplicably found me murmuring to myself (that I might get the best out of it)

Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping

Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star.

I admit, O reader, than an innings by Woolley has nothing to do with owls and dusk and starlight.  I am trying to describe an experience of the fancy; I am talking of cadences, of dying falls common to all the beauty of the world.  My argument, in a word, is concerned not with Woolley the Kent cricketer, but with that essence of his batsmanship which will live on, after his cricket is done with, after his runs and his averages have been totted up and found much the same as those of many other players.”

A Dying Fall

or then again

“Frank Woolley was easy to watch, difficult to bowl to, and impossible to write about.  When you bowled to him there weren’t enough fielders; when you wrote about him there weren’t enough words.  In describing a great innings by Woolley, and few of them were not great in artistry, you had to go careful with your adjectives and stack them in little rows, like pats of butter or razor-blades.  In the first over of his innings, perhaps, there had been an exquisite off-drive, followed by a perfect cut, then an effortless leg-glide.  In the second over the same sort of thing happened; and your superlatives have already gone.  The best thing to do was to presume that your readers knew how Frank Woolley batted and use no adjectives at all …

Woolley Driving

“I have tried to avoid metaphor and rhapsody; but there was all summer in a stroke by Woolley, and he batted as is sometimes shown in dreams.”

Cricketers survive their deaths (or their cricketing deaths) in different ways.  The only monument Bradman requires are his statistics. There are those who can read equations (to me quite meaningless) and conjure up whole new worlds in their mind’s eye or for whom reading a musical score is as good as hearing it performed and there may be differently gifted people who can read Woolley’s statistics and sniff the “essence of his batsmanship”, but I doubt it.  

It was Woolley’s good fortune to live before it was routinely, if subconsciously, assumed that every great innings would be perfectly and completely recorded on film.  Cardus believes that he is preserving experiences that are unique and unrepeatable and which would be lost for ever without the aspic of his words: Robertson-Glasgow conveys Woolley’s greatness by implying that it lies beyond his powers of description (or Cardus’s).

No-one asking what Kevin Pietersen (in some things a modern Woolley) was like in years to come will think of looking for the answer in writing (and if they do, much of it will tell them more about the history of hysteria than batsmanship).  Every moment of his batting (in internationals and the IPL at least) must have been recorded and may in time be made available, to be watched again and again until, like all endlessly repeatable things, whatever of his aura has survived the transition to film will fade to quaint shadows, form without substance.

For anyone who feels this is getting unacceptably high-flown, rest assured that the season is soon to resume and I shall be back to writing about the quality of the pies at Grace Road.  A subject upon which Neville Cardus was unaccountably silent.

The first two blocks of text are by Neville Cardus, the second two by R.C. Robertson-Glasgow.  The pictures are filched from Woolley’s book “The King of Games”.


6 thoughts on “Frank Woolley : The Artist Before The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction

  1. He’s very modern. The photograph immediately above illustrates this as does one from a 1926 match against the Australians. A great base. No wonder he made such an abiding impression.

    Thanks for bringing everyone back to cricket, BWM.

  2. Thank you, TM. I think it would do a lot us good to be able to get out and watch a game of cricket (as opposed to spending half our lives on Twitter).

    Yes, he is/was modern. But then the point Cardus makes (and Woolley makes himself) is that he was a survivor of the Golden Age who (unlike, say, Hobbs) never adapted his style to the post-war world, so he was also a kind of living fossil. I’d guess a Golden Age batsman would feel more at home in a modern one day match than he would in – say – a County Championship match in the 1950s.

  3. Was reading the other day about how Fry once brought up his 200 by using his bat like a croquet mallet and playing the ball through his legs. Haven’t seen even J. Buttler try that one yet.

    Though I suppose a lot of the emotional charge attached to the Golden Age comes from the fact that it ended with the Great War & I don’t suppose anyone wants to see a repeat of that.

  4. I hadn’t thought of Peitersen as a modern Woolley – probably because it would involve a coupling of one of my favourite cricketers with just about my least favourite cricketer!!

    Although I never saw Woolley play, my father and others invariably used the word “graceful” somewhere in their description, and I find it hard to find any grace in the batting or the personality of KP. There are similarities in some respects and here I am thinking of FW’s comment “When I am batting, I am the attack” but they are similarities of attitude rather than of ability, method and particularly style.

    Woolley himself ascribes his attitude to an ethos that existed in the Kent sides of both pre and post WWI that attacking cricket should be played at all times without regard for self or average.This is illustrated by the fact that in addition to his 145 first class hundreds, he was dismissed in the nineties, on 35 occasions plus a few times in the one hundred and nineties.

    Nevertheless, I welcome the contribution and the chance read about the great man another time. Keep it coming!

  5. Martin, I think I was probably provoking myself as much as anything by making the comparison between Pietersen and Woolley as, like you, I’m not naturally well-inclined towards the former whereas I have an inherited image of the latter as the epitome of elegance and grace.

    Perhaps what I meant is that if you strip away all the nonsense that surrounds Pietersen to leave what I take to be valuable about him – his batting – then he does have something in common with Woolley. But then perhaps the “nonsense” is as much a part of Pietersen’s “aura” as Woolley’s grace was of his?

    Another point is that I’ve only seen Pietersen bat three times with my own eyes and – because I don’t subscribe to Sky – I haven’t seen him play on TV in real time since 2005, so, in fact, I’ve barely seen him bat more often than I have Woolley! Perhaps I’d think better of him if I had.

    With regard to the difference between Golden Age and post-War batting, I like this quote from Jack Hobbs (in The Times of 1952):

    “You could play cheeky shots and make 50 or 60 and feel life was worth living. Then came the exasperation when they started counting your hundreds, publishing averages, and it was all figures. They think too much of figures these days.” (As the man from The Times points out, this from the man who made more first class runs and centuries than anyone.)

    But then I wonder who else might have said that? (“Cheeky shot” = the Flamingo?)

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