What Is Wrong With English Cricket? : A Post-Ashes Inquest From 1975

Barring seasonal miracles (Australia deciding to cede the game as a Christmas present, or Kevin Pietersen digging in for a match-saving two-day double century), it appears that the current Ashes series will be over and lost by Christmas.  It will then be followed by the time-honoured English tradition that follows any defeat by Australia – The Inquest.  I would hazard a guess that The Inquest this time will differ in that previous Inquests have tended to the assumption that there was something deeply wrong and rotten in the whole structure of English cricket.  Given that the whole structure of English cricket is now tailored specifically to producing a successful England team (and one that has an existence increasingly separate to the County game) the coming Inquest should focus more narrowly on what appears to be an inexplicable collective loss of nerve by Team England.

But let us have a look at how these Inquests were conducted in the past.  This one is from The Cricketer Spring Annual of 1975:

Ills and Cures

Over the Winter England had been defeated 4-1 in Australia (the one victory coming in the last Test, when both Lillee and Thomson were injured).  The defeat had been just as comprehensive as the current debacle promises to be and almost as little anticipated (Lillee had not been expected to recover his pace after a serious injury and Thomson was virtually unknown), but I should have thought it was more easily explained.  Nonetheless, The Cricketer convened an eclectic panel of 25 (ranging from Norman Preston, the veteran Editor of Wisden (b. 1903) to Tim Brooke-Taylor) to investigate “in the hope that common diagnoses and formulae for recovery will emerge”.

There was a degree of consensus about the diagnosis, the most common complaints being:

Too many overseas players (10)

Too much one-day cricket (8)

Poor batting technique (8)

The 1935 change in the LBW law (7)

Too many older players in both County and Test cricket (4)

One or two comments had a strong period flavour.  Charles Elliott (“recently retired Test match umpire”) wrote “No longer is cricket a financially attractive career – as it was in 1930, when I joined Derbyshire’s ground staff at 17 for more money than my father earned down the mine for a full day’s work” and “today’s socio-political attitudes with regard to University entrance have dried up the flow of Oxbridge players to the top level”.  Norman Preston added “Also there has been too much travelling at weekends on crowded roads.  The old-timers used to play regularly six days a week throughout the summer, but they travelled comfortably in trains and taxis.” (A complaint with which I have some sympathy.)

Bill Edrich’s solution was drastic and, perhaps, not entirely practical “We should go back right now to the pre-1935 [LBW] conditions – in fact why not go back to pre-1935 in all respects?“.  Whimsically, Derbyshire fast bowler Fred Rumsey mused “Find me a current England player who plays club cricket on a Saturday.  I sometimes wonder what potential is passed by ‘to waste its sweetness on the desert air‘”.

Several contributors (including Len Hutton) were, though, prepared to concede that, as M.J.K. Smith put it “finally any side with a distinct advantage in hostile pacemen and close catchers usually wins … this combination has always won matches and no doubt always will.” Oddly, no-one suggested that the solutions to regaining the Ashes might include appointing Mike Brearley as Captain, or that a young all rounder who’d just completed his first season at Somerset might have something to do with it, still less that the Urn might be handed to us on a plate (as it were) through the actions of a renegade Australian TV magnate.

One contribution does stand out, and, inevitably, it was from Alan Gibson:

“I am very glad to see that you are drawing attention to the alarming slump in English cricket.  We have lost the rubber in Australia, only sixteen years after we were last beaten there.  Even worse, when they win the series next summer, it will be a mere eleven years since they last beat us in England.  Competitive interest in England-Australia matches cannot be sustained in the face of this disastrous run of defeats.  

The remedy?  I am not afraid to speak my mind.  Sack the selection committee, sack the players, sack all those elitist writers whose newspapers sell less than two million a day.  All English cricket needs is NEW BLOOD and a NEW LEAD, and if pressed I myself would be prepared (cont. p. 175).” 

This appears to be aimed at Dexter (who had a column in the “Sunday Mirror”) and Illingworth.  Apart from his contribution to the symposium Dexter crops up again in the same issue in the letters column, urging that Boycott should be made Captain, with Illingworth as Team Manager and the batting strengthened by Hayes, Ealham, Turner (of Hampshire, I think), Jesty, Randall and Willey.  Illingworth has his own column, urging the selection of Wood, Hampshire, Willey, Lumb, Dudleston, John Steele and Balderstone.  Fortunately, of course, the Authorities eventually saw sense and gave both Dexter and Illingworth their heads, with the result that the Urn remained safely in England’s possession throughout the 1990s.

Period of Transition

Close Of Play In The Close Season

I very rarely re-post anything I’ve written (in fact I rarely reread anything I’ve written).  I see the last time I did it was also at the time of Epiphany, so in a way it’s reassuring that I can put my current low-spiritedness and lack of inspiration down to seasonal fluctuation.

This piece originally appeared in the first week of January 2011, which appears to confirm my theory.  Unfortunately, it has a certain gloomy topicality.

Apart from poor CMJ, a few more to add to add to the list would be Alan Ross (died 14th February), Ian Peebles (28th February) and Tony Pawson (12th October last year).

Some of the morbidity of the piece was probably due to the bottle of whiskey that makes an appearance late on.  I never normally touch the stuff and this one was a Christmas present.  I’ve taken my own advice and steered clear of it ever since.

****************************************************

The first faint intimations of this year’s cricket season have started to appear.  The Wisden Cricketer have sent me a calendar, featuring “some of the U.K.’s loveliest cricket grounds” (including a couple – Sidmouth and Bourneville – I’ve visited).

Leicestershire have sent me last year’s annual report and financial statements – “The club has had what can only be described as a disastrous financial year …” – and the agenda for the A.G.M..  The main item is to “increase the age limit of a director from 70 to 80”.

But it is these little signs of life that keep us trudging on hopefully through the winter gloom.

E.V. Lucas put it nicely in his 1909 essay “Winter Solace”:

“During the snowstorm in which I write these lines the unlikelihood of the sun ever shining again on my flannelled limbs is peculiarly emphatic.  It is a nightmare that pursues me through every autumn, winter, and early spring.  How can there be another season?  one asks one’s self; just as years ago, a fortnight before the holidays, one was convinced that the end of the world must intervene.  The difference between the child and the middle-aged man merely is that the child expects the end of the world – the man the end of himself.”

This is no exaggeration – the fear of dying in the close season is a well founded one.  At the beginning of every season at the county ground there is usually at least one familiar face missing, and, at the end, some of those who wish each other “winter well”  know that they will not live to see the Spring.

The same appears to be true of more celebrated lovers of the game.  The following all handed in their dinner pails in the dead of winter:

John Arlott – 4th December

Brian Johnston – 5th January

E.W. Swanton – 22nd January

Neville Cardus – 28th February

On a brighter note, E.H.D. Sewell dedicated his last book “Well hit! Sir”  (1946) to “Professor de Wesselow and all the doctors and … Sisters and Nursing Staff of St Thomas’ Hospital who had charge of my case, without whom …” and, in it, said “if I am destined to see Donnelly scoring almost at will for Middlesex in 1947 I shall drink in the savour with as keen a relish as anybody”.  He was not destined to see Donnelly, who did not play for Middlesex in 1947, but he did live to see the classic and glorious season of Compton and Edrich.  He expired – presumably a happy man – on the 20th of September, three days after seeing Middlesex, as Champion County, defeat a Rest XI by an innings, with a century from Edrich and a double from Compton.

On a much darker one, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow cut his throat in a snowstorm on the 4th of March (if only he could have held out for another month …).

And then there’s Alan Gibson.  Gibson died on the 10th of April 1997, the first day of that season (if you count University matches).  But it’s doubtful how much interest he was taking by that stage.

But he too had once found the thought of a new season an incentive to pull himself out of a deep Slough of Despond.  In 1985 he had, according his son Anthony* drunk himself into the Bristol Royal Infirmary (at the rate of at least a  bottle of whiskey a day) and from there to “a hospital at Ham Green, which specialised in treating alcoholics on their last legs, as Alan was presumed to be.”  He perked up enough to write a piece, unpublished at the time, which begins –

“Christmas in hospital (this was my fourth) is always a bit of a struggle … The most relaxed of my four Christmases was in a mental home: a case, I suppose, of sancta simplicitas.”  

but moves on to regret that he had not received a game of OWZTHAT in his Christmas stocking and ends –

“For I am confident of being at the Bristol ground next summer and probably even more at Taunton and an assortment of other places as well.  When I came into hospital, I was quite unable to walk, even to rise from a chair.  But you should have seen me, after a week or two, dashing down the ward on my trusty zimmer.  On Christmas Eve I graduated to a stick; muttering proudly to myself, OWZTHAT?”

The moral being, I suppose, don’t lose interest in cricket and go easy on the whiskey.

A bottle of Whiskey, this afternoon

* Quotations from “Of Didcot and the Demon”, a collection of Gibson’s writings with reminiscences from Anthony Gibson, published last year by Fairfield Books (available here).

Let Us Sit Upon the Ground, and Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Kings … (with E.V. Lucas and Alan Gibson)

The first faint intimations of this year’s cricket season have started to appear.  The Wisden Cricketer have sent me a calendar, featuring “some of the U.K.’s loveliest cricket grounds” (including a couple – Sidmouth and Bourneville – I’ve visited).

Leicestershire have sent me last year’s annual report and financial statements – “The club has had what can only be described as a disastrous financial year …” – and the agenda for the A.G.M..  The main item is to “increase the age limit of a director from 70 to 80”.

But it is these little signs of life that keep us trudging on hopefully through the winter gloom.

E.V. Lucas put it nicely in his 1909 essay “Winter Solace”:

“During the snowstorm in which I write these lines the unlikelihood of the sun ever shining again on my flannelled limbs is peculiarly emphatic.  It is a nightmare that pursues me through every autumn, winter, and early spring.  How can there be another season?  one asks one’s self; just as years ago, a fortnight before the holidays, one was convinced that the end of the world must intervene.  The difference between the child and the middle-aged man merely is that the child expects the end of the world – the man the end of himself.”

This is no exaggeration – the fear of dying in the close season is a well founded one.  At the beginning of every season at the county ground there is usually one familiar face missing, and, at the end, some of those who wish each other “winter well”  know that they will not live to see the Spring. 

The same appears to be true of more celebrated lovers of the game.  The following all handed in their dinner pails in the dead of winter:

John Arlott – 4th December

Brian Johnston – 5th January

E.W. Swanton – 22nd January

Neville Cardus – 28th February    

On a brighter note, E.H.D. Sewell dedicated his last book “Well hit! Sir”  (1946) to “Professor de Wesselow and all the doctors and … Sisters and Nursing Staff of St Thomas’ Hospital who had charge of my case, without whom …” and, in it, said “if I am destined to see Donnelly scoring almost at will for Middlesex in 1947 I shall drink in the savour with as keen a relish as anybody”.  He was not destined to see Donnelly, who did not play for Middlesex in 1947, but he did live to see the classic and glorious season of Compton and Edrich.  He expired – presumably a happy man – on the 20th of September, three days after seeing Middlesex, as Champion County, defeat a Rest XI by an innings, with a century from Edrich and a double from Compton.

On a much darker one, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow cut his throat in a snowstorm on the 4th of March (if only he could have held out for another month …).

And then there’s Alan Gibson.  Gibson died on the 10th of April 1997, the first day of that season (if you count University matches).  But it’s doubtful how much interest he was taking by that stage. 

He too had once found the thought of a new season an incentive to pull himself out of a deep Slough of Despond.  In 1985 he had, according his son Anthony* drunk himself into the Bristol Royal Infirmary (at the rate of at least a  bottle of whisky a day) and from there to “a hospital at Ham Green, which specialised in treating alcoholics on their last legs, as Alan was presumed to be.”  He perked up enough to write a piece, unpublished at the time, which begins –

“Christmas in hospital (this was my fourth) is always a bit of a struggle … The most relaxed of my four Christmases was in a mental home: a case, I suppose, of sancta simplicitas.”  

but moves on to regret that he had not received a game of OWZTHAT in his Christmas stocking and ends –

“For I am confident of being at the Bristol ground next summer and probably even more at Taunton and an assortment of other places as well.  When I came into hospital, I was quite unable to walk, even to rise from a chair.  But you should have seen me, after a week or two, dashing down the ward on my trusty zimmer.  On Christmas Eve I graduated to a stick; muttering proudly to myself, OWZTHAT?”

The moral being, I suppose, don’t lose interest in cricket and go easy on the whisky.

A bottle of Whisky, this afternoon

* Quotations from “Of Didcot and the Demon”, a collection of Gibson’s writings with reminiscences from Anthony Gibson, published last year by Fairfield Books (available here).