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

The British Character : Has It Changed? #3 (Absence Of The Gift For Cooking)

Then there’s cooking. 

The general view these days (put about by J. Oliver and others) seems to be that the British used to be good at cooking, but have somehow forgotten how to do it. See, for instance, this shocking story from the Daily Mail http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/food/article-1382709/One-British-women-struggle-cook-basic-dishes.html

Going back a little further (to 1966), the Duke of Edinburgh famously landed himself in the soup by expressing the view that ‘British women can’t cook’ (surely he didn’t mean his wife?).

Further back still in the ‘fifties, here is Elizabeth David describing some typical English dishes –

“There was flour and water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread and gristle rissoles; dehydrated onions and carrots; corned beef toad in the hole. I need not go on.”

Delicious.  But perhaps things were better in the 1930s?  Not according to Pont.

(I bet she couldn’t boil an egg either)


It’s possible that the point here is to illustrate how difficult the class of people who would have dressed for dinner found it to do their own cooking when they couldn’t get the staff.  

However, it appears from this last cartoon that even those who could afford a cook would have appreciated one of Mr. Oliver’s excellent cook books as a Christmas present.  


The British Character : Has It Changed? #1

An inquisitive child can learn a great deal by browsing through his (or her)  parents’  bookshelves.  I know I did. 

As a small child, my favourites (apart from various works by the late E.W. Swanton) were those adult books that had pictures in them.  I remember with particular fondness a book of Thurber cartoons and a collection of  Way of the World columns by Peter Simple (I can’t have had the faintest idea who the likes of Mrs. Dutt-Pauker, the Hampstead Thinker, were meant to be satirising, but I recognised a thoroughly imagined alternative reality when I saw one).     

Another was The British Character  by ‘Pont’.  ‘Pont’ was the pen-name of Graham Laidler, a Punch cartoonist of the 1930s.  Born in Jesmond, Newcastle (the home, too, of the founders of Viz) he suffered from tuberculosis and was forced to spend much of his life in a sanatorium in Switzerland (presumably why so many of his cartoons feature observations of the British abroad).  He died of polio in 1940 at the age of 32, though not before he had made a contribution to the war effort with some drolly morale-boosting cartoons.  He also left enough for a posthumous post-war volume Some Of Us Are Absurd (something of an understatement, in my view).

The British Character was hugely popular in its day, to the extent that some of the observations now seem trite (more so, I imagine, than when he first made them).  It is also true, as E.M. Delafield points out in her introduction, that it is the English, rather than the British character that he is concerned with, and that, as Punch generally did, he is presenting a version of  upper-middle class life (people have butlers, they dress for dinner) to a middle class audience.

I suppose that the book’s popularity owed something  to the fact that Pont was depicting the English as they liked to see themselves, but then the projection of an idealised self-image can be as revealing as the acutest of observations.

John Betjeman – in what was an otherwise unencouraging round-up of humorous books – had this to say about it in the New Statesman in 1938 –

“‘Pont’ is in the newer Punch tradition and he is good at drawing semi-imbecile clubmen, middle-aged ladies and vacuous ‘modern’ girls.  Here and there the restrictions demanded by the Punch public appear but on the whole he has his own gentle sense of satire and sticks to it.  I liked some of his drawings immensely …”     

And I think it is the quality of the drawings, rather than the observations, that make it live.

I thought it might be interesting to revisit ‘The British Character’, 80-odd years on, and see how much has changed.  So here, as the first of a mini series, is one character who, I think, has managed to make a seamless transition to the digital age.

“Don’t throw that newspaper away, Sir – you’ll need it when you write an angry post on your blog!  Or have you thought about contributing to Comment Is Free?”


I should apologise for the quality of the image here – it is a very old book.  The colouring-in of the background is the work of WordPress itself, not another attempt at Hockney pastiche.

Bernadette! : A Lourdes Grotto In Rothwell

I was in Rothwell yesterday, to watch the Bones getting beaten 6-3 by Potton United (they now have two points and a goal difference of minus 48).

One thing I like about Rothwell is the feeling that, at some point (perhaps the ‘sixties), it has somehow become cut off from the rest of the world – a feeling accentuated by the fact that everywhere I went yesterday they were playing ‘sixties hits – Sugar Sugar, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes, Band of Gold.  Perhaps the ironstone buildings and the dozy, fuggy atmosphere  remind me of staying with my grandparents in Kettering during the Summer holidays.

It does, of course, also have remnants of earlier and stranger selves much older than that.  I have written before about the Jesus Hospital.  The Parish Church has its bone crypt, or ossuary, and then there is the Market Hall.  Like the nearby Triangular Lodge, this was built by Thomas ‘the Builder’ Tresham, father of the Gunpowder Plot conspirator, and was intended to embody his recusant Roman Catholic beliefs in a way that is so cryptic that it verges on the Kabbalistic.  There is a building called the Nunnery, which is believed to be connected with a Priory shut down at the Reformation.

And then there is this, which for some reason, I’d never come across before.  It is a Lourdes Grotto, outside St Bernadette’s Roman Catholic Church.

It is meant to be a replica of the grotto where the Virgin Mary (this figure)

appeared in a vision to Bernadette of Lourdes (the smaller kneeling figure)

Like most post-Counter Reformation Catholic iconography, it exhibits – if not quite a defiant ugliness – then a deliberate indifference to secular standards of aesthetics.  It is intended to exemplify a doctrine, and all else would be a distraction.

Coming across it unexpectedly, it also seemed almost shocking in its wilful un-Englishness (not to mention – to Protestant eyes – more than vaguely pagan).  It doesn’t seem to belong here at all, but in Italy, or Ireland, or France. Or perhaps the shock is in the realisation that there is nothing un-English about it.  If the ghost of Thomas Tresham, or a revenant Nun or some of the older bones in the Ossuary were to chance across it one moonlit night, it would surely make them feel more, not less, at home.

Disgusted or Amused? : A Rover’s View of Lord’s

England v Sri Lanka, One-day International, Lord’s, 3rd July 2011

“Well, we shall meet again for the first match in 1945 ; between the Tavern and the Rover’s Stand ; just where that bloke in the green bow-tie said that Hendren was worth any six batsmen from the Oval and then read his newspaper upside down.” – From a letter to R.C. Robertson-Glasgow written in 1944 by a friend serving with the Air Force overseas.

Another one day international?  Well, I’m like meh whatever.  Too many of them, don’t mean anything. Keep the players away from their counties. Except, of course, if someone’s kind enough to offer me a free ticket to one.

It’s a long time since I saw a Test Match (a rather bad-tempered affair against Pakistan in 2002), and I’m fairly sure that I’ve never seen a one-day international before.  What I forget is that there are cricket fans who may only watch one or two live matches a year and these matches do appeal as a Big Day Out.

There are things you notice at the ground that you wouldn’t know from listening to Test Match Special – that the drinks breaks are sponsored by Buxton Spring Water, for instance (which might explain why there are so many of them).

There are things that I imagine you don’t see if you’re watching on Sky -for instance, that the outgoing batsman is trailed to the pavilion by a cameraman, rather like that irritating duck you used to see on Australian TV –

Or this poor man, marooned atop a towering cherry-picker …

You might not realise that when Stuart Broad was spraying himself liberally with an aerosol while fielding on the boundary, it wasn’t because he has a deal to advertise Lynx Body Spray, but because the area around the Tavern and the Rover’s Stand were infested with midges.

The crowd were, understandably, set on enjoying themselves, by hook or by crook.  For the first, I’d say, hour and a quarter, there was an air of keen anticipation.  Cook and Kieswetter opened, and Kieswetter played a stroke, to wild applause.  Then he got out.  Trott emerged.  I thought Cook and Trott were rather like two women who’ve turned up to a party in the same outfit.  One of them would have to stay a while for the sake of politeness, then make their excuses and leave.  It was Trott.

Enter Pietersen.  Levels of anticipation rose and continued to rise as the sun reached its height and the first rounds of drinks were brought in. He played masterfully and soundly, his attack an impregnable form of defence,  to reach 42 until, with a groan that was audible from the Gents (I can attest to this personally), he felled himself by top edging a sweep to square-leg.

At this point, with Morgan gone too, Bell trying to ‘get ’em in singles (and James Taylor ineligible for selection because he doesn’t play for Warwickshire), it was clear to those in the ground with English sympathies that the pleasure of the day was not going to come from dramatic tension or a swell of patriotic pride. 

Cook completed his usual fine century, the tail twitched a little.  But, as many sages in the crowd presciently observed, the total was never going to be enough on that pitch.

Lunch was officially taken between innings, but, as this was at 2.30, I had the impression that many of the members had begun lunch a little earlier.  The would-be Zuleika Dobsons of the ‘Varsity Match had been replaced in the Harris Garden by men whose complexions matched their ties.  The MCC’s answer to the Barmy Army, an elderly trio, played Dixieland jazz.  There were many faces I half-recognised, heroes from the days of long hair and moustaches, but blurred by time, like a cricketing wax museum in a heat wave.

I don’t often drink at the cricket – the odd pint if I’m in company – but my companion had brought along a bottle of decent wine, and it seemed churlish not to return the favour by buying him a few pints … and as the afternoon wore on, Sri Lanka made their reply, and the heavily lacquered hair of the woman in front of me became a midge mausoleum, I found that the run stealers did appear to be flickering to and fro a bit, as did the fieldsmen, and, indeed, the pavilion.

When I stepped outside during a Buxton Spring Water drinks break, a steward, who I had earlier suspected of being a little officious, kindly pointed out to me that I was about to light the wrong end of my cigarette.  

After ten overs, with the run-rate almost double the rate required, there seemed a real danger that Sri Lanka would finish it off with ten overs to spare.  After twenty overs they seemed to have decided to spin it out to make sure we got our money’s worth.

There are times in games when the players and the crowd occupy the same emotional space, where we feel the frustration of the bowler when an edge goes for four, or his exhilaration at a wicket, and times when the two diverge.  The angrier the English bowlers became, the more they strained every sinew to take a wicket, the more preoccupied the crowd were with their own amusements.  As Broad strode angrily back to his mark he must have gazed uncomprehendingly at a sea rippling with Mexican waves.

A Tamil Tiger invaded the pitch, pursued and eventually sat on, by a steward who was better suited to the sitting-on part of the operation than the pursuit. 

The players fumed, the crowd cheered them on.

By the end comedy had taken over the drama completely, as Angelo Matthews batted out a maiden in the 46th over to allow young Chandimal (who had earlier taken a futile battering from Broad) to make his century.

Alastair Cook later commented “You never know, the cricketing gods might look down at that in a bit of disgust” (like rabbits imagining rabbit gods, cricketers imagine cricket gods who talk like themselves).  My feeling is that the cricket gods would have been with the crowd in finding it all gently amusing.  

(In contrast to my blurred, impressionist view, my companion’s 12-year-old nephew, over from Singapore, was keeping the score clearly and precisely in his scorebook.  To him every single for Bell, every wide from Broad was worth recording, and I’m sure that if he looks at his book again in forty years’ time the day will revisit him as vividly at it must have seemed to him on Sunday.)



The Call of the South

(I’ve been in Andalucia for a few days …)

Balcon de Europa


`Ah, yes, the call of the South, of the South!’ twittered the other two dreamily. `Its songs its hues, its radiant air! O, do you remember — — ‘ and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate reminiscence, while he listened fascinated, and his heart burned within him. In himself, too, he knew that it was vibrating at last, that chord hitherto dormant and unsuspected. The mere chatter of these southern-bound birds, their pale and second-hand reports, had yet power to awaken this wild new sensation and thrill him through and through with it; what would one moment of the real thing work in him — one passionate touch of the real southern sun, one waft of the authentic odour? With closed eyes he dared to dream a moment in full abandonment, and when he looked again the river seemed steely and chill, the green fields grey and lightless. Then his loyal heart seemed to cry out on his weaker self for its treachery.

   `Why do you ever come back, then, at all?’ he demanded of the swallows jealously. `What do you find to attract you in this poor drab little country?’

   `And do you think,’ said the first swallow, `that the other call is not for us too, in its due season? The call of lush meadow-grass, wet orchards, warm, insect-haunted ponds, of browsing cattle, of haymaking, and all the farm-buildings clustering round the House of the perfect Eaves?’

   `Do you suppose,’ asked the second one, that you are the only living thing that craves with a hungry longing to hear the cuckoo’s note again?’

   `In due time,’ said the third, `we shall be home-sick once more for quiet water-lilies swaying on the surface of an English stream. But to-day all that seems pale and thin and very far away. Just now our blood dances to other music.’

   They fell a-twittering among themselves once more, and this time their intoxicating babble was of violet seas, tawny sands, and lizard-haunted walls.

   Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further southwards — his simple horizon hitherto, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know. To-day, to him gazing South with a newborn need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping, and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!

(from the chapter Wayfarers All, from The Wind in the Willows)

My case exactly.  I am not a frequent traveller.  I last went abroad, I think, seven years ago.  I can rationalise this – I can’t afford it, I’d rather spend my holidays watching cricket and so on – but there is also, somewhere in my subconscious, the lurking fear that, if I leave, I shall never want to come back again.  

It’s not just that the minute I arrive in Spain I find the Spanish way of life more congenial than the English – the idea of drinking a whole pint of beer seems gross, chorizo seems the perfect thing to have for breakfast, being inside before midnight an absurdity – it’s that I become actively Anglophobic.  How absurd the English seem, with their pasty, knobbly faces, their ridiculous three-quarter length trousers, their incessant chatter about money, their idiotic newspapers.

And when I return to England this feeling lingers.  The staff at the airport seem ruder, the police more threatening than the Guardia Civil, the notices and tannoy announcements more paranoid and hectoring.  The people on the tubes and trains appear peevish, querulous, spoling for an argument.  Even when I’m home the things I might normally delight in – the churches, the Autumn leaves, the subtler effects of the English countryside seem – as the swallow said – ” pale and thin and very far away.”

This is a kind of enchantment and gradually it will fade.  Before too long I will be able to think of nothing better than a few pints of bitter and a pie in an English pub lit by a roaring fire (cana- bah! – tapas – pshaw!) but while it lasts it is a very powerful trance-like bewitchment, and, in its way, more than a little disturbing.

“Poor Ratty did his best, by degrees, to explain things; but how could he put into cold words what had mostly been suggestion? How recall, for another’s benefit, the haunting sea voices that had sung to him, how reproduce at second-hand the magic of the Seafarer’s hundred reminiscences? Even to himself, now the spell was broken and the glamour gone, he found it difficult to account for what had seemed, some hours ago, the inevitable and only thing. It is not surprising, then, that he failed to convey to the Mole any clear idea of what he had been through that day.

To the Mole this much was plain: the fit, or attack, had passed away, and had left him sane again, though shaken and cast down by the reaction. But he seemed to have lost all interest for the time in the things that went to make up his daily life, as well as in all pleasant forecastings of the altered days and doings that the changing season was surely bringing.”


The Aftermath of Defeat



A small private lake a short walk from the Brampton Valley Way.  As the evening sky lowers, a tattered flag of St. George (as supplied by the Sun newspaper) struggles to disentangle itself from a tree.  Nearby, the burnt-out remains of a campfire (actually a disposable barbecue set from Sainsbury’s) has scorched the earth.

But, with a little imagination, you could half have the sense of the aftermath of some disastrous medieval battle here.