There ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this the best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass. Neville Cardus.
The celebrated Trinidadian Marxist historian, cricket lover and writer, C.L.R. James, famously paraphrased Rudyard Kipling in saying, ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ in his seminal book Beyond a Boundary, an eloquent rumination on the game of cricket as it was played and viewed from a social milieu in the West Indies and in his transitory place of residence, London. Replace the word cricket with England, and you have, pretty much, the original Kipling quote. This particular quotation came to mind while I have been enjoying Cardus on Cricket, a book of essays and recollections of arguably the finest writer on cricket, since men of letters started taking this game seriously enough to pen their observations for newspapers, magazines and for their own delectation. Sir Neville Cardus was a turn-of-the-century writer who loved cricket as much as he loved English literature, poetry and western classical music, and his well-documented pieces on this King of Sports have now become part of literary folklore. I am aware that in ascribing this grandiloquent honorific to the game of cricket, I trespass on the game of football to which the title rightfully belongs. That is a solecism I am willing to live with.
The strange thing is that this particular tome, Cardus on Cricket, I blush to admit has been gathering dust in my bookshelf for well over a decade, pristinely untouched, and the prominent spine of the book has been glaring at me admonishingly for not having the good sense or taste to pick it up and start reading it. As an ardent lover of cricket and good writing myself, it is a mystery why I did not reach out for the book much earlier than I actually did a fortnight or so ago. True, there were many other books and authors vying for my attention, but that is a lame excuse. Therefore, I lost no time in making amends and finally turned the last page, with a sense of repletion hard to describe.
Let me first spend a few words on Neville Cardus. Born in 1888, Cardus was a prolific English writer and critic. His multifarious skills as a journalist, albeit self-taught, were so extraordinary that at one time, he held the positions of the Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent and its chief music critic, straddling these two portfolios with Bradmanesque ease. He was widely and deservedly lauded for his contributions to both these distinct, if apparently contradistinctive fields before the Second World War, firmly establishing him as one of the foremost critics of his generation. However, my preoccupation with Cardus has more to do with his cricket writings during the heady days of the Ashes battles between the traditional rivals England and Australia, county cricket and the personalities that ruled the game during this period. I am particularly struck by the fact that here in the 21st century, when we open the newspapers of a morning to read about the previous day’s happenings on cricket, we are bound to be confronted by a prosaic recounting of who scored how many runs and who took how many wickets, accompanied by a scorecard, if you’re lucky, and the plates haven’t been put to bed for printing. Any descriptive comment or opinion on the day’s play is as rare as rocking horse manure.
Cardus covered the glorious game during the time of legends such as Woolley, Ranjitsinhji, Rhodes, Trumper, Constantine, Hammond, Hutton, Bradman, McCabe, Verity, Larwood and their ilk. Cricket aficionado Cardus, as already stated, was a highly respected music critic, and could count among his close friends the likes of world-renowned conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and the peerless Sir Donald Bradman. Such was the stature of Sir Neville, the éminence grise of cricket and music authorship that both musicians and cricketers opened their morning newspapers with some trepidation after their performance the previous evening. Here is a description of the inventor of the leg-glance, the India-born Ranjitsinhji who played for England. ‘His style was a remarkable instance of the way a man can express personal genius in a game – nay, not only a personal genius but the genius of a whole race. For Ranjitsinhji’s cricket was of his own country; when he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light out of the East.’ If that was just the appetizer, here’s the thrilling description of the birth of the leg-glance. ‘And then suddenly this visitation of dusky, supple legerdemain happened; a man was seen playing cricket as nobody born in England could possibly have played it. The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! the straight ball was charmed away to the leg boundary.’ As an English cricketer famously said, ‘Ranji, he never made a Christian stroke in his life.’ In pre-television days, it needed such powers of description to bring alive the genius of unique individuals. When you hear one of the contemporary writers or commentators employ a phrase like, ‘He dismissed the ball from his presence,’ you can be sure the provenance and copyright belongs to Cardus. Today, we may consider ourselves fortunate to be able to revisit the genius of Cardus’ flowing prose.
Given Cardus’ abiding love and deep knowledge of western classical music, it would be remiss on my part not to share this lovely passage describing Wally Hammond’s late cut. ‘The swift velocity of his late cuts seemed an optical illusion, because of the leisurely poise of his body. The wrists were supple as the fencer’s steel; the light, effortless, thrilling movements of his bat suggested that he had now reached the cadenze of his full-toned and full-sized concerto with orchestra.’ Perhaps a trifle self-consciously, Cardus then goes on to add parenthetically, ‘I apologize to the purists who resent musical analogies in a cricket report. I have forsworn them for years, but when the game is lifted into music by the art of a glorious cricketer, then I cannot deny the habits of a lifetime.’ The defensive tone is very un-Cardus-like and, in my humble view, quite uncalled for. Music can be analogous to almost any endeavour (in this instance, cricket) where art and craft co-mingle, and Cardus has wielded his lyrical pen with equal felicity across both genres.
As I reach the closing stages of this appreciation, I reckon it would be perfectly in order for me to dwell on a couple of examples of Neville Cardus, the music critic. While I have been exposed to the wondrous world of western classical music, I claim no knowledge deep enough to be able to appreciate the subtle nuances of a performance. Given that the genre is strictly written and notated and played accordingly, the free jazz spirit of improvisation must necessarily be limited. That is how a novice such as myself to the world of Mozart and Chopin would tend to generalize it, but those with a trained and keen ear can be far more constructively critical of how an orchestra essayed one of Bach’s magnificent Brandenburg Concertos or Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Only a Cardus could have said, ‘A great composition to me is… an incarnation of a genius, of all that was ever in him of the slightest consequence.’ And here is another gem. ‘Even an ordinary broken chord is made to disclose rare beauties; we are reminded of the fairies’ hazelnuts in which diamonds were concealed but you could break the shell only if your hands were blessed.’ I could go on, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.
The legacy of Neville Cardus as a fair and trenchant commentator on the game of cricket has lived on. However, with the passing of such stalwarts as John Arlott, Jim Swanton, Brian Johnston, Alan McGilvray and others of their ilk, who were not born cricketers but revelled in describing the game in writing as well as over the air, and with radio commentary now largely consigned to ashes, the mantle of this highly respected vocation has fallen on past cricketers, who have found a fresh and gainful avenue of employment through our television screens. A handful of them are good but for the most part, pedestrian. We recall with fondness the regular reports of Jack Fingleton, who played for Australia under Bradman, but one swallow does not a summer make.
In the final analysis, Neville Cardus, every bit a staunch and unabashedly biased Englishman who wished for his country to win every game he witnessed, particularly against the old enemy Australia, was always fair and unstinting in his praise for the opponents. One would hardly wish to read Cardus to glean the score. It was never what he said, but how he said it. Rather like legendary ad guru David Ogilvy’s inspiration when he encountered a blind mendicant standing on a street corner begging for alms. A sign read I AM BLIND and the average onlooker may have walked on with nary a glance. However, had he pleaded as Ogilvy suggested, IT IS SPRING AND I AM BLIND any passer-by would almost certainly have reached deep into his pockets.
Neville Cardus unfailingly knew what to say. And how to say it.