Who reads Neville Cardus nowadays? The Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent and classical music reviewer throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Cardus inaugurated the modern style of sports journalism, at least in this country.
Instead of the banal and ponderous prose, laced with clichés and lumbered with statistics, of his contemporaries, Cardus conveyed to his readership the character and colour of a day’s play. Other journalists, such as Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, were doing something similar for other sports in the USA, and Pierce Egan had done it earlier for boxing, but cricket had previously been staidly immune to lyricism. Originally sent to watch Lancashire matches at Old Trafford by a solicitous editor who thought it would aid his recovery from a nervous breakdown, Cardus began producing match reports that soon became required reading, not only for his paper’s readers but also, through his books, for cricket fans across the world.
Cardus’s prose was sprinkled with anecdotes and shrewd assessments of the players he watched and grew to know, not just the greats like Don Bradman but also stalwart county professionals such as Yorkshire’s Emmott Robinson. And if some of those anecdotes stretched the truth or became hoary with repetition – Wilfred Rhodes grew tired of denying that he’d been told ‘we’ll get ’em in singles’ by his batting partner George Hirst when they needed fifteen runs to win a test match against Australia at the Oval in 1902 – Cardus insisted, and many of his readers believed, that they hinted at a greater truth. His style did not please everyone. The Yorkshire and England player Arthur ‘Ticker’ Mitchell once remarked: ‘Aye, ’e’s all right, but a bit too flowery for my liking.’
Cardus’s success was all the more remarkable because of his background: he never knew his father and his mother and aunt were prostitutes in Manchester. Neville was not even his real name – he was christened John Frederick – and he received little formal education, picking up his literary style through voracious reading in the local library. He was taken on, untested and with no experience, by the Manchester Guardian’s great editor C P Scott but seems to have found the rough and tumble of general reporting too demanding.
Early on, Scott instructed the paper’s subeditors never to alter Cardus’s copy, and that injunction lasted to the end of his long life in the 1970s. A veteran sub recently confirmed to me that Cardus’s handwritten pieces arrived at the paper’s offices by limousine with a note at the bottom stating that nothing was to be altered. On one occasion he even filed a concert review in which he had written his by-line and the instruction not to alter the prose but neglected to include the copy itself.
In Duncan Hamilton, one of the most accomplished of current sports writers, Cardus has found a worthy biographer who has ferreted out hidden details of his life, including those that Cardus himself skated over in his two volumes of autobiography. These include the passionless nature of his marriage, his affair with the wife of the Sunday Times’s compliant cricket correspondent, the fractiousness of his relationship with the Manchester Guardian and the reason why he sat out the Second World War in Australia. Incidentally, Hamilton thinks that the blank concert review was an instance of Cardus being satirical, not forgetful.
Even better, Hamilton has persuaded me to dust off the volumes of Cardus’s writings at the back of my bookshelf, given to me by a Manchester uncle, and open them again for the first time in decades. The Great Romantic is beautifully written, and Cardus would surely have approved of it, even though it is light on the musical side of his life.
Vic Marks, a former Somerset and England all-rounder, is one of Cardus’s successors, and Guardian readers and Test Match Special listeners will know him as a genial and benevolent commentator. He has now written his autobiography, excruciatingly entitled Original Spin, and it is a sunny, easy and modest read.
The sky darkens only occasionally, as when he discusses the fate of his intense friend Peter Roebuck, the captain who oversaw Somerset’s sacking of its star players, Viv Richards and Joel Garner, in 1986 and the subsequent departure of Ian Botham in protest. Roebuck eventually ended his own life in 2011, jumping from a hotel window while under investigation by South African police following an allegation of sexual assault from a young man. Had Somerset made Marks captain instead of Roebuck, perhaps the bad blood that got into the club could have been avoided.
Marks clearly has a vestigial regret about not getting the captaincy. Perhaps he seemed a bit too modest to the Somerset committee at the time and maybe he still is in his autobiography: there are a few too many lines like ‘I played a better innings in the final test in Lahore [and] top scored with 74’ without further elaboration. Although we are spared ‘My All-time Best Eleven’, we do get benign pen portraits of his fellow Test Match Special commentators. They are all decent chaps, apparently.
An altogether heavier read, and one I don’t suppose Virat Kohli will ever open, is Cricket Country by Prashant Kidambi, associate professor of colonial urban history at the University of Leicester. It tells the story of the first tour of England by an All-India team in the sweltering summer of 1911. The tour took years to arrange, was bedevilled by issues of class and caste and was not very successful in cricketing terms. It was led intermittently by the Maharaja of Patiala, when he was not attending the coronation of George V and hobnobbing with London society, whose members wondered whether his bat really was studded with diamonds and rubies. He rather hobbled the team by sweeping its best batsman, Keki Mistry, into his entourage as his secretary. The team’s best bowler, Palwankar Baloo, was an Untouchable and so was not allowed to eat or wash with his teammates. Unsurprisingly, the Indians lost most of their games – the great Sydney Barnes, playing for Staffordshire, almost single-handedly bowled them out twice, taking fourteen wickets for twenty-nine runs across two innings. But they did manage (thanks to Baloo and his batsman brother Shivram) to beat Leicestershire and Somerset. Unfortunately, Kidambi’s telling of this forgotten story gets rather submerged in wider colonial history – the tour only starts on page 242 and ends thirty pages later.
Major Teddy Wynyard, an undeservedly long-forgotten Hampshire cricketer from the Edwardian era (a time when the army supplied half the side), is the subject of an engagingly narrated biography by Richard Evans. A decidedly peppery character and martinet, Wynyard was a formidable batsman who once shared a stand of 411 for Hampshire against Somerset with his fellow military officer Captain Robert Poore and went on playing club cricket well into his sixties. In his day, he played tests for England, won an FA Cup medal, became an international tobogganing champion and received a medal for diving into a frozen Swiss lake in an unavailing attempt to save someone from drowning. It is a wonder he had any time for soldiering. Truly, they don’t make ’em like that any more.