Robert Winder presents the game’s chequered history in verse.
Cricket prides itself on the amount of literature it has inspired, and while it is hard to name any great novels with roots in the game, there is a decent pile of excellent prose – reportage, memoir, travelogue, biography – devoted to bats and balls. There is also a proud tradition of poetry. Don Bradman once wrote that this played a big part in his upbringing – “reading poetry and watching cricket were the sum of my world” – and he was not alone. Cricket has been cranking out odes for its entire life. The recent MCC Anthology of Cricket Verse runs to 438 pages, and while some of them don’t exactly trouble the scorer, most give off an unfeigned affection for the game.
The earliest efforts were – how to put it? – bombastic drivel. James Love, founder of the Theatre Royal in Richmond-upon-Thames and a fervent local cricketer, began:
Hail, Cricket! Glorious, manly, British game!
First of all Sports! Be first alike in Fame!
There was lots more where this came from: Love’s poem was a long match report on Kent v All England in 1744. It didn’t mention anything as vulgar as the scores, but who cared about such trifles with all that glory and manliness flying about?
It didn’t take long for cricket to become a gentle emblem of the English rural scene. When Wordsworth returned from Paris in 1802, with the French Revolution in full swing, he put cricket into a sonnet as part of the reassuring scenery of home.
Here on our native soil we breathe once more
The cock that crows, the smoke that curls, the sound
Of bells – those boys that in yon meadow ground
In white-sleeve shirts are playing…
In the middle of the 19th Century the fashion was all for blustering tributes to famous names, scrawled at top volume as if they were mighty oaks or towering crags.
Proudly sadly, we will name him: to forget him were a sin;
Lightly lie the turf upon thee, kind and manly Alfred Mynn!
It didn’t take much for this sort of thing to grow into the patriotic drum-roll that made Henry Newbolt’s 1897 poem Vitai Lampada such an immediate and enduring hit.
There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight,
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light
An hour to play and the last man in.
Plenty have sighed about the biscuit-tin jingoism of this work, which urged the soldiers of the Empire to “Play up, play up and play the game!” but it didn’t do the author any harm: he went on to become Controller of Propaganda in World War I.
Cricket’s Edwardian “golden age” at the start of the 20th Century inspired poetry that imagined cricket as a delicate, fragrant, pretty sort of thing. In A Shropshire Lad, AE Houseman recalled his own youthful contact with the game:
Now in May time to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad…
This kind of mild whimsy gave both cricket and poetry a bad name. And World War I waved goodbye to all that. Stuck in the misery of the trenches, the soldier poets made cricket a resonant symbol of lost innocence, happier days. As Siegfried Sassoon put it:
I see them in foul dug outs gnawed by rats
And in the ruined trenches lashed by rain
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats…
EW Hornung, author of the Raffles crime stories, was moved by the same bitter contrast, not least because his own son was killed on the Western Front:
No Lords this year, no silken lawns on which
A dignified and dainty throng meanders.
The schools take guard upon a fierier pitch
Somewhere in Flanders.
This solemn voice is rare; for the most part cricket inspires a lighter shade of poem. In a break from Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle smiled at the day he did for WG Grace:
Once in my hey-day of cricket
One day I shall ever recall!
I captured that glorious wicket,
The greatest, the grandest of all.
PG Wodehouse, always dedicated to the silly side of things, was even more playful:
I was tenderly dreaming of Clara
(On her not a girl is a patch)
When, ah horror! There soared through the air a
Decidedly possible catch…
Between the wars, cricket became part of the jolly furniture of upper-class country life. John Betjeman began his poem about Cheltenham with the following memory:
I composed these lines as a summer wind
Was blowing the elm leaves dry
And we had seventy six for seven
And they had CB Fry.
It took a Wisden editor, years later, to point out that CB Fry never actually played at Cheltenham in his life. It was a pure fancy. Betjeman also poked fun, in Cricket Master, at the memory of himself bluffing through a job interview at a Prep school:
“The sort of man we want must be prepared
To take our first eleven. Many boys
From last year’s team are with us. You will find
Their bowling’s pretty good and they are keen.”
“And so am I sir, very keen indeed.”
This, we might think, is pretty much what poet laureates are for. Yet few of them have added much to the kit-bag of crick-lit. One of them, Wendy Cope, conceded as much:
Although there are some English writers
Who feature the red leather ball,
You could make a long list of the players and books
In which there’s no cricket at all.
In the end this – after-dinner amusement – is the commonest cricket genre. Endless formal occasions (luncheons, dinners, funerals etc) have been enlivened by cricketing rhymes. Even children join in. One 10-year-old boy went to The Oval and wrote:
Bernard Constable got a duck
Oh, he said – what rotten luck!
The author of this nugget was John Major. He might not have known it, but he was echoing the bilge produced (also at The Oval) by the so-called “Surrey Poet”, Albert Craig. Craig’s poems were of the so-bad-they’re-funny variety, and sold like fairly warm cakes. But posterity has not been kind to them:
A hearty shout of joy then rent the air
You might have heard it in Trafalgar Square.
At its best, however, cricket poetry can be both moving and serious. And some of its finest moments come when it is most soppy and nostalgic. In At Lord’s, Francis Thompson sighed when he thought of the good old days:
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless clapping host,
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro,
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago.
Thomas Moult agreed that cricket glows in the memory. In The Names he wrote:
There’s magic in the names I used to know
And magic when I heard them, long ago.
This thought has been much satirised – by Humphrey Clucas, for example, who in History nailed cricket’s chronic tendency to gaze misty-eyed into its own past:
Of course it’s all Decline and Fall,
The snows of yesteryear
Increase the thirst
For Rhodes and Hirst
And older, rarer beer.
But in the best hands the spirit of sombre reflection can produce authentic poetry. John Arlott’s elegy to Jack Hobbs adorns the entrance of The Oval to this day, sketching the great batsman in his own calm and deliberate voice:
The master: records prove the title good
And yet they fail you, for they cannot say
How many men whose names you never knew
Were proud to tell their sons they saw you play.
The playwright (and cricketer) Harold Pinter struck the same note in a mere fragment:
I saw Len Hutton in his prime.
As was his habit, he sent this gem to his circle of friends and some time later (so the story goes) rang one of them, his fellow-dramatist David Hare, to see if he had received it. Hare confirmed that he had.
“Well?” There was a pause. “What did you think of it?’ “Sorry,” said Hare. “Haven’t quite finished it yet.”
Recent times have seen a flood of new work as established poets (Gavin Ewart, Ted Hughes, Brian Jones, Norman Nicholson, Simon Rae, Kit Wright and many others) have described rollers abandoned in woods, grim-faced rebels in South Africa, radio commentators, grimy urban pitches, classic matches and so forth. There are pen portraits of Grace, Ranji, Gunn, Trumper, Hammond, Verity, Compton, Bradman, Cowdrey and Lara. There are new accents from the Caribbean and India. And SJ Litherland has written a whole book on Nasser Hussain (“Hooded eyes of ancestry/ Wait like a bird of prey”).
But the last word goes to Alan Ross, the cricket-loving poet and editor who merged both the great impulses – memoir and portrait – into a single glimpse of two famous old cricketers (one of them blind) walking gingerly out of the Long Room at Lord’s:
On a tilting deck, they move. One, square-shouldered as a tailor’s
Model, leans over, whispering in the other’s ear.
“Go easy. Steps here. This end bowling.”
Turning, I watch Barnes guide Rhodes into fresher air,
As if to continue an innings, though Rhodes may only play by ear.
We may have to wade through a fair amount of rum-ti-tum rhymes by “Anon” to reach sentiments as rare as this – but they are there. They always have been.
Robert Winder is the former literary editor at The Independent, author of The Little Wonder: The Remarkable History of Wisden and a former member of playwright Harold Pinter’s team, the Gaeities.