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Poetry on a perfect pitch

It was by accident that Sir Neville Cardus started writing on cricket. He ended up becoming its most stylish chronicler and it's a delight to read him even now…

The otherwise comfortable lounge at Istanbul airport had one major failing: its sockets did not match the plug on my laptop's charger. Even the duty-free shopping mall failed to produce the requisite number of pins in the desired shape. I shuddered at the prospect of spending the next eight hours twiddling my thumbs while all around me people cleared mail, chatted on Skype, swished tablet screens, smiled absently into cyberspace.

But the horror subsided as I discovered the saviour, suitably adorned in a cover the colour of green grass, in my hand baggage: Cardus on Cricket, a selection from the writings on the game by its most stylistic chronicler, Sir Neville Cardus. So turning away happily from the nightmare of the present — both my technological incapacity as well as the Indian team's tour of England — I slumped into a commodious leather-chair and let myself be guided by a master into the sunlit past.

From his early background, it didn't seem that Cardus was born to write on cricket. Before he was 14 he had earned money as a pavement artist, by pushing a builder's handcart, selling chocolates in a theatre and boiling printer's type. But the largely self-educated boy had also discovered Dickens and an ambition to become a writer. He had also been bewitched by the beauty of a stylistic A.C. Maclaren batting at Old Trafford; later he was to call the batsman “the noblest Roman of them all.” Also harbouring a passion for music, Cardus became the dramatic critic for the Manchester Guardian. But in 1919 he fell ill and an inspired editor sent him away to relax and amuse himself by writing on cricket. He never stopped.

Cardus on Cricket contains excerpts from books that appeared from 1922 to 1937 so the descriptions are mostly of English and Australian (he spent seven years Down Under) cricketers, with the sole exception of the West Indian, Constantine. For Cardus, cricket is quintessentially an English game: “Where the English language is unspoken there can be no real cricket……….In every English village a cricket field is as much part of the landscape as the old church.” His cricket is also a summer game, its season starting with the freshness of spring in April and dying with the melancholic approach of autumn. It is in the English setting, be it a Test match at Lord's or a Saturday match on a village green that Cardus is at his most poetic, gently infusing romance, nostalgia and yearning into the game as he describes “cricket to the sound of somebody clipping a hedge on a June morning; cricket to the sound of bird singing or of a dog barking a long way distant….” One cannot help thinking that an Indian Cardus, were he to emerge, would similarly find poetry in cricket being played in the winter sun, when the sound of willow on leather ball hides the cracking of peanut shells underfoot, and the tanginess of oranges being peeled fills the stands. And he may find enough Indian-English including shouts of Howzat among the dozens of games simultaneously happening in streets and lanes, with stumps sketched on walls with charcoal or hastily put up with stolen bricks, from Dadar to Dehra Dun.

Cardus writes with as much poetic passion of cricket's dramatic moments as he does of the men who made the game. He tells of the bearded Master — W.G. Grace — who was asked how he could stop the shooting ball infallibly in the days of fast, slinging bowling on very rough pitches. And he answered, Mallory-like, “Why, you put your bat to the ball.” Or of the Australian fast bowler Macdonald, “a Lucifer of his craft…..running along a curve silently, his arm sinuous, his wrist poising the ball before letting it go — the cobra's poise.” He describes thus the flight of the spinner Wilfred Rhodes: “the curving line, now higher, now lower, tempting, inimical every ball like every other ball, yet somehow unlike; every ball a decoy, a spy sent out to get the lie of the land; some balls simple, some complex, some easy, some difficult; and one of them — ah, which? — the master ball.” There is the artist-batsman Hammond who “provides criticism with a criterion, a standard” and Jack Hobbs whose style “like the style of the master in every art, and of every fine art, seems to sum up all that has gone before in the development of his technique.” Cardus quite loses all restraint when he comes to Frank Woolley whose “cricket is compounded of soft airs and fresh flavours. The bloom of the year is on it, making for sweetness. And the very brevity of summer is in it too, making for loveliness…..he is always about to lose his wicket; his runs are thin-spun. His bat is charmed and most of us, being reasonable, do not believe in charms. There is a miracle happening on every cricket field when Woolley stays in two or three hours; an innings by him is almost too unsubstantial for this world…” And he yearns for a mis-hit or a duck from Bradman to bring back the glorious uncertainties of cricket.

What of Indian greats, you may well ask. The selection contains two references. One, of course, is to Ranjitsinhji whom Cardus described as “entirely original….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 …..When he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light out of the East.” Ranji defied all the Victorian straightforwardness of English cricket, symbolised by the straight bat and good length ball; his presence was a “dusky, supple legerdemain” in a rippling silk shirt that charmed away good length balls to the fine leg boundary with a flick of the wrist. “Bowlers stood transfixed,” writes Cardus, “and possibly crossed themselves.” The second reference is to the Nawab of Pataudi senior who was part of the leg trap set by Jardine for Larwood during the Bodyline tour of Australia. When Larwood unleashed his thunderbolts to Bradman, Jardine ordered the Nawab to move closer and closer to the Don's left pocket until “Pataudi sits under Bradman's chin, and notices how carefully he has shaved today.” One wonders what Cardus would have done with a Gavaskar or a Tendulkar as raw material but somehow I feel he would have revelled in the romance of Tiger Pataudi — the Nawabi touch, the Sussex chapter, the rising to sudden captaincy at 21 as Contractor is felled by Charlie Griffith, the uncertainties and unspoken possibilities caused by the car accident — would have all been grist to the poetic mill.

But perhaps it is just as well that Cardus stopped writing when he did. If he had lived on, he may not have felt at home in the Technicolor world of cricket after Kerry Packer. T-20 would have shocked him, IPL would make him nauseas and the mention of third umpire or hot-spot would surely make him turn back to dramatic criticism.

Thank God for the sockets in that lounge. Sometimes, to see the stars, we need the lights to go out.


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