17 MARCH 2007, Page 95

Don’t swot Swanton


Cricket’s World Cup will be an interminable slog in every sense. It began on Tuesday, 13 March; the final is still six weeks away (28 April). With only a month to sort out 32 bristlingly competitive teams, football’s World Cup is comfortably more user-friendly, while rugby’s version already has plans in hand to compress itself severely for the 2011 finals and so eradicate such laughable mismatches as 1995’s New Zealand 145 – Japan 17 or 2003’s Australia 145 – Namibia 0. Might there be some similarly jokey walkovers in cricket’s Caribbean marathon? Are Scotland’s supporters bracing themselves for headlines such as ‘Calypso-Collapsos’?

Mind you, of all the minnows Scotland has the richest cricketing pedigree, providing more than a handful of talented county championship players down the century as well as, of course, two England captains in handsome bat Mike Denness and the notable, not to say notorious, Douglas Jardine. Nor have England fielded many better leg-break bowlers than that most appealing of Aberdonians, vintner Ian Peebles. Having bamboozled Bradman for next to nothing in the 1930 Old Trafford Test, Ian languidly combined his cricket and wine with sports-writing, and all through that decade shared London rooms — 8 King’s Bench Walk, in the Temple — with two other aspirants in the press-tent trade, Henry Longhurst and E.W. Swanton. They should put up a blue plaque there. The trio became worldwide luminaries of their games and their newspapers. A generation or two later, each went out of their way to be jolly encouraging to a tyro oik like me — which is why I took badly Leo McKinstry’s snide sideswipe at the late Jim Swanton’s memory a couple of weeks ago in the Spec’s World Cup cricket special.

I admire my colleague McKinstry as a relishable biographer and enthusiastic pamphleteer, but as a youngster he must have caught Swanton on an extremely bad day; anyway, it was improper to take J.J. Warr’s fraternally fond joke about Jim not being a snob — ‘he’s perfectly happy travelling in the same car as his chauffeur’ — and purveying it as gospel truth. Nobody chuckled at that hoary old chestnut (and no end of similar ones) more than Jim himself. As for the inference that Swanton actually had a chauffeur — and a Rolls-Royce, too — well, really. Into his eighties almost, he was a working reporter on a daily newspaper, logging up both abundant wordage and mileage in a round-Britain whizz: till the early 1960s Jim drove a sturdy Austin, thereafter a comfy enough Jaguar saloon.

The most slanderous insinuation was that Swanton never encouraged, even was hostile towards, youthful sports journalists. He might have, as it seems he did that day, put young Leo’s pretensions firmly in their place, but I fancy he was the only one, ever: Jim reckoned he averaged six letters a month (I bet it was twice as many), out of the blue and displaying various levels of literacy, asking for advice about getting a start in sports-writing; he’d reply to each and every one, full of generously sensible, particular, first-base advice. It is a warming wonder, and testament to his interest and wise guidance, that many of those novices whom Swanton in his long life (I believe the modern word is) ‘mentored’ made top-of-thebill themselves — like his successor as all cricket’s emeritus lit-figure John Woodcock, allround ace Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the Sunday Telegraph’s sage Scyld Berry, Bradman’s best biographer Irving Rosenwater, the much-missed football broadcaster Brian Moore, and no end of others in debt to E.W.S.