THE START OF THE CRICKET SEASON.
CRICKET has begun and the newspaper has ceased to be interesting only on Monday mornings. With a sense of real adventure we snatch at that first hurried impression of the score-sheet before we settle down to a detailed study of the figures. Have Hampshire, we ask eagerly, saved the follow-on at Leeds? Is Hendren still not out ? And once again towards three o'clock in the afternoon there creeps over us that indifference, that dissatisfaction towards the manuscript that lies unfinished on the desk in front of us. Outside the sun is shining. And we remember that within half an hour's bus ride of us Middlesex are struggling to make a victory of defeat. Our hand is raised towards the telephone. " Paddington one double four." We wait anxiously. "What, is that Lord's?" "Yes. 153 for 2. Hearne still batting." " Thank you very much." And our work is finished for the day. In under thirty minutes we are sitting on the sunbaked roof of the pavilion.
Life for the cricketer can never be dull during the summer months. The drama of cricket is not confined as that of football is to two issues of the Saturday evening papers. It is spread prodigally over the whole week. Something new is always happening. And it is profitless for the sceptic to remind the enthusiastic that the season of 1923 is unlikely to be in any way sensational ; that there will be no Test matches; the unknown quantities of post-War cricket are disappearing ; Yorkshire will almost certainly win the county championship ; that it will be, in fact, a thoroughly ordinary and on the whole rather unattractive season. The enthusiast will smile. He knows that although from the outside one match must seem very like another, and one season very like another, there is not even in reality such a thing as two identical innings.
Probably Yorkshire will win the championship. They are a combination. They field the same side for nearly every match. They have a variety of bowling : an unenterprising side, perhaps, for three-day cricket; a side that cannot play against the clock, that is forced to leave drawn many matches that Surrey would have won. But they collapse very occasionally. They have a stability that Surrey has always lacked. If Hobbs and Sandham fail, Surrey may be all out on a fast Oval wicket before lunch ; equally they may make 500 before the close. One never knows, and their bowling is as uncertain as their batting. Hitch would seem to be a back number now. It is only out of courtesy that Strudwick stands back to him. And Peach and Reay and Gentry and Fender, they are all of them change bowlers. And yet these bowlers on a good Oval wicket went through Middlesex twice last summer for under 400 runs. There is no match too nearly lost for Surrey not to save it ; and no match too nearly won for them not to make a present of it to their opponents. In the course of a long season they do many brilliant things, but they are certain to make at least two or three irreparable blunders.
Yorkshire would be the straight tip undoubtedly for the betting man. But only a fool would bet at cricket. Who could have prophesied that Warwickshire would win the championship in 1911 or that Middlesex would finish • first in 1920 ? Neither county is likely this year to repeat its triumph. Warwickshire have never recovered from the loss of F. R. Foster ; and this year without Nigel Haig the Middlesex bowling will be little stronger than it was in 1919. But surprises are bound to happen in three days' cricket, played under the fickle conditions of an English summer. Worcester might very easily beat Notts. They might win the toss, and batting first on a foolproof wicket laboriously compile 260 runs. It rains all night; the morning brings a hot sun and a drying wind. Before lunch Notts are all out for 70, and on a ruined pitch their chances of repairing the disaster are very slight. Last year on a rainspoilt wicket Northamptonshire beat Kent. In 1921 the rain robbed Yorkshire of three certain victories in three weeks. And under the present system of scoring points a drawn game is only less disadvantageous than a defeat. Last year Notts, with a record of seventeen wins and five losses, very nearly finished ahead of Yorkshire, who won nineteen matches and lost only two. Cricket is a matter of luck in a greater degree perhaps than any other game. And the county championship, where half the counties do not meet the other half, is a very consider- able gamble. No one perhaps in twenty years' time will look back on the year 1923 as one of any exceptional importance. " The middle 'twenties," the historian may write, " were a dull period. A pause between the disasters of the Australian tour and the recovery in the early 'thirties." But the historical periods that we dismiss with an epigram in the examination room were thrilling enough no doubt to those who had their share in them. As with other fugitive attractions, their passage was rich enough. And whatever they may think of us in 1950, I have no doubt that we shall spend this summer many tense hours in the sun-drenched laziness of Lord's.
The laziness of Lord's : for cricket is a lazy game; lazy to watch and lazy to play. Ten people and two umpires stand still on the field, nine more sit still in the pavilion, while the batsman and the bowler wage war on one another. When a ball is bowled and a stroke played only two, at the most three, of the fieldsmen have to exert themselves seriously. Nobody except the batsmen and the bowlers appear to be exercising themselves at all, and as only about five players on each side have an opportunity of bowling, and only half the members of a side spend more than twenty minutes at the wickets, only some ten of the twenty-one would seem to get any real exercise. The whole game is conducted in an atmosphere of leisure. We do no work on cricket days; at about ten o'clock we think it is time to find out what train we are supposed to catch and we discover that we have lost the card of instructions from the secretary. " That means," we say, " a taxi." But we know quite well that the taxi will be an unnecessary extravagance, that four other members of the side will have lost their cards as well and that every cricket match begins three-quarters of an hour late, and that when we arrive at a quarter to twelve for a game that should have begun at half-past eleven we shall be unlikely to find more than half a dozen beblazered figures practising lackadaisically in a corner of the field. And, indeed, cricket that is played in a hurry is not worth playing. Half-day matches are a disappointing business. One has either to lunch at twelve or eat sandwiches in a crowded tube ; one has to travel at the most uncomfortable hour of the week, at one o'clock on Saturdays, carrying a heavy bag ; a misery to oneself, a nuisance to the world : one arrives hot and tired and dishevelled. Cricket is a wine that should be sipped, not gulped at, and till we have realized this we have not learnt to enjoy cricket.
To those of us who have outgrown ambition, one season is perhaps in retrospect very like another. The twenties and thirties are for the majority of club cricketers years neither of progress nor of retrogression. On the last Saturday in April we array ourselves in bat and pads and walk with tremulous foreboding to the nets. " A bad tiring this first net," we say, " something to be got over." But it may be that we Aiscover to our entranced surprise that we are not playing inside half volleyi or undercutting the long hop; that we are seeing the ball, in fact, extra- ordinarily well, and on the following Saturday on a sticky wicket we take 68 out of a total of 130 and without a chance. This we tell ourselves is going to be our record season. Never have we found our form before so quickly. If we can do this sort of thing after a couple of " looseners " at the nets, heavens, but later on we shall make a century every second time we bat. Needless to say we do not. For the half of July and the better part of August we are scratching at the wicket like a prepara- tory schoolboy, and at the end of the season we find, in spite of our brilliant opening, our figures to be very much the same as they were in the preceding season, when we did not reach double figures till the second week in June. If you play bridge regularly and are any sort of use at it, you do not at the end of the year find yourself very greatly out of pocket. And the man who can bat at all, who plays often enough and takes the trouble to practise at the nets, sooner or later must get runs. In time we 'realize this, and when we do, we begin to enjoy our cricket. We accept with equal unconcern our ducks ' or fifties, knowing that whether we start well or badly, there will come in midsummer the compensating weeks of failure or success, knowing that there is time in plenty.
On the football field we are being reminded every day that Rugger is a young man's game. At thirty one is too old, one's muscles and one's bones have stiffened. In the September trials we see on the touch line many who two years earlier were with us. In three, in four, at the most in five years' time our turn will have come to take a place beside them. We are always conscious of time's winged chariot. Sooner or later a muscle will tear, a bone will crack, and our football days will be at an end. But in cricket we feel that we have our whole life in front of us.
Perhaps that is the secret of cricket's charm, that knowledge that there is time in plenty. As we sit on the pavilion roof at Lord's and watch below us the white figures in the sunshine, and as we rest after a hard morning in the field, a pint pot at the elbow, secure in the exhilaration of physical fatigue, we feel that we arc a part of these good things for ever. The river flows so placidly that we think it will never reach the sea : it gives us an illusion of permanence in a fleeting world.