11 OCTOBER 1975, Page 23

Talking of year books

Playing the game

Benny Green

In ambling through the water-meadows of English social history, I have just encountered a few Piquant conundrums which I offer to those professional historians who might fancy their chances. Who, for instance, were Pease and Leese, and what common experience did they once share? On what occasion was a British Government utterly routed by the Opposition and yet continued to govern without a murmur of protest from anybody, least of all the OPposition? On what occasion did Viscount Curzon co-operate with Walter Long to win the day, a query which raises another, even more Problematic, when did Viscount Curzon cooperate with anybody to win anything? After his return from Ladysmith, what was Sir George White's first public appearance? I doubt if the answers to any of these questions will be provided by the professional historians, but I suppose that if I had to put my money on any of them, ft would be G. M. Trevelyan, or possibly Sir Robert Ensor. It was Trevelyan who observed that "if the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt"; Sir Robert, who, on the first page of his Oxford History of England, 1870-1914, mentions only SIX Englishmen, Gladstone, Disraeli, Palmerston, Pitt, Fox and — W. G. Grace. Having scattered my clues so liberally I might as well reveal the solution. On Saturday, July 29, 1893 at .Lord's, a match was played between Her Majesty's Government and its Opposition, with the following parlous consequences for the government:

Government: 104 (Hon Mark Napier 40, H. W. Forster 7 for 49) and 41 for 2. OPposition: 243 for 3 Declared (H. W. Forster 81, Viscount Curzon 97).

It is a sad reflection on the English climate that the weather that day was inclement, and an even sadder one on the decline of Liberalism that Mr Herbert Gladstone bowled three wides. As for the hapless Pease and Leese, they opened the Government batting and managed only 34 between them in four innings; there was also, of course, something ominously prophetic about Curzon's stumble at the last moment with the glittering prize of a century almost within his grasp.

I have, of course, been meandering about among the small print in Wisden's over the last hundred years, a time-wasting occupation of such numberless delights that it really does astonish me that the publishers have never had the wit to issue an anthology of the great or significant or pathetic or just plain barmy items in the almanacks. I have no doubt myself that the most fruitful area of all is the obituaries. There you will find the sad tale of the international cricketer who retired dead, and the Victorian globetrotter who terminated his innings at 246 because according to the obituarist, he "retired to catch a train for the Continent". There are hundreds of items of this type, but it is their cumulative effect which gradually reveals the quiddity of English life in the period. Professionals in the old days always got less obituary space than their Gentleman contemporaries, and there was more than one occasion when some poor Nottingham miner or Lancashire cotton hand, having enjoyed a brief hour of glory on the greensward, then reverted to type, and, in the prose of the obituarists, "sadly fell on hard times and ended his days in the workhouse".

Then there are the suicides, curiously prevalent in so pastoral a game as English cricket once was. Albert Trott, the only man to hit the ball over the pavilion at Lord's, shot himself in his Harlesden diggings, and A. E. Stoddart, that paragon of the amateur tradition, did likewise in St John's Wood. Arthur Shrewsbury killed himself rather than go on living without cricket, and Johnny Briggs ended up in an asylum where, according to Cardus, he would come in after a hot day, with a towel round his neck, insisting he had just bowled the Australians out for 150. The harvest from Wisden is so rich that even one year is enough to inspire a treatise on the structure of English social life, particularly if we focus on the edition for 1915, the one which unknowingly totted up the credit and debit columns of the golden age. By then cricket had become a kind of recreational paraphrase of the ability to act like a Christian gentleman and a good

empire-builder, which is, I suppose, what ■ Newbolt had in mind when he solemnly fused the images of fast bowling in poor light and the chance to lay down one's life.

Perhaps it was more than a poetaster's fancy. Season after season the obituary columns of the sporting prints bristled in a frenzy of sad devotion for the Venerables and Reverends who had delivered their last sermon and sliced their last off-drive. Glancing through Wisden for 1915, there we find them, the sporting gentlemen of the cloth, gay diocesan butterflies who had once fluttered out, white • flannelled and buckskin booted, from vicarage and deanery, rectory and presbytery, glebe and oratory, preserved forever now in the amber of the obituarists' stolid commemorative prose. The Reverend Joseph Mould Adcock of Willesborough, Kent, "formerly identified with the game in Warwickshire, died of typhoid fever contracted in Switzerland"; the Reverend Thomas Curteis, of Brampton Rectory, Norfolk, "a neat bat but rather too fond of hitting"; the Reverend Archibald Hugh Conway Fargus, naval chaplain, "a stout hitter and good hammer-and-tongs bowler"; the Reverend Frederick Tobin, thirty years vicar of Charlecote, Warwickshire, who played for England in the first rugby international against Scotland, but who was as a batsman, ungainly in style".

In case the catalogue suggests a preponderance of cricketing divines, I ought to add that the same obsequies include a Governor-General, a Field Marshal, two members of the Bar, two Tory MPs, two High Sheriffs, two JPs, one KC, one alderman, one stipendiary magistrate, the son of the Chief Commissioner of London Police and a senior judge of the North-West Province of India. All of which indicates that cricket was not so much a game as a typically English compromise between a religious manifestation, a political instrument of policy, and a recreational orgy, a vaporous hinterland where ethics and biceps merged into a third entity, an exquisite amalgam of Muscular Christianity and the White Man's Burden. Which reminds me that I have left Sir George White out in the cold. Let us bring him in. On Saturday May 5, 1900, at the Crystal Palace Ground, on the last day's play in the match between London County and Surrey, Wisden tells us that Sir George, "recently back in England after the seige of Ladysmith, drove on to the ground with Lady White and had an enthusiastic reception". Whether Sir George was honouring the captain of London County, or the captain of London County was honouring Sir George, the almanack doesn't say, but as the captain of London County was W. G. Grace, I am perfectly clear in my own mind.