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Feather's Miscellany: Cricket

John Waddington-Feather enthuses about cricket, the sweetest of sports.

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Cricket is the sweetest of sports, the essence of an English summer. It has remained unsullied and within everyone’s pocket, when that other great English sport, soccer, has been debased and grossly over- commercialised. In fact, professional soccer has ceased to be a sport and is merely a game - a game played at the professional level by overpaid, ill-tempered prima donnas, which costs the earth to watch.

During the cricket Ashes test series against Australia this summer, cricket at its highest level, it cost only £25 to watch the games (£10 if you were a schoolboy). An ordinary league fixture at Manchester United costs £50 at least. What an international soccer game costs to watch, I can’t imagine. Well over £100 I suspect.

Cricket is still a gentlemanly game at all levels. There is nothing so relaxing as to watch the game on a warm sunny day and see it played out skilfully like a game of chess; the batsman pitting his skills against those of the bowler; the captain sizing up the pitch and batsman’s style to set his field.

At test level cricket has been enhanced by commentators such as the late John Arlott and by the many good journalists. Their anecdotes and quips, sometimes the sheer poetry of their language, make listening to and reading their commentaries a delight.

One of the greatest cricketing journalists was Neville Cardus, a man who came up from nothing to write illuminating articles not only about cricket but also on classical music. He was a very gifted writer; born in a working-class area of Manchester. His mother was a ‘genteel prostitute’ and he was illegitimate, his father unknown. He left his local Board School at thirteen to work as a clerk, but in his spare time he read widely, especially good literature and the arts in general. He also read The Manchester Guardian newspaper and consciously adopted the style of their music and theatre critics.

But from his earliest years, like many English boys he was drawn to cricket and played league cricket in Manchester. So well did he play he was taken on as coach at Shrewsbury School, where his talent as a writer was quickly spotted by the headmaster, Cyril Alington, who appointed him as his secretary in 1914. When Alington left Shrewsbury for the headship of Eton College, Cardus also left and became a full-time journalist writing mainly for The Guardian, but other national papers, too. He also spent some years in Australia, covering cricket tours and breaking new ground writing for the Australian press, whose high standard of cricketing journalism owes much to him.

Though attracted strongly to classical music, Cardus was completely untrained in music and his style of criticism was very subjective. In his columns he wrote in layman’s language about what he liked or disliked without any musical jargon, opening up the wonder of classical music to other laymen like himself. Like his writing about cricket, his music crits were innovative, turning what had previously been a purely factual form into vivid description and analysis.

When he died in 1975, Cardus left behind him a corpus of essays and articles on all aspects of cricket, which contributed much to the lore and ethos of the game. He was given a memorial service to a packed congregation at St Paul’s and contemporary writers of the calibre of J.B.Priestley paid homage to him in articles in The Times and other national newspapers.

Now I’ve written so much about Cardus here, because like him many schoolboys in Keighworth were influenced by playing or watching cricket being played; for the little town played its own part in fostering good, fair play and sportsmanship on all its cricket fields (and there were many) large or small. One wonders how many of the corrupt leading figures in our country at present: bankers, politicians and their ilk, purveyors of greed and power, might have been different people had they played cricket – or read Cardus. Let that be as it may, they still play cricket in Keighworth in the Bradford League on the main ground at the bottom of Garlic Lane where they’ve played for the better part of a century.

The cricket field, like the adjoining rugby league field was carved out of former farmland and had a pleasant outlook from the pavilion over fields and farms up the hillside beyond to the moorland heights overlooking the town. I spent many a happy summer’s evening practising cricket in the nets there after school, or watching it being played by better cricketers than myself on a summer’s afternoon. As a schoolboy I was allowed in free and the cost to adults was very low. You paid extra only if you sat in the seats in the pavilion. Most spectators stood leaning on the railings down one side of the ground or sitting on rough wooden seats on the perimeter opposite the pavilion.
When I was a boy, each team in the Bradford League was allowed one professional to coach and play in the team. The Keighworth coach in my time down Garlic Lane was a diminutive Lancastrian cricketer who’d played for England in an Ashes test in Australia, and by getting out of bed suffering from ‘flu he won them the match with a brilliant century. His coaching and sportsmanship lasted me a lifetime.

Dear Keighworth, how much I owe you in academy and sport, in the arts and religion; and how much I enjoyed those hours I played on your sports fields only a stone’s throw from my boyhood home down Garlic Lane. In the evenings after school and in the holidays they became my second home; and contributed to what, I hope, is my sense of fair play and sportsmanship.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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