Sunday, October 3, 2010

"More Than a Game" by John Major

More Than a Game is a history of cricket from its earliest days to the First World War, by none other than Sir John Major, the former British prime minister.

Throughout his term of office Major gave the impression that he’d rather be at the cricket. When he lost the ’97 election by an innings and plenty, he dropped the keys to No 10 off at the Palace and headed straight for the Oval, for a Benson and Hedges zonal game between Surrey and the Combined Universities no less, so More Than a Game is a labour of love.

He’s done a good job; More Than a Game should be regarded as the standard work on the early history of cricket, despite the intrusion of Major’s Pooterish manner of speaking into his written style.

The best part of the book is the early chapters, in which Major subjects the accepted scholarship on the game’s origins to rigorous scrutiny, from which it does not emerge well. He can find no reference to cricket before 1700 that he is convinced by, showing that those accepted by a variety of authors are likely to be mistranslations or misinterpretations.

He also questions the pre-eminence of the Hambledon club on the South Downs, presented in histories passim as the centre of the cricketing universe in the second half of the eighteenth century. Major argues that other clubs in the south and south-east of England may have been at least as strong, but did not have a chronicler present (much of what we know of Hambledon comes from John Nyren’s The Young Cricketer’s Tutor).

By promoting good historical methodology Major has created a standard which cricket historians of this era will have to observe, sufficient in itself to give the book merit, though he is not always as careful about facts outside cricket. To describe 1832 as “the year in which the Great Reform Bill split the country” is an elementary error (1831 was when most of the trouble took place—notably the Bristol riots in which all but one building in Queen Square was destroyed). But there is plenty more to interest, particularly for Kentish readers.

I had no idea, for example, that Bourne Park, near Bishopsbourne, four miles south-east of Canterbury, was a major venue around the 1770s. Fifteen to twenty thousand spectators attended the first day of a game between Hampshire and All England in 1772. The house is still there, and I must resolve to visit it next time I’m in the frozen north.

Another strength of the book is the descriptions of the players. I particularly enjoyed portraits of three figures from Kent’s early history, all of whom had been little more than names to me.

Alfred Mynn was the great all-rounder of 1830s and 40s, bowling round arm at a ferocious pace and hitting the ball with great power. Mynn was hugely popular, but rather feckless, the Freddie Flintoff of his day. “My boy”, he said to a teammate sipping tea, “beef and beer are the things to play cricket on”. He spent several spells in debtors’ prisons.

Nicholas Wanostrocht, a teacher who ran his own school at Blackheath, adopted the sobriquet “Felix” for his cricket. Felix was one of the best batsmen of his era, and another cricketer-writer, Felix on the Bat (1845) being his best known work.

Mynn and Felix played the most famous of all single-wicket contests, at Lord’s in 1846. Single-wicket matches were the T20 of their day, in terms of popular appeal, if not intensity of action. Felix faced 247 balls from which he scored three runs. The crowd were said to be “enthralled”, bless them.

Fuller Pilch was poached by Kent from his native Norfolk in 1835. In his early days he was an all-rounder, but as an underarm bowler he was called on less and less as time went on and round-arm bowling became dominant. Pilch scored ten centuries and 63 fifties, impressive figures for those times on those pitches.

As the book moves into less distant times it becomes more of a recital of well-known material. An earlier cut-off than 1914 would have been beneficial (the first test, in 1877, perhaps). But there is still much to praise, notably the account of the Grace family, which Major starts ingeniously not with WG, but EM ("the Coroner"). I had not fully realised how good EM was, deserving to be regarded as one of the leading players of the age, not merely as an adjunct to the greatest.

Major describes Grace’s parallel life as a doctor with a surgery in the working-class Bristol suburb of Southville, noting that this was at odds with his money-grabbing approach to his cricket career, and praising him for it. I take the more cynical view that WG was simply not a very good doctor, and would have practised in Clifton had he had the talent to attract a richer clientele.

For all its merits the book could have benefitted from more assertive editing. Too often Major wanders off the point, to the extent of a whole chapter on leisure activities apart from cricket that were available to mid-Victorians. Such an editor might also have spared us occasional passages that raise the suspicion that Mary Poppins was employed as a ghost writer, and curbed the quoting of dreadful contemporary verse (to call it poetry would be to misuse the term).

But enough carping. There is much to recommend More Than a Game, and its non-appearance in the Wisden Cricketer’s list of the fifty best cricket books is surely only because its publication is so recent.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...