Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Our critic upon cricket: second innings
OUR CRITIC UPON CRICKET.
The reader may remember that I scored in my last innings some remarks upon the modern catapultive style of bowling, and some regrets that, to my thinking, the pleasure of the game has in some degree been lessened by it. We live in a fast age, and I suppose our bowlers fancy they must keep pace with the times: but I am pretty sure that certainty is often sacrificed to speed, and that many a young cricketer has spoilt his style in bowling by aiming too exclusively at quickness in delivery. The great thing to be learnt is to make sure of a good length, and to vary pace and pitch with ease as well as accuracy.
To practise this, the best way is to go out with a friend, and stand at two grounds’ length apart, with a single stump between you. Peg a bit of paper, each at three or four yards from the wicket, and bowl alternate balls for an hour at a time, only scoring when you hit both the paper and the wicket. Change the distance of the former after every dozen balls, so as to acquire the knack of varying four lengths: and especially endeavour to deliver with a twist, which by beginning with slow balls you will speedily acquire, and by practice will be able to introduce with swift ones. An old bowler I knew (I believe he was among the very first of the round-handers) could pitch a ball at least a yard wide of the stumps, and yet make it shoot straight into them. I have often heard him boast that he could bowl a “bailer” that should pitch behind the batsman: and after hitting round at what one thought a safe leg-ball from him, I have often been disgusted to find it take the wicket.
Good bowling is so vitally essential to good cricket, that I wonder that more pains are not taken in the practice of it. The annual defeat of the Gentlemen by the Players, which is becoming every year, it seems, more sure in its recurrence, I attribute in chief measure to the fact that as a rule the Gentlemen bowl badly, because they never practise it. Last year at the Oval, the Players beat them in one innings, with near 200 runs to spare: and at Lord’s this year a like defeat occurred, the Players scoring, in their one innings, 246, while the Gentlemen made 70 and 116. The return match, too, the Players have won easily in one innings, making the large score of 358, while the Gentlemen scored 154 and 136. This result I see is, in the “Times” account assigned to “the fine bowling of Jackson and Willsher throughout, combined with the general good fielding of the Players:” but there is no doubt the inferior bowling of the Gentlemen had quite as much to do with it. Of course it would not be in reason to expect an amateur to bowl as well as a professional without like constant practice; and gentlemen, it may be said, have neither need nor wish to take up cricket as a business, and so give up much time to it. But surely if they can spare time to practise it at all, they ought not to confine themselves exclusively to batting: at any rate, if they intend to keep on foot their annual match with the professionals, they ought to try their hand at bowling every now and then, if only for the purpose of preventing such preposterous defeats as have been witnessed. Some few years ago the sides were much more equal: but since it has been common to employ professional bowlers in almost every match, the bowling of the Gentlemen has more and more fallen off, and the victory of the Players been more and more made safe. As a preventive of the ludicrous defeats which are sustained, I see a writer in “Bell’s Life” suggests that matches should in future be played by eighteen Gentlemen against eleven Players, or else that numbers should be equal, but the Gentlemen should have a brace of bowlers given them. This, of course, would make the sides more equal than they have been, but the match could be no longer viewed with special interest, nor regarded as a trial of our amateur opposed to our professional strength and skill. For my own part, I detest a game where there are more than eleven in the field. Cricket, to be cricket, must be played by two elevens: and each side should be truly that which it is called. If the Gentlemen play the Players, they should all of them be gentlemen, and not let their hardest work be done by bowlers from the other side.
The plan of hiring a professional as bowler to a club no doubt tends very much to the improvement of the batsmen; but I regret to see it made, as it is often, an excuse for gentlemen to give up bowling altogether, and for getting it done for them, not merely upon practice days, but when they play a match. Generally speaking, more depends upon the bowler than on any other man; and when the Ballborough Eleven brag of having smashed the Stumpington, I incline to give the laurels where they are justly due, and to chronicle that Slowsure, the Ballborough paid bowler, proved a better man than Roundshot, the professional of Stumpington. Why men don’t practise bowling, merely for the pleasure of it, is more than I, who used to revel in it, can pretend to guess. If you play simply for exercise, as many a man does, a few overs will do more for you in sudorification than will any other field-work; and as for fancying that a bowler only comes in for hard work, and has no real enjoyment in it, the man who can say that has never drawn a wicket.
Batting is well enough, and there is certainly a savage sort of luxury in making a good slashing hit; but of all the joys of cricket none equals the delight of scattering the stumps. You feel the same kind of pleasure as when you win a well-contested game of chess. You pit yourself against a man, and he defies you, and you beat him, and when his wicket falls, you feel yourself superior, and your glory is the more because you say, “Alone I did it!” I think the joy of ripping out the middle stump of a good batter surpasses even that of wiping a man’s eye at an overhead cock-pheasant, going down wind at the rate of forty miles a minute, or of clearing an ugly-looking brook or bit of timber, which has been a baulk to some of the best-mounted in the field.
It is a great pity, I think, that bowling is not practised more than it now seems to be, and that young players are not warned that pace is not by any means the most important point to aim at. It would seem now that in bowling there’s a mania for speed, as there is in dancing, hunting, and in shooting. But the old waltz is by far more graceful than the deux-temps, and the best of shots and riders must acknowledge that good sport is often sacrificed to pace. So the fastest balls prove often less effective than the slowest, and have this further disadvantage that, by mere force of recoil, they fly further when hit. Moreover, as a rule, a man can bowl more steadily when he does not strain himself to keep up a great pace, and many a match is lost by the bowlers putting on too much steam at the first, and thereby tiring themselves out before they have half done their work. “Take it easy,” is the best of rules for a young bowler: and, however hot the day be, mind you keep your temper cool. When once a bowler gets “put out,” he will have small chance of putting out the batter, and the safest thing to do with him is to treat him as a tea-kettle, and, directly he shows signs of boiling over, take him off.
Whether it be worth paying a couple of hundred pounds a-year for the privilege of learning to pull well and play cricket, is a point which I shall leave to Her Majesty’s Commissioners who are appointed to inquire into the state of education at Winchester and Eton and our other public schools. It is, however, certain that whatever other benefits their system may confer, it tends more than any other to make good oarsrnen and good cricketers. Excepting in the holidays, we at Greyfriars had small chance of getting up our rowing, but for cricket we went in with all our spirit and our strength; and, considering the limited extent of the Lark’s grassplat, which served us for a cricket-field, our prowess at the game was, to say the least, praiseworthy, and such as any old Greyfriars man might well feel proud to see. It was a great grief, I remember, that we could not test our strength at Lord’s, by playing in the annual tripartite scholastic games. Eheu fugaces! other memories than ours must now bewail those happy times! What could have induced the masters of those other schools to forbid a pleasant meeting which both men and boys looked forward to and annually enjoyed, it is not my present province to inquire. But I cannot help dropping a tear of sympathy for those who, being Wykehamists, must have felt the loss even more than I, though every public schoolman has reason to bewail it.
But though we at Greyfriars could never play at Lord’s among the “glorious Three,” we had our annual matches of the Past versus the Present, the Men against the Boys. And jolly meets they were, and are, too, I doubt not; only I fear the roundshot bowling has somewhat rubbed the fun out. Oh! how for days beforehand we would talk about the match, and watch with growing interest the practising of our Eleven, who trained daily for the game. And then, when the day came, how hastily we swallowed down our lunch of bread and soap (as we with annual jocosity christened our school cheese: this being, by the way, the only day in all the year we had the chance of tasting it), and how eager we rushed out to see what old fellows had come, and to hear what rumours were afloat anent their playing. The ground had been marked out at least a week ago (and woe-betide the fag whose foot between whiles had been seen on it!), and long before breakfast the wickets had been pitched, and an Argusy of eyes had tested their exactness. What a cheer there is when our Eleven win the toss, and magnanimously suffer their opponents to go in: and what handclapping there is as every wicket falls, and how we hope our shouts of triumph will strike terror to the foe, whom we impartially abstain from in any way encouraging. Haply one of the masters plays, to fill a vacant place, and then how we rejoice to see his stumps sent flying, or to laugh at him when scampering for a ball he should have stopped. But our loudest exultation is when one of our Eleven hits a “skyer” over Cloisters, or far into Under Green, and after running a good fiver scores another one or two by a clumsy throwing up. Shrill hurrahs and rounds of hand-clapping salute the heroes as, to rest themselves, they sit upon their bats: and the only damper thrown upon our spirits is when, perhaps emboldened too much by our applause, one of the heroes not long after by a sad fate gets run out.
Nor was our pleasure over with the ending of the game: for after it came the supper (known to us as the “tuck out”), and to some inglorious minds this was by no means least looked forward to among the day’s delights. The “Uppers” of the school enjoyed the envied privilege of sitting down with the “Elevens,” and when their fames was exempta, and they got up from their seats, we fags who were in waiting made a rush into their places, and feasted on the fragments as fast as we could eat. Kind masters would secure an emptied pie-dish or a salad-bowl, and fill it before leaving with whatever their fags brought them, so that layers of cold fowl would alternate with strata of raw currants, creams, and custards, and on a tipsy cake foundation would be raised successive storeys of jam-tart and lobster salad, grapes, trifle, and spiced-beef. O dura ilia puerorum! What would aldermen not give for the elastic powers of appetite wherewith we used to pitch into these horrifying mixtures, and the freedom from dyspepsia evinced by sleeping after them! Other cricket-suppers than those enjoyed at Greyfriars live yet among my pleasantest remembrances. Will the next age have the like joys to look back upon? Except in the remotest of our rural districts, cricket-suppers are becoming sadly out of fashion, and I fear it is considered somewhat vulgar to indulge in them. Late dinners perhaps have helped to put them out of date; but whatever be the cause, I think it a great pity that they should be extinct, and I hope to see, ere long, an effort made for their revival. Not that I agree quite with the widely-accepted maxim that we Englishmen can do nothing, whether in business or in pleasure, without plenty of eating and drinking. But the meet after the match affords a pleasant time for chat, and many a life-friendship which is first formed upon the field is cemented in the supper-room. Men now are much too business-like to please me in their pastimes. They hurry home from hunting as they do out of a theatre, and they cut away from cricket, scarcely bidding a good-bye, and as though glad to get it over. Now this is surely an ill-compliment to those they have been playing with, and for many other reasons I think it a mistake. The drive through pleasant country from a well-contested match is to me far more enjoyable when taken leisurely and calmly in the cool of the late evening, with one’s supper safe inside one, than when you hurry off the ground as hard as you can pelt, hot, and, may be, hurt, or freshly smarting from defeat.
I have had some slight experience in getting up a club, and know a little of the duties of those who undertake its management; and I think success depends in a very great degree upon the rules laid down at starting for the management of matches, and the spirit of obedience, good temper, and good-will with which such regulations as seem needful are observed. In choosing an Eleven, I consider it essential to elect a proper captain, and, when chosen, to invest him with absolute authority. It saves a world of trouble to place in his sole hands the appointment of the field, and uncontrolled decision in cases of dispute. Many a match is lost for want of a good general; and if the captain be held responsible for failure, he will keep his wits about him and lose no chance to win. It will be for him to say when to try a change of bowling (I have often seen a wicket drawn by taking off a good bowler and putting on a bad one): and his practised eye will note the style of play in each new batsman, and tell him how to vary the disposal of the field. Nothing more displays the skill of the professional Elevens than their quickness in discovering the favourite hits of players, and taking steps to stop them. A peculiar hit is made, and a run or two obtained; a similar ball is bowled and it is similarly hit, but by the beckoning of the captain a fieldsman has been moved, and the player is caught out. Very many of the victories the Elevens have obtained over Sixteens and Twenty-twos have in great measure been gained by dodges of this sort: and young players may learn much by watching such good generalship, and seeing how to take advantage of an enemy’s weak points.
As a rule, I fear that fielding is terribly neglected, and, like bowling, is not practised half enough by amateurs. We at Greyfriars used often to have afternoons for practice, thirteen only playing, so as to have two batsmen in rotation at the wickets and the rest at their appointed places in the field. There cannot well be sides in such a game as this; but to keep the interest up it is as well to take the score, and the man who makes most runs may be held winner of the game. At any rate, such play is vastly more improving than a game at “tip-and-run,” which is all very good fun for muffs who only blind-swipe, and have a wish to exercise their lungs as well as legs. And it is vastly more amusing, at least in my opinion, than the “practice” that one sees upon nine club-days out of ten, and which consists in simply pitching some half score of wickets some half dozen yards apart, so that nobody, of course, can hit to leg or point without the chance of breaking some one else’s head. There is certainly excitement in practice of this sort, but I must confess that it is not much to my taste; and, after all, such play is terribly slow work, for the players loll and smoke until their turn comes for the bat, and if you are so unlucky as to make a slashing hit, you have to bellow out “Ball, thank you!” until you are half hoarse, and even then the chance is you must go for it yourself.
But what is better than good generalship, and more important to good cricket, I consider it essential that there should be good fellowship. As cricket is a sport, and is merely played for exercise and healthful recreation, it never should be played but with good feeling and good humour. No matter who wins, they who lose their temper I can but hold to lose; and I would say to any cricketer, if you cannot play without squabbling, you had best not play at all. I have heard of deadly feuds between two rival country clubs, and how the Swipewell never played a match with the Long Stopperton without the day’s fun ending in a wrangle and a fight. But I hope these bad old bulldog times are past, and, although the fire of rivalry may be as hot as ever, I trust players are too sensible to let their temper become heated by it. No man has a claim to be considered a good cricketer who allows himself to show a sign of anger at defeat. I recollect once playing in a match where our antagonists, against express agreement, brought a paid player to bowl. The ground was hard and rough, and we thought this bowling dangerous; but he pledged his word that he would moderate his pace. Rather than not play, we therefore waived objection, and for the first innings he contrived to keep his word. But when I drew his wicket with, I think, my second ball, he broke his bat upon the ground in a sudden fit of rage (an act which, had I been their captain, would certainly have got him his dismissal on the spot), and when we took our second innings he bowled with all his might, and I especially came in for a full share of his wrath. It is not because my legs were next day black and blue that I treasure the reflection that this was no true cricketer, however good a player he may have been and is.
Some may think that it may be from such remembrances as these, and because I have poor pluck and cannot bear a good bruising, that I have protested against the fast round bowling. But this indeed is not the case. My chief cause of objection is not at all one based on any personal antipathy to having my legs pounded to the colours of the rainbow, or to losing half my beauty by getting a black eye, or having (say) the bridge of my finely-chiselled nose smashed. I object to round-shot bowling mainly on the score that, to my thinking, it lessens the enjoyment of the game. Few people can face a really swift round bowler without feeling somewhat nervous about their eyes and limbs; and although, by constant practice, such feeling may wear off, they can never be completely at their ease when at the stumps. I think much more amusement may be got out of the game when there is less danger in it; and though I have small wish to see young men made mollycoddles, and funky of hard knocks, I think games, to be games, ought to have some fun in them. I admit there’s more variety in round than under bowling, and I have no wish to see the round become extinct. But, judging by what daily one reads about “the slows,” it surely cannot be said success is always with the swift; on the contrary, although there may not be such “devil” in them, I think, with proper practice, the slows may be destructive as the rapids of Niagara. And why I cry out for slow bowling is, that I consider much more real fun and real pleasure is produced by it. When a ball is discharged as from the mouth of a six-pounder, you must look out for your legs, or you’ll have no legs to look to. But with slower bowling you have leisure to enjoy yourself, and instead of standing swathed up at the wicket like a mummy or a mute, you can laugh and chaff with those who are about you, without fearing that your laughter may be turned by a leg-ball to the wrong side of your mouth. As they are played at present, the only fun in matches appears to be in the queer names which are oftentimes assumed; but to call yourselves “Anomalies,” or “Amalgamated Duffers,” appears, at least to my thinking, a rather feeble joke, and one I am by no means disposed to join in laughing at.
No one ever heard of a third innings at cricket, or it would be easy to write another paper on the points I have not noticed. But I think I hear the editor, who is my umpire, crying “Time!” and so I must cut short what more I have to say. Some people seem to fancy that, as men get more luxurious, cricket may die out: or that the love of rifle practice will gradually supplant it. I have little fear, however, of either of these deaths for it; in fact, I quite believe that so long as there are Englishmen, so long there will be cricket. The love of out-door exercise is much too strong a passion with us ever to die out, and cricket is a sport in everybody’s reach; and one, therefore, that the “Million” will be sure to keep on foot, if ever it be neglected by the “Upper Ten Thousand.”
- The matches which were played in the years 1842, 1843, 1846, 1848, 1849, and 1853, were all of them decided in favour of the gentlemen, who since the year last mentioned have not won a single match.
- I think I ought to add that, in a dozen years’ experience, this has been the only case in which I have ever found a hired player misconduct himself. As a rule, professional cricketers are in their behaviour all that one can wish; and one very rarely hears a foul word from their lips, as one does too often from watermen and jockeys, and other paid professors of gentlemanly sports.