The elegance and humour of Neville Cardus

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

As a fully paid-up, old-school cricket tragic, I astound myself that I have read almost no Neville Cardus. How can that be? He was, in his lifetime, the doyen of cricket writers, mainly because he effectively invented the form. Before he started writing for the Manchester Guardian in 1919, cricket journalists reported the score and little else. And what little else, you could probably have done without. As Duncan Hamilton says in his biography:

Before Cardus, there were cricket writers who still called the ball ‘the crimson rambler’, referred to the wicketkeeper as ‘the custodian of the gauntlets’ and saw the ball speed ‘across the greensward’, as though the vocabulary of Merrie Olde England had never gone away.

Cardus swept all that aside. He was only marginally interested in the score, and statistics held no appeal for him at all. He wrote about the often deeply eccentric characters who played this weirdest of games, about the weather, about his surroundings, about all the things that, less than 100 years later, make Test Match Special special. And he wrote in an unashamedly highbrow literary style, encouraged by his editor, C. P. Scott, who believed that if his readers did not know a long word or recognise a recondite literary reference, they could look it up.

His style, it turned out, was contagious. Within a dozen years almost every serious paper in the empire had its own Cardus, or Cardus-lite. It’s essentially down to him that cricket has such a broad and deep literature. Cardus was eventually knighted, and died in his eighties; but as with so many writers, his reputation declined after his death. As Gideon Haigh says in his introduction to A Field of Tents and Waving Colours, a selection of Cardus’s work: ‘For a long time, Sir Neville Cardus was regarded as cricket’s greatest writer; then he wasn’t.’ You can’t say fairer than that, and that’s probably why I haven’t read him.

The problem is that he sometimes made things up. According to Hamilton: ‘Where quotes were concerned, Cardus didn’t necessarily burden himself with the inconvenience of having to be strictly factual.’ You would never get away with it nowadays, and he only just about got away with it then. But he wasn’t really a nuts-and-bolts reporter; he was a humorous writer, and all humorous writers paint the lily from time to time. It’s not whether you expand or extend the truth that matters. It’s whether people believe you.

Cardus, it turns out, was that very 20th-century creature, a self-made man. His mother was a prostitute and his father vanished before Neville could talk. But in early adulthood he eradicated every trace of Lancashire from his accent and became the gentleman he needed to be to survive. The MCC saw through him and blackballed him from membership. He saw through the MCC, regarding it as ‘Debrett’s in visible motion’.

Forty years after his death, he is lucky in his remaining fans. Hamilton is a terrific cricket writer, whose biography of Harold Larwood, the England fast bowler caught up in the Bodyline scandal of 1932–3, is a work of great clarity and humanity. I’m not sure he could write a dull sentence if he tried. Haigh is his Australian equivalent, whose only fault is that he is too prolific — which may just mean he has too many mouths to feed. (I know the problem.)

Hamilton’s book is a marvel. Within a vaguely chronological structure he wanders hither and thither, forward and back through time, with effortless elegance and confidence. There are no longueurs. He is a wonderfully wry, funny writer, apt to make you laugh out loud in public places. During the second world war, Cardus fled to Australia. As Hamilton describes it:

Cardus would have been useless to the war effort. He was too old to enlist. He had no previous experience of armed forces discipline. He was the least practical and most passive of men. In the Home Guard, he’d have been a cross between two members of the Dad’s Army cast: Sergeant Wilson, ‘terribly sorry’ for the inconvenience of everything, and Private Godfrey, always asking to be excused.

I made a fool of myself on the Northern line with that one.

And what of Cardus himself? A Field of Tents and Waving Colours does not credit an editor, nor does it list where or when the pieces were first written, so this could be the best of Cardus or the worst of Cardus and you’d never know. As it happens, he is not bad, and at times he is glorious, but to be honest he has been superseded, not least by Hamilton and Haigh themselves.

In his introduction Haigh asks himself whether Cardus was the best of cricket writers, and then refuses to answer his own question. He will, however, admit that Cardus was the most important of cricket writers; and if this distinction is of the slightest significance to you, you will enjoy these two books very much indeed.

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