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The Chairman of Surrey CCC (also Prime Minister)

John Major, More than a Game: the story of cricket’s early years, Harper, 2007, pp. 433.

I overheard a remark on Radio 4 recently to the effect that Wagner was like Marmite and cricket: you either “got it” or you didn’t. The implication for those administering or producing these goods was that they really didn’t need a marketing strategy because there was no chance of a majority market, but nor would the devotees ever disappear. I think all this is true, though I can’t see Marmite being the meaning of life for anybody in the way that cricket and Wagner – and jazz and bird-watching – clearly are for some people. John Major “gets” cricket. He is not the answer to the quiz question about the prime minister who played first class cricket: that is Sir Alec Douglas-Home. But he is the answer to the one about which PM said he was more proud of being president of Surrey County Cricket club than of having been PM and when he lost power in 1997 in the wonderfully instant way of the British constitution he went straight down to the Oval where he received a smattering of sympathetic approach before everybody got back to the business of the day. An elderly Surrey supporter told him he’d had “a bad decision”, but if we cricketers know anything it is that life contains bad decisions which must be accepted.

None of this was for electoral consumption (unlike, you might say, some politicians’ affection for football) and this labour of love has been produced in the years since his bad decision. Unlike the writings of Winston Churchill and Gordon Brown it is his own work and has an authentic “voice”. It is the voice of the sort of chap with a safe pair of hands who becomes secretary of the local history society and the local cricket club so that, although the reader actually knows that the author was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and one of the half dozen most powerful heads of government on the planet, it always comes as a bit of a shock when he alludes to it. For instance:

Oliver Cromwell is one of the great figures of English history, and he held a special fascination for me as by far the most illustrious Member of Parliament for my own constituency of Huntingdon. He and I are the only Members from that seat – thus far – to head a government. (p. 29)

Among the assets which Major brings to his task are balance and common sense. For those who don’t get it – or, at least, its historical dimension, the origins of cricket are shrouded in mystery. There is some agreement that what evolved into the modern game developed in the South of England during the sixteenth century, but before that all is diffusion and uncertainty. There is no agreement on which of at least three entirely separate linguistic roots is the origin of the name and I have been present at conferences when the supposed pictorial evidence for a French origin has been dismissed as “a baguette and an apple”. Major deals with all this carefully and does not rush to judgement, demonstrating what we might think are usually good qualities in a Prime Minister.

But as an historian he is very much a gentleman rather than a player. There are no proper footnotes or references of any kind in this book and, though I am far from a pedantic reader of history, there were many occasions where I did want to know where a fact or a quotation came from. He wanders rather amateurishly, often including a curious or humorous anecdote which has little or nothing to do with cricket. I thought this would have made a much better 300-page book than its actual length of well over 400 and in the case of authors who hadn’t been Prime Minister an employee of the publishing house might have pointed this out forcefully.

And though I trust the author’s knowledge of the history of cricket his general grasp of the history of sport inspires no faith whatsoever. The account of the development of Lawn Tennis (pp. 245-6) bears no resemblance to any established account and in the absence of references we must assume that the author is hopelessly wrong rather than that he is offering original research. And to be told blithely (p.195) that gymkhana is “Hindi for “club”” suggests a good deal of false assumption. It comes from ghend khana, words which are more or less the same in a variety of North Indian languages meaning “ball house” and thus racket court and its transformation into an English word referring to various sporting events and institutions is part of the British imperial version of globalisation. “Club” is not just an English word, it is an English concept and this is important in understanding the likes of the Punjab Club (Lahore) and Breach Kandy Club (Mumbai) which are thriving to this day.

I don’t think Major understands the significance of the amazing sporting revolution which started in England in the second half of the nineteenth century and has since affected almost the entire world. Between 1863 (when the Football Association was established) and 1895 (which marked the setting up of what became the International Olympic Committee and the schism in rugby) organised games were created and codified en masse, in most cases transforming practices which were ancient, diffuse and relatively unimportant into “sport” in its modern sense. But this was not a simple “modernisation” – a “capitalist” sport functionally appropriate to a capitalist society. Sport became in some respects a repository of values which were alternative to the societies around it with elements of the aristocratic and chivalrous and the Christian socialism which its greatest propagandist, Tom Hughes, had given it.

Cricket was part of all this, even though it was much more developed than most other games when the process began. Test matches, a county championship, Northern leagues, overarm bowling, fixed boundaries and most of the fabric of the modern game date from this period just as much as the practices of other games. And all of this, I have argued, was part of an “amateur hegemony” in which the sporting values of the public schools were imposed on the wider world (in this case through the institution of the Marylebone Cricket Club). That cricket was about “gentlemen” and “players” were merely tolerated, that “it’s not cricket” had an ethical meaning for a Trinidadian Marxist in the form of C.L.R.James, was the very character of the game and it was a character created by the public school amateur containment of professionalism and commercialism. It is clear from Major’s narrative that otherwise a very different game might have emerged. Mid nineteenth century cricket, the cricket of William Clarke, his “All England XI” and its rivals, consisted mainly of handicap games (between an eleven and an eighteen, for example) which suited the bookies and single-wicket competitions between star cricketers, something which Murdoch sponsorship attempted to revive in the 1980s. Without amateur control, left to the likes of William Clarke (or W.G.Grace) cricket would have developed as a commercial entertainment, as baseball did in the USA. It would have been another professional game, not “more than a game” at all. Frankly, John Major doesn’t seem to understand any of this and is inclined to dismiss the meaning which Thomas Hughes or Sir Henry Newbolt gave to the game as “humbug” and he doesn’t understand that modern cricket, even more intensely than other sports, has been a brilliant tension between the ideas contesting its meaning and value.

Here we have an author who is a Conservative, a politician and an historian. What I find slightly disturbing is that his mind-set is all politician – democratic, populist and modern – and not discernibly conservative at all. He has a view of history and it is a kind of schoolboy version of the Whig/Liberal progressive view – that things get better and more enlightened. Thus the language he uses for his descriptions of the general social and political background to cricket’s development. The Napoleonic period, for example:

The rise of the meritocracy gained pace, and as the new industrialists tasted power and success they became less willing to defer to those who regarded themselves as their social superiors. The aristocracy, the meritocracy and the working man were all at odds. A storm was gathering, and the time was ripe for change. (p. 112)

And later in the nineteenth century:

The visible benefits – railways, bridges, roads and municipal buildings – were in stark contrast to the medieval conditions experienced by some workers. The writings of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were beginning to raise uneasy questions about the social and economic organisation of industrialised nations. Marx began to put his masterpiece Das Kapital on paper, unaware that it would spill blood for a hundred years. (p. 261)

Masterpiece? Medieval? I’m not sure which is the more irritating. Instead of “medieval” he normally says “feudal” without any real concern for its interesting meaning, but in that vague popular sense which means old-fashioned-and-not-in-a-nice-way. Sometimes he achieves a kind of bathos in his juxtapositions of general and cricket history: twice he tells us that 1848 in Continental Europe was the year of revolutions, but in England (which is much nicer) it was chiefly notable for the birth of W.G.Grace.

In dealing with the history of cricket itself he shows little understanding of the motivations and ideas of those who ran the amateur hegemony. Chapter 15, “The Autocrats” is much concerned with Lord Hawke and Lord Harris, respectively captains of Yorkshire and Kent in the “Golden Age” of cricket. Hawke was also Governor of Bombay and played some part in the development of Indian cricket. Major is prepared to attribute some good consequences to the lives of these ferociously posh geezers, but he shows no real understanding of their ideas, their well-justified fears of what would happen to cricket (and sport in general) in their absence: careerism, corruption, gambling, declining behaviour, loss of meaning . . . Their lordships were behind the times! To which the natural retort must be that any decent and honest person should be behind the times, at least in the last two centuries. But not a politician, I suppose: they have to be with the times.

In particular, Major shows no understanding at all of the strength of the argument for having an amateur captain as it is particularly well put in the memoirs of Lord Tennyson (not the poet, but his grandson who captained England). It is that you want someone in charge who does not have a career interest. I think it extends well beyond cricket and that the old amateur chief constables, local politicians etc had huge advantages over people whose prime careers were entwined with their responsibilities. It overlaps with the case for both monarchy and democracy. Her Majesty may have a vocation to be head of state, but she doesn’t have a career. And democratic politics is, in some respects, the place of the amateur. Otherwise, John, we might just as well leave the running of the country to your friend (and mine) Sir Gus O’Donnell. You weren’t a professional Prime Minister, after all, and you’re not a professional historian.

Which is fine because amateur historians have a good deal to contribute to the study of history, including the development of many new fields – like sporting and local history in most of the twentieth century – which don’t offer incentives for the career historian. I received this book on a Friday. On the Saturday morning, when I was due to play in a top of the table clash in the afternoon, my back “twanged” leaving me in a pathetic and utterly unathletic condition. I consulted my skipper, who lives in the North Wing of the house and he texted up a replacement, in the modern way. I was left watching – and reading. The game was magnificent: our 225 for 9 beating their 218 – a good day if we’d lost, ecstatic when we won. And the book was in sync with the game because the joy of cricket does come through Major’s writing. He loves cricket – and probably precisely because it is an “other” to the everyday world of careers and ambitions. Wes Hall’s statement to the author, quoted on page 13, that you can’t be unhappy if you play cricket, is not strictly true, but it’s false in the right kind of way.

So, not that much of an historian; not discernibly a conservative; definitely a politician. But a cricket-lover more than any of these. To adapt Dr. Johnson, when a former Prime Minister writes 400 pages on cricket it does not matter whether it is done well or badly – it is very nice to see it done at all.

Lincoln Allison

(A review from the archive revived for its curiosity value.)