Playing Past is delighted to be publishing on Open Access – Sport and Leisure on the Eve of World War One, [ISBN 978-1-910029-15-2]  – This eclectic collection of papers has its origins in a symposium hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Sport and Leisure History research team on the Crewe campus between 27 and 28 June 2014. Contributors came from many different backgrounds and included European as well as UK academics with the topics addressed covering leisure as well as sport.


Please cite this article as:

Rowe, Mark. Cricket in 1914: A Re-assessment, In Day, D. (ed), Sport and Leisure on the Eve of World War One (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2016), 98-115.





Cricket in 1914: A Re-assessment.

Mark Rowe




Cricket writers have taken for granted a ‘golden age’ of English cricket from 1890 to 1914, yet the evidence for it is thin. If anything, sources say the opposite. By 1914 journalists were complaining of dull batting by counties; spectators were taking up newer sports and pastimes, leaving the first-class game in financial trouble. Authority figures admitted all was not well. Below county level, professional cricketers scraped a living as put-upon club groundsmen. Why then the enduring myth of a golden age, ended by the 1914-18 war? Nostalgia, and regret for lost men and summers, do not explain it. A close study of Sir Neville Cardus’ classic English Cricket (1945) suggests that Cardus’ blinkers fitted his reactionary view of the game that held up amateur players as the ideal and blamed slow play on professionals. This allowed Cardus to make his name by praising a past generation that the young were not equal to; and suited his personal story as a war-dodger.  

Keywords: Cricket; War; Myth.



On the first or last couple of days of the England-Australia Lord’s Test match in June 1956, Ernest Dain, a rescue instructor for civil defence in Wolverhampton, bought an evening newspaper on his way from work to the bus stop. The top deck of his bus was fairly full, so he sat by ‘an old gentleman who sat pulling at an old pipe’. After he paid the conductor, and as the bus cleared the town, Dain opened his paper to read the Test report. The old man fidgeted; Dain sensed his neighbour, too, was trying to read it. ‘Finally he spoke. ‘Excuse me, but can you tell me the latest score’. Adding apologetically, ‘you see I am a cricketer’.’ In a coarser age, Dain might have told the old man to buy his own ‘paper; in a later age, anyone interested would find it hard not to know the score. Dain replied that he too was a cricketer; and with that bond shared, the two strangers discussed first the Test, then England.

‘I haven’t seen many of today’s cricketers,’ the old man said. ‘A bit old for getting about, you know.’ Then the old man’s eyes glittered, so Dain recalled for a civil defence newsletter. ‘But I used to see them all, wonderful days in the sun, at the Oval, Lord’s, Old Trafford and Worcester.’ The man sighed; then spoke of Hammond (‘never a dull moment, watching him. Broad powerful shoulders, and what power behind every stroke’) and of seeing Compton once (‘a slim, boyish figure, good to watch’).

Woolley, Dain asked; did you ever see Frank Woolley? ‘Yes, there was a sight, of suppleness and grace; tall, he was, and good to look at. They never could hold him down, and in his younger days a good bowler too, the pride of Kent and England.’ And Ranjitsinjhi, Dain asked; he was a cutter, wasn’t he? The old man sighed. ‘I never saw him, but…’

Dain saw that the bus was nearing his stop. He had to jump up. ‘Cheerio,’ Dain said. ‘They can’t cut nowadays.’

‘Oh, good afternoon,’ the old man replied, as if disappointed Dain was leaving so soon (and could he not have stayed to the next stop?). Dain wrote: ‘On my way from the bus I too had memories which crowded in, and I thought of the cricketing giants of the past who I had not seen but seemed to know after all. Will those of today ever reach that stature, I wondered.’ 1

Such conversation, maddeningly cut short for the later reader, prompted Dain to compare his own experience with the past; though in his hurry to be home for dinner, Dain did not make that good a historian. Even if he had stayed with the old man, the pair would have faced a problem common to mankind: how to compare what you have seen with what you only hear about. Times change. Once you go beyond your senses, even if you can make sense of past statistics, the views of respected elders, photographs and moving pictures, how can you judge the living against the dead?

And that assumed a good memory. Dain’s neighbour on the bus, like many of us, only remembered the good. Few men were as unromantic as the Daily Mail cricket correspondent Alex Bannister, who in the 1959 Hampshire yearbook recalled his undated first visit to Lord’s, and asked, ‘was the age so golden?’. The seats had been hard, the ginger beer dear, and Frank Woolley was out first ball. In a word, watchers of cricket could be guilty of nostalgia, as Neville Cardus admitted sometimes. In The Field in May 1937 for instance, while deploring ‘second-class cricket’ by some first-class counties, he wrote: ‘Cricket never was as good as it used to be’.2

Our memories trick us. Or; we want to be tricked, into believing life was better, or best, when we too were at our best: young, fit and hopeful. Hence claims, and believers, that many things once had a ‘golden age’: Broadway theatre, travel, comedy on television, even bank robbery. Thus, Cardus in a short but influential book English Cricket (1945) called 1890 to 1914 a ‘Golden Age’.3 Historians of the game, and the journalists that have lazily copied the phrase ever since, have taken that ‘age’ for granted. To take only three of countless examples: in his history of wicket-keepers, The Valiant Stumpers, G.D. Martineau in 1957 headed a chapter on the pre-war Warwickshire and England man Dick Lilley, ‘Lilley of the Golden Age’. David Frith, a premier Anglo-Australian cricket writer of the later twentieth century, in 1978 brought out a beautifully-sepia-illustrated book, The Golden Age 1890-1914. Another admired writer on the game, Derek Birley, in his 1979 work, The Willow Wand: Some Cricket Myths Explored, wrote once each of ‘the myth of the golden age’ and ‘the cult of the golden age’ yet mentioned ‘the golden age’ a score of times without saying what (if anything) he meant. Twenty years later, in his Social History of English Cricket, he did call the golden age ‘a hackneyed description’, which he blamed on cricket ‘being plagued by nostalgia’.4 Even if nostalgia explained everything, why so much nostalgia for that time? The ‘golden age’, ended by the outbreak of war in August 1914, is like most things that we take for granted. When you look for evidence – beyond the assertions by men after the time – it’s remarkably thin.

The Cardus view

Before we ask, like Bannister, if the age was so golden, it’s worth pointing out how meaningless the phrase is. To be consistent, should you not call other ages silver, or copper or iron? Significantly in his English Cricket, Cardus shoe-horned the common names for periods of English history into cricket – the Middle Ages for the eighteenth-century men of Hambledon, and modern for after the 1914-18 war. Even assuming those names are a good fit for English history, they made little sense for cricket. To say ‘golden age’ was merely another way, admittedly snappy, of calling a time outstanding.

Cardus made more detailed assertions. The twenty or so years before 1914 were ‘a Golden Age of batsmanship’.5 While Cardus did hail slow, fast and googly bowlers of the age alike, it looked like an after-thought, (‘There were bowlers too.’).6 In addition, Cardus drew on general history again to make the conservative claim that ‘like most ages of gold’, the great batting was based ‘on an aristocracy’.7 Cardus did not spell out whether he meant actual aristocrats, or merely amateur players rather than paid professionals, or both. The public appreciated such batting (‘crowds flocked’) and there was some, unspecified, connection between this heyday of cricket and the country generally (‘it was symbolical of the age’s prestige’).8

Anything that is great or beautiful or skilful – all words of Cardus’ – only half-qualifies, even if true, as a ‘golden age’. It has to be greater than ages before or since; assuming always that your labels, or any labels, of the past are accurate. Cardus, indeed, contrasted his golden age with years of ‘discontents’ after 1914-18. He wrote: ‘We saw at once on the cricket field the effect of a dismal philosophy and a debilitated state of national health. Beautiful and brave stroke-play gave way to a sort of trench warfare, conducted behind the sandbag of broad pads’.9 Such striking images came strangely from a man who avoided serving in the 1914-18 war by claiming poor eyesight; yet a man who – having got his feet under the table at the Manchester Guardian newspaper in wartime – made his name as an observer of cricket from beyond the boundary, 100 yards or more away. In the end, like much in life, calling something golden (or not) was merely a matter of opinion. Everyone could have one, and it only mattered how convincing you could make yours sound. By publishing a book on cricket from 1919 to 1939 as the ‘second golden age’, Gerald Howat10 was unconsciously ridiculing Cardus and the very idea of ‘golden ages’. How many golden ages can we take before we are dazzled?!

Cardus was not original. H.S. Altham called a chapter of his A History of Cricket (1926) ‘The Golden Age of Batting: Ranji, Fry, Jessop’.11 Although Altham did not date his ‘golden age’, the latest innings he quoted was in 1907. Cardus’ evidence, once you set aside his airy talk of genius and grandeur, and ‘in excelsis’,12 rested on many more men, though still a relative handful when spread over sixteen pre-war counties: he listed thirty-two Englishmen (including Altham’s three; and Woolley, also named in Dain’s conversation) and sixteen Australians. We can make such lists of most twenty-year periods, including our own. What made the years before 1914 extraordinary, never seen before or since? Whatever it was, would you not expect somebody to notice at the time, and not years later, when Cardus was trying to make his name? As we cannot survey every newspaper, after-dinner speech and private letter, even if they survive, we cannot prove that no-one before 1914 said, ‘we are living in a golden age of cricket’. People seldom think so grandly, and even if they do, they can only compare with the past, not the future. A ‘golden age’ implies a nostalgic judgement, unless you are saying it about the present.

Sources of the time

When men around 1914 did rate their era, beyond the day-to-day grind or season’s preview and review, it is striking how they believed the opposite of Cardus. Lieutenant-Colonel John May regretted early in his 1906 reminiscences of north Hampshire that his district lacked the ‘encouragement of or devotion to cricket’ he had once seen.13 Before the 1910 season, in the Sunday sports newspaper Umpire, the Lancashire batsman John Sharp wrote (or at least allowed his name to be printed above the words) that ‘although some of our critics seem to think that cricket is dead, I am sure that given a decent summer the public will take a greater interest than ever in the game’.14 Like most basic points, Sharp’s is often over-looked; memorable seasons such as 1947 and 2005, the building-blocks of golden ages, need dry weather, to allow play of an open-air game. The Herts and Cambs Reporter columnist Corvus Cornix had a good perch to spot a ‘golden age’: in July 1913 he recalled W.G. Grace made his century of centuries in 1895 and a Daily Telegraph shilling fund for the doctor raised £10,000 (millions in twenty-century money). He noted, ‘Those were the great days of English cricket which WG and his brothers had done so much to foster. It is doubtful whether the public interest in cricket is today quite what it was in those days’.15

What was wrong with the game, on and off the field, in the 1900s to explain these misgivings, by various men each showing some sense of perspective? Private diaries and memoirs confirm: cricket was unsatisfactory to watch, certainly not golden. On Friday 3 June, 1910, having watched Yorkshire at Trent Bridge, the Nottingham teacher Will Richards wrote: ‘Awful dull cricket with Notts on the losing side as usual’.16 Other diary entries suggest he went at least partly to learn, as he played more cricket than he watched. The Brighton estate agent Walter Feilde Ingram, born in Sussex in 1851, belonged to the county club and went to ‘a good many county matches’ until, before 1914, he ‘got bored with the dullness’, so he reminisced in 1925. He blamed the batsmen and bowlers, stone-wallers and nothing but the ‘off theory’. Men ‘played with their legs instead of their bats and cricket to my mind became very dull.’ You might dismiss Ingram as an ageing grumbler. He could only arrive at the county ground during or just before tea; why did county teams want tea? he asked. Ingram turned to golf instead. Yet he witnessed one of Cardus’ golden greats: ‘Ranji was a delight to watch. It was wonderful how he could twist his body like an eel and glide a ball to leg’.17

Perhaps such spectators were not clever enough to appreciate (unlike Cardus?!) what was in front of them; though they had a right to their opinion, and cricket like any other business taking the public’s coins at the gate ignored public opinion at its peril. Public critics must have at least felt they had a point, or they would not have aired the subject. The mayor of Walsall, Councillor Millership, told a town hall audience in April 1909 he was annoyed by what he saw at Edgbaston the season before, ‘for it took about three hours to get 20 runs’.18 Cardus’ thirty-two, while outstanding, evidently could not lift the average county game. In Gloucestershire’s 1922 yearbook, committee member H.E. Roslyn wrote an obituary of Edgar Barnett (1885-1922), an amateur batsman for the county from 1903. Roslyn admitted: ‘In his young days we badly needed a man to go in first and keep his end up’. Barnett obeyed instructions not to play his natural game, though it ‘helped to kill his zeal for the game because he realised that he was unattractive to watch’.19 His county captain was Gilbert Jessop, one of Cardus’ golden thirty-two.

Evidence from the 1914 county championship suggests, if anything, the county game at least was reaching a crisis. In a 21 May article headed ‘Decline of county cricket – public apathy’, The Times noted ‘disappointing’ attendances, even though counties were beginning three-day matches on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so that at least the Saturday start might draw a public that worked in the week. The Times found fault with what the players were offering: ‘So far as the public are concerned county cricket is after all a spectacle and nowadays the public demands a spectacle more swiftly dramatic and exhilarating than county cricket normally provides’. To give an example, a week later Essex took all day on a ‘perfectly true wicket’ at Old Trafford to make 246. The Manchester Guardian reported the next day that a ‘thin attendance’ of spectators ‘bore it for the most part with admirable resignation’, though some applauded ironically. One of the offending batsmen was the Essex and England captain Johnny Douglas, whose 63 in two and three-quarter hours The Times reckoned ‘would have been admirably sound ‘test’ cricket with a week allotted to a match’. J.W.H.T. Douglas was another of Cardus’ golden thirty-two.

Whether by coincidence or as a result of that match, on 1 June a Manchester Guardian review of the previous Saturday afternoon’s Lancashire League matches in the region contrasted the ‘ceremonial dullness of Old Trafford’ and the ‘classical torpor of Douglas and his colleagues’ with a League match, summed up as ‘a jolly, adventurous, sporting and withal thoroughly neighbourly affair’, that attracted ‘eager and keenly interested crowds’. Lancashire and most other county clubs however – Yorkshire was an exception – held aloof from leagues, whether out of snobbishness or because leagues were rivals.

Even the top tables admitted all was not well with the county game. ‘Much has been written and much has been said about cricket today and that it is losing its hold upon the public. I do not believe it,’ Lord Hawke told a June 1914 dinner in London to mark the centenary of Lord’s.20 As a long-time captain then president of Yorkshire county club, Lord Hawke was one of the most dedicated and powerful figures in English cricket. Though diners cheered, Hawke went on to admit that golf and tennis were rivals. There was too much cricket, or as Hawke put it, ‘so much more important cricket’; whereas twenty-five years before England had eight first-class cricketing counties, in 1914 it had sixteen. Men with spare cash had as many other sports and pastimes to choose before 1914 as in the 1950s or any later decade, when cricket fretted about lost spectators and income. According to his diary, Will Richards from 1911 went to the ‘Kinemacolor’ some evenings. He went roller-skating and dancing, and did photography: all good for winning women. He went rowing on the Trent, swam in public baths, watched Nottingham Forest; and in the summer of 1909, after Bleriot flew the English Channel, tried making model gliders. While cricket, then, still had a hold on young men’s time and wallets, like any other spectator sport or leisure pastime it had to balance supply and demand each summer; offering spectators too much could be as bad as offering too little, and could always be spoiled by the unpredictable weather. Town and even county clubs relied on narrow constituencies: besides the mass of the interested – who, however, never visited the ground or gave any money – were those who paid at the gate, if they had the time or fancy to attend, and the fewer members, who paid in advance. Fewest of all were the leading figures in a district who lent their name to a club – the Duke of Devonshire, president of Derbyshire county club, for example – and in the last resort set an example by donating money.

Successful clubs could find themselves in debt as easily as the unsuccessful. Thanks largely to the outstanding bowler Sydney Barnes, Staffordshire was the leading minor county (the grade below first-class) in the seasons before 1914. At the club’s annual general meeting of 14 May, 1912, the county’s leading landowner Earl of Lichfield suggested that if Staffordshire saw their way financially to entering the first class championship, ‘they could make out a very good case for being admitted’. However, the earl raised the ‘all important’ question of finance. The club had collected only £300 to pay off a £500 deficit. Lichfield pointed out that only about fifty people had given. That deficit had only arisen in the last three years, ‘through giving an extended and more attractive programme of cricket’. In other words, the club had been too ambitious; it had offered Staffordshire more cricket than there was a demand for. Colonel A.H. Heath, seconding Lichfield, said that Staffordshire had not appealed to pay off a debt for twenty years. He claimed: ‘Was there a county cricket club in England – Yorkshire and Lancashire excepted – that could say that? They could hardly pick up their newspaper without seeing an account of almost bankrupt cricket clubs in both classes of cricket’.21

To take examples of matches from Staffordshire’s 1912 season of how easily a club could come undone: the receipts for a two-day game at Walsall against Durham were £30, which merely covered the ‘guarantee’ given to Durham. Many firms in the town had allowed their employees a few hours off work to see the game, and hundreds of excursionists came in from neighbouring towns. This was a sign of an often-overlooked fact about cricket, as true in 2014 as in 1914: there was no mass market for the game on weekdays. The biggest draw of the county’s season was a three-day match against the touring South Africans, at Stoke-on-Trent; however, the first day was washed out, and the teams could not even finish their first innings.22

The very nature of an outdoor game that needed dry weather brought financial risk, as the Yorkshire county club yearbook kept reminding members. In 1914, for instance, it reported the weather in 1913 had been ‘a great improvement on the last few summers with the result that the home matches were witnessed by larger numbers of spectators’.23 Every county club relied on a few home crowds on Saturdays and bank holidays, and Australian tourist games, easily spoiled by rain; ‘special appeals’ to members to fork out more; and the goodwill of patrons and ground owners. J.A. Dunkerley, for instance, owner of Beverley Town’s ground in east Yorkshire, was happy for the club not to pay rent in wartime.24

In 1914, as in 2014, players and their clubs felt a tug of competing responsibilities – between what were safe and dignified conditions to play in, particularly in such a wet summer as 1912, and the wish to entertain, as those watching deserved something for their money. In July 1912, S.T. Watkins of another minor county, Lincolnshire, wrote: ‘There is a tendency – and it is saddening to have to admit it – in many of the important matches nowadays to borrow a bad example from the colonies and resort to an irritating sort of barracking in the shape of ironical applause and the like’. He blamed the weather: ‘The crowds seem to think cricketers are a sort of amphibious animals who love to put on flannels and white buckskin boots to parade in and who enjoy doing it in public for the public’s amusement. They cannot be expected to rush down the pavilion steps so to speak and play in between showers’.25

What did the professional cricketers think? Besides the few hundred playing for counties, many more scratched a living as the sole paid professional for a league or other club. They seldom wrote their memoirs, let alone had them published, or even made their mark in written records, beyond scorecards. An exception is ‘Scholey’, the professional (and assistant groundsman) for Beverley Town cricket club. He had answered an advertisement in the Yorkshire Post in January 1914, but did not enter the club records until June, when he was ‘ordered to attend the next committee meeting’. There he was ‘instructed as to his duties and behaviour on the ground’. Whatever Scholey was doing wrong, it ended at a special committee meeting on Friday evening, 10 July. A.A. Plimpton the secretary reported that Scholey ‘had declined to play for the second XI’ the next day. Though the club, in its eyes, had given Scholey a chance – and warned him ‘as to the consequences of refusing to obey the committee’ – the man had crossed his name off the team list in the pavilion, and had left ‘a quantity of practice material’ outside, overnight. That was enough for committee men to suspend Scholey on the Friday morning; he demanded his wages for the week. The committee agreed Scholey had broken the terms of his agreement, and sacked him at once. Another man, Marshall, was offered Scholey’s job, at twenty shillings a week; about the wage of a farm labourer, and less than a postman’s. We know nothing of Scholey’s side of the story – or even his first name; the new secretary, George Edmond, in November 1914 (A.A. Plimpton having gone to the war) only reported that ‘the engagement of W Scholey as professional did not I regret to say prove satisfactory and had to be terminated’. Whatever Scholey did to offend – and maybe he simply did not get on with his employers – the club treated him as any boss treated any hired hand that showed dissent; with contempt.26

More typically, a professional wanted to get along with his employer, to secure a written testimonial that would help get another contract – usually season to season – or convince another club to hire him, ideally with better pay and conditions. A rare example of such testimonials – giving insight into the lesser-known rank of cricketers below first-class – survives from the 1920 advert by Durham City club for a professional player-coach. One of the dozen known applicants, Thomas Shaw, then aged 32, included a testimonial from J. Parkerton, the secretary of Ulster club in Belfast, dated 31 August, 1914. Besides setting out all the work expected of such a club pro’, it speaks of what clubs were looking for in a man, on and off the field:

Tom Shaw has just completed season 1914 with the Ulster cricket club and I have pleasure in recommending him to any club…I always found him most enthusiastic in his work, the pitches prepared by him have been a great improvement on those of past seasons. He is an honest worker and seems to take an interest in his work. As a bowler he is medium pace left hand bowler and during the season he was very successful and proved a useful man to our side. He was very popular with the players and have no hesitation in saying his services would have been continued next year only at the present time we are not in a position to say whether we will engage a professional.

As it turned out, Ulster did not take Tom Shaw back. The testimonial dwelt more on Shaw’s qualities as a man (‘straightforward’ and ‘sober’ – literally?!) than as a player (he was simply a ‘good cricketer’).27 As that suggested, a club was looking for a man to not only play for the club, but to look after the ground. Some of the work sounded like downright drudgery. In May 1909, Durham City instructed its groundsman to ‘clean out and keep clean the WC’ and ‘to prepare a trench for depositing the grass from the ground’. Understandably, men who wanted to play cricket for a living did not fancy such labour. Another of those 1920 job applicants was George Wakerley. He plainly must have wanted the job badly as in November 1920 he sent his sixth letter in seven weeks. He wrote: ‘I have received an offer, but there is a ground job attached to the post and to be quite candid I am not wanting such heavy work as I feel no cricketer can do justice to either himself or his club when he is tired out all the week by heavy ground work’.

By coincidence, Wakerley came from Nottingham and was a friend of the diarist Will Richards. As his application to Durham City showed, he earned a living as a club pro’ by moving around the country, year after year, either chasing a ‘berth’ with better pay and conditions or ending up wherever he could find a place. Despite, or because of, such a precarious working life, Wakerley took practice seriously – too seriously for Richards’ liking. On Tuesday 24 March, 1910, during his Easter holiday, Richards ‘played cricket with Wakerley who was as reckless as ever. Warnings are lost on him. Several times he swiped the ball perilously near passers-by. This does not alarm him the least and unconcernedly bats on’. Wakerley indeed had not learned, because in his diary for Saturday 25 September, 1909 Richards recorded playing with Wakerley and another friend, Cis, on ‘Haydn Road’, then on the outskirts of Nottingham. ‘Geo made a mighty swipe, the ball landing on the brim of a child’s hat without harming her. But he is quite unconcerned and still bats on. He does not see that the child had a miraculous escape from death. Myself I thought he had killed her’. We can guess that Richards, the Saturday afternoon batsman, disapproved of the single-minded young man who relied on cricket for a living.

Yet Richards too went to some lengths for the game. As that diary entry showed, he played well into autumn. In February 1910, while he was free because his school was closed during an outbreak of impetigo, Richards played cricket with Wakerley ‘near Bagthorpe prison’, again on the northern outskirts of Nottingham. On Wednesday 29 June, 1910, Richards got up at what he called ‘the absurd time of 4.30am’ to join an early-morning eleven-a-side game on ‘the Forest’, the park north of the centre of Nottingham, that ended at 7am. When it resumed the next Wednesday, and it was Richards’ turn to bat, he wrote: ‘A strange feeling of cramp seemed to encumber me. I got into something like mild form again, chiefly by square cuts and leg glances. The result was a draw, 66 for eight. George Wakerley got a blob, through trying his fancy leg glance a la Iremonger’. Here we see many of the reasons why young men played cricket. It was one of the few socially acceptable ways for men to exercise, and show skill; to impress others by doing better than their fellows; and to copy professional players (Richards presumably meant James Iremonger, the Nottinghamshire all-rounder of the day).

Boys could follow the first-class game eagerly, as Christopher Hollis admitted in his 1958 memoir Along the Road to Frome. His financial backing of the game did not amount to much – in 1910, aged eight, he sent a shilling to Taunton towards Somerset’s ‘shilling fund’ – but as he recalled the county game could thrill a boy in ways that would make no sense to an adult:

…I had then no ambition nor indeed did it occur to me that a reasonable person could have any ambition except to play cricket for the county, if possible even to play in a Test match. I considered that the human race was divided clearly into those who had succeeded in becoming county cricketers, those who had failed to become county cricketers, and women…I lived day in day out a second life in my imagination in which I was a triumphant county cricketer going from century to century, and I fancy that most of my companions did much the same…but the notion that a prime minister or a poet laureate, a musician or a manufacturer or anybody else of such a sort could possibly be of comparable importance with a county cricketer was a notion that at the time could never have entered my head.

A story of Hollis’, that dates from the weekend before Britain declared war on Germany, neatly summed up the contrast between the sport-obsessed child with the real-world adult. The school year having finished, Hollis was staying at a friend’s house in Somerset. He saw an evening paper:

I knew that it contained the all important news whether Somerset had won their match [against Derbyshire] but to my horror some older person snatched up the paper and instead of turning instantly and feverishly as I thought that any civilised person must have done to the cricket scores he languidly looked at the front page and started reading some article entitled ‘Mobilisation on the Continent’. Unable to contain myself, I broke with all good manners and squatted down in front of him in order to try and get a squint of the back page while he was reading the front.

Hollis had annoyed the man enough, who ‘with silent sarcasm surrendered the paper to me’. Hollis did not have the manners to refuse it, and read that Somerset had won.28

That all would be well with cricket after the 1914-18 war, if only the players put the game or spectators ahead of themselves, was a long-running theme, one Cardus took up; and like Hawke in his June 1914 speech, he would find many willing to listen. The authorities blamed anybody except themselves. Hawke admitted that some talked of slow cricket. Partly, Hawke put that down to the players’ skill (‘the art or science of placing the field and the accuracy of the bowling’). Or, batsmen were selfish, and were allowed to get away with it, in an ‘age of self-consciousness when batsmen are to some extent playing for their scores and averages. How I hate those averages!’ Hawke exclaimed, to cheers and laughter. As for why so many counties were barely making ends meet, Hawke tried to blame the press, for reporting county matches too well (‘thousands do not take the trouble to go even a couple of miles to watch a game’).

In a newspaper article in June 1921, one of those players, the Kent wicket-keeper J.C. Hubble,29 admitted: ‘For some time before the war the fine summer game had undoubtedly languished’. Some of his arguments echoed Hawke. Some players had become careless and idly indifferent: ‘The matter of averages was always troubling many batsmen and bowlers far too much’. Like Hawke, Hubble blamed the table of batting and bowling averages, printed in many papers twice a week, that prompted cricket followers to judge men by their number of runs or wickets, rather than their more intangible worth to the team, not measurable in runs or wickets. This was a significant example of how on-field play and off the field opinion of players affected each other. Players had a grievance that spectators – and club members, including the club committee men who might affect team selection – lacked the intimate understanding of a player’s worth. That gulf in understanding, between watcher and watched, has no more been solved in 2014 than in 1914.

Another grievance of professional players – pros’ for short, who were not amateurs, who played for the love of the game and for expenses – was pay. Hubble remarked in 1921 that some counties could pay well winter and summer; some hardly in summer. Again, in 1914 as in 2014, the round of first-class county competition – the county championship – hid the truth that in fact counties were, with exceptions, divided in two. They were either wealthy, well-appointed metropolitan counties that hosted Test matches – such as Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Middlesex and Surrey in London – or the rest, shires that could afford fewer professional players and had to rely more on amateurs, who might not merit a place in the team on playing ability. Reviewing the 1914 season, the 1915 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack reported that Warwickshire, like Gloucestershire had a ‘sad season, failure after failure going hand in hand with financial trouble’.30

Whether because some teams were easily and often beaten, or whether from habit or bad captains, some counties ‘got into the way of slow, tedious batting, careless fielding, and rank bad bowling,’ Hubble wrote in 1921: ‘…had the war not come just when it did, it is certain that many counties would have gone under altogether…’. He claimed that from 1903 to 1913, crowds in most parts of England ‘dwindled and dwindled’. Typically, in the small world of English cricket, Hubble did not make any enemies for himself by naming any of the guilty counties. Instead, he hailed his county for always seeking to bat and bowl attractively, ‘never disposed to take it easy because a draw seemed probable’. Already, views of 1914 and before, at least in part, drew on comparisons with what had happened since; crowds since 1919 were greater than ever, Hubble noted.

Some appreciated that cricket, like anything else that relied on paying patrons, had to market itself. The Torquay Times in July 1894 was surprised that the Devon-Cornwall minor counties game at Torquay only drew at most 150 around the ground and 20 in the pavilion;31 the newspaper said that organizers should have put notices in the newspapers (including the Torquay Times?!) and bills around the county.

That Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August, 1914 made for an awkward last few weeks of the season as cricket players and followers, like the rest of the country, had to adjust from peace to war and ask themselves; how essential were the things they did? Answers were mixed. Before The World of Cricket magazine stopped publishing, the editor, former England captain Archie MacLaren, asked how they could go on playing, watching or writing about the game while ‘they [‘our gallant allies’] are in the death grapple’.32 Yet Saturday afternoon cricket need not stop, he added, because ‘why should not the man who works during the week get his half day’s cricket at the end?’ As MacLaren rightly summed up, ‘public sentiment will settle the matter’, just as the public decided always whether any leisure pastime flourished or not.

Why Cardus’ view flourished

Cardus’ idea of a golden age, though without evidence, flourished because the 1914-18 war left so many dead, and the living in mourning for lost limbs and friends, and the four summers lost by all. As early as the 1915 edition of Wisden, the editor Sydney Pardon was writing that ‘it will naturally take some time for the game to recover fully from the blow it has received.’33 The Sussex gentleman cricketer Herbert Curteis, born in 1849, whose family let Windmill Hill club near Hailsham play on their lawn, wrote in old age: ‘Will it ever be again what it was. I do not think it will ever be quite the same, at least not for a couple of generations’.34

Cricket, like any sport and the country in general, took stock after 1914-18. In an October 1921 article, the Cardiff City football Fred Pagnam answered his own question: had football gone to the dogs? The game, he said, was booming; the Football League had more clubs than ever, in the Third Division North and South. Likewise, county cricket welcomed a new first-class county, Glamorgan, in 1921. Young players of any sport were scarce but, as Pagnam put it, ‘there is as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it’.35 In other words, stocks would recover.

As after the 1939-45 war, cricket, and other sports and the arts, boomed after 1914-18 as veterans made up for lost time and enjoyed life (as war-dodgers such as Cardus had been able to all along). The Beverley Town club, that had 250 members for the 1919 season, had 350 the next season and more than 400 by 1923. While some were there for other sports such as bowls and tennis, the cricketers were playing a record number of matches. Amateurs could still fill their summers as before 1914 with ‘country house’ cricket and ‘weeks’ of invitation matches. As late as July 1937, Major Stanyforth in The Field was telling the university student to make the most of his freedom:

He will be seen on county grounds and village greens, he will sit in baronial mansions and indifferent pubs, he will bowl out county batsmen, get hit out of the ground by the gardener, score 100 against a professional and get bowled for a duck by a schoolboy.36

The easy amateur game had revived. Yet, even if you went through 1914-18 and could forget it, or if you came after, you could at best only pretend the war never happened. H.S. Altham (1888-1965) as a Repton School, Oxford University and Surrey capped player had his cricket and life interrupted by war as much as anyone. In the Hampshire 1951 handbook he made the profound point that thanks to the world wars men no longer saw progress as inevitable: ‘Today we are not quite so sure even about our games’.

Just as civilized humankind went wrong in 1914, so Cardus could claim plausibly that the cricketers of the 1920s and 1930s had gone wrong. His ‘golden age’ was partly a stick to beat the young with, partly to flatter the old. Many agreed. The reporter on Derbyshire county cricket and columnist in the interwar Ashbourne Telegraph, ‘Plaindealer’, in August 1933 regretted the retirements of Percy Holmes of Yorkshire and Garnet Lee of Derbyshire, who each began county cricket before 1914. By comparison ‘the modern type of batsman is about as good to watch as a sausage machine’, he wrote. Plaindealer went even further in June 1934 and deplored ‘the mediocrity of English cricket of today’.37 At least Plaindealer understood that the cricketers might be innocent victims, made stale by too much cricket, all year round if they went on MCC tours.

None of this meant cricketers had become less skilful. As C.B. Fry said – one of Cardus’ golden thirty-two, and quoted by Cardus in The Field in May 1936: ‘There are many fine players knocking about. But there has been a change in what I call the aesthetic morality of cricket. Things are done which none of the pre-war players would have dreamed of’.38 Men had poisoned each other with gas and machine-gunned each other; also things not dreamt of before 1914, though things C.B. Fry and Cardus had avoided.

In his weekly pieces in the 1930s for The Field, rather than his better-known daily journalism in the Manchester Guardian, Cardus aired the ideas that came together – after another war that he dodged, blatantly, as a music critic in Sydney – in English Cricket. Some lines sounded peculiar, even – in May 1937 – fascistic: ‘We need an atmosphere of hero worship – the ‘great personality’ usually emerges if the imagination looks for him. Before the War people believed in individuality. This is the inhibited age’. Had Cardus not noticed how some worshipped the leading 1930s batsman Don Bradman? (Or Hitler?!) Cardus suited the reactionary Field, which in a June 1937 editorial deplored ever larger and thicker pads which allowed ‘the batsman to take even fast bowling with impunity’.39 Why hadn’t the batsmen that bodyline bowler Harold Larwood hit thought of that?! Likewise Cardus that month complained: ‘In the hands of many fine players a cricket bat is just an implement which is picked up to do a job of work, the same as a trowel is picked up by a bricklayer’. Such vague sentiment led Cardus into odd judgements, in this case praising, over Wally Hammond, England’s premier batsman, the Surrey amateur D.J. Knight of Surrey40 – who was a Wisden cricketer of the year for the 1914 season, and who played twice without success for England in 1921. The failing of Hammond was that, allegedly, he did not show an ‘intimate touch’. Here, then, lies the trouble for anyone surveying any game played by man; how hard it is to draw conclusions about a sport from an elite few, or to define what you mean when what is quantitative – runs, wickets and catches – are not your only measure; you also judge style and tempo. It not only matters what a sportsman does, but the way he does it. Judgements on an age also demanded that you rated one thing over another. Thus Cardus in his English Cricket, even as he was claiming that the game had ‘lost character’, whatever that meant, admitted that ‘since 1919 there was undoubtedly an advance in average skill in batting’, which he put down to ‘unimaginative bowling’ and ‘more ordinarily accumulated technique for the ordinarily capable player to learn’.41 Arguably, that was a sign of progress; more cricketers were more skilled. Well before he wrote English Cricket, Cardus was showing himself blind to the possibility (let alone the inevitability) that cricket could ever progress, or even that something new was valid. In The Field in June 1936, he argued that the age of C.B. Fry and the Lancashire fast bowler Walter Brearley, roughly from 1895 to 1914, ‘saw the development to mastery of every department [his italics] of cricket’.42

If cricket reached mastery by 1914, how did Cardus explain Don (later Sir Donald) Bradman, statistically the greatest batsman ever, born in 1908, who only emerged in the late 1920s? Or bodyline, an infamous bowling tactic worked out to defeat Bradman? What did Cardus make of other excellent players, who were sure to come along in any generation? In English Cricket Cardus fell back on metaphor, comparing Bradman with the admired Australian batsman from before 1914, Victor Trumper, ‘between the flight of the aeroplane and the flight of an eagle’.43 In other words, Cardus implied Bradman’s batting was mechanical; merely efficient. Or, Cardus granted that Bradman, and a few others who dated from after 1914-18, ‘would hold their own in any company of the immortals’.44

Cardus’ blinkers about his ‘Golden Age’ – his forgetting of all the dull days by mediocre counties before 1914 – led him into foolish predictions, as the game kept developing regardless of him. Near the end of Australian Summer, his book of the 1936-7 tour of Australia, he suggested fast bowling was ‘dying out’; in English Cricket, he reckoned that someone would soon surpass Bradman’s records. Men are bowling as fast as ever; and to date, no-one has – statistically, at least – come close to Bradman.




1 Wolverhampton Civil Defence Corps quarterly newsletter, autumn 1956, on open shelves at Wolverhampton city archives.

2 The Field, May 29, 1937.

3 Neville Cardus, English Cricket (Collins, London, 1945), 48.

4 Derek Birley, The Willow Wand: Some Cricket Myths Explored (Queen Anne Press, London, 1979), 7, 76; Social History of English Cricket (Aurum, London, 1999), 191.

5 Cardus, 34.

6 Cardus, 40.

7 Cardus, 37.

8 Cardus, 36, 38.

9 Cardus, 43.

10 Howat, Cricket’s Second Golden Age: The Hammond-Bradman Years (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989).

11 H.S. Altham, A History of Cricket (Allen & Unwin, London, 1926), 235.

12 Cardus, 41.

13 Cricket in North Hants: Records and Reminiscences, by Lieutenant-Colonel John May of Basingstoke (1906), 3.

14 Umpire, May 8, 1910.

15 Herts and Cambs Reporter, July 4, 1913.

16 File DD2641, Nottinghamshire record office.

17 File AMS 5643, East Sussex archives.

18 Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, April 24, 1909.

19 File 46854, Gloucestershire record office.

20 World of Cricket, June 27, 1914.

21 Mark Rowe, ‘The Strange Silence of Sydney Barnes: A Reward for an Ashes-Winning Cricket in Spring 1912’, Sports and Leisure Histories (2013): 124-137.

22 Stoke Sentinel, July 27, 1912.

23 File DDX1690 /13, East Riding record office

24 File DDX1003 /1/1/6, East Riding.

25 Stoke Sentinel, July 6, 1912.

26 File DDX1003/1/1/6, East Riding.

27 File D/DCC/71, Durham record office.

28 Christopher Hollis, Along the Road to Frome (Harrap, London, 1958), 12.

29 Burton Observer, June 4, 1921.

30 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 1915, 243.

31 Torquay Times, July 27, 1894.

32 World of Cricket, August 15, 1914.

33 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 1915, 206.

34 File AMS 6029/8, East Sussex.

35 Burton Observer, October 22, 1921.

36 The Field, July 10, 1937

37 Ashbourne Telegraph, June 8, 1934.

38 The Field, May 9, 1936.

39 The Field, June 12, 1937.

40 The Field, June 5, 1937.

41 Cardus, 1945, 44.

42 The Field, June 20, 1936.

43 Cardus, 1945, 46.

44 Cardus, 1945, 44.