Cricket (Steel, Lyttelton)/Chapter 7

Cricket  (1888) 
Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

COUNTRY CRICKET.

(By F. Gale.)

I CAN remember the first cricket match I ever saw as well as if it happened yesterday; and moreover I can give the names and description of many of the players.

The locus in quo was the meadow opposite the Green Lion at Rainham, in Kent, which is situated halfway between London and Dover. The cricket field is now built over. It adjoined the vicarage garden, in which a stand was erected for my brother and myself, and from which we, as little boys, saw the first game of cricket we ever witnessed, in the summer of 1830, as we had come into Kent from a Wiltshire village where cricket was not known.

Our grand stand was immediately behind the wicket. Farmer Miles, a fine-set-up man, was the best bowler, and he bowled under-arm, rather a quick medium pace, and pitched a good length and bowled very straight, his balls curling in from the leg; for be it remembered that but two years had elapsed since it was allowable to turn the hand, knuckles uppermost, in delivery. I was seven years old at the time, and was perfectly fascinated at the sight; and as the gardener, an old cricketer, stood by me all day and explained the game, before the sun had set I had mastered most of the main points in it. One thing I am certain of, which is that there was an on-break from Farmer Miles' bowling; for I watched the balls pitch and curl.

The dress of the cricketers was white duck trousers and flannel jackets, and some wore tall black hats and some large Cricket (Steel, Lyttelton) 0305.jpgMITCHAM COMMON straw hats. A few old fogies, veterans who played, had a silk pocket-handkerchief tied round the left knee so that they could drop down on it without soiling their white trousers; for in the rough out-fielding when the balls jumped about anyhow old-fashioned fieldsmen would drop on one knee, so that if the ball went through their hands by a false bound their body was in the way. Josiah Taylor, the brazier, was long- stop, and played in black leather slippers with one spike in the heel which he claimed as his own invention, as cricket-shoes were little known. The umpire was Ost, the barber, who appeared in a long blue frock-coat like Logic's, the Oxonian, in 'Tom and Jerry,' and who volunteered 'hout' to a fieldsman who stopped a bump-ball; and when remonstrated with by men of both sides remarked, 'Surely first "bounce" is "hout" at cricket and trap.' This occasioned a change of umpire. There were two very hard hitters, Charles Smart, a tall young fellow, son of a rich farmer, and 'Billy Wakley,' a very stout tall young farmer; there were many hits to the long-field off and on, which were well held; and Charles Watson, a promising lad of about sixteen, the butcher's son, who played for the first time in a man's match, immortalised himself by making a long catch close to the vicarage hedge. The batting mostly consisted of hard-hitting, and the catching was good. The booth was made up of rick-cloths strained over a standing skeleton woodwork frame; and on the right of it was a round table with six or eight armchairs placed on either side; a large brass square tobacco-box out of which those who sat round the privileged table could help themselves by putting a halfpenny into a slit which caused the box to open (on the same principle as the chocolate and sweet-stuff automatic pillars seen now at railway stations), kept company with a stack of clay-pipes. The arm-chairs were for the accommodation of the principal farmers and magnates of the parish who subscribed to the matches and who sat in state and smoked their pipes—as cigars were little known—and drank their grog out of rummers—large glasses which stood on one gouty leg each and held a shilling's worth of brandy and water;, and for the accommodation of the smokers, the ostler, who always appeared in his Sunday best costume, which consisted of a 'Sam Weller' waistcoat with black calico sleeves, brown drab breeches, and top-boots, provided a stable horn lanthorn, the candle in which he lit with the aid of the flint and steel tinder box, and brimstone matches; for lucifers were not yet invented.

Another honour belonged to the knights of the round table: as the cricket ground was bounded on the southern side by the high road, and as coaches were passing all day, the drivers never forgot the 'Coachman's Salute' with whip and elbow and nod of the head as they drove by, and this was always returned by a cheery wave of the hand from the cricket ground. The patriarchs of the village had a form to themselves on the left hand of the booth; and old Billy Coppin, the half-pay naval purser, who had a snug little house on the bank of the roadside, sat outside his door waving his pipe and crying out, 'Make sail, my lads, make sail,' whenever a good hit was made.

When the match was over, one of the villagers, an illtempered thatcher, who was always ready for a set-to, picked a quarrel with someone from a neighbouring parish, and they adjourned to a quiet corner close to our grand stand behind the booth, pulled off their shirts and had a pretty stiff rough and tumble fight, which I described, in my innocence, at supper when I went in, and thereby got the gardener into a scrape for allowing me to see it. A very serious relative told me that she was 'cock sure' of the future fate of the two men who fought, quoting cases out of Dr. Watts's hymns. Let us hope that some of the Doctor's tips have proved wrong.

'Would you be surprised to hear,' as Lord Coleridge was always saying, that, with the exception that cricket has much improved as regards grounds and some of the implements in general use, old-fashioned village cricket in its true and pure spirit still flourishes in many rural districts, and not very far from London even, now? You will find this happy state of things mostly where village greens exist in a real cricketing .county; and having formerly devoted much of my leisure, during very many years, to country cricket, I can speak from actual experience, down to present date.

In the first place, every village green has a history of its own, and the people are proud of their old traditions. On many of these greens some of the best-known cricketers in England have from time to time appeared during a century past, and some come there occasionally now during every summer; so the cricketers of all classes have always had good models to work from. The green is common to all, and all have a common interest in the honour of the parish. This charming home feeling is admirably described by Miss Mitford in the 'Tales of our Village;' and she has not exaggerated it. The consequence is that by one consent the centre of the green is always left for good matches, and as every village boy learns the management of turf, you would be surprised to see what an admirable pitch youngsters of fourteen or fifteen years of age will make for themselves on somewhat rough ground with the aid of a fivepronged fork, a watering-pot and a hand-roller; and you would be surprised to see what real good cricket many of them play. Of course there is always a sprinkling of sons of good cricketers who have been well taught, and they have the opportunity of instruction from old players.

The training of village boys is very analogous to cricket fagging at school, and anyone who takes an interest in village cricket will do wxll, when he and a few friends practise, to have any little boys of twelve or thirteen who show any proficiency to field out for them, and to encourage them with a few coppers, making them understand that the honorarium is dependent on their trying to do their best. The next step is to take a lively interest in the boys' eleven, which consists of boys under fourteen or fifteen, to promote their matches in every way, and to inculcate the value of fair play. It does them a great deal of good if an old cricketer will spare half an hour, when the boys are practising, to criticise their play, pointing out any faults, such as running over the crease, bowling no balls, not backing up for a run, explaining to them the principles of running, and calling their partner (secrets which some really good batsmen never have learned and never will learn), and so on. The grand thing is to try and make cricket real. and to make youngsters understand that playing the strict game is the secret of true enjoyment. We all know how all pleasure depends on observance of simple rules, and on doing in practice all things as carefully as if we are engaged in a match, or any other friendly strife. Even if I play at 'beggar your neighbour' with a child I insist on the rigour of the game. Many of us must know as cricketers, too, that long after we had given up playing in matches, there was immense pleasure in having a first-rate professional, on a real good wicket, to bowl, with sixpence on the wicket.

The very mention of single wicket now is like the mention of jalap and rhubarb and calomel and bleeding, those terrible remedies of the past, to a modern doctor; but single wicket with seven or eight in the field is the finest practice for training, and we found it so on our village green, a very few years ago, played thus. Every man's hand was against his neighbours in turn, and there were no sides. Of course, with six or seven in the field, byes and hits behind wicket counted, and this fact made the youngsters try to cover as much ground as possible. The batsman went out if he got ten runs; and as in these games there was, at least, one good professional bowler, it took a good man to score ten runs. The professional and any amateur who had any pretence of being a bowler changed about. These games were very good for putting a youngster into; and I have seen three or four hundred people on the green watching one of these trials. It was also a good thing, in the event of a substitute being wanted in a good match, to try one of them, as it accustomed an aspirant to accept responsibility and to play before a crowd. It is a wholesome state of things when young cricketers are at hand anxious to fill a vacancy; it shows zeal.

Anyone who has charge of village cricket falls very short of his duty if he does not arrange at least one real practice afternoon a day or two before a match. He must have a good wicket made, and all who are going to play in the match must come for some part of the play. And this is a good opportunity for letting young bowlers come and try their hand, with sixpence on the wicket. I have much faith in that sixpence on the wicket. It is useless to waste any trouble on a boy who has not got cricket at heart, but it is a great deal of use training one who has. The difficult stage is when a boy's strength is growing and he is old enough to be taught strict cricket as regards defence, and in trying to steady him down you must be sure to steer clear of the evil of cramping his hitting power. We know from experience that sometimes matches are lost or draws made owing to the want of a man who will go in and hit. In my boyhood days there used generally to be one, or perhaps two, in every eleven who could field splendidly, and who made no pretence to scientific batting, but who, aided by a strong nerve and quick eye and a heavy driving bat, could sometimes make a terrible example of the bowling and help the score. Mr. Absolom, of Cambridge, and afterwards of the Kent eleven, was one of this class. He was worth playing in any eleven in England for his bowling, fielding and hard work, and if he never made his runs, his share towards success was as great as those who made a score. The thing to 'burn' into a young player's mind is, that unless he can concentrate all his thoughts on the match in which he is playing he will never be an English cricketer. He may, perhaps, by long practice acquire the knack of getting a lot of runs, and building up an average, but if that is all that he is worth, he had much better never have been in the eleven at all. Amongst eleven men, some are sure to get a lot of runs generally, but the men who win matches are those who prevent the other side getting them. Take one of the best samples of cricket in the season of 1887, as a proof of what saving runs means. I think that anyone who knows the game can hardly help coming to the conclusion that Gunn, in the long field, saved more runs in 1887 than the best man made, and saved a good many more too. The Australians put their main trust in their field, and they taught us a good lesson when they came first, and it has done us good. Gunn's batting is often equal to his fielding, to say nothing of his bowling.

Now we come to a more serious matter—management and finance; and, unless the world has very much changed in the last few years, anyone who takes a new lead in country cricket will find himself surrounded by hosts of friends (?) who are worth nothing. They will all want to come on the committee, and make all kind of wild suggestions about a stock of club bats, pads and gloves, &c. There is only one antidote to this, which is to stand firm on one point—that no public subscriptions shall be asked for for any purpose other than keeping the green in order, paying for balls for matches, match-stumps, hire of tents, umpires, scorers, and other inevitable expenses; the simple inducement for subscriptions being the having a few good matches during the season, and keeping up a ground for the use of those who cannot pay for themselves. Unless you keep up a good parish eleven, everyone will do as he thinks best, and the whole green will be cut to pieces and will never be repaired.

In these days you cannot get an eleven who will make a good stand in a match without some professional training. Many places are fortunate enough to have an old professional or two amongst its inmates, men who have given up grand public matches, but who are worth their weight in gold as practice bowlers, trainers, and members of the village eleven. Men of this class, who will play in a match for ten shillings or will come in the evening after work for a crown or so, and who are always on the spot, are the best aids towards keeping together a good set of young players and forming an eleven. They know the young players and take a pride in them, and will find out their failings and good points; and nothing cheers a captain more than an invitation from a local professional to come and see Bill Smith or Tom Brown bat. When such an invitation is given, you may be sure that the professional has found a recruit who can play a length ball with a straight bat and confidence, and who can punish a loose ball. You will find numberless cricketers who can get runs—if they once get set; but, like precious stones, many get spoilt in the setting. What you want is batsmen who, in wet or fine weather, on rough or smooth ground, will go in with nerve to have a good try. If you want a few runs to-day from A, and he breaks down through that cricket malady called 'funk,' it is no consolation to hear from his claqueur B that 'A got seventy, not out, last week.'

You must try and raise the standard of a village eleven by letting them play when you have the chance against teams who are stronger than themselves. A licking is good medicine for them sometimes; and if, on the other hand, they win by the chances of the game, a victory of this kind 'sets their tails up.' The worst thing for them is playing against weak teams, making a tremendous score, and knocking their opponents' wickets over for a few runs. It is astonishing how a captain, by working steadily on, can 'educate his party,' as the late Lord Beaconsfield said; and if by quiet persuasion he can influence some of the rougher element to abandon their horse-play and 'flowery' language, and to assist in keeping good order—at the same time warning them that ladies and gentlemen are kept away from the green for fear of their ears being contaminated by rough language—he will find that visitors who come prepared for a noisy rude crowd will be surprised to find perfect order; and if some one trangresses the bounds of good manners, he will hear a cry of 'Better language there!' This kind of thing can be and has been done and the result was that, in a place where the possibility of such a thing as a ladies' tent on the green was laughed at, not only was the ladies' tent a great success, but subscriptions flowed in in a wonderful manner. One dear old lady—an Exeter Hall-er who took omnibuses full of people to hear Sankey and Moody—sent 'two guineas for the green, which is now, I believe, a place of innocent amusement and happiness,' as she stated in her letter. She was a good Christian, as her house stood deep long-leg, and many a time has a 'four' been scored for a hit through her window—and this is fact. With the enormous number of large schools in England where cricket is played, it will seldom happen that any cricket neighbourhood has not some young fellows from school, or possibly a few from either University, close by; and if they happen to be of the right sort they are a great boon. At the same time it should be a golden rule never to put out of the eleven a good one, who has worked for and earned his place, for a 'swell.' The rule must be kept hard and fast, that the eleven is open only to those who have proved themselves good enough, and if that rule is observed, in the event of a real first-rate amateur turning up, you will generally find that more than one volunteer will offer to stand out for him.

Captaining a village team is not all a bed of roses; but if you are really a cricketer at heart, you will soon acquire the absolute confidence of people of all classes, especially of the humbler order. It is not an unpleasant thing, as you walk across the green on your way to the train, to hear a pack of little boys on their way to school, who look on you as a kind of big dog that won't bite, all chattering about the match the day before. 'Ah! Sir, I heerd my father say that he won a pot over the match,' says one. 'That boy, Sir, got the stick for playing truant yesterday morning,' says another. 'Well! if I did,' replies the culprit, 'I see the beginning of the match, and you did not—there!' That boy may be another Fuller Pilch some day.

And if you are sitting in the tent when your side is in, revolving many things in your mind, and you feel that the whites of the eyes of Mr. Chummy the sweep, a good cricketer formerly, who sits on a form just outside the tent, behind a very short pipe, are glancing round on you, what a comfort it is, if you turn round, to see an almost imperceptible nod of Mr. Chummy's head—for he never speaks during a match—which says, 'Going on all right—we shall win!' That nod of the head is only intelligible to a cricketer, just as a very 'shy' rise of a trout is only perceptible to a genuine fisherman. Those, too only who have known some celebrated cricketer from childhood, and have watched his career and promotion from the little boys' to the big boys' eleven, and eventually to the parish eleven, and have seen his cricket talent developed from year to year until he appears in his county team, can imagine how painful is the excitement to those who are interested in his success. It has been my fate to go through—I had almost said the agony of—that state of suspense many times, and I must relate one instance. A young player, twenty years old, after my earnest entreaty, was allotted a place in the county eleven. He broke ground in London against Notts, and at his début had to stand the fire of Alfred Shaw and J. C. Shaw. Directly I saw him play the first ball my mind was quite at rest, as he showed that he had not the stage sickness. He got twelve runs in an hour and a quarter. His next public appearance in London was a caution,' as he scored 20 not out, in his first innings against Cambridge University; and, going in first, scored 82 in his second innings. This occurred nearly twenty years ago, when cricketers played with their bats and not with their pads, and boundary hits, except against the pavilion, were unknown; so fifty runs was a grand score. I never shall forget my feelings when the colt had made 47, within 3 of his 50; I could look no more; when, all of a sudden, I heard a roar from the crowd which told me that our village boy had done it. The secretary of the club said, 'He must have his sovereign for fifty runs,' and he promised me that if he made thirty more, which would make a total of 100, including his 20 not out, he would give him two sovereigns, if I would give him one for his first fifty. I undertook to raise that capital; whereupon, a stranger, a very tall, handsome, gentlemanly man, said, 'And I will give him a sovereign too; for' (turning to myself) 'your excitement, which I found was only occasioned by interest in a village boy, and not heavy betting as I imagined, has done me real good. I have been for thirty years in India and am going back again in a month, and nothing pleased me more than to find this keen love of sport still existing.' He would not give his name, and I could never find out who he was; possibly he is alive and may read this, and may let us know who he was, for I am sure he has not forgotten it. Richard Humphrey was the colt, and I sent for him into the Pavilion, and the 'illustrious stranger' shook hands with him and gave him the sovereign.

The foregoing remarks about clubs apply to a country place with some pretensions to first-rate cricket and a village green. In a rural out-of-the-way place where the population consists of a class which cockney writers call 'Hodge,' and which we call 'chaw-bacons,' bats and balls and stumps and all implements must be provided by subscription. In all other cases those who want to play cricket must pay for their own cricket things. If a good ground is provided the cricket ought to grow of itself. 'And this country cricket must cost a good deal of money,' perhaps you will remark. Of course it does; so does fishing, or shooting, or hunting, or any other sport. There are many men who want to skim the cream of the cricket and to play in a good home match who will not play in an out match because 'they have not time,' really because they are too stingy. If you mean cricket you must back it everywhere with all your heart and all your strength. Whatever you do, never forget the wind-up match and supper at the end of the season, and get some good cricketers from amongst your foes to join, and above all a parson or two if possible. In these days, I need not say 'abolish all ribald songs and drunkenness,' as cricketers have good manners now.

As a last word, I must say something for country umpires. When changes in the game are proposed, a lot of outsiders who try their hardest to prevent penal laws being made intelligible, on the ground that 'the change will put too much on the umpires' shoulders—especially country umpires,' are talking nonsense. In the days of Caldecourt, John Bayley, Tom Barker, and Good at Lord's, umpires did their duty without fear or favour, and did not let men 'cheat, and the same stamp of umpires still exists in counties and on many a village green; and if there are any umpires on public grounds who cannot administer the law fearlessly, they had better be supplanted by those who can. If batsmen in the past had shamelessly stopped the ball with their pads without 'offering' at the ball with their bat, country umpires would have given them out for unfair play, on the same principle as wilfully obstructing the field. I suppose they would call it l.b.w; and the crowd would have given the retiring batsman (?) a very cold reception; or perhaps a very hot one: neither extreme of heat cr cold is pleasant. The late Chief Justice Cockburn said of county magistrates: 'They may sometimes administer bad law, but generally good justice;' and the remark applies to village-green umpires.