Neville Cardus: The classy charlatan. Caricature by Austin Gerard Coutinho.
Neville Cardus: The classy charlatan. Caricature by Austin Gerard Coutinho.

August 29, 1882. England failed to chase down a small target of 85, thus giving birth to the lore of The Ashes. And some four decades later, Neville Cardus indulged himself by reconstructing the day’s play as if he had been there. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the many, many factual holes in his short piece.

Fact, Fiction and Fancy

“There ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this the best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass.”

That is an oft-repeated and oft abused Neville Cardus quote about the noble game.

Of course Cardus found the numbers tallied against the batsmen and bowlers in a cricket match much too mundane for the fantastic and sometimes flatulent flourishes of his pen. He strung together mythical prose-poems, not prosaic reportage. And he had his heroes and favourites, his versions of medieval knights and Roman gladiators and even Greek gods, whose deeds with the willow and leather often struggled to rise to the stratospheric levels where the writer’s flights of romantic fancy and unrestrained word-play ceaselessly tried to etch them.

For Cardus facts were irritants. For him cricket was precious material that he moulded with unbridled aesthetic creativity into fascinating prose-sculptures of historical fiction — with more focus on the fiction than the historical. An intellectual of his standing, at least according to his own opinion, could not be held back by the mere events that took place.

Unfortunately, many fans of the game and devotees of its constellation of stars find plenty of solace in those words of magnificent nonsense quoted at the beginning. Take away the scoreboard, and it becomes so simple to raise a favoured cricketer to the realm of the gods and bring another down to earth through malleable, untested opinions.

Cardus and his chicanery with facts have been highlighted often enough in these pages. It did not just stop at fictitious cricket matches, but crept into compulsive fact twisting in details of War, his marriage and birth.

Yet, that very writer penned some of his pieces with surreptitious glances at the same scoreboard he so carelessly dismissed as asinine. Indeed, with eyewitnesses recounting the sight of Cardus roaming around Manchester while the very matches he reported were being contested at Old Trafford, there was little else that he could do when sending his version to the papers. The scoreboard in these cases bore the load with steadfast faithfulness like the much-maligned beast of burden. The details surrounding the scores were hastily and brilliantly covered by wizardry of words and expert polishing of the halos of men who tickled his fancy — from Frank Woolley to Emmott Robinson.

Besides there was another variety of glittering word paintings Cardus specialised in. They were vivid descriptions of matches of the days gone by that he had not witnessed. He often claimed to have seen the likes of Victor Trumper and Johnny Tyldesley in his childhood days, but to believe him we have to rely heavily on our good-natured indulgence for a compulsive charlatan. In such cases, the scoreboard had to be tolerated as an ally, even though scarcely did his works manage to remain within the framework of runs, wickets and catches. He penned paeans, odes, epics, ballads … not accounts.

Manufactured accounts with creative license

In some cases, though, he deliberately placed himself in the stands of matches he could not have witnessed. For example, in 1922 he penned a piece on the famed 1882 clash at The Oval that famously gave birth to the legend of the Ashes. Of course, Cardus could not have been there, he was (supposedly) born 7 years after the trendsetting Test. It was indeed an innovative attempt at reconstruction of the final day. And of course, all that Cardus had to go by were the scorecard and surviving reports of the day’s play.

It formed the first piece of The Cricketer’s Book published by Grant Richards in 1922. Even Wisden, as late as in 1965 when Cardus was honoured with CBE, was confused into recognising it as ‘still the most vivid reconstruction of a cricket match ever written.’

Was it really?

The most poetic, perhaps; the most readable, arguably. But the most vivid reconstruction?

Hardly. John Arlott had penned an entire book on the first ever Test match of 1877, and that had been published in 1950. Arlott had also written another book, this time on Ted Alleston’s sustained hitting during the Nottinghamshire-Sussex match of 1911. Alleston’s Innings was published in 1957. Both these were far closer to the actual facts than The Greatest Test by Cardus. And then there were other works as well.

As we will see, there were enough holes in the Cardus reconstruction to resemble a perforated sieve.

True, the account of the Greatest Test was way ahead of most of other Cardus accounts in terms of the attention to the actual true details. It is very apparent that Cardus did have the scorecard alongside him. And he also looked at some diligently compiled contemporary match reports.

But, being Cardus, he could not adhere to prosaic facts for too long, no matter how fascinating they were by themselves.

So where did Cardus slip up?

Of Headlines and Ages

The quaint beginning of the article sees Cardus dosing off at Lord’s in 1921, having gone there to watch Warwick Armstrong’s all conquering Australians in the nets.  When he awakes, he finds himself quaintly transported to The Oval in 1882 on the famed August 29, the second day’s play of that epochal Test match.

No one wants to gauge the credibility of something intended as fiction. But it is in the details that the problems lie.

The first indication that Cardus finds of his time travel, apart from the bowler hats, side whiskers and the handkerchiefs in breast pockets, is the headline in that day’s The Times .It announces “Egyptian Campaign: Sir G Wolseley’s dispatch”.

Indeed, Egypt was a troubled area in those days. The August 29 issue of The Timeswas full of news items dealing with the country. There were articles on The War, The Expedition to Egypt, The Latest Intelligence from Egypt from the Camp opposite Abu Risheh, letters about the War in Egypt, about transport steamers leaving for Egypt, about the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederick Loighton, proposing to visit the seat of War in Egypt, Reuters telegrams about the crisis in Egypt, the effects of the Egyptian situation on the stock market and so on.

There were three mentions of Garnet Wolseley as well, in the news items. There was the piece about Sultan Pasha leaving for Port Said to accompany the Adjutant General of Forces as the Khedive’s Commissioner, an opinion piece speculating when Wolseley would finish his task, and a mention in the ‘Latest Intelligence’ article.

However, there was no headline that announced his name.

Cardus, having ascertained that Wolseley was indeed in Egypt in those turbulent days, found the actual act of going through the Times archives too much of a bother.

That is, however, a minor error.

For someone who hated to refer to record books, it is amusing to see Cardus being forced to refer to the dates of births of the cricketers when he sketches a dialogue between the spectators about the age of SP Jones, CP Studd, George Giffen and the others. However, being Cardus, he gets most of them wrong.

Alec Bannerman, who was 28 at that time, is said to be 23. Giffen, five years six days younger to Bannerman and aged 23, is said to be just 6 days younger than the stonewaller. Fred Spofforth, who would turn 29 on the 9th of the following month, is said to be on the verge of 27.

We can perhaps say that the mistakes are deliberate in order to capture the limited knowledge of the spectators. However, knowing Cardus and his maverick attitude to facts, it is much more likely that the mundane clerical tasks of looking up dates of birth and calculating ages were far too tedious for the supposed artistic mind.

However, it is when the cricket starts that we see more careless strokes of fictitious fancy.

Of Hits and Misses

Hugh Massie did play a blinder that day, and Cardus tries to reconstruct his innings through the available match reports at his disposal. But soon he recounts him essaying a huge drive off Dick Barlow, a stroke that leads many to brand it as being the biggest hit at The Oval.

According to historian Christopher Hilton’s meticulous and accurate reconstruction of the game, Massie cut Barlow over point for four in which the ball just won the race against Billy Barnes, clipped him in front of square-leg for three, and then heaved him to square leg for four. In between he also played him out for a few dot balls including a maiden over. Those were the only attacking shots Massie essayed off the bearded bowler, and no report of the match says otherwise. There was definitely no drive over the boundary.

After this Cardus gets most of the bowling changes right. Studd for Barlow, Barnes for Studd, later AG Steel. But he misses the first bowling change, that of Ted Peate coming on for George Ulyett.

Soon, Cardus writes that England’s advantage of 38 is wiped off in 30 minutes. The actual time on the clock when the scores were levelled was 12.45 PM. Considering the match started after a delay at 12.08, it took Australia 37 minutes to erase the lead.

Of course the wordplay makes up for the errors. “Would not Massie’s example make this bearded giant (George Bonnor) a Jehu?” and “Ulyett moves to the wicket like a man ploughing against a breaker, puts the last ounce of his Yorkshire strength into a thunderbolt of a ball that sends Bonnor’s middle stump flying.” Typical Cardus. And as typically, he continues to make mistakes. After all, looking at the scoreboard and jotting down facts is not the forte of so eloquent a pen.

“The fourth wicket falls at 75, the fifth at 79,” Cardus writes. In reality Tom Horan hit Peate to WG Grace’s hands at point at 79. And then young Giffen followed suit, hitting his first ball to Grace as well. Both the wickets fell at 79.

And then, suddenly all these details seem too cumbersome. After 79 for 5, suddenly Cardus writes ‘Australia are all out for 122.’

So what does he carelessly omit? Perhaps the most significant innings after Massie, Billy Murdoch’s wonderful 29 on a treacherous wicket. His spectacular run out engineered through a relayed throw from Hornby and Alfred Lyttleton.

And what about the most crucial event of the day? The running out of Sammy Jones by WG when the young batsman had just walked out to pat a divot on the wicket? According to many, this dastardly act of gamesmanship fired up Spofforth and resulted in the demonic spell that cost England the match. Well, Cardus finds it beneath his dignity to dwell on such details.

Chasing inaccuracies

After Cardus’ lyrical description of the approaching hansom cab along Vauxhall Road, England were in to chase down a puny target. In the article, captain AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby comes out to bat with WG. That rings true enough.

Also accurate is that Spofforth started with great pace which made Jack Blackham stand back when Grace was on strike. But Cardus slips again when the scoring strokes are described.

“Hornby made a lovely cut off Spofforth and a dainty leg stroke for two,” he writes. Hornby did get a boundary through the slips off Spofforth, and not off the edge. We can perhaps say it was a late cut. After that he did get two on the leg-side, but off a lucky snick. Not a dainty stroke by any stretch of imagination. However, the urge to use the dainty description was perhaps too overbearing.

Hornby departed at 15, bowled by Spofforth. The very next ball had Barlow playing on off the inside-edge. Cardus this time relied too heavily on the same scoreboard which he was so used to dismissing as an ass. “…with his next ball (Spofforth) clean bowled Barlow”, he wrote. We can argue that he was not technically incorrect. However, for someone who professed by his prose and the use of mot juste, ‘clean bowled’ is far from the description of an inside edge on to the stumps. In fact, the deflection makes it as unclean as possible.

Following this, Cardus correctly recounts a leg hit by Grace off Tom Garrett for three and then a beautiful on-drive off Spofforth for four. However, he errs again when he writes that this took the score to 30 for 2 and 55 remained to win. The boundary by Grace actually moved the score to 24 for 2. The correct sequence of events that followed were an on-driven three (27), a no ball by Spofforth (28) and two singles off the next over from Garrett that brought up the 30 of the innings. Of course, these details are lost in the Cardus meanderings over Spofforth’s bowling action and cold-blooded determination.

He was no researcher, hence even when regaling his readers with reconstructed dialogue among the spectators, he could not make use of the actual event of an urchin stepping into the field of play and stopping the boundary hit from Grace. It was awarded four runs, but could easily have been stopped by the pursuing fielder.

The Daily Chronicle described the incident in detail. A bit of energetic poring over the papers of the day would have given the wordsmith plenty to romanticise about cricket fans and their involvement in the game. It was a tailor-made setting for a flowery Cardus fusillade of phrases. But, he depended characteristically on his imagination rather than industry.

Ulyett did not bat convincingly in this innings, but Cardus writes that he faced Spofforth ‘bravely’. We can perhaps give this description the benefit of the doubt. However, we cannot really be so generous with the way he writes about the way the Yorkshire all-rounder was dismissed.

In reality Spofforth bowled one fast and Ulyett could only manage a hard snick low down to Blackham outside the off-stump. The catch was held and he was on his way. Cardus writes, “Spofforth bowled a very fast one to Ulyett who barely snicked it” [hinting that the edge was a thin one]. He adds, “Blackham snapped the catch and his ‘Hzat’ was hoarse and aggressive.” There is scant evidence of an appeal, or of the need for one. The edge seems to have been substantial, and in multiple sources Blackham’s catch is described as splendid.

After Grace was caught at mid-off and a few runs by Lyttleton and Bunny Lucas, there was an infamous sequence of maidens. Spofforth and Boyle bowled over after over and the two batsmen could not get a run. Finally, there was a deliberate mis-field to bring Lyttleton in front of Spofforth. After four more maiden overs, Spofforth struck the top of Lyttelton’s middle stump.

Cardus describes the twelve maidens, the mis-field (without mentioning Bannerman as the fielder) and the four further maidens quite accurately. All the while there are comments and reminiscences from the spectators, particularly a talkative parson among them. But then he adds dramatically “Lyttelton’s stump goes spinning.”From contemporary accounts, the ball struck the top of the stumps, and there is no record of the stump being uprooted. Generally cartwheeling stumps were recorded as events of note.

Poetic license? Perhaps. But, can it not be restricted to the goings on in the stand? Has it got to encroach into the domain of known events?

Two wickets and some runs follow in the account almost exactly as they had taken place. And then, there is another Cardus liberty. Barnes drove the first ball he faced for a couple. There followed a maiden from Boyle to Lucas. The following over, Blackham missed Spofforth’s third ball, and there being no long-stop the batsmen ran three byes. Cardus records all the runs, but in his account the two taken by Barnes and the three byes take place off successive deliveries.

While the reports of the day say Lucas played on to Spofforth off the next ball, Cardus does not really change the facts. However, he dramatises them: “Lucas comes down on it, hard, determined. And the ball rolls ever so gently on to the off wicket and disturbs the bail. Poor Lucas bows his head and departs.” Cardus’ own Manchester Guardian reported that annoyed with himself, Lucas ‘lifted his bat and struck the dead ball’. However, that detail escaped the romantic eyes of the narrator. The description of the departure does not tally with the actual events at all.

Having maintained some amount of adherence to the scoreboard so far, it now became too much for Cardus to associate himself with that irritating ‘ass’ any longer. So when Barnes fended the Boyle delivery to a very short point where Murdoch held the catch, he writes, “With ten to struggle after, Blackham catches Barnes off his glove.” At last, his imaginative eyes had managed to take themselves off the desultory facts and figures.

But, even with focus on colourful sidelights, the dramatic spectacle of CT Studd roaming around the ground, shivering in a blanket, held back till No. 10 by Hornby, all these for some unknown reason escape his ‘vivid reconstruction.’

The last three balls have gone down as a famous sequence. Poor Peate hit a two, missed the second. Then flailed at Boyle again, atrocious and agricultural. He was bowled, to end the innings and leave Studd stranded at the other end, England 7 runs short of Australia.

What Cardus misses in his account are the details of Peate and Studd’s curious decision to take the second run after the former had hit it over square leg. About umpire Luke Greenwood flattening himself on his stomach to get out of the line of the throw. These, if researched, could have lent even more colour to his dramatic account, and true colours at that.

But, that would not have been Neville Cardus. He is at his best when the match has ended and the memories of the joyous celebrations mingle with the reactions of the spectators.

That is where fact could easily merge with fiction without the constraining bother of a scoreboard etched with irritating details. That is where Cardus was at his very best.

Not in ‘vivid reconstructions’.

With sincere apologies to Cardus, here are the brief scores:

Australia 63 (Ted Peate 4 for 31, Dick Barlow 5 for 19) and 122 (Hugh Massie 55; Ted Peate 4 for 40) beat England 101 (Fred Spofforth 7 for 46) and 77 (Fred Spofforth 7 for 44) by 7 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)