Neville Cardus Old Trafford India England T20
From left: Yehudi-Menuhin, Neville Cardus, Len Hutton © Getty Images
The prose of Cardus remained constant whether he wrote about about cricket or music, and often the score took the backseat

Sitting in the press-box of Old Trafford, watching the first T20I of the India-England series, Arunabha Sengupta wonders how the shortest format of the game would have affected Neville Cardus.

It feels strange to sit in Old Trafford and watch the crash, bang, wallop of Twenty20 cricket.

After all, this was the venue which hosted many, many matches with Neville Cardus gracing the press-box with his visit (and often enough with his fleeting absences). This is where the conjurer with words grew up, first to manhood and thence to the staff of Manchester Guardian.

It is a trifle unsettling, tarrying to wonder what Cardus would have made of T20.  The man who raised cricket to the incompatible level of classical music with the flourish and éclat of his prose.

How would the cross batted swipes and the coloured clothing have trodden upon his refined senses? Would Cardus have been scandalised? Shocked out of his delicate soul and raced out of the media centre, shuddering at the monstrous abomination to which his favourite sport had been turned into?

Well, I am not quite sure about that.

Cardus wrote for a living. He did it, like the rest of us, for money. At least initially, and mostly all his life. And during his early days, even if he was told to cover a game of American football, he would have done so.

Of course, the yearning of his soul was to be recognised as a man of elevated taste, of culture. His dream was to become a music critic, something that did happen down the line. And when he had to masquerade as a cricket writer, the strokes of his pen kept scratching at an often non-existent musical parallel of the cricketing world.

Even as he wrote about a sport, it was the rhapsody, the cadence, the tenor that dominated his descriptions. Cricket took the form of an art. He captured cricket as a painter and not a photographer, with halos appearing around the ones who tickled his fancy.

Some were hugely justified, as in the case of the ‘boy’ who in 1930 “kindled grand bonfires of batsmanship for us’. However, often, wings sprouted and halos were constructed around honest toiling cricketers who were not really touched by genius. Emmott Robinson for one.

Batting and bowling all became ways in which virtuoso artists performed an elevated art form, whose acts on the stage of Old Trafford or Lord’s or Headingley became almost comparable to an Wagnerian opus at Royal Albert Hall.

It would have been fine, even commendable, had it not been that facts had to be hewed off the concatenation of actual events to fit a sporting event into the musical scales.

Cardus could often be seen walking the streets of Manchester even as matches of importance went on at the Old Trafford, and later match reports would be scripted with the flourishing pen dipped in imagination and classical allusions with epithets borrowed from higher art forms. With surreptitious glances at the same scoreboard he had branded an ass.

It is my guess that for him T20s would have been no different. He would have parallels with the British Army in the colourful attire and the march of the Empire through cricket epic gladiatorial contests in the powerful strikes and the image of medieval knights in the cornucopia of helmets, armguards, gloves and pads. Perhaps the flames that erupt after boundary hits, along with the rapturous applause, would have reminded him of a scintillating solo in an orchestra that sets the audience on fire, or the nonpareil magician who literally does the same.

Why, one can almost extrapolate the Cardus Twenty20 reportage.

“Buttler dismissed the ball from his presence, with the most majestic of pulls, the swing of the Mjölnir of a bat, with the thunderclaps of applause, evoking vividly the glorious past of the Jessops, the Bonnors and the Wellards. The accompanying streaks of lightning across the boundary were testimony to his having inherited the hammer, belt and iron-gloves of the cricketing Thors like none other.”

And perhaps, with the time limited to three hours, he would have actually sat through the matches instead of loitering around the town.

Finally what if some generations had grown, fed on Cardus outpourings on T20 cricket? What if Test cricket had been a later format of the game, evolving out of the shorter version?

There may have been some souls who lamented the decadence that makes time lie heavy on our hands, which makes administrators and spectators indulge in five-day cricket. And they would perhaps quote Cardus to show what an exotic art cricket had been in the golden days of yore when every moment of time was valuable andthe game had been played over just three hours of delight.