Much of the epic romance of cricket was peerlessly documented for over half a century by the lyrical pen of the immortal Sir Neville Cardus. Seldom available on the shelves of modern day book shops, the half-recalled memory of the bewitching accounts enticed Arunabha Sengupta enough to embark upon a journey to find the elusive volumes of epic cricket reportage.
This August, during the recent Indian cricket tour of England, he scoured the length and breadth of the old country, hunting down the books by the greatest cricket writer of all time. Here is an account of his travels and treasure hunt.
And now for the final stretch.
From Vauxhall, a stone’s throw away from Kennington Oval where the Indians face another steep task, Epsom is half an hour by train. In a couple of days I will be at the ground, meeting Sunil Gavaskar, watching a display of unbelievable, unwavering concentration during a bat-carrying 146 by Rahul Dravid, and breaking my heart with thousands of other Indian and English fans in the stands as Sachin Tendulkar is leg before wicket for 91, cheered all the way back to the pavilion by spectators, players, officials, journalists and even the policemen, everyone on their feet.
But, today, I am the archer who has raised his bow and taken the aim of 20 years, time’s arrow stretched to the full, awaiting release, who cannot take his eye off the target, lest it disappears again.
Google Maps misguide me. I end up taking a taxi from Epsom, while the Stoneleigh station is just a five minute walk from my destination. I reach at half past one. The brownstone shop for a minute reminds me of the fairy tale houses made of chocolates and biscuits. The sign – gold on green – announces, with a little bat for emphasis, J.W. McKenzie Cricket Books. It is mouth watering.
Sue is the lady I spoke to on the phone, dapper and charming, busy on the computer, cataloguing hundreds and hundreds of books perhaps. John McKenzie himself sits inside.
“Are you the one who had called?” he asks.
Around me are posters, prints, plates and other cricket collectibles. John is in his sixties, the moustache half hiding the smile of perpetual humour. He guides me to the room inside and I stand open mouthed. It is a small room, but with racks running around it along the walls and in between, every inch of the furniture stacked with books on nothing but cricket.
“Arranged alphabetically along the rows by author,” says John and soon decides to leave me in my wonderland. Three decades after my childhood I am in my own personalised ToysRUs.
John Arlott after Arlott stare at me from the starting shelf and I walk down the wall, heart beating faster and faster till it echoes off the centuries that are stored in the volumes. In that cramped room are stored thousands of cricketers, matches, opinions and anecdotes. Richie Benaud and Sir Don Bradman smile their titles at me. I walk on further and discover the grail. Cosy and secure at the end of the wall stand a line of volumes with the magician’s name welcoming me with a smile. Australian Summer, Days in the Sun, Cardus in the Covers, Cardus on Cricket, A Fourth Innings with Cardus, Close of Play, Play Resumed with Cardus, Cardus for All Seasons, The Summer Game, Good Days ... and more. The veritable treasury of the master’s words I have been looking for all over Great Britain. And having found it! I am at a loss for words.
I scoop them up in my arms and make for the chair in the room. Even as I try to sit, I am blinded by the riches around me. From Douglas Jardine’s own account of the Bodyline Series, to the cricket writings of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne, every volume vies for my attention. The room, small though it is, is too large to carry in the luggage pit of an aircraft.
I sit in a trance, with the collection of Cardus and several more. How can I ignore Brightly Fades the Don, that immortal diary of Bradman’s 1948 tour of England by Jack Fingleton? What about Cricket My Destiny by Walter Hammond? And is it advisable to overlook A Life Worth Living the autobiography of C.B. Fry, the captain of English Cricket and Football teams, the world record setter in long jump, the classical scholar, the substitute delegate of the Indian representation in the first, third and fourth assemblies of the League of Nations, a man who was offered the Kingdom of Albania, and also wrote a speech which turned Mussolini out of Corfu? What about the books by Arlott, EW Swanton, Ray Robinson, Jack Hobbs, Denis Compton, Ian Peebles...
Sue thoughtfully offers me some tea, while I am still perplexed by the problem of plenty. I sip with growing disquiet. How does one choose which Cardus volumes to select? In his own words – we cannot measure genius with genius, you cannot try to place a Mozart over a Beethoven, a Bach above a Schubert. Each is an absolute.
Of course, he was too modest to ever use the adjective while referring to himself. His autobiography is the most sublime demonstration of his thoroughly Newtonian view of every endeavour of life, collecting pebbles on the shore of wonder and standing on the shoulders of giants, drawing their portraits with words unmatched. It is for modern writers to jot down hasty thoughts about cricket while striving to appear the polymath. Cardus, on the contrary, created heady wine by fermenting on paper his own delight beside the green. By his statement about comparing genius he had questioned the wisdom of measuring the all round skills of Sir Garfield Sobers with Frank Woolley, Keith Miller and a few others.
An hour later, John checks on me. “Are you okay in here?”
I need time. Words vie with words for attention, from the shelf beside the chair I sit in, books piled in front of me, Keith Miller smiles rakishly, mane of hair tossed back.
“How long are you open?” I ask.
John smiles apologetically. “Normally till five, and we are generally flexible. But, today’s Friday and there is a Test Match going on, I would rather close at four.” That gives me two more hours in Wonderland.
I walk to where John sits and ask him where the toilet is. He points to a wall covered with posters – “Just to the right of Bradman.”
Amongst treasures, I also dig up curiosities. Essays on cricket by E.V. Lucas. Two collections of cricket fiction written by the Who’s Who of English Literature, from Charles Dickens to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from Milne to Wodehouse.
In a corner, I catch sight of a bizarre novel by Stanley Shaw – in which Sherlock Holmes says, “Cricket is a mystery to me.” With Watson on his honeymoon, this tale is narrated by a 23-year old fair-haired Australian named John Fairhurst, fresh off the boat in Britain, hoping to watch the immortal fifth Test Match played in 1902. History has it that on the final day at The Oval, when Gilbert Jessop turned it around forEngland, and George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes stitched together a last wicket partnership to win it for the home side by one wicket. However, it seems the triumph would not have been possible but for the great detective, for Wilfred Rhodes would not have been present at The Oval.
I restrain my heart, control my mind and spur on my legs. Gathering up a tottering pile, I approach the desk where Sue sits in front of her computer. A dozen volumes, a trifle – nay, several notches – more than the budgeted volume and weight. However, I can always leave behind some of the inconsequential items of luggage, clothes and so forth.
“You really are a Cardus fan,” Sue beams.
For the pile of treasure that I hold in my arms, it is a surprisingly paltry sum. John comes out of his coop and asks Sue to check the cricket score. Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell have piled on the plight for India. He is pleased.
John throws in a complimentary volume and two catalogues for free. He comes out of the shop and obliges me by posing for a photograph. I take a last look at the shop and depart, with a silent promise to return, with eight volumes of Cardus and six more.
Quarter of a lifetime of search, and now I have the words of the man with me, in eight stout volumes. I sit in the returning train, caressing the collection.
“I desperately need to join Bibliomaniac’s Anonymous,” I call my wife and tell her.
She is innovative in response. “Let us design furniture with books.”
The evening spreads its shroud over the most fulfilling of my days. I sit, stretched out in the Rainbow Quay flat of Suvro. He fingers the volumes with the tactile delight of an aesthete. The moment needs to be savoured with another soul who pines for the beauty of the loftiest of sports in these degenerate days.
It is a game that seems to me to take on the very colours of the passing months. In the spring the cricketers are fresh and eager, ambition within them breaks into bud; new bats and flannels as chaste as the April winds. The showers of May drive the players from the field, but soon they are back again, and every blade of grass around them is a jewel in the light.
What would Cardus have made of the modern game, when excessive squeezing of engagements in the cricket calendar ensures that cricketers are almost never fresh, when continuous cricket with an eye on the financials have almost done away with the concept of seasons?
My guess is that the romantic in him would have found eternal beauty even in the dust and debris of the modern game. To stitch together phrases of matchless eloquence to describe those adherents of the art of cricket untarnished by the murky wheel of time.
I can see him even now, watching from the Grand Stand of the Garden of Eden, filling his pen with soul and delighting the eternity beyond with his match reports - when Sachin batted a strange light was witnessed on the English fields, a light out of the East. Brian Lara, most masterful of batsmen, delights one and all, artists and statisticians, stroking the ball with a bat apparently itself alive, sensitive and powerful in turn.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)