The author in front of the Len Hutton Gates
The author in front of the Len Hutton Gates

 

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.

 

—-

 

Back in London, I tramp down to the Bloomsbury area and walk down Gower Street. Not because the name evokes one of the most sublime of all left-handed stroke makers wielding the willow, but I want to get to the Waterstones at No. 82. Previously, this was Dillons, and now it is host to the biggest rare and second hand book collection carried by any of the London outlets of Waterstones.

 

I wade around in the sea of volumes, but cannot detect a second hand sports section. I ask the help desk about Neville Cardus. The elderly man informs me that they do get Cardus volumes, but only the ones he wrote on music. Once the cricket season was over, he used to metamorphose into the music critic in the services of Manchester Guardian – perhaps the secret to his merging music into his match reports. However, I want to read his own lilting description of the tenor of Sir Don Bradman’s willow striking the ball, of the rhythm of Ray Lindwall’s run up to the wicket, of the chorus of George Duckworth’s appeal for a catch with Wally Hammond. The elderly man looks at his computer screen and directs me to Abebooks yet again. I move on, but a title by Italo Svevo tugs a resonating string of my heart. Named simply ‘A Life’, it is a novel about a creative man caught in the monotony of life as a clerk. I pay for it and run for my train toNottingham.

 

*

 

Fortune, at long last, smiles on me as I reach Trent Bridge.

 

Alan Odell is the tour guide, and I can make out that the red blood corpuscles that run in his veins are shaped like cricket balls, complete with seam. In his early 60s, he has volunteered for the job as a labour of love, and it shows. The tour, a two and a half hour enraptured ride across a couple of centuries, is a walking dream along the historic turf. The ground is empty, but as Alan pours out his heart, I can almost witness the events rolling by on the greens. In front of me William Clarke establishes the ground behind the Trent Bridge Inn, I hear the thunderclap of George Parr hitting those sixes into the elm tree, I see George Gunn making the tons of runs before devoting himself to the carpentry business that resulted in Gun and Moore or GM, I wince as Bill Voce and Harold Larwood run up to hurl their thunderbolts, clap my hands as Bradman walks up the pavilion steps after yet another hundred. In Alan’s description, Gary Sobers, Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice return to turn out for Nottinghamshire, Rahul Dravid goes back a decade and saves the Test Match in 2002, and Kevin Pietersen’s kit bag is hurled down the same hallowed pavilion steps. Alan shows us Richie Benaud’s Loo, WG Grace’s bat, and as a treat to me, Sachin Tendulkar’s chair. But all that is studded with too many gemstones to be flashed out of a small pocket of an article, they will be dealt with separately in another blog post.

 

An elderly lady is one of the most enthusiastic visitors. She has been watching cricket around the world with her husband. She asks me, “Were you there when India played the second Test here? The entire stadium got up to applaud Tendulkar. The absolute master. And what a wonderful man!”

 

I linger on after the tour, and Alan takes me to the Trent Bridge library. Peter Wynne Thomas sits there in shirtsleeves and suspenders, in front of his type writer that perhaps went out of fashion with Denis Compton. He is a world-renowned cricket historian. Yet he spends his hours quietly working in the library rather than finding the villain of the match on news channels. But, this is England, without the frenzy for sound bytes that we are used to in India. All around him are cricket books, periodicals and paraphernalia. William Voce’s jacket hangs over his head. Around him are scattered the tankard presented to Voce by the English captain Gubby Allen for taking six Australian wickets during the 1936 tour, the ball used by the first Australians playing in England in 1878, a bat signed by the visiting West Indian team of 1939 … the list is endless. In front of Peter sits a gentleman, painstakingly checking old scorebooks to tally with Wisden.

 

Alan tells Peter about my fascination with Cardus. The great man beckons me upstairs, passing shelves full of books along the way from all around the cricket playing world. There are two racks of Cardus, but copies for purchase are difficult to get. “The only supplier I know is in Surrey,” he informs me.

Surrey? And how can I get in touch with him?

Peter copies the address from a catalogue in long hand. J.W. McKenzie, specialist cricket bookseller, Epsom, Surrey. It is like the final piece of the puzzle, the key to the cipher, the treasure map emerging as the parchment is heated. I receive the gift with almost a bow, an ecstasy hitherto unknown, an accompanying grace of acceptance of a piece of paper absent while receiving my post graduate degree during convocation.

 

Alan takes me to the Trent Bridge Inn, and we have a drink together. His anecdotes are endless, of lasting appeal. From the frames on the wall, the three great overseas professionals of Nottinghamshire look on – Garfield Sobers, Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice. I check the train timings, but the heart wants to stay on.

 

*

 

I check in to the Headingley Lodge at Leeds. My room is named after Sir Len Hutton. From my room I can see the expanse of the ground. The light is as murky as the afternoon India kept on batting to pile up 600 in 2002 during their famous series squaring win.

 

In July 1930, Bradman announced his right to mastership in a few swift strokes. The vast field of Headingley was a moist, hot congestion, with apparently only one cool, clean, well brushed individual present, name of Bradman, who during the five hour traffic of the crease, made at will 300 runs and a few more, before half past six. He returned to the pavilion as though fresh from a band box, the rest of us, players, umpires, crowd and scorers, especially the scorers, were exhausted, dirty, dusty and afflicted by a sense of the vanity of life.
The Don signed off his romantic connection with the ground while he faded brightly in 1948, scoring 173 not out as Australia notched up 404 for three in the fourth innings to clinch an amazing victory.

 

It was here that in 1981, Ian Botham defied the Australians and the laws of nature as England famously clinched a miraculous victory after being asked to follow on.

 

In 1986, Dilip Vengsarkar single-handedly vanquished the Englishmen, scoring 61 and 102* in nightmarish conditions even as the next best score in all the match was 36.

 

The next morning I wake up to the sun shining over Headingley and the breaking news that in the Mumbai Cricket Association presidency elections, Dilip Vengsarkar had been defeated by an archetypical Indian politician Vilasrao Desmukh with as much connection with the game as W.G.Grace with a twenty twenty dug out.

 

The clubhouse in the Eden Gardens is named after Dr. B.C. Roy, former Chief Minister of West Bengal.
The rooms next to mine at the Headlingley Lodge bear the names of former Yorkshire greats – Fred Trueman, Geoff Boycott, Herbert Sutcliffe, Brian Close. The adjacent Headingley Experience hotel houses the Hirst and Rhodes suite.

 

The main entrance to the arena is the Sir Leonard Hutton Gates.

 

If all we know of batsmanship  as a science were somehow taken from our consciousness, the grammar and alphabet of could be deduced from the cricket of Hutton, and codified again; he is all the text-books in an omnibus edition. 
At the other side are gates named after another great opener, Herbert Sutcliffe, of swinging drives and a most majestic hook. Contrasts.

 

*

 

The train to Edinburgh is choc-a-bloc full, but I manage to find a seat. I call the McKenzie Cricket Book Shop the moment it is ten. A lady answers as I wait in trepidation. Yes, they are open on Friday, from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. My next question is asked as hope and apprehension wrestle in the background. And then I hear the tidings of a decades old dream on the verge of coming true.

 

“We do have a collection of Cardus. We will see you on Friday.”

 

*

 

Despite the Douglas Jardine connection, Scotland is hardly famed for her cricket. However, the architecture of Edinburgh make my eyes pop out. The book fair I attend is stocked with modern publications, Mike Atherton and Jonathan Agnew about as far back in cricket I can travel. However, another antiquarian and rare books fair is being held in Charlotte Square. I stumble across a first edition of P.G. Wodehouse poems collection. The price is steep. I ask the elderly book seller to hold on to it for me, while I walk to and fro in the exquisiteEdinburgh streets to make up my mind. Three hours later, I return to the man. He winks and says, “Temptation. It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it?” And to my delight of delights some of the exquisite poetry is about cricket.

 

The ladies, all gaily apparelled,

Sat round looking on at the match,

In the tree-tops dicky-birds carolled,

All was peace – till I bungled that catch.

 

*

 

I return to Midlands along the other side of England, riding through the lush green Lake District. It is dusk by the time I reach the city Cardus called his home. But, times have changed, and the back to back tenements, the Free Library around the corner where he read himself into a scholar, and the open spaces not yet built upon, as he describes in his Autobiography have been exchanged for some of the most urban, soulless metropolis buildings.

 

It is typical Old Trafford weather that greets me as I walk into the lodge beside the ground of the same name. I am disappointed. It has none of the happy charm associated with the Roses rivals, neither the efficiency. I can’t walk a step without bumping into a suit clad corporate honcho, entertaining clients on company expense, drinking at the bar with eyes and ardour oblivious of the historic ground beyond.

 

Next, I am informed that I have an ordinary booking and not a corporate one. Hence, I will have to make do with a room with a view of theTalbot Road with its occasional cars. What has the corporate, a more soulless word I cannot think of, got to do with the appreciation of the second oldest cricket ground of the country? Where Gilbert Jessop struck one of the biggest sixes of all time in 1900? Where Jack Hobbs scored his 197th and last first-class hundred at the age of 51? Why would I want to stay in the lodge other than to look at the ground out of the window the moment I got up in the morning? To fantasise in the moment of fuzziness between dream and wakefulness that JT Tyldesley is striking the ball in the middle? But the dispassionate girl at the reception does not seem to be the one to understand the pangs of reading a wicket wrong. On the contrary she rubs it in by making me run up and down thrice to get the wi-fi up and running.

 

There is none of the preservation of tradition as I had found in the Headingley Lodge. The only cricketer I come across is a too large, too glossy and too colour printed version of Andrew Flintoff smiling away on the second floor.

 

There are signs of corporatisation everywhere. There is a business centre overlooking the ground, entrepreneurially named The Point, which can be rented for weddings. Surrounding the ground are utilitarian office blocks, although named after Brian Statham, MacLaren and Duckworth. I jog down early in the morning and touch the turf, glance at the press box – also called the Neville Cardus gallery – but the rest of the place fail to make connection with the cricket romantic’s heart, let alone score a big hit. I leave after breakfast, as the car park of the ground, rented to adjoining office buildings, starts to fill up.

 

 

(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)

Part four of “Chasing Cardus – The saga of a treasure hunt across England” will be published tomorrow, October 20, 2011

 

Click here for Part 1:

 

Click here for Part 2:

 

Click here for Part 4: