When Neville Cardus got married and wrote about a game that wasn't played
Neville Cardus often let his thoughts run free, across wild and fertile pastures far from the cricket ground – especially during county matches frequented by few other scribes © Getty Images

On June 17, 1921, the doyen of cricket writers, Neville Cardus, started the longest partnership of his life. Arunabha Sengupta relives the occasion, reflecting on the enchanting Cardus anecdote about the county match that was not really played that day – and some more tales of the legend.

Garnishing of fancy

On a charming Friday morning of June, the sun bathed the English countryside in indulgent smiles. A slight, 31-year old bespectacled youth stood with a rapidly beating heart.

Here was a man who lived by the flourishes of his mighty plume, writing of cricket by the day and music by the night, making the sound of the willow on leather and the scores of the piano concertos ring through from the pages of Manchester Guardian. Yet, the pen was now held between slightly shaking fingers. In the Chorlton Registry office that day, he was about to perform the most responsible and irrevocable act in a mortal man’s life.

Neville Cardus stood there, exactly 91 years ago, along with Edith King, awaiting a couple of strokes on official documents to forge an everlasting partnership. In a life worth living several times over, music and cricket had been married in his psyche. Charley Macartney often merged with Rossini’s Figaro, and a decade down the line, the mastery of Don Bradman resonated with the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. According to the master, cricket, like music, had its slow movements, especially when Lancashire batted. He says in his Autobiography that as usual he had gone to Old Trafford, accompanied by Edith, and had stayed for a while to see (Harry) Makepeace and (Charles) Hallows come forth to bat. “As usual they opened with care. Then I had to leave, had to take a taxi to Manchester, there to be joined in wedlock at a registry office. Then I — that is we — returned to Old Trafford. While I had been away from the match … Lancashire had increased their total by exactly 17 — Makepeace 5, Hallows 11, and one leg-bye.”

Glorious anecdote to mark a charming day!

Alas. Cricket the wonderful game attracts all kinds of followers, and some of the unworthiest refuse to remain satisfied by the tales of the flannelled heroes communicated with vivre, éclat and poetic licence. Tossing aside their Cardus, they must delve into the prosaic tomes of Wisden. And from the soulless pages full of numbers, they must unearth that Makepeace and Hallows had opened the batting only once in June 1921, in a completely different match, in which Makepeace had made four and 24 (retired hurt) and Hallows 109 not out and 0. Thereafter, Makepeace was out of the side for a month, and they did not bat together again till August.

In other words, that match of slow rhythm and leisure that characterise the summer game had been played in the imagination of the great Cardus.

Fair words in love and war

Cardus often let his thoughts run free, across wild and fertile pastures far from the cricket ground — especially during county matches frequented by few other scribes. He created paintings of the action much in the style prevalent in a world before photography, when the privileged brushstrokes of genius turned deformity into the exotic, and halos appeared around too many men of flesh and blood. Technical details were forsaken while the creator in him breathed magical life into the characters he described, which “rested uneasily besides their dour, northern, birthright.”

Feelings perhaps upstaged observation. Legend has it that when the slow rhythms of the game almost reduced the score to a restful pause, the solitary reporter was often witnessed ambling around the streets neighbouring the cricket ground, no doubt conjuring up lyrical descriptions that would find their way into his match reports – the factual details filled in through heresy and surreptitious glances at the same scoreboard that he once called an ass.

Yet, should we complain if the concoction brewed in the gifted mind continues to flow in abundance and fill our cups with delight? Or should we count our blessings? Many a hesitant foot has turned towards the ground after reading an account of a grim, dour struggle for first innings lead described as one of the eternal jousts of knights attired in their full medieval regalia. “At three o’clock, there was not a place on earth where I would rather have been than at Old Trafford. Torrents of sunshine fell on the ancient field and thousands were drenched in them.”

Much rather should we treat the discrepancies as the romantic garnishing of a pen which could serve the drabbest of fares in the guise of ambrosia.

If his ceremony with the lady of his life had led him to a flight of cricket linked fancy, turning the dials of proverbial fairness associated with love to the maximum; when it came to war, his tinkering with cricketing facts was fit for immortalisation.

He writes in his Autobiography, “On the Friday morning when Hitler invaded Poland, I chanced to be in the Long Room at Lord’s watching through the windows for the last time for years. Though no spectators were present, a match was being continued …  As I watched the ghostly movements of the players outside, a beautifully preserved member of Lord’s, spats and rolled umbrella, stood near me inspecting the game…. Suddenly two workmen entered the Long Room in green aprons and carrying a bag. They took down the bust of WG Grace, put it into the bag, and departed with it. The noble lord at my side watched their every movement; then he turned to me. “Did you see, sir?” he asked. I told him I had seen. “This means war,” he said.

Let us turn an indulgent unseeing eye to the fact that the match scheduled to be played on that day at Lord’s, between Kent and Middlesex, had been cancelled. No ghostly player had moved around on the ground had they not been spirits in the real or incorporeal sense of the word.  Let us scoff in indignation, even if not righteous, at the scholarly The Lost Seasons by Eric Midwinter, which states that Cardus himself had actually been far away in Australia.

Factual correctness can bow to the literary lustre of the tale. It combines the cricket, Lord’s, Grace and the Second World War along with the endearing British symbols of peerage, rolled umbrellas and spats. Weaving a poetic tapestry that can spread itself over the atrocious authentic facts of the unfortunate day, and in the same gallant sweep do history a remarkable favour.

This writer, similarly, has no earthly inkling about the elemental conditions, the balance in the battle between clouds and sunshine, the exact hour of the ceremony and other essential details of the day when the wedding bells rang out for the author extraordinaire. However, he decided to paint a picture befitting the happy day of the man who has been a source of joy to several generations of cricket lovers – by indulging in imagination, taking a questionable but delicious leaf out of the Cardus canon.

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)