A rare sight: Neville Cardus playing cricket rather than writing about it

A constant search for heroes

Michael Henderson on Sir Neville Cardus


It is difficult to imagine a man like Neville Cardus making his way in the modern world. Born into a modest home in Manchester in 1888, the kind of background idealised by those who were never obliged to rise above it, he became one of the most famous journalists of his time. When he died in February 1975, he was well-known — as Sir Neville — by lovers of music and cricket. Nearly half a century after his death, his spirit is still summoned by writers anxious to remind readers of cricket’s Golden Age. Not many journalists stand the test of time. Cardus has.

Duncan Hamilton, whose previous books on sport include studies of Brian Clough, George Best, Harold Larwood and Eric Liddell, has twice won the Sports Book of the Year sponsored by William Hill, though it is always wise to recall the words of Charles Ives: “Prizes are for little boys, and I’m a grown-up.” The Great Romantic is a book for grown-ups, and should find favour with those lovers of cricket appalled by the deliberate suborning of the summer game for commercial purposes. It may even remind them why they fell in love with a sport that is always most alluring when it moves at a slow pace. That is why so many writers of an aesthetic bent, like Cardus, found it so irresistible.

Some of his journalism is too rich for modern tastes. He was, as the title of Hamilton’s book indicates, an unrepentant romantic. Born into that shabby house in Rusholme, and brought up by his mother and an aunt, who were tarts, the young Cardus found release in books, particularly the novels of Dickens, and music. His youthful passions were stoked, he said in adult life, by Wagner, the Fighting Temeraire and Victor Trumper, the dashing Australian batsman.

The Great Romantic By Duncan Hamilton
The Great Romantic by Duncan Hamilton, Hodder & Stoughton, £20

What he saw and heard later intensified those early feelings. His was not necessarily a life of the mind; he admitted that he would never pass a schoolroom test of grammar. It was a life of the senses. stimulated almost as much by the great cricketers as the world-famous instrumentalists and conductors he came to count as friends.

In a single week in 1973 the Guardian published obituaries by Cardus on Otto Klemperer, the conductor, and Wilfred Rhodes, one of the most remarkable figures in Yorkshire cricket. When he died two years later, Sir Clifford Curzon played Mozart at his memorial service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, and Dame Flora Robson read from Shakespeare. But, as Hamilton reports, MCC would not permit his ashes to be scattered on the outfield at Lord’s.

He was a manchester man, and also a Manchester Guardian man, when that newspaper had a sense of identity that ran further than an obsession with sexuality, race and ethnicity. It was truly liberal, and provincial in the best sense. Cardus, taken on as an assistant by C.P. Scott, a tartar of an editor, took a pride in working for the MG that he never extended to the paper when it re-established itself in London in 1964. By then he was a grand old man, confident in his position, though his financial situation was not healthy for a man whose autobiography, written during his sojourn in Sydney during the Second World War, had been a best-seller. He ended his days living in a flat in Baker Street, taking his meals at a local restaurant, looking for conversation which his dominating habits did little to encourage.

Hamilton concentrates on the cricketing side of his life, starting with the heroes Cardus watched at Old Trafford, notably AC Maclaren, R.H. Spooner and J.T. Tyldesley: There were others: F.E. Woolley of Kent, and the Sussex pair of C.B. Fry and Ranji, the Indian prince.

But it was the Lancastrian trinity of Archie, Reggie and Johnny that lit up his adolescence. Throughout his life, he looked for their qualities, and found them in batsmen such as Denis Compton and Garfield Sobers. There was Don Bradman, too, and Leonard Hutton. But it was the romantics who had his true devotion. In the last five years of his life he saw Clive Lloyd, the Guyanese who played for Lancashire, and thought that Gilbert Jessop, the English cavalier, “was not more exciting, more creative, at the crease or in the field”.

It was a complicated life. His wife, Edith, lived separately, for nothing could come between Cardus and his work. He wrote millions of words, mainly for the Manchester Guardian, who appointed him cricket correspondent after he was sent to Old Trafford one day in 1919 to recuperate and liked it so much he stayed in the press box for the next two decades, before he went to Australia. It is customary to call him the father of sports writing, and that is about the gist of it. As John Arlott, quoted liberally in Hamilton’s book, said, nobody could be a better writer on cricket than Cardus, because he invented it.

A Field of Tents and Waving Colours: Neville Cardus Writing on Cricket
A Field of Tents and Waving Colours: Neville Cardus Writing on Cricket, Safe Haven, £14.99

In the age before television, Cardus could get away with his romantic digressions — and he did, week after week. He ascribed remarks to cricketers who had never uttered them, with a soothing admission that they would have done if they had the words. Emmott Robinson, a Yorkshire all-rounder of no great pedigree, was awarded a standing in popular folklore that his performances did little to merit because Cardus deemed him to be a character.

There is, to be honest, a bit too much sentimentality about this side of Cardus. Many of the things he borrows from the Yorkshire players in particular are neither funny nor wise.

A Field of Tents and Waving Colours makes a handsome introduction to Cardus. It is a collection of pieces from his young days to the closing months of his life, and includes fine essays on Wally Hammond, possibly the greatest of all English batsmen, and Richie Benaud, the Australian captain who became a fine television commentator. In the years ahead, when our cricket is given increasingly to the T20 thrash and something called The Hundred, we shall revisit Cardus to restore our spirits, and very possibly to revive our souls.

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