Playing on grass (and smoking it)

English Cricket
February 18, 2000

Derek Birley never was a conventional vice-chancellor. His 21 years running what was first Ulster Polytechnic then the University of Ulster straddled both the binary divide and the period during which the dominant vice-chancellor style moved from senior civil servant to academic manager/entrepreneur without sacrificing its dark-suited uniform. But Birley was neither sartorially nor temperamentally a suit. Originally an education bureaucrat - his first publication was The Education Officer and his World (1970) - he still managed to be one of the rare vice- chancellors to overcome the crippling duality of the role: half man, half embodiment of a large, complex institution; and to continue to display the vivid personality that had taken him so far up the ladder.

In retirement he has become an immensely productive practitioner of the still-nascent discipline of sports history. This book, his fourth since leaving Ulster in 1991, inevitably harks back to the book that made his reputation outside the world of academic administration, The Willow Wand (1979).

It was not that his debunking of cricket's mythology was entirely new even 20 years ago. Others had gone before, notably the irascibly eccentric Rowland Bowen and the West Indian Marxist C. L. R. James. But Birley reached a younger, wider audience with his incisive and at times extremely funny demolition of cricket's received version.

This assault, focused above all on cricket's pretensions to being, in the words of Tom Brown's Schooldays , "more than a game ... an institution ... the birthright of British boys old and young", reached its zenith in a devastating dissection of P. F. Warner, previously accorded something close to secular sainthood for a life of dedication to the game and its conventions. This in turn provoked a memorable response, much relished by its target, from former England player Ian Peebles, a Warner protege. Peebles expressed the hope that Birley's then-title of rector at Ulster implied no religious function, arguing that he was completely wanting in Christian charity.

English Cricket , unavoidably, lacks the impact of The Willow Wand . What was fresh and devastatingly new two decades ago has become something of a counter-orthodoxy, buttressed and extended by the works of writers such as Ric Sissons, Mike Marqusee and Hilary Beckles.

As with most general histories, there is little that is entirely new. The reader is offered an excellent synthesis, lucidly intercutting the development of the game with the social, political and economic context within which it operated. Nor has Birley's eye for the absurdities and double standards generated by the distinction, which was increasingly social rather than economic, between amateurism and professionalism - or for mythologies concerning contented, deferential lower orders presided over by wise, benevolent social superiors - dimmed with the passing of time. He shows that the game's rise to 18th-century prominence was founded on the opportunities it presented for gambling, rather than its more improving qualities, and that the social mixing of which G. M. Trevelyan wrote so lyrically was strictly limited off the field: "sheep went to the Green Man and goats to the Star and Garter".

Birley places the increasing prominence of amateur-dominated county clubs as against city clubs and the professionally run travelling XI's from the 1860s and 1870s firmly in the context of elite fears generated by political change in the wake of the 1832 and 1867 reform acts, paralleling it with the social exclusions initiated in athletics and rowing during the 1860s.

The county championship, which in the 20th century was English cricket's natural order, was for most of its early life no more organised than the barnstorming of the professional XI's that came before it. In 1914, at the end of the era regarded as cricket's golden age, several county clubs were on the point of collapse. Throughout the discussion of county cricket runs deep scepticism as to whether the two-innings game spread over three (now four) days was ever a sensible means of providing entertainment, making the best of our cricketing talent or even, for those who wished it, saving the amateur.

Birley's gift for acidic summation ensures that the reader never wants for entertainment or enlightenment. His description of Ted Dexter as "C. B. Fry in all but intellect" is gloriously double-edged. A Yorkshireman, he is particularly good on his compatriots, notably Edgar Oldroyd, "who had raised obduracy to an art independent of outward events"; Herbert Sutcliffe, "trying not to overthrow the establishment, but to join it"; Fred Trueman, "dreaded off the field like the Ancient Mariner"; and his fellow Hemsworth grammar school alumnus Geoff Boycott, for whom "cricket was neither a mere game, nor a way of life, but rather an instrument for the cultivation of batting perfection, Boycott-style".

Only one obvious factual error, calling Alfred Lyttleton captain of England against Australia in 1882 when it was actually A. N. Hornby, leaps out. But there are some surprising omissions in the "bibliography and further reading".

For so broad-minded a commentator, Birley comes momentarily close to sounding Blimpish in discussing the cricket authorities' suspension of Ian Botham for taking marijuana; he describes their ludicrous over-reaction as "very lenient". Concerning the mutual loathing of Denis Compton and Botham, heroes of different generations, he comes down firmly on the side of Compton. Perhaps he is showing his age, but then so doubtless am I in my instinctive sympathy for Botham.

Huw Richards writes on cricket for the International Herald Tribune and is associate researcher, international centre for sports history and culture, De Montfort University.

English Cricket: A Social History

Author - Derek Birley
ISBN - 1 85410 622 8
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £20.00
Pages - 388

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