In 1965, Third Man played at Old Trafford. We took eight hours to journey north from Hampshire. We schoolboys arrived in a world as alien to someone from the south coast, then, as Mumbai would be now to someone from Morton in the Marsh.
Every building was coated in soot. The over whelming memory is of dankness and darkness. Third Man does not recall being struct by an economic divide so much as a cultural divide.
One of the small things that amazed us was a pink sports newspaper that contained not just every county score but also the scores of all the league matches. In fact these results were given greater prominence than the scores from the county championship.
The Portsmouth Evening News or the Southampton Echo had their county features concentrating on Hampshire and a full set of county scores but there was no mention at all of local club cricket.
That cricket was still ‘timed’ and ‘friendly’. There were no leagues anywhere along the South Coast even though TM’s club played from Bournemouth to Brighton and from Basingstoke to Bognor Regis. Play began at 2.30 and finished at 7.30. Enforcing twenty overs in the last hour, TM can remember as an innovation. A result in the match required the side bowling second to bowl out the side batting second or the side batting second to knock off the runs notched up by the side batting first. Victories suggested an unevenness of match more than anything else.
TM’s was a touring club, without its own ground, which therefore depended on being good guests to keep its fixtures. A good guest played good cricket (now Premier League Standard), with much humour and familiarity expressed on the field and a generous contribution to bar profits after the match and sometimes before. Sociability was as important as cricketing skills.
C.L.R. James in Wherefore are these things hid? Chapter 10 of Beyond a Boundary, is more than a little irritated by this. ‘The neglect of league cricket, and particularly in the South, passes comprehension. The only reason that makes sense to me is that it is wilful – the South does not want to know.’
James was endeavouring to put the case that it was through playing in the Lancashire League, playing with matches that provided a result in an afternoon, that Learie Constantine became a finer Test cricketer.
“By 1932 when I saw the league, he was no longer a Test cricketer who played in the league. He was a league player who played in Tests. It was after he became a finished league player that he found his finest form in Tests and big cricket,” writes James.
Our old friend S.F. Barnes would no doubt have agreed.
This assertion is important if we substitute IPL for league in the sentence above. Constantine would have been a top pick for T20. Would it have been the tournament in which he found the key to the expression of his highest talents? Is it where today’s supreme cricketers will find their finest form for Tests and big cricket? A Test bed for all cricket?
James’ argument is highly sophisticated as we shall see. He quotes Bradman in the Don’s biography as saying that he can understand why Constantine is so much in demand in the Leagues. ‘… where matches are decided in an afternoon, I cannot envisage a player with better qualifications. In a quarter of an hour of terrific speed bowling or unorthodox hitting he could swing the fortunes of a match.’
At first thought we might agree, but James does not. Bradman’s view annoys him. He is embarrassed for Bradman. He believes it is an example of stereotypical thinking about West Indians and West Indian cricket – “We are still in the flower garden of the gay, the spontaneous, tropical West Indians. We need some astringent spray.” A fierce accusation.
‘Speed bowling and quarters of an hour of unorthodox hitting do not win first place in a league competition sevens years out of nine.’
With Learie Constantine as their 'paid man' Nelson dominated the Lancashire League between 1928 and 1937.
What does win first place over a championship, then? James relies on descriptions of just two shots played by Constantine against the bowling of Ted MacDonald playing for Accrington in the 1932 season. Mac Donald had retired from Lancashire but was putting his all into the half-day form of cricket.
‘Mac had never lost his machine like run and his perfect action’ nor his ‘slight but late inswing’ and ‘periodically the one that straightens. ‘All this on the basis of an impeccable length. Constantine has this effect on most bowlers.’
Constantine in his turn knows that he cannot afford to get out cheaply; ‘still more for the sake of the morale of his side, as a professional, he cannot afford to let the opposing professional get him out cheaply.’
One can sense the same motivation behind Tendulkha’s monumental achievements in this year’s IPL. One can see these duals everywhere in league cricket today. It is still what brings the crowd on to the ground, this prospect of pro v pro.
James would argue that at Nelson in 1932 or at the DY Patil Stadium in 2010 the drama is identical to that of ancient Greek theatre, inspiring and demanding an intense communal engagement from those watching. The crowd of probably 10,000 in Nelson (1932) and 55,000 in Navi Mumbai (2010) sense the battle and are monetarily quietened as the protagonists strut and fret upon their green stage.
James captures the expectancy that energizes all human drama. ‘This is a big match with far more spectators and more tension than two-thirds of the first-class county matches played in a season. For an over or two this sparing continues. The crowd is silent but patient. It knows from long experience that sooner or later Constantine will explode.’
(Continued tomorrow – well it is theatre and the sales of ice-cream and beer are important sources of revenue to cover the pro’s wages. Think of it as the tea interval, stretch your legs and maybe wander over and inspect the wicket.)