Between Wickets Suresh Menon

In the sight of eternitiesin and beyond history...

Suresh Menon.

Suresh Menon.  

In the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack obituaries, the emphasis has been on marrying the much publicised with the unusual, the placid with the startling

One of the things we don’t do very well in India is write the telling obituary.

When the well-known die, we descend into hagiography; when the lesser known do, we google the name and stick to a recital of facts and figures. The unknown who was quixotic or eccentric is ignored altogether. The vivid obit, said Marilyn Johnson, who has written a book about obituaries, “is a triumph not to be taken for granted; and sometimes it is impossible to write.”

Like Johnson, I belong to a rare club, one that enjoys the well-written obituary. Ernest Hemingway claimed that he began each day with “a regular morning ritual of a glass of cold champagne and a couple of pages of obituaries.” That could be me, except for the champagne.

Spectrum of skills

The obituary brings together a range of skills: empathy, the ability to combine facts and impressions, the eye for the revealing quote, humour, irony, pathos, mystery, tragedy, romance, the joy of conveying information subtly.

The obits in the Daily Telegraph and The Economist are justly famous, but the best are in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. This is not because sportsmen are unique, but since 1892 when the Almanack first began carrying the obituaries, the emphasis has been on marrying the much publicised with the unusual, the placid with the startling.

Even those only tangentially connected with cricket often get written about if it makes for a good read. Hence, Peter, the cat at Lord’s (“Cat, Peter, whose ninth life ended on November 5, 1964, was a well-known cricket-watcher at Lord’s, where he spent 12 of his 14 years… Mr SC Griffith, Secretary of MCC, said of him: ‘He was a cat of great character and loved publicity.’”)

Variations on a theme

Cricketers have died falling from windows, from horses, from express trains and cliffs (Stan McCabe); they have died while shovelling snow (Arthur Carr), while dancing, while mounting a bicycle during a tour of France, or while packing his kit bag on the way to a match in Scarborough. One unfortunate died of blood poisoning caused by a nail in his cricket boot. The Australian batsman Peter Burge’s father died of a heart attack while listening to a commentary of his son batting.

One champion, JWHT Douglas — his batting style was suggested by the play on his initials, “Johnny Won’t Hit Today” — drowned while trying to rescue his father in a boating accident, while one of the great families of Australian cricket suffered a double blow when Arthur Gregory died after he fell off a tram while returning from the funeral of his cousin Syd Gregory.

Some had to solve tricky political problems that arose because of their love for the game. Like George Tubow II, the King of Tonga whose “subjects became so devoted to the game that it was necessary to prohibit it on six days of the week in order to avert famine, the plantations being entirely neglected for the cricket field”.

Brief but forever

In Sing All A Green Willow, Ronald Mason devotes an essay to Fredrick J. Hyland who played one first class match restricted to just two deliveries by rain, and never played again, his career like a “sparrow flying into the banquet hall, fluttering for a moment in the light and heat, and then flying forth at the far door into the wintry darkness”.

Yet, crucially, Hyland did play first class cricket. “He retired, after the fashion of all good philosophers, to cultivate his garden,” wrote Mason, “but by his ten wet minutes on the first class field he had joined the ranks of W.G. Grace whose playing life spanned 44 years. In the sight of eternities in and beyond history 44 years and ten minutes are as one…”

There are pages and pages devoted to the likes of Grace and Hobbs, but you can also read about Edward Rae, who “introduced the game into Russian Lapland and died at Birkenhead on June 26, 1923, aged 76”.

What volumes have been left unsaid! Or about Arthur McEvoy who was “probably the finest bowler in France”. Only “probably”? Is that as significant as, or more significant than Chevalier Epifano Rodrigues being “the best cover point in Spain”?

And what of Anthony Ainley, who opened the batting clad in “sunblock, helmet and swimming goggles” and always took his teas alone in his car, “possibly because he despised cheeses of all kinds.” ?

Damning with faint praise is an occasional Wisden urge. Of George Lacey, a critic it said, “He was one of the few men who could claim to have walked across Africa from East to West before the first Boer War.” The suggestion is inescapable: after the Boer War everyone was walking across Africa from East to West.

The International Association of Obituarists meets every year. At one conference, it was revealed that the first recognisable obit in the English-speaking world was published in 1663. This discovery by an obituarist is fascinating both for itself and for throwing light on the fact-checking ways of the tribe.

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