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The man who dignified and illuminated the craft

Neville Cardus (centre) in 1950.

Neville Cardus (centre) in 1950.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives


Neville Cardus learnt the importance of lacing his reports with humour

Is Neville Cardus relevant today? That’s a question asked often. Just the fact that it is being asked is testimony to his significance. As Alan Gibson, writer and commentator said: “All cricket writers have been influenced by Cardus, whether they admit it or not, whether they have wished to be or not, whether they have tried to copy him or tried to avoid copying him.

Changed the course of writing

“He was not a model, any more than Macaulay, say, was a model for the aspiring historian. But just as Macaulay changed the course of the writing of history, Cardus changed the course of the writing of cricket. He showed what could be done. He dignified and illuminated the craft.”

The pioneer never loses relevance.

Now, over four decades after his death, Duncan Hamilton has written a superb biography of this fine writer who just happened to focus on cricket and music. The Great Romantic: Cricket and the Golden Age of Neville Cardus earned Hamilton his third William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. Biographer and subject are well matched; Hamilton is the modern stylist who writes with enviable flow.

Cardus-assessment has veered between hagiography and peremptory dismissal, getting closer to the latter thanks to increasing number of formats and instant communication. Reading cricket reports for their style and elegance is not as popular as getting the running scores on the phone.

Here’s Cardus on left-arm spinner Wilfred Rhodes’ bowling: “Every ball a decoy, a spy sent out to get the lie of the land; some balls simple, some complex, some easy, some difficult; and one of them — ah! which? — the master ball.”

What, nothing about ‘dot’ balls or strike rates?

Well researched

Hamilton’s is a modern biography: definitive, well researched, sympathetic, and with a profound understanding of the times Cardus lived in and wrote about. Cardus aspired to literature; the sport needed that ambition.

In his debunking essay, Cardus and the Aesthetic Fallacy, Derek Birley upset legions of Cardus-worshippers; yet even he admitted that “The hankering after aesthetic significance is harmless and often enjoyable.”

Hankering after significance is human, after all. No one likes to believe that what he is doing is of no import whatever. To ensure that his work be seen as important, Cardus had to first show that what the cricketer did was important. Performer and recorder (or critic) need each other more than either is willing to admit.

Witty and intelligent

Cardus may not have planned it that way, but he could not have been unaware of its advantages. His players often came across as witty and intelligent because he was witty and intelligent. It gave heroes a new dimension and drew into the game thousands who might not otherwise have cared for it.

Cardus was self-taught, worked his way up from the slums where he was born to a prostitute. His fans included Bradman and Wodehouse, Pinter and Beckett. The novel of a person of that background going on to receive a knighthood might have been rejected by publishers.

As Hamilton writes, “He managed to transform himself so successfully into the figure he wanted to be all along — a gentleman writer — that the figure he had once been all but vanished…throughout his early life, Cardus purposefully dusted over the tracks of his upbringing even when pretending to come clean about it.”

He put words into the mouths of his characters that “god intended to,” said Cardus when challenged about some of his quotes. This was perhaps necessary to elevate the craft from the basement of sportswriting to its attic. In his centenary year, I wrote that Cardus was the Dickens of cricket writing, bringing to it characters and dialogues the novelist might have.

Hamilton has dug much deeper. From Dickens, he says, Cardus learnt prolificacy. He learnt how to exploit plot; to create and develop characters. He learnt the importance of lacing his reports with humour. “No one can understand Cardus’s approach to cricket writing without also understanding his absorption in Dickens.”

Impressionist painter

Commenting on Cardus’ description of fast bowler Ted McDonald, Hamilton says, “He admired him in paragraphs that were almost heart-shaped with love.” Cardus was an impressionist painter — not a documentary photographer. Anyway, as John Arlott said, Cardus hadn’t made up nearly as much as he was accused of.

The reason Cardus didn’t go to Australia to report on the Bodyline series was not because “I knew trouble was brewing,” but, as Hamilton points out, it was because he had become infatuated with a woman and couldn’t bear to stay away for so long.

“He had his cricket friends, his music friends, and his girlfriends,” said Arlott, “and he stored them in different rooms.” Hamilton’s book provides the key to two of those rooms. The music room generally remains locked.

This book might lead to a Cardus revival. Or not. Hamilton has achieved the difficult task of humanising an icon while clearing the rubbish away from the pedestal on which he stands.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 8:37:02 PM |

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