The Powers of Memory
If you browse any respectable anthology of cricket writing, you will probably find accounts of County Championship matches. More often than not, the reports will come from an era acclaimed as a golden age for the game, the early years of the last century, perhaps, or the 1930s. If Neville Cardus is the author and the match is between Lancashire and Kent, the cricketers celebrated will probably be a Tyldesley or two, Colin Blythe maybe, and almost inevitably, Frank Woolley.
The mood will be nostalgic, the writing poetic, and the impression may be given in any introduction to the piece that this is A. E. Housman's land of lost content, happy highways which others enjoyed but which we can never experience. Today's cricket is too boring, goes the line, the players are not as blessed with talent and, in any case, the whole game has been indelibly tainted by scandal and money.
So what should we make of an afternoon in which Hampshire's batsmen, led by the indomitable Jimmy Adams, resisted Lancashire attack with skill and fortitude the livelong day? The Winchester-born opener built his innings like a patient workman who refuses to put down his tools until the job is done. Unbeaten on 80 at tea, Adams didn't reach his century till three overs before the close, yet who thought his batting slow? When he reached his hundred, three occupants of the press tent, a haunt of those who've "seen it all", applauded.
Or how may we respond to the persistence of Gary Keedy, his careful variation of pace, flight and spin rewarded only by the wicket of Phillip Hughes? Are not Keedy's "craft and art", as he himself describes them, worthy to be lodged in our memories?
And how might we remember Tom Smith, bright-eyed and ever boyish, running in from his favourite River End at Aigburth, sending James Vince's middle stump tumbling over and over; or later, tempting Sean Ervine into the slash which edged the ball to Paul Horton at first slip, the adopted Liverpudlian plucking the ball out of the air as if he was catching a swallow? "Well bowled, Tommy lad !" shouted a local from the crowd. Suddenly, Smith was a scouser.
The heat of the afternoon warmed but did not bake us. The hazy sunlight was all the more precious because it belonged to September, and in a fortnight all this will be gone for another year. As I tap this out on my battered old laptop, a gloaming is descending on Aigburth, but the memories of Lancashire's celebrations when they dismissed Ervine in the first over after they had taken the new ball, are Canterbury-fresh. They grabbed each other with a wild abandonment, for they knew that it was an important moment which, while it won't win a championship, may yet win a match.
The epigraph to L P Hartley's novel The Go Between are rightly famous: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." As with so many really fine statements, one's agreement is hedged with qualification and doubt. The way Johnny Tyldesley batted or Colin Blythe bowled can never be precisely recaptured, but if we ignore the unbreakable braid of memory and practice which links Jimmy Adams and Gary Keedy to those former heroes, we run the risk of preserving the past in aspic, and thereby failing to understand its continuing power.
And now, the sun is lower. Birds have returned to the Aigburth outfield "just" as they returned to Dover in one of Cardus's most famous essays. The "blue remembered hills" are those of Clwyd, not Malvern, and they are fading from view. But there will be cricket at Aigburth tomorrow; it will be another day of grace and gracefulness.
Photo: Simon Pendrigh, Peakpix Digital Images
(c) Lancashire CCC Ltd