If the past is a foreign country, cricket’s history is an overseas tour

Lords with G&DadOn Saturday I went to Lord’s with my older son for the first time. There, we met my Dad and, three generations together, spent a day watching England play India. It’s 36 years since my Dad first took me to Lord’s – to see England play Pakistan. I can, through first-hand, personal experience, account for one-sixth of the duration of the Home of Cricket, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. My Dad, although a Surrey man, spans nearly one-third of the great ground’s existence since his first visit. This sport, conventionally seen as so ancient, can easily have large chunks of its familiar chronology bitten off by two generations of one family.

I recently joined the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians (ACS). Inadvertently, my first contribution to the Association’s on-line discussion site prompted a very reflective response by a Committee member, which included consideration of the question of what the Association should consider as ‘history’.

I don’t think we’ve ever defined when “history” stops for ACS purposes. The end of WW2 has been suggested but I feel that is too long ago. I think we’ve reached the stage where the Packer Affair, for instance, or the shenanigans around sanctions-busting tours to apartheid South Africa, are definitely “history” rather than “current affairs”. As a rule of thumb (I reiterate this is a personal view) I’d suggest that anything is “history” if it is far enough back not to involve the careers of any current players.

Where does history stop for cricket? The Committee member provided an answer for an Association that serves people who have a keen interest in the sport’s past. I wanted to see if I could formulate a definition that could be applied more broadly.

One approach would be to set an absolute date, probably based upon an event that is seen as marking a significant change in the sport or in its context. The end of World War Two is an example. Or, a date that has a feel about it, even if it doesn’t hold as the boundary between eras. This is how I can explain my undergraduate modern history course (1986-89) topping out in 1964. Somewhere between the beginning of sexual intercourse and the summer of love; inclusive of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union, but not the Prague Spring; historicising JFK but not LBJ.

The end of history could be seen as a relative point in time. The point at which none of the major protagonists is still living (or in cricket terms, playing) is one such criterion. History would hold still for years and then with the passing of Michael Foot, Emperor Hirohito or retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, it would jump forward. The 1992 World Cup became history in November last year when Tendulkar retired. It will be joined by the 1996 tournament when Chanderpaul steps aside (assuming he outlasts Jacques Kallis).

I favour another method of distinguishing between that which is history and that which is too recent to be considered so. It depends upon an understanding of history as a discipline. Crudely, history is the creation of a narrative. Narratives are of course constructed continually in, and about, the present. The feature of the historical narrative is that it applies an interpretative layer, without which its subject could not be understood by the non-expert reader of the present day. History, therefore, applies when the events described cannot readily be made sense of; or, the interpretation of those events through the lense of contemporary assumptions would create serious misunderstandings. We rely, therefore, on experts – historians – to tell us the story of a time that isn’t easily grasped. That’s not to say that historians don’t mislead, just that their aim is to help the reader with an imaginative leap. The past is a foreign country. Cricket’s past is an overseas tour.

This line of thinking leads to cricket’s history being seen in different strata. Starting with the unembellished action on the field: a cricket match viewed from 20, 50, even 100 years ago would be followed and absorbed without great difficulty. The essence of the contest, the range of skills displayed and tactics employed show variety around a strong core of consistency. Extremes around, say, the coping with uncovered wickets after a soaking may startle the modern viewer – but they’re not a great distance from cricket’s current grassroots game. If we go back to the Golden Age, the modern viewer may be perplexed by the sight of the chap with the big beard stooping to pick up and replace the bail before taking guard again, but we may be straying into myth, not history.

If the cricket played on the field is cut loose from its context, I would argue that the results and the action from the past 100-130 years are clear enough to the modern viewer so as to not require the intervention of an historian. The argument is artificial, though, as the modern follower does not have access to footage of the game that would allow him or her to gain an appreciation of what “was goin’ off out there”. Having tried to show my younger son the wonder of Dennis Lillee, he would contend that the material available from 30 years ago is inadequate. Match reports would be the source material. Sampling extracts of Wisden from the last 120 years, I think the language with which the game is described would be accessible, without an interpretative gloss.

The game on the field is never loosed from the context of the sport it represents: who the teams are, why they are playing each other, what’s at stake, who gets selected. This is the second stratum of cricket for which I’ll seek an historical end point.

Cricket’s culture and structures can dominate discussion on non-playing and playing days. But how far back would a lay reader be liable to misunderstand this ever-present context of the game? In English domestic cricket, a couple of junctures stand out. There’s the abolition of the professional and amateur statuses in 1962. Later, the introduction of the mixed economy of cricket competitions, 3-day, limited overs league and knockout, starting in 1963, but only really re-shaping the season from 1972.

The third stratum that may have an historical endpoint is where cricket is seen fully in its social context. When cricket was a sport of popular working class interest, attracting thousands to its domestic matches, the spectators were watching men like themselves, brought up in rural and industrial landscapes. As great a paradox as the amateurs making more from the sport than the professionals, is that once the game became wholly professional it became a more middle-class sport to play and to follow. Cricket, as an activity for millions of men in post-war austerity England, is a leap from its early 21st Century appearance.

I am favouring a date in the late 1950s to early 1960s as the end-point of history for English cricket, taking account of the sporting and social context. Other countries – and indeed the international game – may, using my method, settle on different, probably more recent, dates. The acceleration of the Indian economy over the last twenty years may, for example, mean that the years that preceded it need to be treated as history. The international game, increasingly shaped by Indian money, may need to consider as historical all the eras where other countries held sway.

Cricket in England, a sport that often seems uncomfortable in the present, has less history than we commonly imagine. The game on the field has altered, but not fundamentally. The more malleable sporting and social context, is still recognisable a couple of generations ago.

By pushing back history, I do not deny there are great and complex stories that we understand better when an expert writes. Merely, that the expertise is in economics, finance, politics, the law, international relations, sports science, mass communications or simply the ability to sift evidence to present a coherent narrative. These play a part in helping us to understand cricket’s present and recent past. But they are not the distinctive skill of the historian: to bring clarity to the actions of people from a past who had different values, assumptions and constraints to our own.


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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

5 responses to “If the past is a foreign country, cricket’s history is an overseas tour”

  1. Brian Carpenter says :

    A superb title, Chris, and a really nice photo.

    Some interesting ideas too. Might there not be a case for arguing that everything that has happened in cricket’s past (i.e. last night’s brilliant T20 chase by Notts) is part of its history? Is there a real need to circumscribe it in any of the ways you describe? Everything that has happened in the past in any area of human activity contains lessons for the present and future. England’s dismal post-lunch collapse last Monday ought to provide some food for thought for the Test starting tomorrow, such as the recognition that if Ishant starts dropping it short with 2 or 3 men back it’s best to cut out the pull and hook, or at least make sure you hit the ball down.

    While the idea of the ‘relative point in time’ approach is seductive and interesting – one could have a great time thinking of examples to follow on from the ones you mention – if pushed I would favour the ‘historical endpoint’ approach which would, of necessity (and as you acknowledge), vary from country to country and society to society.

    I’m glad you’ve joined the ACS. I withdrew from the online forum a while back as I was fed up with reading miserable diatribes from people who thought that everything that had happened in English (and probably world) cricket since 1963 was uniformly bad (for them history would have ended in ’63 [Gillette Cup] rather than ’62). However, at least one of the main culprits is no longer with us, so perhaps I should rejoin.

    More tolerantly, I’ve been a member for over thirty years and have really valued my membership.

    • chrisps says :

      Brian, there’s a strong case for considering the immediate past as history. To my surprise (as it doesn’t do a good job of making the work of their profession distinctive), a lot of historians take that view. But is history’s purpose to provide lessons for the present and future? Perhaps it is, in the very general sense of showing that things don’t have to be the way they are now, but I think it can be a distorting narrative to describe the past in a way that informs the present.

      Here’s an example of misusing the past: On TMS I keep hearing Boycott going on about India’s batsmen being ‘no mugs’ – not like when FST bowled them out in the 1950s. His tortured effort at praising Dhoni’s team feels so disrespectful to the many fine batsmen of the intervening years.

      I’ve not quite got the measure of the ACS yet. Their interests seem to be to document the game’s past exhaustively, rather than to employ numbers to explore the sport. As an on-line forum, it seems quite genteel.



  2. Brian Carpenter says :

    For me ‘disrespectful’ just about sums Boycott up (although there is a range of pithier expressions I could use).

    While he talks a great deal of sense, based on his vast knowledge of the game, his attitude to players he doesn’t rate really grates with me. At one point during the last Test someone mentioned that Ramprakash was now England’s batting coach and Boycott responded with the cheap and predictable ‘how well did he do at Test level?’.

    You really warm to certain people who you hear on the radio. Boycott comes across as a deeply unpleasant human being.

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