Of certain odd questions

TED CORBETT

SOMETIMES I find myself wanting to ask the oddest questions? "Sachin, did you learn anything about faults in your own batting by watching Sehwag?"

"Jardine, what was your fall-back plan if Bodyline was proscribed during the 1932-33 tour of Australia?"

"Dr. Grace, don't you think you would have been a better batsman if you had lost two or three stone, shaved off that huge beard and gone to the gym on a regular basis?"

"Sir Donald, have you ever considered how much more you might have achieved if you had had Shane Warne in your 1948 side instead of Bill Johnstone?"

"Lord MacLaurin, in view of Sri Lanka's score at Leeds in 32 overs and England's victory, will you give them both a wild card entry into the 25-over tournament next summer?"

I have been reading a whole lot recently by English journalists apparently shocked by the sudden success of Virender Sehwag. "You didn't tell us about Sehwag," one thundered; another newspaper printed a long article alongside a picture of him batting left-handed. As the lad has already made a Test hundred and, batting with Tendulkar, hammered the English attack in India this winter, you might have thought these veteran reporters would have known the name.

All the same it was good to watch the right-handed, short and compact Sehwag, only 23, mimic Tendulkar in every action, from pick-up to contact, walking out the same way pulling off his gloves.

There is a difference, of course. When Sachin walks to the wicket he is accompanied all the way by a roar as if he had just won the War on Want single-handed. It may be some time before Sehwag demands the same adulation.

In many senses Sehwag has chosen a hard path by following every minute detail of the Tendulkar technique. As a result he will always be known as Tendulkar Two however hard he tries; but imitating one's betters is the commonest fault of youthful ambition.

Remember Andrew Caddick's similarity to Richard Hadlee? What young footballer has not tried to be George Best or Pele, what cricket reporter not set his heart on emulating Neville Cardus, what sprinter would not like to be the new Carl Lewis.

For any contribution I have made to cricket journalism, I owe a huge debt to Cardus; but, so do all of us who have tried, by way of fountain pen, ball-point, pencil, typewriter and lap top, to describe the most poetical game.

Cardus reinvented himself on more than one occasion so it is difficult to know whether his book Autobiography is true in any detail. For instance, in all his writings Cardus decried his own ability with bat and ball, yet there are records of his performances in league matches that made him well known in the Manchester area. Besides, he was not chosen as cricket coach at a public school because he wrote nicely.

He even composed his own name. Only Cardus could have chosen one that was at the same time memorable and exactly right for the way he wrote.

I carried this romantic dream for 15 years and expressed it forcibly when I took my first major job on a national paper in Manchester. "That's not how we view him," an old reporter told me. "To us he was a man who left us to fight Germany in World War Two while he hid in Australia. He's not that popular in this part of the world."

It is fashionable now to knock Cardus: to point to his snobbery, his inclination to denigrate anything done by a dark chap from one of the colonies - "to uncover a fast bowler in the West Indies you have to start with his grandfather" he said in days before Ramadhin, Valentine, Gibbs and Sobers showed that to be a nonsense - and to call him old-fashioned.

Lads still learning to tie their own shoelaces journalistically-speaking mutter that "he would never have been allowed to write like that in today's newspapers" and it is true that even his alma mater The Guardian demands a sharper edge to its stories than in the days when Cardus was sure he could write as much as he fancied after each day's play.

Those with the wisdom to look further will see how acute was his observation, how quickly he reached the point and how the words would have gone into The Sun or The Daily Telegraph - and especially into The Hindu - of modern times with only a little trimming.

"All right," I hear those young voices say, "but the demand today is for quotes. No-one cares what the specialist writer says. The public wants to read what the player - or at worst the ex-player - has to say. Cardus would not have been equal to the task."

I think he would. Either he would have continued to write his thoughtful pieces as he always had - as he did in Australia where dreamy writing has never had many fans - or he would have adapted.

After all, no-one doubts Grace would have been just as great a player, Don Bradman would have scored as many runs and Wilfred Rhodes collected wickets just as often if, by some miracle, they had grown up in the year 2000. Besides, which sports editor in his right mind could resist, such stuff as this:

"He kindled ravaging fires of batsmanship, but scarcely ever burned his own fingers lighting them." (Of Bradman after his retirement).

"Whence does MacDonald draw his terrible strength and velocity? His run to the wicket is easy, so silent. He does not thunder over the ground like Gregory - like a bull at a gate. No, he runs along a sinister curve, lithe as a panther, his whole body moving like visible, dangerous music. A more beautiful action than MacDonald's was never seen on a cricket field or a more inimical." (Of the Australian fast bowler Ted MacDonald in 1928).

"Hutton took the occasion with a charming modesty. He raised his cap in acknowledgement of the honours done to him and bent his head. But what a moment for him - the moment of his life." (The Oval 1938 after Len Hutton topped Bradman's highest Test score of 334).

By 1938 Cardus had been writing about cricket for almost 20 years yet there is no sign of cynical weariness and often a freshness that makes us forget his years. Cardus did not tour with England until 1936-37 when, as the Press corps tried to catch up after the Bodyline series four years earlier, reporters flocked to Australia; instead he wrote about classical music in the winter.

His wartime in Australia was spent putting together his Autobiography in a little flat on the edge of King's Cross, Sydney. Today it is a nondescript block, and the surrounding area is more noted for its ribald night life than its appreciation of fine writing.

Yet in this building Cardus turned out his life story with all its tales of hard times in Manchester, his self-education projects and his chance to write about cricket as he recovered from an illness. Second Innings followed but his third autobiographical volume Full Score is easier to read, lighter in tone with a more down-to-earth touch.

Full Score contains more anecdotes, more of the sort of quotes our friends from the generation next tabloids believe make a story complete and particularly he told the heroic sagas of the Yorkshire and Lancashire dressing rooms.

He recounts a meeting with Wilfred Rhodes, then very old and blind. "Were you at The Oval in 1899 when George Hirst and I got the runs to beat Australia?" Rhodes asks. Cardus confesses he was still at school. "You see," said Rhodes, "I remember pushing a ball from Hughie Trumble when we only wanted a few to win. And I cannot remember if it went for two or four. I thought you might remember."

If you had read Cardus describe that stroke you would have remembered where the ball went and what sort of man played the shot. Would you not?

Now is that an odd question or not?