The English Condition

As another summer of cricket in England begins, so little seems to have changed. The County Championship has started; club cricketers dig out the mouldering kit in the loft; the Ashes loom as the defining feature of the season. English cricketing tradition, the pastoral legacy of Hambledon, remains strong. The Test against Australia at Lord’s will be a bellwether of success. Something likely to be forgotten is the disastrous World Cup campaign. England will try to escape from failure by fleeing into nostalgia.

Two crucial figures in this mythologised past are Denis Compton and Brian Johnston. Between them, and in very different ways, they came to define the post-war era of English cricket, and their legacy still influences the present day. Tim Heald has written biographies of each, now reissued by Dean Street Press, and they give a terrific sense of the men. Compton was the golden boy, the man who made Britain feel better about itself during the gloom of post-war austerity with his feats of sporting derring-do. Johnston became the voice of cricket on the BBC, offering a light-hearted frivolity to commentary and enshrining Test Match Special as a national institution.

For two men who became pillars of the cricketing Establishment, however, their backgrounds were very different. Compton was born in North London, the son of a painter and decorator for whom sport was a route out of relative poverty. Johnston was schooled at Eton, before going up to Oxford, where he was a member of the Bullingdon Club. Compton’s talent as both a cricketer and a footballer was soon evident, and he joined Middlesex and Arsenal respectively. In some ways, his dual careers impacted on one another – in later years, his cricket was impeded by a chronic knee injury brought about by the hefty challenges a winger receives – but he achieved genuine acclaim for both. His service during the war, playing first class cricket during a posting in India, meant that he was past his best as a footballer come 1945, but his cricket ascended to a higher plane. Initial poor form contributed to a period of depression, but his thrilling performances against the touring South Africans reinvigorated both him and the cricket-watching public. In a time often remembered as drab, Compton’s vigour and thrilling strokeplay enthralled and entertained. He attracted sponsorship – including, famously, the hair product Brylcreem – and female attention. He was, in modern terms, a celebrity and a superstar.

Johnston’s fame was less striking, and came later in life, but also helped to define a sense of English cricket. After an unsatisfactory stint working in the family coffee firm in Brazil, he served in the Genadier Guards, where he was awarded the Military Cross. After the war, he found a job at the BBC after a chance encounter with a fellow Old Etonian, and made a name for himself as a raconteur and light entertainer. It was his work as a cricket commentator on both television and radio that made him a household name, and helped to create a distinct form of the art. The Test Match Special air of light banter, nicknames and cake-eating derives from “Johnners”, and his attempt to make commentary indistinguishable from a group of friends talking at the Test match. Cricket was fun, and to be treated as such.

Heald handles his material well, and has spoken to the families of his subjects, creating thorough and even-handed accounts of their lives. He has an eye for interesting details – Johnston’s crossed cricket bat tattoo, or Compton’s friendship with Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani president. Perhaps the main flaw is an Anglocentrism that is perhaps to be expected given the subjects. But being surprised at Compton rating Fazal Mahmood as one of his toughest opponents – and describing him as a “largely forgotten Pakistani medium pacer”! – suggests a narrow focus on English domestic cricket and the Ashes. Moreover, whilst Compton’s role in the D’Oliveira affair is discussed well, both men’s affection for apartheid South Africa is rather brushed over as a product of time and place. John Arlott and David Sheppard’s principled opposition shows that there was a place for principled opposition by both players and journalists.

Both these flaws run deep in the nostalgic desire for English cricketing arcadia. It would be unfair to criticise Heald too harshly for them. It is interesting to consider why Dean Street Press has chosen to rerelease these particular biographies. They are both excellent, but Compton and Johnston are historical figures for younger generations of cricket fans. Compton especially is a figure from a golden age, imagined in sepia tones. Heald does a good job of restoring perspective, but the English cricketing condition is one that looks backwards. A couple of months ago, England crashed ignominiously out of the World Cup. Unless they understand that the answers to cricket in the twenty-first century do not lie in the nineteen-fifties, they will do so again in four years’ time.

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