Neville Cardus on Woolley

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Uday Rajan

Jan 10, 1994, 4:58:27 AM1/10/94
This is a re-post of Cardus' essay on Woolley, first posted about a year
ago, with apologies to Sadiq for the delay.
FRANK WOOLLEY, by Neville Cardus
(from "Good Days", 1934)
During the quarter of a century that is Woolley's career so
far, the game has gone through many changes. Bowling has had its
fashions. Fast break-backs; slow and medium spin, now from the
off, now from the leg; swerve and googly; this theory and the
other---Woolley has had acquaintance with the lot of them. And
while other batsmen have compromised some virtue of their style
so that they might do the proper and expedient thing, Woolley
has gone his ways undisturbed, as though unaware of the
ambuscades about him. Other and more suspicious men have looked
ahead. `Ah!' they have told themselves, `here are gins and
snares of a strange new invention. here are googlies and swerves.
I must borrow the latest specifics. Fatal to trust to the ancient
counters. The straight bat, the clean drive---why, these would
lead me to disaster were I to use them to stop the modern
bowling. I must hold the bat down, watch the ball all the way,
keep my legs in front. Yes, I must be modern in the presence
of modern bowling.'
Since 1919, few batsmen have dared to drive a cricket ball
hard and straight; fewer still have dared to cut past point. They
have, most of them, got back on their wickets, watched the spin
and the swerve to the last fraction of a second. The delayed
stroke, supposedly safe, is bound to be cribbed and confined,
unfree and unbeautiful. Even Hobbs has suffered a change in his
play; his bat no longer moves where the master would have it go;
it has for years now been weighted by circumspection, a doubting,
empirical bat. Woolley on the eve of his forty-seventh birthday
made runs as felicitously as he made them for us nearly thirty
years ago. Never has he compelled a crowd to ask whether cricket
is as good as it used to be; never has he made the pavilion clock
go round with slow, tedious fingers. No other cricketer living
has served the meadow game as happily and faithfully as Woolley
has done, summer after summer. No other living cricketer has
moved cricket crowds to the happiness which has been felt
whenever and wherever Woolley has batted, north, south, east,
or west, green and pleasant Mote Park or grim and sulphurous
Bramall Lane.
Cricket belongs entirely to summer every time that Woolley
bats an innings. His cricket is compounded of soft airs and
fresh flavours. The bloom of the year is on it, making for
sweetness. And the very brevity of summer is in it too, making
for loveliness. Woolley, so the statisticians tell us, often
plays a long innings. But Time's a cheat, as the old song
sings. Fleeter he seems in his stay than in his flight. The
brevity in Woolley's batting is a thing of pulse or spirit,
not to be checked by clocks, but only to be apprehended by
imagination. He is always about to lose his wicket; his
runs are thin-spun. His bat is charmed, and most of us, being
reasonable, do not believe in charms. There is a miracle
happening on every cricket field when Woolley stays in two or
three hours; an innings by him is almost too unsubstantial for
this world. His cricket has no bastions; it is poised
precariously---at any rate, that is how the rational mind
perceives it. But, for that matter, all the loveliness of the
world seems no more lasting than the dew on the grass, seems
no more than the perfume and suppliance of a minute. Yet the
miracle of renewal goes on, and all the east winds in the
world may blow in vain. So with Woolley's cricket; the lease
of it is in the hands of the special Providence which looks
after things that do not look after themselves.
His batsmanship, like all fine art, can be enjoyed by
everybody, because it is fresh and natural, and, at bottom,
as simple as it is modest. Other cricketers need
sophistication to praise them. Their point of view must be
understood. The state of the game, or the wicket, has to be
looked into. `I simply must play so-and-so,'`Why, look at
the bowling!---you simply cannot play a long-lengthed hit
against that kind of spin.'`The pitch is getting drier; the
ball's turning.' We have to attend to these esoteric points
before we can get to the quality of the latest innings by
Bloggs of Blankshire---one hundred and six in four hours and
a quarter, without a chance, without a risk. No child,
knowing nothing of cricket but bat and ball, could understand the
game as Bloggs plays it. But innocence itself will open eyes of
understanding when they look upon an innings by Woolley. Here,
indeed, is true, unspoiled cricket; bat and ball, indeed, and
little else, save the touch of an artist---a cricketer who is as
much a weaverof beauty's spells as any Kreisler who ever lived.
The score-board does not get anywhere near the secret of
Woolley. It can tell us only about Bloggs; for him runs and
results are the one justification. To add up the runs made by
Woolley---why, it is as though you were to add up the crochets
and quavers written by Mozart. An innings by Woolley begins from
the raw material of cricket, and goes far beyond. We remember it
flong after we have forgotten the competitive occasion which
prompted the making of it; it remains in the mind; an evocative
memory which stirs in us a sense of a bygone day's poise and
fragrance, of a mood and a delectable shape seen quickly, but for
good and all. Some of Woolley's innings stay with us until they
become like poetry which can be told over again and again; we see
the shapeliness of his cricket with our minds and we feel its
beauty with our hearts. I can think of cricket by Woolley which
has inexplicably found me murmuring to myself (that I might get
the best out of it)
Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping
Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star.
I admit, O reader, that an innings by Woolley has nothing to
do with owls and dusk and starlight. I am trying to describe an
experience of the fancy; I am talking of cadences, of dying falls
common to all the beauty of the world. My argument, in a word, is
concerned not with Wolley the Kent cricketer, but that essence of
his batsmanship which will live on, after his cricket is done
with, after his runs and averages have been totted up and found
to be much the same as those of many other players. He has made
music for cricket in all places---muted music, for never is
Woolley's cricket assertive, strident. He is the soul of
courtesy, of porportion, as he drives his boundaries. He will hit
a bowler for four fours in an over and not give him reason to
feel bruised or affronted. It is all done so quietly, so
modestly. The game's hard combativenss is put out of sight, out
of all one's senses, when Woolley bats. Even the bowlers may
well be deceived, and think that they are not Woolley's
adversaries at all, but, at his own sweet pleasure, his
fellows-in-bliss, glad followers of him along an enchanted way.
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