BBC Radio 7, 28 June - 2 July 2010
"Cricket is man's greatest gift to civilization." This was a question I was asked many years ago while completing a General Studies exam at school. I relished the question, and talked at length about the capacity of the game to draw people of different races and social classes together in a shared activity that for the most part valued ideals such as sportpersonship and fair play.
These were the main themes running through ex-Prime Minister Sir John Major's history of cricket, read in this adaptation by the author himself. He began by tracing the game's origins in Tudor and early Stuart Britain, and then continued on through the eighteenth centuthe southern countierwsry, focusing on how the game at that time depended on the interest of wealthy patrons who set aside part of their vast estates for the creation of cricket fields. Major looked in detail at the evolution of the game in the nineteenth century; how the southern counties such as Kent dominated the early forms of the game, and were gradually superseded as the nineteenth century progressed by western counties like Gloucestershire, and northern strongholds of cricket such as Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Major told the story of W. G. Grace with particular relish; how he bestrode the game like a Victorian colossus, in full knowledge that people paid good money to see him play. If the rules had to be bent to ensure his continued occupation of the crease (and thereby give his public value for money), then no one would dare to stand in his way. I read yesterday that the Indian cricketer M. S. Dhoni has just signed a deal guaranteeing him millions of dollars per annum in sponsorship and other deals; despite his undoubted talents, he could never rival Grace in terms of sheer earning power. Like most superstars, Grace probably went on too long playing cricket until he was well past fifty. He did not know the value of retiring early, like Bradman, for instance, who gave up at forty with a test average of just under 100. Ill-health dogged his later life, and he died comparatively young in 1915. However Major argued that this event caused many Britons to set aside their preoccupation with beating the Germans and mourn his passing.
Major also looked at the growth and development of cricket elsewhere; this he believed had a lot to do with sustaining Britain's colonial interests. If the Indians, Australians and West Indians could learn to love cricket, perhaps their attention might be diverted away from protesting about their economic and social hardships. Events were to prove the British wrong, as the Australians in particular came to regard the notion of beating the Old Country as a victory against colonialism.
Major's story ended in the early twentieth century with the onset of Bradman, Constantine, Hutton, Larwood, Hobbs and other giants of the inter-war years. By then, he argued, cricket had become established as part of the national psyche in several countries, helping to train young men to play competitively yet fairly. To this day that spirit prevails, even though the game has changed immeasurably over the past two decades or so.
Only a Game told a familiar tale, but nonetheless had the virtue of sincerity - something that clearly emerged through Major's reading. It really did seem as if cricket had a therapeutic function for him - particularly during his time as Prime Minister, when Parliamentary affairs threatened to overwhelm him. A spell at the Brit Oval watching Surrey helped him recharge his batteries and prepare him for more work back at No. 10. When he left Downing Street in 1997, Major's first move was to return to the Brit Oval for a day's cricket-watching; now he could enjoy the game he loved in peace, unfettered by the responsibilities of government. If cricket can continue to fulfill that function, then it certainly is a game worth preserving.