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The Veteran Cricketer


My old cricketer was seized, he says, some score of years ago now, by
sciatica, clutched indeed about the loins thereby, and forcibly
withdrawn from the practice of the art; since when a certain
predisposition to a corpulent habit has lacked its natural check of
exercise, and a broadness almost Dutch has won upon him. Were it not for
this, which renders his contours and his receding aspect unseemly, he
would be indeed a venerable-looking person, having a profile worthy of a
patriarch, tinged though it may be with an unpatriarchal jollity, and a
close curly beard like that of King David. He lives by himself in a
small cottage outside the village--hating women with an unaccountable
detestation--and apparently earns a precarious livelihood, and certainly
the sincere aversion of the country side, by umpiring in matches, and
playing whist and "Nap" with such as will not be so discreet and
economical as to bow before his superior merit.

His neighbours do not like him, because he will not take their cricket
or their whist seriously, because he will persist in offering counsel
and the stimulus of his gift of satire. All whist than his he avers is
"Bumble-puppy." His umpiring is pedagogic in tone; he fails to see the
contest in the game. To him, who has heard his thousands roar as the
bails of the best of All England went spinning, these village matches
are mere puerile exercises to be corrected. His corrections, too, are
Olympian, done, as it were, in red ink, vivid, and without respect of
persons. Particularly he gibes. He never uses vulgar bad language
himself, but has a singular power of engendering it in others. He has a
word "gaby," which he will sometimes enlarge to "stuppid gaby," the
which, flung neatly into a man who has just missed a catch, will fill
the same with a whirl of furious curses difficult to restrain. And if
perchance one should escape, my ancient cricketer will be as startled as
Cadmus at the crop he has sown. And not only startled but pained at
human wickedness and the follies of a new generation. "Why can't you
play without swearing, Muster Gibbs?" he will say, catching the
whispered hope twenty yards away, and proclaiming it to a censorious
world. And so Gibbs, our grocer and draper, and one made much of by the
vicar, is shamed before the whole parish, and damned even as he desired.

To our vicar, a well-meaning, earnest, and extremely nervous man, he
displays a methodical antagonism. Our vicar is the worst of all possible
rural vicars--unripe, a glaring modern, no classical scholar, no lover
of nature, offensively young and yet not youthful, an indecent
politician. He was meant to labour amid Urban Myriads, to deal with
Social Evils, Home Rule, the Woman Question, and the Reunion of
Christendom, attend Conferences and go with the _Weltgeist_--damn
him!--wherever the _Weltgeist_ is going. He presents you jerkily--a tall
lean man of ascetic visage and ample garments, a soul clothed not so
much in a fleshy body as in black flaps that ever trail behind its
energy. Where they made him Heaven knows. No university owns him. It may
be he is a renegade Dissenting minister, neither good Church nor
wholesome Nonconformity. Him my cricketer regards with malignant
respect. Respect he shows by a punctilious touching of his hat brim,
directed to the sacred office; all the rest is malignity, and aimed at
the man that fills it. They come into contact on the cricket-field, and
on the committee of our reading-room. For our vicar, in spite of a
tendency to myopia, conceives it his duty to encourage cricket by his
participation. _Duty_--to encourage cricket! So figure the scene to
yourself. The sunlit green, and a match in progress,--the ball has just
snipped a stump askew,--my ancient, leaning on a stout cabbage stick,
and with the light overcoat that is sacred to umpires upon his arm.

"_Out_, Billy Durgan," says he, and adds, _ex cathedrÔ_, "and one you
ought to ha' hit for four."

Then appears our vicar in semi-canonicals, worn "to keep up his
position," or some such folly, nervous about the adjustment of his hat
and his eyeglasses. He approaches the pitch, smiling the while to show
his purely genial import and to anticipate and explain any amateurish
touches. He reaches the wicket and poses himself, as the convenient book
he has studied directs. "You'll be caught, Muster Shackleforth, if you
keep your shoulder up like that," says the umpire. "Ya-a-ps! that's
worse!"--forgetting himself in his zeal for attitude. And then a voice
cries "Play!"

The vicar swipes wildly, cuts the ball for two, and returns to his
wicket breathless but triumphant. Next comes a bye, and then over. The
misguided cleric, ever pursuing a theory of foolish condescension to his
betters at the game, and to show there is no offence at the "Yaaps,"
takes the opportunity, although panting, of asking my ancient if his
chicks--late threatened with staggers--are doing well. What would he
think if my cricketer retaliated by asking, in the pause before the
sermon, how the vicarage pony took his last bolus? The two men do not
understand one another. My cricketer waves the hens aside, and revenges
himself, touching his hat at intervals, by some offensively obvious
remarks--as to a mere beginner--about playing with a straight bat. And
the field sniggers none too furtively. I sympathise with his malice.
Cricket is an altogether too sacred thing to him to be tampered with on
merely religious grounds. However, our vicar gets himself caught at the
first opportunity, and so being removed from my veteran's immediate
environment, to their common satisfaction, the due ritual of the great
game is resumed.

My ancient cricketer abounds in reminiscence of the glorious days that
have gone for ever. He can still recall the last echoes of the
"throwing" controversy that agitated Nyren, when over-arm bowling began,
and though he never played himself in a beaver hat, he can, he says,
recollect seeing matches so played. In those days everyone wore tall
hats--the policeman, the milkman, workmen of all sorts. Some people I
fancy must have bathed in them and gone to bed wearing them. He recalls
the Titans of that and the previous age, and particularly delights in
the legend of Noah Mann, who held it a light thing to walk twenty miles
from Northchapel to Hambledon to practise every Tuesday afternoon, and
wander back after dark. He himself as a stripling would run a matter of
four miles, after a day's work in the garden where he was employed, to
attend an hour's practice over the downs before the twilight made the
balls invisible. And afterwards came Teutonic revelry or wanderings
under the summer starlight, as the mood might take him. For there was a
vein of silent poetry in the youth of this man.

He hates your modern billiard-table pitch, and a batting of dexterous
snickery. He likes "character" in a game, gigantic hitting forward,
bowler-planned leg catches, a cunning obliquity in a wicket that would
send the balls mysteriously askew. But dramatic breaks are now a thing
unknown in trade cricket. One legend of his I doubt; he avers that once
at Brighton, in a match between Surrey and Sussex, he saw seven wickets
bowled by some such aid in two successive overs. I have never been able
to verify this. I believe that, as a matter of fact, the thing has never
occurred, but he tells it often in a fine crescendo of surprise, and the
refrain, "Out HE came." His first beginning is a cheerful
anecdote of a crew of "young gentlemen" from Cambridge staying at the
big house, and a challenge to the rustic talent of "me and Billy Hall,"
who "played a bit at that time," "of me and Billy Hall" winning the
pitch and going in first, of a memorable if uncivil stand at the wickets
through a long hot afternoon, and a number of young gentlemen from
Cambridge painfully discovering local talent by exhaustive fielding in
the park, a duty they honourably discharged.

I am fond of my old cricketer, in spite of a certain mendacious and
malign element in him. His yarns of gallant stands and unexpected turns
of fortune, of memorable hits and eccentric umpiring, albeit tending
sometimes incredibly to his glory, are full of the flavour of days well
spent, of bright mornings of play, sunlit sprawlings beside the score
tent, warmth, the flavour of bitten grass stems, and the odour of
crushed turf. One seems to hear the clapping hands of village ancients,
and their ululations of delight. One thinks of stone jars with cool
drink swishing therein, of shouting victories and memorable defeats, of
eleven men in a drag, and tuneful and altogether glorious home-comings
by the light of the moon. His were the Olympian days of the sport, when
noble squires were its patrons, and every village a home and nursery of
stalwart cricketers, before the epoch of special trains, gate-money,
star elevens, and the tumultuous gathering of idle cads to jabber at a
game they cannot play.

H.G. Wells