Douglas Jardine – Spartan Cricketer

Published: 1984
Pages: 206
Author: Douglas, Christopher
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Rating: 4.5 stars

Douglas Jardine - Spartan Cricketer

Today it is probably fair to say that, amongst those who have recently discovered an interest in cricket, Douglas Jardine is one of the first pre war players whose name they will come to recognise. This was, however, far from always the case. For years after the successful quest for the Ashes that Jardine led in 1932/33 the cricketing establishment chose to marginalise him and his achievements so much so that while his name was not expunged from the record books, it was actually very difficult to find out very much about him.

It was the 50th anniversary of the 1932/33 tour that started to change the situation. For various reasons there was a rush of renewed interest in the series, several new books and, following the success of his Academy Award winning film about the 1924 Olympic sprinter Harold Abrahams, Chariots of Fire, producer David Puttnam was planning to bring the story of the tour to the big screen.

In the end Puttnam’s project did not see the light of day, and we had to put up with a rather unsatisfactory, but nonetheless entertaining television dramatisation from Australia. The oxygen of publicity breathed new life into Jardine’s reputation. Two generations on, those looking at the events of 1932/33 for the first time saw it in a very simple light. Jardine took a team to Australia to retrieve the Ashes that had been unceremoniously taken by Australia in 1930, due in large part to the remarkable talents of the mighty Bradman. Jardine conceived a plan, entirely within the laws of the game, that enabled his team to record a convincing 4-1 victory over an Australian team that, 80 years on, still has a legitimate claim to being the best batting side ever assembled.

Most of us coming to the subject for the first time had watched Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson terrorising English batsmen less than a decade earlier. We were currently watching a battery of West Indian fast bowlers do the same. In simple terms the furore about the intimidatory nature of the leg theory bowling sent down by Larwood and Voce was lost on us. The manner in which the MCC then treated Jardine on his return was clearly a betrayal of a man who deserved infinitely better. Also important were the events of the Old Trafford Test against the West Indies in 1933 when fast leg theory bowling was hurled down at the England batsmen. Neither the players nor the administrators, with one notable exception, liked it one bit. Inevitably Jardine was the exception. He walked down to the bowler’s half of the pitch, pointedly tapped his bat, and proceeded to get behind everything and score a famous century.

Christopher Douglas, who left school at 15, was in his early twenties when he wrote this biography of Jardine, the first and so far only man to take on the task. He is and was an actor and writer in various genres and his cricketing output has been far from prodigous – certainly he has never attempted a similar project in the quarter of a century since he wrote Douglas Jardine – Spartan Cricketer. Whether it is because of that background or in spite of it that his book is as compelling as it is I do not know but I would like to think it is the former. One great quality that Douglas’ work has is that having meticulously researched the story he does allow it to tell itself without spoiling the narrative by burdening it with his own opinions. The reader does rather get the impression that Douglas admires his subject, but he succeeds in remaining objective and dispassionate throughout, and it was not until recently when he made his contribution to the “My Favourite Cricketer” feature in The Wisden Cricketer that his great admiration for Jardine became clear.

Some biographies fill in gaps in our knowledge of people, places and events. In this case, the man himself having never written anything autobiographical, it is more of a yawning chasm. Jardine’s childhood, school and university days, as well as his cricket career, are dealt with as thoroughly as I can imagine it is possible to do from a distance of almost a century. Douglas does not however answer everything about Jardine, and there is certainly scope for his life, and particulary his activities after he left the game, being the subject of further research. Jardine never really settled after cricket and tried a variety of occupations, some with greater success than others, but none in which he came remotely close to matching his preeminence on the cricket field. Most tantalising of all is the legal career that he left in the late 1920s shortly after qualifying as a solicitor. Surely a man with Jardine’s eye for detail, his thoroughness, his implacability and his dogged determination would have made a most fearsome opponent as a litigator? Douglas offers up the observation that Jardine appears to have had no burning ambitions outside the game of cricket and perhaps the answer is just that, but even if ultimately it is the closing chapters of this outstanding book raise as many questions as they answer.

Jardine is now, thanks in no small part to Douglas’ writing, rightly recognised as a top class batsman, and quite possibly the greatest captain English cricket has had. In the 21st century even Australians seem to have, generally, developed a respect if not a liking for the “Iron Duke”. Naturally Douglas explores the mutual antipathy that existed there but it is difficult to come up with a conclusion other than that Jardine and Australia simply got off on the wrong foot in 1928/29 and that, in keeping with their respective characters, neither could thereafter be bothered to make any real effort to try and understand the other. That Jardine was, despite his background, essentially egalitarian in his outlook, is clear from the tributes paid to him by those who played under him. After Jardine’s early death at the age of 57 in 1958 the former Yorkshire professional Bill Bowes, about as distant in upbringing as you could find from Jardine, summed him up as “… a great fighter, a grand friend and an unforgiving enemy”.

Douglas Jardine – Spartan Cricketer was first published by Allen and Unwin in 1984. A revised and updated edition was released by Methuen in 2002, although the differences are not substantial. The image accompanying this review is of the latter edition. The jacket of the first edition utilises the same oil painting as its centrepiece, but is laid out differently. The book is highly recommended.

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