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Imperial Cricket

As a child I was always told to make sure, before I started to read anything, that I was sitting comfortably. It is not usually difficult advice to follow, but there are a few cricket books where, with the best will in the world, the normal rules have to be disregarded. A well known book from 1912, Imperial Cricket, is one of the trickiest.

The book is always associated with the man whose name appears on the spine, ‘Plum’ Warner’, and in a long writing career the book is regarded as his magnum opus. In truth however Warner (still then a regular for Middlesex) was editor rather than writer. A good deal of the work was done by Frederick Ashley-Cooper, one of the foremost cricket historians of his day and many of whose pieces of research remain amongst the most collectible in the literature of the game. That is not to say however that Warner was not involved in terms of sourcing the many photographs, liaising with the numerous contributors overseas and arranging the lay out of the finished product, however in the latter months of the project even much of that work had to be left in the capable hands of Ashley-Cooper, Warner being otherwise engaged with the MCC in Australia.

The reason for the care that needs to be taken is the size of the book something which, realistically, militates against it being read other than when sat at a table. The book is a substantial quarto, which means its length and breadth are around 32cm by 25cm. The real problem however is the weight. The book may ‘only’ have just over 500 pages, but the paper quality is high, the book almost six centimetres thick and, most significantly, it weighs in at around four kilograms or, to those of us who still prefer the more appropriate ‘imperial’ measures, the best part of a stone.

There are three variants to Imperial Cricket, and anyone looking to buy a copy needs to be careful about this. The content is the same in each case, but the bindings differ. First are one hundred copies bound in white vellum, signed and individually numbered. It would be interesting to have seen a brand new copy of this. More than a century on the vellum, even on the best kept copies, appears somewhat grubby.

Most copies that appear these days are from a subscribers’ limited edition of 900 copies (as illustrated). These are bound in full red moroccan leather with all edges of the text block gilt. In addition to those two editions there was also a standard edition bound in quarter leather and buckram and with just the top edge gilt. Back in 1912 when the book was published the vellum copies cost twenty five guineas, those in red morocco ten guineas, and the cloth copies six guineas. Present day values vary as well of course. The book is not common, but by the same token as a substantial luxury item it tended to be cared for and treasured. Most copies do survive and the book could not be described as by any means rare. John McKenzie’s latest catalogue has a vellum copy at £650. Dealers normally look for between £200 and £250 for one of the 900, but I am not sure they get that price very often. I have seen copies change hands on eBay for less than £100, and copies of the cloth edition (which actually seem scarcer) can sell for less than £50.

So what is in the book? It begins with a frontispiece photograph of King George V, continues with a dedication to the man it describes as the King-Emperor before Warner’s two paragraph introduction, the start of which rather sets the tone:-

Cricket is something more than a mere game.It is an institution, a part of people’s life, one might almost say a passion with some. It has got into the blood of the nation, and wherever British men and women are gathered together there the stumps will be pitched.

The list of subscribers come next, and that begins with the names of three Indian Princes, followed by two Dukes, eight Earls, two Viscounts, thirteen Lords, a Baron, sixteen Honourables, eleven Knights and another 35 men who are given their military rank. Mere mortals then make up the rest of the list, which falls some way short of the 1,000 hoped for, doubtless explaining the observation of Warner’s biographer, Gerald Howat, that the book did not make very much money. To any student of the period there are some familiar names in the list, although only one top quality cricketer, Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth. One name not present is that of WG Grace. By this time Grace was coming to the end of his life, but it is still a surprise that the man who was undoubtedly the greatest living cricketer and, therefore, a major symbol of Empire, was not in any way involved. It is not as if Grace was not a book man, as his set of Wisden is one of the most prized treasures of the game’s literature.

In the Britain of 1912 women were still a few years away from getting the vote and it is notable that there is not a single female name amongst the subscribers. Was there no interest from the fairer sex, or was it considered inappropriate for such a volume to have lady subscribers?

The most substantial chapter in the book is the first, which takes up ten per cent of its bulk and is, unsurprisingly in light of the mission statement, entitled Cricket and the Royal Family. It is written by Ashley-Cooper and is an impressive piece of research.

Of the remaining chapters one of the longer ones is a history of the game by Andrew Lang and from there follow chapters about the arts of the game; batting, bowling and fielding. These are not instructional as such and the content is in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book. The chapters on batting and fielding are by Arthur Croome, schoolmaster, writer and Gloucestershire all-rounder, and that on bowling by Bernard Bosanquet, the inventor of the googly.

There are chapters on the MCC, Surrey and cricket at Oxford and Cambridge but neither the question of cricket in the counties generally, nor Test cricket, are examined in detail. The only other teams which attract chapters of their own are two of the famous wandering clubs, I Zingari and the Free Foresters.

The cornerstone of the book however is the contributions from writers throughout the Empire on cricket in all its outposts. There are essays on the game from all of the modern Test playing countries and not unnaturally the lengthiest concerns Australia, and comes from the pen of Les Poidevin, a batsman who played for New South Wales and, whilst studying in England to become a doctor, Lancashire. Poidevin, who also played Davis Cup tennis for Australia, also contributes the chapters on New Zealand and Tasmania.

As well as those countries where the game has thrived Imperial Cricket is also concerned with the less well known corners of the cricketing world and there are chapters on the Solomon Islands, Bermuda, Egypt and West Africa before, perhaps appropriately given that it was British soldiers and sailors who generally introduced the game to wherever it is played, a look at cricket in the Army and the Navy.

As befits a high quality production Imperial Cricket is exceptionally well illustrated. There are six photogravure plates (all with tissue guards), three images in full colour and more than seventy other black and white illustrations. The book is concluded with an object lesson in what a comprehensive index looks like, one of the features that we have Ashley-Cooper to thank for.

The production standards of Imperial Cricket are so high that it is almost a book that might have got away with it if the actual content had been lacking. That that wasn’t the case however is amply demonstrated by the opinion held of the book by the acerbic Rowland Bowen, whose Cricket Quarterly carried many of the most scathing reviews of cricket books ever written. In this case however the Bowen verdict was, it should be the first book to obtain when extending one’s interest back into the past for the first time.

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