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Percy Cross Standing

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It was back in the late 1980s that I bought my first vintage cricket book. I saw it, or more accurately them, in a shop in Preston. The two volumes of Cricket of To-day were in wonderful condition and, mesmerised by the contents, I felt I had no alternative but to make the purchase. I realise now that I paid far too much for what are not rare books, but we live and learn, and the books were and remain things of great beauty. It might not have been such a hard lesson had my copy been one that was accompanied by a 24 page insert dealing with the 1903 and 1904 English seasons and the tour of Australia that winter, but sadly it is not.

So what is it that I bought? I now know that this was a publication that originally appeared in twelve fortnightly instalments in 1900 before being bound in its attractive green decorated boards. The first volume is prefaced by some short articles by Robert Abel, Wilfred Rhodes, Digby Jephson and ‘Plum’ Warner before the book proper begins. The second volume has two introductory articles, by Ranji on batting, and England and Notts skipper Arthur Jones.

The bulk of both books is made up by a total of forty chapters on a wide variety of cricket subjects written by Percy Cross Standing. The books are lavishly illustrated in back and white with a number of colour plates as well. Occasionally you see copies in what are, to my mind anyway, less attractive fawn boards with a red design on them. I learned only recently that was a second edition issued by a different publisher a couple of years later. It is a true new edition in that the content has been updated, but despite its comparative rarity I have not noticed any difference in value. 

At the time I bought Cricket of To-day it never occurred to me to try and find out anything about Standing. There was no sort of blurb on the book and it wasn’t until recently, having acquired copies of Standing’s biographies of Ranji and Stanley Jackson, that I decided to try and find out more about him, a task that proved to be trickier than I expected. That I have got anywhere is thanks in the main to the late Jim Coldham, and an article he contributed to the Journal of the Cricket Society in 1986. 

Standing was born in 1871 in Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire. He was privately educated, although Coldham gives no further detail of his youth or about his parents. I can say however that Standing’s father was a lawyer, a solicitor’s managing clerk. In those days in solicitors’ firms it was the managing clerks who did all the work, whilst the solicitors made all the money. An intelligent man Standing doubtless noted the injustice in that arrangement.

Coldham goes on to say that Standing was introduced to journalism by Lord Russell of Liverpool, a newspaperman himself and, for a time, a Liberal MP. It might be assumed, from the use of the double barrelled surname and the obvious affection for Ranji, the Indian Prince, and for future Tory minister Jackson that Standing was cut from similar cloth. Ultimately he may have moved in that direction but certainly as an 18 year old he had acted as assistant editor of the Labour Elector during the London Dock Strike of 1889, a landmark dispute in the development of Trade Unionism and the Labour movement.

At 18 Standing was also a published author, Battlefields of Hertfordshire also appearing in 1889. His passion for cricket then came to the fore a year later when he became, for two years, assistant editor at Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game. From there he moved on to the Richmond Athletic Union, where he was secretary, before going back to journalism when he became the London correspondent of the Manchester Evening Mail.

As his first book had indicated matters of military history were of great interest to Standing. He watched some of it unfold in 1893 when he travelled to Thailand to witness the Franco-Siamese war, during which time he worked for the Bangkok Times. Other historical subjects that Standing published books on included the Boxer Rising that took place in China between 1899 and 1901, Napoleon’s Empire Makers and Guerrilla Leaders of the World from Charette to De Wet.

The arts were another area of interest to Standing. He wrote two books on the subject of the (then) contemporary Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and one on Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Dutch painter. In his last years he was the editor of the Contemporary Review, a left leading journal that as well as politics covered the arts, history and religion. Today the Contemporary Review is no more, but it did survive into the twenty first century, until 2013.

All told there were only seven cricket books from Standing. I have already mentioned the two biographies, and the two volumes of Cricket To-Day. The first had been a collection of reports and scorecards from the series of matches between the Gentlemen and the Players and appeared in 1893. Then there was The Cricketer’s Birthday Book, one for autograph collectors. The Jackson biography appeared in 1906 and it would be twenty years before the seventh and last appeared, Anglo-Australian Cricket, 1862-1926, which is a well-written history of the game’s greatest contest.

Despite the fact that he remained a prolific writer until the end of his life Standing’s passing, at the age of just 60 in 1931 was not marked by any fanfare and there was no mention of him in the cricketing press or in Wisden. He remains largely forgotten but, despite his limited cricketing output four of his books remain important ones in the history of the game’s literature. The two volumes of Cricket To-day resonate simply because they are very good. As for the books on Ranji and Jackson their significance lies in the fact that, after Methven Brownlee’s biography of WG Grace, they were only the second and third biographies of major cricketers to appear and therefore helped establish what has subsequently become an important genre of cricket writing.

The first point to be made is that Ranjitsinhji: Prince of Cricket is undoubtedly a hagiography. At the time of its publication in 1903 Standing clearly knew Ranji well, and early in the book he reproduces the handwritten notes Ranji provided for his contribution to Cricket To-day. Later on Standing writes that he is, without exception, one of the least jealous and most unselfish persons I have ever known and makes reference to his unconquerable modesty, indomnitable self-effacement, and well nigh incredible self-control.

In terms of the manner in which it is written the book takes, like most biographies since, a chronological approach. There is an initial chapter on Ranji’s life in India before he came to England followed by a season by season look at his then still unfinished cricketing career. Standing’s narrative is, as far as it goes, a decent read, but he does no more than scratch the surface. We now know, thanks to Alan Ross, Simon Wilde and other subsequent biographers that there is much more to Ranji’s story than Standing was aware of, and more particularly that he was far from the perfect gentleman that Standing enthused about.

The most interesting chapter in the book, for this reader anyway, was that on Ranji’s illness over the winter of 1896/97, and the genesis of his famous Jubilee Book of Cricket. Also of interest is the account of a tour a side led by Ranji made of North America in 1899/1900 but, those chapters apart, it is fairly standard stuff. Outside of cricket there is not a great deal, and much of what there is concerns Ranji’s passion for shooting, a subject returned to time and again.

Standing was clearly an intelligent man and, having spent time in war zones in far off lands, a man of the world. Did he really buy into the angelic portrait he paints of Ranji? My suspicion is that he probably didn’t. Standing’s writing output clearly marks him out as a grafter, and a first book on the subject of Ranji was bound to sell well, and the Indian Prince’s continuing friendship was always going to be useful. In short my expectation is that without any hard evidence to the contrary Standing decided to tell the side of story that the public and his subject wanted to read.

Sir Stanley Jackson had his failings as well, and given that he went on to be a junior minister in Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative administration in 1922 it seems unlikely that Standing was an acolyte. But Jackson and Ranji were friends and so it is easy to see why Jackson looked a likely subject for Standing.

The way in which The Hon. F.S. Jackson is written is certainly reminiscent of Standing’s earlier book, although it is somewhat shorter. The only real surprise is that, published in 1906, Standing devotes so little space, just eleven pages, to the events of 1905, Jackson’s last season, when he led England to a famous victory over Australia and in doing so topped both the batting and bowling averages.

After writing those two biographies in the space of three years that was to be it for cricket as far as Standing was concerned for twenty years. Perhaps sales were disappointing, or perhaps a man as versatile as Standing simply found that paymasters other than cricketing ones paid more? The man who might have known the answer was Irving Rosenwater who, in a letter to The Cricketer in 1975 indicated that he had accumulated sufficient research on Standing to enable him to write a short biography. It is a great shame that the project never saw the light of day.

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