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“The Complete Cricketer”

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Employment as a coach once his playing days are over has always been the likely destiny of a professional cricketer. One such was Albert Knight of Leicestershire. Knight joined the playing staff of the county of his birth in 1895, by which time he was 22. He left the staff in 1912 and became the cricket professional at Highgate School in North London where he worked for many years. Later on he moved to Belvedere College in Dublin where he contributed much to Irish cricket. On retirement he returned to London and was 73 when he died in 1946. His final years cannot have been the happiest of his life, his wife having died in 1940, and his only son a year later.

As a cricketer Knight was a right handed batsman. AA Thomson described him thus; his batting was unencumbered by frills, but strong and solid, attuned to the difficulties of the situation. With Leicestershire being one of the weaker counties throughout his career his ‘situation’ was generally a challenging one. His strengths were on the off side of the wicket which is where he scored the majority of his runs. He was much valued in his home county, Brian Chapman in a piece in the 1964 edition of Wisden describing him as; a boyhood hero, of the flashing square drive, the punitive throw-in and the unforgettably blue eyes, adding that he seemed somehow remote from other men, yet one of the originals of the game. One of a number of foibles was to, frequently and genuinely, forget the christian names of his teammates.

Knight was also a strict methodist and, prone to nerves before going out to bat, would often pray. That habit was, unsurprisingly, wont to cause some some storytelling amongst his fellow cricketers, and on one occasion the amateur fat bowler from Lancashire, Walter Brearley, is said to have called on the MCC to outlaw praying at the wicket as an unfair practice.

There was no spectacular start for Knight. It was to be his third season before he recorded a century, and his fifth before he scored 1,000 for a season. He repeated that for the next four summers before, in 1903, raising his game considerably and totalling 1,834 for the season at 45.85. Selected to represent the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s he took the opportunity to score a century, an innings which doubtless went a long way towards earning him n

a call to join the party that travelled to Australia under ‘Plum’ Warner for the 1903/04 Ashes series.

England won that series 3-2, although victory was guaranteed after the fourth Test. For Knight it was not a successful trip. He appeared in three Tests and managed five single figure scores in his six innings including a pair in the dead rubber at the end. His one highlight, and it was an innings that tipped that crucial fourth Test in England’s favour, was his unbeaten 70 in the first innings. Without it England would surely have lost, their eventual total with his contribution after winning the toss and choosing to bat being a modest 249.

On his return to England Knight still managed to average a tic over 40 in 1904, but he never touched the heights of 1903 again and did not add to his three caps. In 1912 he had a strange final season. At Bramall Lane he made 147 against a Yorkshire attack that comprised George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes, Schofield Haigh, Alonzo Drake and Major Booth, yet the rest of the summer brought him just 677 runs at 17.82. He decided enough was enough, and accepted the offer of the coaching job at Highgate.

There was one other string to Knight’s bow however, and that is the reason why he gets a post in A Bibliophile’s Blog. Knight wrote a book about the game in 1906. Published by Methuen the book’s title is The Complete Cricketer. In its obituary of Knight Wisden described the book as grandiose in style, containing much startling metaphor and in 1999 in his seminal A Social History of English Cricket Derek Birley described it as a masterpiece of its kind, stuffed full of learned observations in weighty prose.

And what of contemporary opinion? Whoever reviewed the book for Cricket – A Weekly Record of the Game began the review with; the literature of the game is distinctly the richer by the publication of this most fascinating and interesting volume, which will probably become a classic. ‘Plum’ Warner reviewed the book in the Westminster Gazette, and expressed the view that The Complete Cricketer is the best book that I have read on our national game, and its many and complicated problems.

The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News waxed lyrical in similar vein, stating that of books that profess to survey the summer game in all its aspects, it is the best that has ever been written. As for the Birmingham Daily Gazette that pronounced Knight’s debut volume a literary monument which, perhaps, more than any other so far produced will stand for future generations as fully representative of the great English pastime of the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.

Given such a positive reaction why did Knight never write another book? and why didn’t he make a living from his writing rather than by coaching? The question also arises as to why The Complete Cricketer does not, as predicted, rank as one of the classic texts of the game?

I have not been able to find out very much about Knight’s background, but his father was employed in the textile industry as a framework knitter, so his was a working class upbringing. I know not at what age he left school, but in the 1891 census, at 18, he is described as a carpenter, and a decade later, although he has added his status as a professional cricketer, he is still also described as a joiner. After that he did start writing, but clearly only a freelance basis, clearly indicating that however lofty a writer’s reputation might be that a cricket professional at a public school was a rather more secure way of earning a living after leaving the county game.

It would seem that Knight’s education was secured through his own efforts. An insight is given in the Nottingham Evening Post in 1905 when, in an article on Knight’s benefit match, the writer says of Knight he is a cricket student, and in recent times one able to write on it in graceful English; a charming companion, and something of a natural philosopher. He would rather discuss the old Greek poets and ancient theology than such things as cricket tables and records. Knight’s writing is littered with references from literary classics, mainly ancient but some modern as well.

When the Athletic News reviewed The Complete Cricketer in 1906 its reviewer described Knight as; self educated, he writes with poetic fancy, with Tyrtaean fire, and with a forcible lucidity ……. Dame Nature has endowed him with a happy expressive eloquence and the eminence to which he has climbed as a thoughtful and graceful writer is a tribute to his powers of observation and industry.

So what is this style of writing that Wisden’s obituarist and others commented on? It has to be said that the Knight style is unique. In The Complete Cricketer he wrote of the great Australian batsman; in Victor Trumper we have seen the very poetry and heard the deep and wonderful music of batsmanship. Not the structures of a great mentality, not the argument of logic, but a sweet and simple strain of beauty, the gift of the Gods alone.

Later on in the book he looks at some pressing issues in the game, one of which was the draconian qualification rules which, in a wholly arbitrary way, worked to restrain the ability of professional cricketers to play for county clubs. As a paid player himself Knight was obviously opposed to these, beginning his argument with; we do not confine the operations of our great native surgeon to a purely local anatomy, nor the spiritual ministrations of our vicar exclusively to his parish, nor the wonderful voice of our budding Patti to the concerts of the neighbourhood.

I could go on, but for the sake of brevity will not include too many quotes, so will move on to my remaining question, as to why The Complete Cricketer is a forgotten book today.The only reason I can think of is that over the years it has been pigeon holed as an instructional book, always the cinderella genre of the world of cricket literature. In support of that contention I place in evidence two exhibits – first is CJ Britton’s little 1929 treatise, Cricket Books – The Hundred Best, which mentions The Complete Cricketer right at the end in a short list of titles under the heading ‘Technique’. Now not too many read Britton’s book today, but the mighty tome that is Padwick repeats that categorisation so that anyone new to the literature of the game will, understandably, assume they can safely pass Knight’s book by.

Of course Padwick and Britton both knew what they were writing about, and pages 43-194 of The Complete Cricketer do comprise chapters entitled Batting, Bowling, Fielding and Captaincy, but there is a great deal more to the book than that and those chapters themselves go well beyond the remit of the purely technical instruction that generally represent the content of such books.

As to what else is present the first 43 pages contain a history of the game. Having acknowledged the assistance of the leading historian of the day, FS Ashley-Cooper, this is certainly authoritative even if it broke little new ground.

The chapter on ‘Captaincy’ is followed by one on ‘Umpiring’, not a subject that had been dealt with in very many books at that time. Knight then moves on to a 29 page chapter on playing cricket in Australia. It is clearly inspired by his experience as a member of Warner’s team, although it is anything but a conventional account of the tour.

Knight moves on to dwell for 37 pages on the subject of ‘Players of the Past and Present’ made all the more interesting by virtue of his having played with or against many of those to whom he makes reference. Perhaps the most impressive chapter is however the final one, the content of which I have already made reference to. ‘Modern Cricket and its Problems’ looks at the qualification rules, the amateur/professional divide as well as the structure of the county game and how it was run in Knight’s time. Over 46 pages he also discusses subjects as diverse as the leg before wicket law, illegal bowling, artificial wickets, fielding standards and the problem of slow play.

Page 328 is not quite the end however, as there are then a couple of appendices. The first and less interesting is the laws of the game. The second however is fascinating, being a glossary of cricketing terms. It is certainly comprehensive and most of the words defined over 16 pages are familiar, but Didapper, Fub, Incommode, Nips, Tice and Trealer were new ones on me.

And even that is not quite the end as there is then as comprehensive an index as I have ever seen in a cricket book and, finally, as was not unusual at the time, a 40 page catalogue of the wares of the publisher, Methuen. To book lovers it was probably interesting in 1906, more than a century later it is a fascinating glimpse at what was being read in Edwardian times.

So how easy is it to track down a copy of The Complete Cricketer? Personally I hope that my audience is such that it is about to become a lot harder, and that this excellent period piece does now come to be recognised as the classic it undoubtedly is. Realistically however at the moment this one is neither rare nor expensive although I should perhaps caution anyone interested in the book to remember that a 1925 book called The More Compleat Cricketer by another Knight, this time Donald of Surrey and England, is a completely different book.

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