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The Man Who Changed Cricket Writing Forever – Neville Cardus


It is the best part of half a century since Sir Neville Cardus died. He is the man who is acknowledged by all as having influenced cricket writing more than anyone else in the sport’s history. Before Cardus came along those who wrote about the game were reporters, and none adopted the sort of approach to their craft that Cardus introduced. That Cardus is still regarded as important is evidenced by the fact that a new book about him appeared only last year, and this year a man who is undoubtedly one of the very best sportswriters currently active, Duncan Hamilton, will publish a full biography.

The Cardus legacy is not however without controversy. The man who did not begin writing about the game until he was past thirty, just after the Great War, was the subject of an article a few weeks ago by historian and writer Arunabha Sengupta entitled The Charming Charlatan of Cricket Writing. Sengupta’s colleague Abhishek Mukherjee went further, describing Cardus on Twitter as the greatest liar in the history of cricket writing.

The reason for the expressed disquiet is what was neatly described in the sub-title of last year’s Cardus book, Christopher O’Brien’s Cardus Uncovered; The Truth, the Untruth and the Higher Truth. It has been known for some time that Cardus’ account of his own life and  family history was littered with inaccuracies, and subsequent research has demonstrated that not all of what was described in a Cardus match report was necessarily what actually happened. On occasion it seems also that Cardus was not beyond dashing off a report of a day’s play at which he was not even present.

The evidence against Cardus in respect of all these charges is strong, but how culpable was he? In respect of his family history it is points of detail he got wrong, rather than significant matters of fact. He clearly wasn’t by inclination a great researcher, and it seems likely there was a major role in these inaccuracies for over-reliance on the memory of others, with a degree of straightforward laziness. As to the match reports and the referenced embellishments this is where O’Brien’s ‘higher truth’ comes in.

At the end of the day however does all this really matter? I recall many years ago reading a long and persuasive article in one of what in those days was called a ‘Sunday Supplement’ that sought to assert that the works of William Shakespeare were actually written by not one other individual, but a selection of them. Being an argumentative fifteen year old at the time I thought I would take this up with my English Literature teacher, ‘Miss Aggie’, who could be a bit of a harridan at times. Having steeled myself for an argument I was, to say the least, deflated by the laugh my comment got coupled with the observation ‘so what Chandler? The plays exist, why does the name of the author matter?

Exactly the same principle applies with Cardus’ writing, and there is perhaps a certain playfulness at work as well. The genius sometimes likes to play games with his audience. A classic example of that is the even greater legend that is Bob Dylan, parts of whose autobiography are pure fiction.

Over the course of his writing career Cardus’ output was considerable, although there were relatively few books, and most of those that there were were collections of essays, some of which had already appeared elsewhere in more ephemeral publications.

The first Cardus book appeared in 1921, and A Cricketer’s Book is similar in format to almost all that followed. The book comes in three parts, the first of which comprises twenty five essays, mainly player profiles but interspersed with occasional match reports. One is certainly from Cardus’ imagination as he told the story of the famous 1882 match at the Oval between England and Australia. It is an excellent essay, but shows up that lack of detailed research by making no mention of the famous incident when Sammy Jones was run out by WG at a point when the young Australian was out of his crease, believing the ball to dead.

The book moves on to reproduce Cardus’ reports from each of the five Tests of 1921, a few reflections on the Australians and, finally, the tale of Cardus’ famous ‘scoop’ when he was persuaded by Archie MacLaren to go and watch MacLaren’s all amateur side take on and sensationally beat Warwick Armstrong’s, up until then, unbeaten Australians.

In 1924 Days in the Sun appeared followed, five years later in 1929, by The Summer Game: A Cricketer’s Journal. The latter was the only Cardus original title to be issued in a signed and numbered limited edition, printed on large paper and with an attractive dust jacket. Both were more of the same, collections of essays of varying sorts. The former contained 29 essays and ten shorter pieces that Cardus described as ‘silhouettes’. The Summer Game comprised 32 essays.

In 1930 a further collection of essays appeared, simply entitled Cricket. In a sense the book is in the same format, but for some it is not part of the main Cardus oeuvre. In the main the essays are about the game and how it is played, more than the men and the matches, but it certainly should not be disregarded.

In 1934 Good Days appeared. Again there was a selection of essays on players, and in a nod back to the format of A Cricketer’s Book Good Days also collected together Cardus’ reports on the 1934 Ashes. It was a formula to be repeated in the two post war Cardus collections, Cricket all the Year and Close of Play, published in 1952 and 1956 respectively and containing Cardus’ thoughts, in each case, on the previous winter’s Ashes series in Australia.

Only once, with Australian Summer, did Cardus ever devote a cricket book to a single subject, in that case the Ashes series of 1936/37. Even that however was, of course, essentially a collection of reports he had already written for his employer, the Manchester Guardian.

Whilst the lights were out in Europe for the duration of the Second World War Cardus spent the years from 1940 to 1947 in Australia. He plied his other trade, that of music critic, and worked on Autobiography, published in 1947. The book was supplemented by Second Innings, which appeared in 1950.

Close of Play was the last ‘original’ Cardus book, although by no means the final word. Some of his work had already been gathered together as the The Essential Neville Cardus in 1949 and there have been many selections since. Some of the contents came from his books, and others were ‘new’ material from the archives of The Guardian and many other newspapers and periodicals that Cardus had written for over the years. The interest is still there and a new anthology, including an introduction from no less a writer than Gideon Haigh, is due for release at the end of July of this year – much will doubtless be familiar, but Cardus’ reports on the 1946/47 Ashes series have never appeared in book form before – perhaps at long last they will see the light of day?

There was much about Cardus and his life that defied convention, not least of which was his marriage. Cardus married Edith in 1921 and the couple were always close, but rarely lived together. At the time of Edith’s death in 1968 she was living in a flat in London whilst Cardus spent most of his time at the National Liberal Club, only moving into Edith’s flat after she had died. Cardus himself was 86 when he died in 1975.

Always a fascinating figure Cardus was the subject of a 1985 biography by Christopher Brookes and another book about him, Cardus: Celebrant of Beauty, by Robin Daniels appeared in 2009. The Nevile Cardus Archive at Old Trafford has produced five booklets in recent years, and has no plans to stop collecting Cardus material and researching it. Given also the recent appearance of O’Brien’s book and now that from Hamilton there is, whatever criticisms some may level at Cardus, no reduction in the interest in him, his unconventional life and his legacy of writing on the game.

The one failing that Cardus seems to have had is an inability take on a detailed project, or one that required any great research. As noted it is not something he ever attempted in a cricketing context, and his one tilt at the genre in the field of music led to a series of negative reviews. Cardus planned a two volume work on the Austro-German composer Gustav Mahler but, no doubt evidencing also a sensitivity to criticism, after the reception the first book received the second never appeared.

Had he had the capacity for hard work Cardus might have proved to be the definitive biographer of Victor Trumper. Cardus was at Old Trafford in 1902 for the fourth Test of the Ashes series when Trumper, in a summer in which he carried all before him, scored a century before lunch. Cardus knew and got on well with many of Trumper’s contemporaries and, whilst many of those in Australia were still alive he spent those years in Australia during the war. As it was by the time anyone got round to writing Trumper’s life story, and a few have tried, the passage of time denied them many opportunities that Cardus would have had if he had decided to write a book on the man who was the subject of some of his most evocative writing, including this passage from Autobiography:-

He was the most gallant and handsome batsman of them all; he possessed a certain chivalrous manner, a generous and courtly poise. But his swift and apparent daring, the audacity of his prancing footwork, were governed by a technique of rare accuracy and range. Victor was no mere batsman of impulsive genius.; he hit the ball with the middle of his bat’s blade – even when he pulled from the middle stump round to square leg. In my memory’s anthology of all the delights I have known, in many years devoted to the difficult but entrancing art of changing raw experiences into the connoisseur’s enjoyment of life, I gratefully place the cricket of Victor Trumper.

I suspect views on Cardus are, rather like those on Brexit, of a kind that are set in stone for all, with no one ever changing their mind. Of course, and again like Brexit, that knowledge never stops us from arguing our case with those with whom we disagree, and whilst I am confident that nothing in The Great Romantic will alter my opinions on Neville Cardus it will be interesting, in a few weeks’ time, to see what conclusions Duncan Hamilton’s researches have led him to – it is certainly a book I am looking forward to reading.


Lovely piece!
I am also a big fan of his writing, await Duncan Hamilton’s book eagerly and would love to know more.
Much of his work was embellished and his characterisation of Emmott Robinson was somewhat ruined by the latter’s assertion ‘Ah’ve nivver met the fella’. I dare say it was often so, but for all his foibles, which we all have, he was a fine writer who changed cricket writing for the better.
And yes, I have copies of all of his works, picked up for a few coppers from the less discerning…

Comment by Steve Dolman | 10:15am BST 2 June 2019

Very good article and it is good that his name is kept alive. At the Cardus Archive at Old Trafford we have a lunch each year and also have occasional publications.
more details

Comment by malcolm Lorimer | 7:55am BST 7 June 2019

During my high school upper class I came across one essay by Cardus titled ‘ Things That Matter’. It was an excellent piece by him. Can anyone tell me in what book of Cardus it was included?

Comment by Mahmud Islam | 12:33pm BST 1 July 2019

In answer to the query from Mahmud Islam, the article ‘Things that matter’ by Neville Cardus is on page 31 of the book ‘Cardus in the Covers’ published by Souvenir Press

Comment by Ram | 10:07am BST 3 July 2019

‘Things that matter’ is also available in ‘Days in the sun’ (pages 30 – 33)

Comment by Ram | 10:26am BST 3 July 2019

Can anyone tell me which of book of Cardus contained reference to Archie MacLaren and Bob Crockett discussing the growing of cricket bat willow in Australia?

Comment by Daniel Roberts | 10:58am BST 15 October 2019

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