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Cricket Writing’s First Classic

There were a few books about cricket published in the 18th century, most notably the first ten editions of Britcher’s Scores, a series of books that is without doubt the most desirable in the literature of the game. Ultimately however the books were what the title indicated, simply lists of scores, as was a similar single volume published by William Epps in 1799.

As the 1800s dawned Britcher continued for five more years. Two decades later Henry Bentley also put together a famous book of scores. Thomas Boxall wrote a book of instruction in 1801 and Baxter, and then Lambert, produced publications about the laws and techniques of the game.

Occasionally cricket was celebrated in works of poetry, titles such as Surrey Triumphant and the Kentish Men’s Defeat, The Kentish Cricketers and The Noble Cricketers all appearing in the late 18th century. Probably the most famous of them all, James Love’s Cricket, an Heroic Poem, was first published in 1744.

In the late 18th century a small Hampshire village, Hambledon, boasted one of the strongest teams in the country. Matches were played on the famous Broadhalfpenny Down, opposite the Bat and Ball Inn. One of the club’s leading players was Richard Nyren who, for a time, was mine host at the Bat and Ball. In the 1790s Richard left Hampshire for London. By that time Hambledon’s reign as one of the main centres of the game in England had come to an end.

Nyren had a son, John, who was born in 1764. John’s name appears on a few scorecards from the time but he was nothing like the cricketer his father was. He was however, in 1833, responsible for the first cricket book that contained any sort of descriptive content. The book came in two distinct parts. Part One was The Young Cricketers Tutor which, the cover stated, comprised full directions for playing the elegant and manly game of cricket with a complete version of its laws and regulations. There was therefore nothing new in that, but as the title page went on, added to that was Part Two, The Cricketers of My Time which consisted of Recollections of the Most Famous Old Players.

Also indicated on the cover of the book was that it was collected and edited by Charles Cowden Clarke. Clarke was an author himself, a publisher and very much a man of letters. Historians have differing views as to the respective influences of Clarke and Nyren on the finished product of the book. For these purposes however that matters little. The fact is the book exists and, to a greater or lesser extent it would appear it was Clarke ghosting Nyren as the latter recounted his memories of his father and Hambledon cricket in the late 18th century.

It is clear that Part One of the book largely apes its predecessors, Boxall, Baxter and Lambert. The Cricketers of My Time however, and a brief third section described as The Memoranda, have a hollowed place in the annals of the game. Writing in 1957, so before he became rheumy of eye and his vision too dominated by the past, John Arlott described it as still the finest study of cricket and cricketers ever written. A decade on from that the maverick historian and notoriously difficult to please Rowland Bowen described the book as outstanding as literature.

In 1893 writer and book dealer Alfred Gaston wrote this is the most charming of all cricket books. Andrew Lang in the volume on cricket in the Badminton Library made the observation that; if Love was the Homer of cricket, Nyren was undoubtedly the Herodotus. A century on from the book’s publication G Neville Weston commented, whilst writing a small book devoted to a bibliographical treatise on the various editions of Nyren; this work is undoubtedly the classic of cricket literature. More recently Ashley Mote, who devoted a significant part of his life to studying the book and those mentioned in it, described it in 1998 as cricket’s first and greatest work of literature.

So how does Nyren read? It certainly conjures up the pride that the men who played on Broadhalfpenny Down felt; Little Hambledon pitted against all England was a proud thought for Hampshire men. Defeat was glory in such a struggle, Victory indeed made us only a little lower than the angels.

The descriptions of the players are vivid ones. Of defensive batsman Tom Walker Nyren wrote; Tom’s hard ungain, scrag-of-mutton frame; wilted, apple-john face….. his long spider legs, as thick at the ankles as at the hips and perfectly straight all the way down. Walker must have been a courageous batsmen because Nyren went on to describe him as the driest and most rigid limbed chap I ever knew; his skin was like the rind of an old oak, and as sapless. I have seen his knuckles handsomely knocked about from Harris’s bowling, but never saw any blood upon his hands – you might just as well attempt to phlebotomise a mummy.

Of his father Nyren wrote; he was a good, face-to-face, unflinching, uncompromising, independent man. He placed a full and just value on the station he held in society, and he maintained it without insolence or assumption. He could differ with a superior, without trenching upon his dignity, or losing his own. I have known him maintain an opinion with great firmness against the Duke of Dorset and Sir Horace Mann.

The leading batsman of the Hambledon era was William Beldham, universally known as ‘Silver Billy’. Nyren described him as one of the most beautiful sights that can be imagined, and which would have delighted an artist, is to see him make himself up to hit a ball. It was the beau ideal of grace, animation, and concentrated energy.

If Silver Billy was the leading batsman of the time the bowling honours went to David Harris, and of Harris Nyren wrote; his attitude when preparing for his run previously to delivering the ball, would have made a beautiful study for the sculptor. First of all he stood erect like a soldier at drill; then, with a graceful curve of his arm, he raised the ball to his forehead, and drawing back his right foot, started off with his left. The calm look, and general air of the man were uncommonly striking, and from this series of preparations he never deviated. His mode of delivering the ball was very singular. He would bring it from under the arm by a twist and nearly as high as his armpit and with this action push it, as it were, from him. How it was that the balls acquired the extraordinary velocity they did by this mode of delivery I never could comprehend.

How easy is to get hold of a copy of Nyren? The short answer is very simple, but the long answer rather depends on what it is you are after. The first edition of course is getting on for two hundred years old but, perhaps surprisingly, can still be had for around £500.

There were eleven editions of the book all told, the second appearing in 1840 and subsequently 1845, 1846, 1848, 1848 (again), 1849, 1851, 1854, 1854(again) and 1855 which suggests either an overly cautious approach to numbers or sales that consistently exceeded expectations. The later editions can be had for around £100.

That was it for more than thirty years before, in 1888, Nyren’s work, Lillywhite’s Handbook of Cricket and Denison’s Sketches of the Players were reprinted as The Chronicles of Cricket. A further reprint appeared in 1893 as part of a series entitled Classics of Cricket and then, in 1902, the foremost historian of the day, FS Ashley-Cooper, published a further reprint in a series called Sportsman’s Classics. In addition to Noreen’s text there is an eleven page introduction from Ashley-Cooper plus eight appendices including various pieces of additional research.

It was a mere five years before a further book including a reprint of Nyren appeared, as part of a wider study by EV Lucas entitled The Hambledon Men.

After that flurry of activity demand for Nyren was once more sated for the time being and this time it was forty years before, in 1948, with an introduction by Neville Cardus the book was reprinted again. There was a limited edition of 750 copies, 50 of which were specially bound. In the same year John Arlott gave his name to a reprint, although From Hambledon to Lord’s was not confined to Nyren, and included the work of Denison, James Pycroft and John Mitford as well.

In 1952 a Sportsmen’s Book Club edition of The Hambledon Men appeared, and in 1954 a further edition with Phoenix House. In 1974 a revised version of the 1888 reprint appeared with an introduction from Arlott and then, and to date finally, Mote’s wide ranging and comprehensive reappraisal was published again in 1998. The most frequently seen editions are Mote’s and the 1974 Arlott, both of which can currently be bought on eBay for less than a fiver.

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