Not a vintage summer

Image of Harry Eyres

This is the time when two seasons that go to define a London summer draw to a close – the cricket season and the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve had the impression this year that the former was so disjointed that it never really got started. There was a strange mini-test series between Australia and Pakistan, and then the England-Pakistan series, which failed to draw the crowds or provide many talking-points, until it was overtaken by a bizarre and tawdry betting scandal.

For the first time in many years, the opening day’s play at the Oval was not a sell-out. Cricket has now become so fragmented, into different competitions and styles, and removed from the public realm – which is to say terrestrial television – that though it may generate revenue, it no longer generates something much more important, communal excitement and a sense of summer well-being.

This state of affairs would have saddened the legendary newspaper man who uniquely wrote with equal authority on both cricket and music, Neville Cardus (recalled in his friend Robin Daniels’s book Cardus: Celebrant of Beauty).

Cardus believed both cricket and music mattered; or to put it another way, he wrote about both subjects with such deep relish and rhetorical skill that he helped make them matter. As a result he could boast equally glowing testimonials from Donald Bradman and Yehudi Menuhin.

You might think that music matters more than cricket; it is, or it has been, the expression of mankind’s most lofty and tender thoughts and feelings, and whatever you say about cricket you can’t claim that for it.

But for Cardus cricket and music obviously had more in common than you might think: both can involve artistry of the highest order; both can bring thousands of people into an arena and still them into silent appreciation of the sublime.

There was one passage of play in the third England-Pakistan test that I think Cardus would have thoroughly appreciated. An old master, Yousuf Mohammed, with a beard reminiscent of WG Grace, had come out of self-imposed exile to help his struggling team, to represent his suffering country, and face the fiercest thunderbolts England’s young firebrands could hurl down, in one of the great crucibles of the game. It was something like Cincinnatus abandoning his plough to lead the Romans into battle.

By rights, Yousuf, who had hardly played any competitive cricket all summer, should have been totally out of his depth. He did indeed look somewhat at sea as he faced his first few overs, but he was never fazed, always composed and watchful. Gradually, he gathered his habitual authority; one of his strokes, a late cut or glide of feathery delicacy, was delicious enough to have the commentators sighing in admiration. His innings, his 34th half-century in tests, ended somewhat tamely, but he had stamped the match with something unforgettable, that combination of technique, courage, character, intelligence and artistry that graces only the chosen few.

Such exhibitions delighted Cardus, himself not so much one of the chosen few as a one-off, who rose from abject poverty in Lancashire to become the private secretary and protégé of the Manchester Guardian editor CP Scott and the first music critic, and the first cricket writer, ever to be knighted.

Perhaps Cardus’s writing never ceased to exude a kind of leisurely Edwardian expansiveness and warmth (he was born in 1888), but no English author had a less leisured start in life. He never knew who his father was, was brought up by a mother and two aunts who worked as prostitutes, and left his Lancashire Board School at 13. He described the circumstances of his upbringing as “in many ways disgraceful in a city which was one of the wealthiest in an Empire rich as any the world has known”. But he also saw more than disgrace in his “illiterate”, even “sordid” home: “it was an age when poverty and comfort alike knew vitality of living. Humour kept breezing in”.

Maybe Cardus’s unconventional upbringing helped him cross boundaries and bend genres. Certainly vitality and humour, as well as a peculiarly English lyricism, always characterised his writing.

I suspect Cardus would have been happier with the season of Proms than with the cricket season. In terms of attendances and sell-out concerts this has been another bumper year for the supposedly old-fashioned music festival, which keeps getting more popular. To be sure, not everything ignited (to use a Cardusian word); I was disappointed by Paul Lewis in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, playing with perfect neatness but no special character.

This year the violinists trumped the pianists; Julia Fischer shone among what seems an exceptionally talented bunch of female violinists in their early to mid-twenties, but the performance of the season came from an artist in his early forties.

Leonidas Kavakos transformed Korngold’s Violin Concerto from Hollywood schmaltz into yearning lyrical intensity with playing so good that you could scarcely believe it came from a fallible human being. If Cardus had been listening, he might have heard a blend of the immaculate technical sheen of Heifetz with the “reflective poetry” of Kreisler.

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