The most popular book in the makeshift library at the Tarsao prisoner of war camp was a bible, the second a copy of the 1939 Wisden Almanack. It belonged to Jim Swanton and so many people wanted to borrow it that he’d only lend it for six hours at a time.
He had carried the book with him from Britain, through Nova Scotia and South Africa, to Singapore, where he was captured by the Japanese. Swanton repaired it over and again, bound it with rice paste and recovered it with rubber. He used it to invent pretend radio commentaries for the other internees and as the basis for a lecture on “The Life of Bradman”.
Lost in Wisden, Swanton wrote, “our minds were strangely at peace”. There wasn’t any first-class cricket being played, even if they had had a way to follow it, but there was solace in the thought of the game, in the memory of what it had been before it all started and the promise of what it would be once it was all over. During the English summer the County Championship runs like a clock, the tick-tock of runs and wickets unbroken through the season. You notice it most when it’s stopped.
In that ’39 Wisden, among the reports of Len Hutton’s 364 against Australia at the Oval, an obituary of Lord Hawke and a tribute to Frank Woolley, there’s an article by Bradman, which he called Cricket at the Crossroads. “No matter how much we love cricket,” he wrote, “we cannot possibly disassociate its future from the cold, hard facts of finance. Nor can we blind ourselves to the fact that at this very moment public support for cricket suggests either that cricket is becoming less attractive or other forms of entertainment are gaining ground.
“With the quickening of modern tempo, the more Americanised trend which is demanding speed, action and entertainment value, it behoves all of us to realise we are the custodians of the welfare of cricket and must guard its future even more zealously than its present.” Bradman argued for better pitches, a change to the lbw law, and more modern scoreboards. “I am quite sure the administrators of England and Australia are more closely united now than ever before. To me, therefore, it seems an appropriate time to try and achieve a greater measure of uniformity of opinion.”
Bradman’s words echo in both directions. You find similar when the County Championship was suspended for the first time, in 1914, and they still sound familiar now when it has been suspended again, for the first time since its postwar resumption in 1946. Either cricket mirrors life so closely that its crises are synchronised with everyone else’s or it is a game in perpetual ill health. But either way, on both previous occasions when play stopped in the County Championship, the break was used as an opportunity to debate what was wrong with the game and how best to try to fix it.
During the first world war the game was in a fret, again, about its waning popularity with the public, worried that its slow tempo was out of touch with the fast times. “It occurred to some peculiar people that cricket stood in need of drastic alterations,” the Wisden editor, Sydney Pardon, wrote in 1919. So the authorities decided to cut county matches down to two days and play longer each day. They considered scrapping the tea break, shortening boundaries and penalising the batting side for maiden overs. The Times even floated a plan to ban left-handers to save time altering the field between deliveries.
Pardon felt the authorities blundered by tinkering too much. The two-day matches were scrapped the following season, when games were played over the old length of three days. “I trust,” he wrote in that year’s Wisden, “we shall hear no more about the need for drastic alterations in the game.” His trust was misplaced. By 1939, the game was going through it all over again.
During the war years, large crowds had turned out for exhibition one-day games at Lord’s. Sir Home Gordon wrote: “One wartime development is that spectators have become thrilled over close finishes.” There was a drive, in the mid-1940s, to introduce a one-day knockout cup, to be played on Sundays, to scrap the distinction between amateurs and professionals – all proposals that would come to pass, decades later, but were rejected at the time by authorities who, Swanton wrote, “condemned without hesitation all proposals to tamper with the fundamentals of the game”.
They wanted also to cut county matches back from three days to two, but that plan was rejected as well. This time they erred the other way and the upshot was that they postponed reform so long they ended up performing emergency surgery on the game in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
And in 2020 the game is in the throes of a similar debate, as it weighs the competing needs of 18 counties and four separate formats. The most recent of these, the Hundred, is wildly unpopular with a lot of the people who love the others. Its few supporters argue, however, that it is the best way to sustain cricket in the long term. The ECB has said economic necessity dictates it will prioritise the T20 Blast if and when play resumes this summer, with the Hundred in the balance.
Beyond that, there’s the bigger question of how it all fits together, of what it is we’re all pining for here: the game as it was or the game as we want it to be? This break is one last opportunity to ask whether the sport really wants to press on with these radical changes or reconsider them altogether.