Cataloguing books in a museum library can provide the cataloguer with problems. The main one is that you end up reading the books instead of cataloguing them: you open the book, start to skim through it and, the next thing you know, thirty minutes have gone by. Some of the books are standard autobiographical fare, interesting as they sometimes are in illuminating individuals, matches and tensions within teams they make one realise that there are less-and-less books that are written about cricket itself. That wasn’t always the case.
Indeed, many of the New Zealand Cricket Museum’s books discuss the general pleasures and nuances of the game and often use the game as a platform for musings on life and society. This genre of cricket writing appears to be dying ( although some writers do attempt a similar approach in their biographies of cricketers).
I suspect that this genre is dying because the way cricket is seen has changed substantially over the last twenty years or so. Always a game based around statistics, cricket has blossomed in the twittersphere and on the internet. We can (and do!) tweet numbers all day and statistical information about the game must surely be at an all time high, if we want to go an look for it. Cricket websites abound in opinion pieces, many designed to provoke discussion and contention. Everything is fast moving – a tournament here, the next one on the horizon, live feeds ball-by-ball. More than ever the internet allows cricket to be covered all year around- a delight for those of us who love the game.
All these thoughts arose when we were cataloguing a collection of books by John Arlott. He loved the game and he did like statistics, but they were just a skeleton that his writings put flesh on. He saw the rhythms and patterns of the game, its joys and melancholy and, I think, it’s essential decency. It was a sport that demanded reflection, a sport that highlighted the inner battle inside each cricketer and how these men were seen by their audience. To Arlott, cricketers were almost a different breed and when we read his writing about the end of a cricket season and the long shadows falling in the early Autumn afternoon we realise a sense of loss. Something rather wonderful and mysterious is ending and we can’t stop it.
This feeling of sadness has been with us as we’ve written about our World War One XI – those cricketers who played representative cricket in New Zealand and died during the conflict. We have, of course, also been made aware of countless club cricketers who also died or suffered. Sometimes the horror of it is impossible to comprehend and the words you write seem facile and trite but you write them anyway to help keep the memory of these men in the public eye. There is something surreal in the contrast between “Hami” Grace playing cricket on a sunny day in January at the Basin Reserve and the brutality of his experiences in Gallipoli. Or Rupert Hickmott leisurely stoking a cover drive as the sun falls across the wicket and his disappearance into the mud and indescribable filth that was No Man’s Land in France. Probably only a writer like Arlott could possibly try to comprehend and describe that. He didn’t – but his writings make us realise the beauty and sheer joy of this wonderful game. Yes, joy! I’d like to think that in the horror of their final days our World War One cricketers, and thousands of others who had played the game, could remember that joy and, in remembering, find a little comfort.
This blog post, like many of our On A Foreign Field profiles, was written by Barry Pateman. Barry is a dedicated New Zealand Cricket Museum volunteer who manages the cataloguing and care of the Museum’s extensive library. Cricket Museum volunteer is just one of his many, varied, talents.