Just not cricket.

 Chapter 1 of Seasons in the Sun starts with a stroll through the media on the day that the Labour government was formed on Monday March 4th 1974 after a period of uncertainty following the indecisive result of the general election the previous Thursday.  It is impossible to go through all of this media selection and ask how accurate a picture it paints.  Now arguably, this material can only be true, it is a snapshot.  But the role of the historian is not that of the keeper of a scrap book.  It is to analyse, and go beyond repeating what was in the papers that day.

There are of course fine histories that rely on reporting voices from history.  I enjoyed  and I had my eyes opened by Mary Abbott’s Family Affairs (London: Routledge, 2003) that consists of reporting a variety of testimonies on family life in England from 1920 to 1990 without any commentary.  But like a swan, you know that the outward grace is accompanied by a furious paddling out of sight.   Similarly, Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow (London: Profile, 2011) shows that a history can be written through giving the sources a voice in which the author all but  vanishes.

The problem I have with the beginning of this chapter is that the news stories here, the media snippets, don’t seem to represent anything.  So you get references to Z Cars without any idea of what Z Cars might be if the reader does not know. (Seasons, p5)

I will examine just one of these examples to show how it signifies nothing.  I chose this one simply because it one I know something about and for which it is easy to supply a little context.   The story of the England cricket team (or rather quaintly, the MCC team as it was still called).  Dominic writes that “For those who saw sport as a reflection of the nation’s fortunes…. the England cricket party’s dismal ten-wicket defeat in Barbados felt a bucket of water in the face.”  (Seasons, p5)  There is no evidence that it felt like a bucket of water in anyone’s face.  And there is an implication that this is another sign of national decline.

Dominic then goes on to quote an unnamed and un-referenced news reporter saying that this was an awful England batting line up, and no further comment is made.  The question for the historian is whether this instant judgement was true, and whether it signified anything.

The first thing to point out is that this was a warm up game in the MCC’s five game tour of the West Indies in 1973-4, not a test match.  Many teams lose these matches, they do not field full strength sides, they rest valued and in-form players, some members of the squad don’t try too hard.   England finally drew the series 1-1 losing the first test and wining the last.  (ref: http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1973-74/ENG_IN_WI/)

There was a feeling at the time that this was a poor England batting line up (as is often the case, everyone looks back at a golden age gone).  The Times report on the game looked back to the glories of England’s recent past, pointing out that many towering figures of the preceding years, Les Ames, Colin Cowdrey, Jim Laker and others were at the game as spectators and, by implication, still better players.  More interestingly, however, the report continues highlighting the problem that the previously reliable Geoff Boycott was struggling to score against the short-pitched pace bowling that the Bajan bowlers were serving up.  (The Times, 4/4/1974).  In the test series itself the teams were evenly balanced, England scored seven centuries, the West Indies five.  Denis Amiss averaged 83, and four more England batters averaged in the 40s (which is not too bad for those of you who don’t do cricket stats).  The weakness was the bowling, which for England was highly reliant on Tony Grieg who took 24 wickets (http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1973-74/ENG_IN_WI/ENG_IN_WI_JAN-APR1974_AVS.html), but beyond that there was no depth with England’s pace attack of Chris Old and Bob Willis never being fully fit.   The following summer a very similar England team beat India 3-0 and had the better of Pakistan in a 0-0 draw in a three test series (England would almost certainly have won 2-0 if the last day of two games had not been entirely rained off).  (http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1974/PAK_IN_ENG/).  Anyone reading the essays in the following year’s Wisden is filled with a sense of over-all gloom in English cricket emerging for the year’s games.

Oddly, the bigger story is not mentioned in the book.  When the West Indies came to Britain in 1976.  England’s (South African) captain, Tony Grieg, famously announced that England would make the West Indies “grovel”.  The reply was famously the imperious batting of Viv Richards, and the disciplined hostility of the pace bowling of Andy Roberts (although the West Indies were a few years off their truly great pace attack).  West Indies won 3-0 in the 5 match series, England did better in the last 2 drawn, more balanced games, but it is the utter drubbing of the first 3 games that will be remembered. (And notably, the West Indies lost some of their warm up games.) (http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1976/WI_IN_ENG/)

I think that the activist and writer Darcus Howe is right that there was something deeply political about this.  (See for example, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2007/mar/04/cricket.features3).

There was certainly an element of post-colonial revenge about this, and it was also a point that united Britons of Afro-Caribbean descent with pride.  His assertion that this gave youth in Notting Hill the courage to stand up to the police is more contentious, but it is a credible claim.  But this big story passes Dominic by in the light of a defeat in a warm up match which fits easily with the narrative of all not being well as Labour stepped into office.


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3 Responses to Just not cricket.

  1. Christopher Eva says:

    I feel that you’re being a bit heavy-handed here. Dominic Sandbrook begins his long narrative of the years 1974-79 with a snapshot of 4 March 1974; if he stopped to examine each news story or TV programme from that day in detail, he would never get going with the story. You write:

    “The problem I have with the beginning of this chapter is that the news stories here, the media snippets, don’t seem to represent anything.”

    I would say that Dominic Sandbrook spells out what these stories and snippets represent:

    “It was now four days since the British people had voted in the most dramatic general election since the war, and still there was no resolution to the political crisis. Yet while Edward Heath, Jeremy Thorpe and Harold Wilson jockeyed for power, life went on as normal.” (Page 4)

    This is a common theme in Sandbrook’s books: despite the headlines and crises, for most people “life went on as normal” – which means the changing of the seasons (the chapter begins with the pleasures of the English garden), sports news and TV.

    As for the cricket news, the reporter quoted by Dominic Sandbrook is unnamed but not un-referenced as you suggest: the footnotes to Chapter 1 (page 815) suggest that the report was probably in The Times. (Sandbrook’s habit of grouping references in a single footnote can be unhelpful.) I agree that it would have been a good idea to name the reporter.

    Where sport is concerned, it’s very clear in both State of Emergency and Seasons in the Sun that Dominic Sandbrook is far more interested in football than he is in summer sports like cricket and tennis. State of Emergency, for example, devotes three pages to a single football game, the decisive World Cup qualifier between England and Poland on 17 October 1973. Sandbrook’s conclusion makes absolutely clear the linked theme of sporting failure and national decline:

    “Even in an autumn of inflation, bombings and strikes, there were few more compelling symbols of national decline than England’s failure against Poland. Just seven years after the golden victory that had supposedly capped the youthful optimism of Harold Wilson’s swinging Britain, England had failed even to reach the final stage of sport’s most lucrative tournament.” (page 540)

    (For my part, I still can’t believe that Kevin Hector’s last-minute header didn’t go in…)

    Cricket in the 1970s, on the other hand, gets just one paragraph in State of Emergency, and the single reference to Barbados in Seasons in the Sun:

    “Even cricket, the game of village greens and summer shadows, of pristine whites and gracious losers, seemed to have succumbed to the prevailing malaise. For the first time in fifty years, England lost Test matches at home to India and away to New Zealand, while a string of defeats to the West Indies and Australia included the calamitous 4-1 Ashes fiasco in 1974-5, generally regarded as a low point in the national team’s fortunes.” (State of Emergency, page 572)

    If it’s possible to summarise, I would say that for Sandbrook, football in the 1970s – with crumbling stadiums, hooliganism and World Cup failure – provides a potent symbol of national decline, while other sports were characterised by “failures that made the 1970s, by and large, a decade of sporting disappointment.”

    A fair conclusion?

    • It will always be fair comment that I have ignored issues in the previous three books. I am blogging this under a self denying ordinance that I will not back reference the previous three books, at least explicitly. For example, I am currently considering the treatment of Northern Ireland in Seasons and have gone back and looked at the material in White Heat. I have done this in an attempt to avoid exactly the problem that you address, of unjustly stating that something is missed out that has been dealt with previously. But I am sure things will slip through. What I am very keen to avoid is to start looking at the other three books as well. I am assuming, as things stand, that this project will be taking up two or three evenings a week for a year.

      So I am more than happy to see people adding to this blog with references to the previous book, whether I agree with them or not (and I much prefer it when people don’t agree, I am very old fashioned in that I believe disagreement is central to learning).

      I am also very happy to hear about football. I picked the cricket example from the March 5th everyday life thumbnail sketch because I know about it. Football is something I know much less about, and the points you raise are interesting.

      Firstly, whether failure in sport can be seen as a symptom of national decline. England’s international football failures have a long history. England’s 1953 defeat by Hungary was a shock, but it was the third-ranked team in the world being beaten by the first. The 1970 world cup quarter final defeat was far short of a dismal failure.

      The downhill period, as I understand, comes after that, particularly the failure to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. I don’t know enough off the top of my head to talk about why this happened, any opinion that I offered as a historian would be based on some thorough research. Which is my problem with the “bucket of water” comment, it doesn’t seem to be based on any kind of research, any kind of understanding. So any comment from me on football as a symptom or element for national decline will have to wait, and it is (I understand from people who care) too important to use as a metaphor.

      Secondly, with the point on football hooliganism you raise an important question. Dominic raised this in the third of his TV programmes, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01hbs5x/The_70s_Goodbye_Great_Britain_7577/) and I have been wondering about whether to blog on this. He appears to make a link here, although not explicitly, but moving from women’s role changings, drawing them more into the workplace and this in turn drawing men more into the home. This is followed by the idea that this meant older men stopped going to the football being drawn into a more shared domestic sphere, younger men therefore lost the steadying influence, leading to the Stretford Enders and football hooliganism. Interesting theory, I am not convinced, but nor do I know enough off the top of my head to dismiss it as wrong. There is a fair bit in Seasons on this, so I will reach it.

      I agree, that the attempt to paint a picture of everyday life going on is legitimate. To do this well, however, is hard work. And I am not seeing it here. Part of my purpose here is to debate questions about how history is written, and I have chosen to do this looking at one of the most successful contemporary British historians working today (I really would not want to do this with someone struggling with their first book – I am assuming Dominic is in a position to shrug off, or probably not even notice, this blog). Possibly, in this area, only Peter Hennessy is more successful. The point with the news articles is that they should represent something bigger, stand for something more. The problem is, the cricket story does not. At the time England’s batting was not considered the problem, as ever it was the captaincy.

      Just an aside. I quite agree that putting all the references in one note in a paragraph is irritating, especially if you are trying to hunt the quote down. This is becoming increasingly common. In the case of the unnamed cricket correspondent, I am sure it is not from The Times 5.4.1975. I don’t think I can put the scan into this reply, so I will post it as a separate post. It is interesting because its tone does not back up the “bucket of water” comment. So I will stand by that it is unnamed and unreferenced. I have been through quite a few sections of this book with a fine toothed comb, and the missing references are happening a fair bit.

  2. Christopher Eva says:

    What a wonderful report from Bridgetown by John Woodcock! Full of informed insight into the state of the England cricket party in the West Indies a couple of days before the First Test, for the benefit of readers back in England.

    On the other hand, Dominic Sandbrook provides a snapshot of Monday 4 March 1974 that is clearly intended to reflect the stories people were reading in the newspapers that day. The Barbados game had ended on Sunday 3 March, and it would be natural to read a match report in the paper on Monday 4 March. Sandbrook is clearly quoting from a match report in either the Daily Express, the Times or the Daily Mirror for 4 March 1974.

    One small thing: you say, quite correctly, that England’s defeat in Barbados was a warm-up game: “Many teams lose these matches, they do not field full strength sides, they rest valued and in-form players, some members of the squad don’t try too hard.” No one could argue with that. However, the Barbados game was the final game before the First Test, which was to begin on 6 March, and eight players who were picked for the First Test were playing against Barbados. In the circumstances, it’s understandable that commentators like John Woodcock were concerned about the form of the England players, and particularly the batsmen.

    However, given how much discussion it’s possible to generate from one small reference in Seasons in the Sun, it still seems to me that Dominic Sandbrook is wise to avoid description or analysis in his snapshot of Monday 4 March…

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