RADIO / A bat out of heaven: Robert Hanks on cricket and nostalgia as a way of life

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The Independent Culture
'Cricket, I think more than anything, seems to bring tears to the expatriate eye,' remarked one of the participants in Circle Dance (Radio 4, Sunday). Watching the antics of modern cricketers - hiring themselves out as crypto-PR men for unspeakable governments, fine-tuning the art of abuse on each other and umpires, prancing about in dayglo jim-jams at midnight to satisfy the cravings of television audiences - it seems absurd that cricket should still carry that charge of nostalgic sentiment. But Sylvia Colley and Piers Plowright's feature about a cricket match in the Sussex countryside showed that there are still corners of the game that preserve the genteel charm and languor with which the game is classically associated.

The programme followed a chronological scheme, mapping the day's activities at Parham Park from the moment when the rollers were dragged out on to the pitch, until after evensong, when the teams gathered in the pub. But this was far less a record of events than of mood - indeed, the often pointless adjective 'atmospheric' for once seemed wholly appropriate, since few programmes have ever set out so single-mindedly to capture ambience. Despite being cast in the mould of a verite documentary - no commentary, just voices and birdsong and the occasional aeroplane overhead - this was out and out Arcadian fantasy, naturalism carefully recut and layered to create something that was eventually a more effective piece of fiction than most radio dramas. Even the clock that marked the passing of time, in between the thud of leather on willow and the rattle of tea things, was artfully chosen - delicate, antique musical chimes, slowly faded out. In any case, the hours seemed irrelevant: this was a land in which it seemed always afternoon.

In the end, though, this was a mildly dispiriting programme: in the anecdotes about colonial cricket matches in Tanganyika and in the Hon Mrs Tritton's memories of the long summers of childhood, you got the impression not of time having stood still, but of development having been arrested. Nostalgia's all very well from time to time; but not as a way of life, as it seemed to be here.

On the other hand, to see how pleasant nostalgia can be, you only had to listen in on A Manchester Guardian Man (Radio 4, Monday to Friday), a series of five extracts from Sir Neville Cardus's autobiography read by Neville Barber in the Yesterday in Parliament slot last week. Cardus's writing now seems terrifically old-fashioned: self-consciously stylish and elegant, and with a quite deliberately mythologising intent in his descriptions of the cricketing heroes of his boyhood at Old Trafford. But underneath the musings on cricket and music there was a sense of energy and ambition, even a spiky tinge of malice, that made up for that: Cardus touting for work at the Manchester Guardian (and allowing himself some resentment at the casual treatment he received from C P Scott); Cardus cheesed off by the lack of promotion prospects; Cardus bored stiff by J M Barrie's insistence on talking about nothing but cricket.

In the second episode, describing the long weekend between the wars, Cardus described a philosophical conversation with another cricket writer at Lord's, as they sipped their drinks one hot day. Imagine, they said, doing this and getting paid to do it: it couldn't last, they decided. A few weeks later, Cardus added in a postscript heavy with portent, Chamberlain flew to Berchtesgaden. He didn't labour the point, just left you to wallow in the deep irony of a golden age so brutally cut short. But before you start to enjoy it too much, compare Eleanor Oldroyd in the current issue of Radio Times: 'It's always been my dream to watch cricket all day and get paid for it,' she says. In other words, Cardus and his generation weren't so specially privileged as he was making out: it's just the nostalgia talking.