spent last week in Shropshire, where my family and a few others had clubbed together to hire out Wilderhope Manor, the wonderful and historic National Trust property and youth hostel whose splendour and all-round magnificence must make it among the most unlikely places in the country to find creaky bunk beds, rubberised mattresses, shared toilets and bargain accommodation.
Despite its antiquity the property is equipped with many modern conveniences including wifi, the only problem being that the modem is housed in a cafeteria that was locked for the duration of our stay, and the signal stubbornly refused to worm its way through the massive stone walls that have held up the house for the last 450 years or so. With mobile signal largely nonexistent internet access was thereby limited to a small corridor outside the cafeteria’s locked door, and strongest in a pocket of space little more than a metre square in which we placed a single chair. Much of the time access to the outside world was limited to the individual who occupied this seat.
For most of our stay this was not an issue. But as England’s first Test against Pakistan built towards its thrilling crescendo, it was as if we had been cast back a century or so.
We waited outside for updates, and every now and then the person occupying the Chair of Knowledge or one of those hovering at their shoulder hoping to pick up the occasional crumb would bowl out of the entrance portal – front door really would be underselling it – to announce the fall of a wicket, the completion of a half-century, or the latest marker on England’s fourth-innings victory surge. Though our imaginations had to do an unusual amount of work to fill in the details, the tension felt on that Shropshire lawn must have at least matched that experienced by those at the ground or watching on television. It is an unusual thing to boast about but nevertheless surely accurate that there can be no sport more thrilling to not watch than this.
As so often, the Guardian’s former cricket correspondent Neville Cardus illuminated this path. In February 1923 the Guardian had two reporters covering England’s final Test against South Africa, with the series at stake. Only one was actually in Durban; the main report was filed by Cardus using nothing but the scoreboard and his imagination. “There was lurid cricket at Durban yesterday,” he enthused at the end of day three. “Even in the bare reports, even here miles and miles away from the spot, the heat of the conflict can be felt. To the cricketer of imagination yesterday’s news, as it filtered through from hour to hour, caused the mind’s eye to see the line of battle moving now this way, now that.”
Much as I imagined Chris Woakes, beard freshly trimmed, hair slick with sweat, cracking a drive through the covers before removing his helmet to salute his half-century at Old Trafford, Cardus conjured images of Phil Mead, Jack Russell and the remaining cast members of a bespoke production being played out entirely for, and indeed by, him. “Mead now on guard with Sandham, and how he must have crouched over his bat, brows knit, his eyes glints of suspicion at every action of the bowlers … every South African must have paused to wipe honest sweat from the brow and to ask if grit and perseverance deserved no better reward than this, after having well-nigh moved a mountain of adversity out of the track … we can imagine how silently the South Africans now moved about the field, how vehemently the bowlers directed their bolts.”
Though it was by general proclamation a fine match, the difference between the two reports suggests that the sport witnessed in the mind’s eye of one writer was by a margin more entertaining than that caught by the actual eyes of the other. Where Cardus wrote of the partnership between “honest Russell, no fancy artist maybe but a batsman of sterling craft” and Mann “of the stolid face and heavy, passionless movement”, the un-bylined second report says that “by dogged cricket” the pair made it to tea, and “afterwards the batsmen resorted to stonewalling”. Mann was then out for 15, the second and final wicket claimed by the splendidly named Conky Conyngham in his only appearance for South Africa; Russell became the first Englishman to score centuries in both innings of a Test, and England went on to win by 109 runs.
Imagine then the extra drama of not only waiting to receive updates from a key match but being able to see each update physically coming towards you, and having to wait for its journey to be completed before discovering if the news it carried was good or bad. “The Yorkshireman often uses his pigeons to convey the result of important sporting events,” the Pall Mall Gazette reported in 1897. “The writer was at a cricket match last year in which great interest was aroused, as it was the semi-final tie of a cup competition. The supporters of the visiting team came provided with pigeons, one of which was despatched with the score at the fall of each wicket.” Imagine the plight of those at home, desperate for information, tension rising, forced to ponder whether a particularly lengthy delay between updates was down to a good partnership or a peckish sparrowhawk.
After England’s Ashes-clinching victory over Australia in the final Test in 1926 the Illustrated London News published a wonderful photograph of the huge crowd, several thousand strong, that had gathered outside the offices of an unnamed newspaper on the Strand, just a few miles from where the match was being played at the Oval, to follow occasional updates on what turned out to be the last day’s play. For all that the sport has spent much of its modern history worried about the apparently waning popularity of this or that form of the game there are many pastimes that can only dream of attracting the kind of audience which has on occasions gathered not to watch cricket.
• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.