This is part 15 of Scyld Berry’s life and times of county cricket. You can read parts one to 13 here: Derbyshire, Durham, Essex, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset and Surrey
If any single county lies at the heart of English cricket, and forms its spiritual centre, it is Sussex.
Sussex may or may not have been cricket’s cradle: the Dukes of Richmond were pioneers at Goodwood, by employing the first semi-professional cricketers, and we know that the Sussex village of Slindon had the strongest team in England in the early 1740s; but Kent, and east London, were cradles too. What makes Sussex unique is that, if we think of a cricket match, especially a village cricket match, the setting is likely to be the South Downs or Weald.
Fine writers and poets established this image by having their hearts and homes in Sussex. During and after the Great War, they nourished the longing for quintessentially English life back home. Those were the days when soldiers – officers and men – had a small volume of poetry in their pocket for solace.
“The Cricket Match” by Hugh de Selincourt begins on Saturday 4 August 1921 in Sussex: “The Recreation Ground at Tiddingfold stood on the road to Raveley. From the Pavilion you could look up the slope to the centre of the village on to the background of Downs which spread away to the right in a beautiful, sloping line.” In 1978 John Parker published an updated version, “The Village Cricket Match”: he lived in Sussex, and his son Paul played for that county and once for England.
But if five lines can sum up cricket in England, they are those by Edmund Blunden, who won the Military Cross in the First World War and had his lungs damaged by gas while serving in the Royal Sussex Regiment. In the late 1920s Blunden became the professor of English at Tokyo university, where he had home thoughts from abroad. A Japanese colleague said to Blunden there was one thing in England he could not understand: cricket of course. So in the five lines of this sonnet Blunden sums up the game and its place in English life:
Far out in the valley the sun was gilding greenThose meadows which in England most are seen,Where churchyard, church, inn, forge and loft stand roundWith cottages, and through the ages boundThe duckpond, and the stocks, and cricket-ground.
Blunden is not being sentimental here in recalling the England of his youth, because he refers to the stocks, which would not have long been out of use when he was born in 1896. Before the Great War he had lived in Sussex and attended Christ’s Hospital school near Horsham, as the Sussex and England fast bowler John Snow was to do.
At a slightly lower literary level we find Jennings and Darbishire. “Oh, spiffing wheeze, sir!” is the sort of thing they would exclaim when their benign housemaster, Mr Carter, suggests going to watch Sussex. Their prep school Linbury Court is all about Matron being jolly kind, and the teas being jolly spiffing, and lots of cricket house matches in the summer term. Nothing to spoil it except Old Wilko losing his temper, but only temporarily, because underneath he has a heart of gold.
“At the far end of the school grounds, where the playing fields (sic: plural!) give place to farmland, a narrow pathway leads across the meadow and winds its way up the landward slope of the South Downs. The track skirts the village of Linbury, and comes out on the Dunhambury road not far from the old Roman camp site”, so Anthony Buckeridge wrote in “Jennings’ Diary”. And in another novel, Jennings and Darbishire escape to watch Sussex play at Dunhambury and are given a lift to the ground by the county’s famous amateur batsman RJ Findlater, who also finds a couple of seats for them in the pavilion! In return the boys spot a thief in the dressing-room… All wildly implausible now (Findlater would have to do warm-ups and nets hours before the start), but less so then. And they all lived happily ever after.
Spanning verse and prose came Alan Ross. Born in India, he went to two schools in Sussex while his parents continued to live in Calcutta, and cricket was obviously an emotional surrogate: “I was lucky that my arrival at St Andrews, East Grinstead, coincided with a revival of fortune for Sussex cricket,” Ross wrote in his autobiography “Blindfold Games”. “After the pre-Great War golden age of Ranjitsinhji and Fry, ‘old’ George Cox and Fred Tate, the Relfs and Joe Vine, Sussex went into comparative decline during the twenties. I came to St Andrews in the summer of 1932 and that year, under Duleepsinhji, Sussex were runners-up in the championship, as they were to be again in the next two years,”
“Under Duleepsinhji”: a pithy phrase, and noteworthy in the context of our times. Ross identifies with Duleep, and not only because they were both born in India. “Duleep’s physical frailty – even before tuberculosis destroyed him he had suffered continuously with chest trouble, as had Ranji too – especially endeared him to me, since I was extremely small for my age and thin.” But the fact that Duleepsinhji is the first non-white to captain a county cricket team passes unremarked. Being the nephew of Ranjitsinhji of course gave Duleepsinhji great kudos, but it had not been enough for him to be appointed captain of school teams in England.
“When the term ended it looked as if Sussex might even win the championship for the first time in their history. I spent every moment I could during the holidays watching them play at Hove or Eastbourne, but sadly Duleep’s health broke down at a crucial moment in August and without their best batsman Sussex could not quite manage it. Duleep, all charm and elegance at the wicket, never played first-class cricket again.” Yet he still averages 58 from his 12 Tests for England.
Ross set some of his many poems in Brighton and the county ground at Hove: “Regency Squares, the Pavilion, oysters and mussels and gin” is a neat summary in “Cricket at Brighton.” But my favourite is the one he wrote about Sussex’s Jim Parks batting in an away match against Kent at Tunbridge Wells. The Parks family has produced so many cricketers it should be explained this is Jim Parks junior, the one who set the modern trend for wicketkeeper-batsmen by converting to wicketkeeping after his schooldays and averaging 32 in his 46 Tests for England. This poem begins:
Parks takes ten off two successive balls from Wright,A cut to the rhododendrons and a hook for six.And memory begins suddenly to play its tricks:I see his father batting, as, if here, he might.
For Jim Parks senior, his father, had also played for Sussex and, once, for England – and he will always remain the only cricketer to score 3000 runs and take 100 wickets in a first-class season.
My favourite cricket poem though – if we can allow that Francis Thompson was writing primarily about himself in “At Lord’s”, even if the refrain is “O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago” – has to be that Blunden sonnet, the one in which he explains to his Japanese colleague in Tokyo the attraction of cricket. It ends:
And I fell silent, while kind memories playedBat and ball in the sunny past, not much dismayedWhy these things were, and why I liked them so.O my Relf and Jessop and Hutchings long ago.
* * * *
Sussex, more than any other, is the county of families: of fathers and sons, of brothers, of uncles and nephews, starting with Kumar Shri Ranjitisinhji and his nephew Duleepsinhji.
Why should this be? Does the answer lie in Sussex’s soil, or water? Some of us have had extra leisure during lockdowns, but I confess I have not been through the records of every first-class county to see which has the highest proportion of close blood relations. May it suffice that Sussex are renowned as the county with the most family connections? Gloucestershire began with the Grace brothers, and currently have five pairs of brothers on their staff, but not so many as Sussex in between.
Alan Ross sketched some of them, like the Langridge brothers, John – who holds most of Sussex’s batting records – and James. “John Langridge, tall and loose-limbed, was never the prettiest of players, very square-on to the bowler and often boring. But just when he had sent even the most loyal Sussex supporter to sleep he would start to cut and pull and generally make hay….He went through an obsessive ritual at the wicket, touching almost every part of his anatomy from his cap to his box while awaiting the ball.” A trail-blazer for Steve Smith, and Rory Burns.