I GREW up not with a silver spoon in my mouth, but a cricket bat. It was a fine slab of willow, nicely yellowed, nicked here and there at the edges, and always smelling of raw linseed oil. Many hundreds of runs flowed sweetly from the center of that bat, and it was given pride of place alongside a clutch of books by the cricket writer of the Manchester Guardian, Neville Cardus.
I respected him above all others at the time because he also wrote about music for his paper and was so kind to my favorite composer, Edward Elgar, of whom he wrote, ``He was a full and human being. And to those who knew him he was great, not only in his largest and loftiest conceptions but in his simple English failings.'' That's what I hope someone writes one day about Cardus, I thought, as I buried my nose more deeply into his book ``Days in the Sun.''
I've been privileged as a sports commentator to spend days in the sun at every venue from which Cardus sent his famous dispatches, and more.
I've heard batsmen's calls blend with the music of bells across Christ Church Meadow in Oxford; I've watched rainbows tempt batsmen to reach for the skies at Eden Park in Auckland; I've felt the sledgehammer blows of the sun at ``The Gabba'' in Brisbane, and the beneficence of the sun at Lord's in May. I've laughed at the clamorous appeals of the mynahs that dart bravely across the pitch at Kingsmead in Durban, and I've cracked many a ``four'' with a piece of driftwood on wide white beaches in the Caribbean.
So what if ``cricket more than any other game is inclined toward sentimentalism and cant,'' as Cardus wrote 60 years ago, and ``the players of cricket have been arranged and displayed in a white and shining hagiology.'' So what?
I learned early in life that a cricket match demands stamina, concentration, precision, cunning, patience, and a love of nature. Cardus says, ``The game itself is a capricious blend of elements, static and dynamic, sensational and somnolent. You can never take your eyes from a cricket match for fear of missing a crisis.''
But in between, there's more than enough time to watch clouds weave patterns in the sky and soft winds ripple through the pines. There's time to smell the freshly mown grass, stretch the mind with statistics, make lasting friendships, forget about the office, train as a weather forecaster, decide whom you're going to marry, and teach a child to wait and watch. There's time to enjoy silence punctuated only by the crack of ball on bat; listen for the music in people's voices and accents; and hear the kiskadee or the hadada call through the sunset.
Birds sing more tunefully, it seems, when there's support from a tympanist with bat and ball, or the soft crackle of applause in the twilight. Church spires grow taller when they have to peer over the elms to see whether a well-struck ball will reach the benches on the boundary.
Cardus was most discerning when he wrote: ``Where there is no beauty there is no cricket.'' Beautiful places cry out for cricket to be played there. Slanting sunlight demands white-clad figures among whom to cast long blue shadows.
Yet even traditionalists have had to accept the theatrical day-night game in which white flannels and shirts have made way for multicolored ``pyjama suits'' with huge numbers on their backs.
After all, cricket wouldn't be cricket without a few coarse shouts of ``Yoo'l nevvir git 'em aaowt!'' or ``Hit the bleedin' ball, yer ain't got all night!''
So what if they play for a total of 24 hours or more and don't get a winner? Everyone's gained something, whether it be peace of mind, a new facility in doing crosswords, a suntan that should last, or time for a jolly good think.
Cardus called cricket the possession of all, high and low, rich and poor. ``It was born in a small place and it has conquered all the habitations of our race.''
Sir Neville insisted that Sir Edward Elgar (yes, both were knighted) ``showed us all that was lovely in English life.'' I insist that Cardus showed me all that was lovely in cricket, and imbued me with a love that has survived even the blandishments of several Olympic Games and the World Series of baseball.
I'd have been happy to share a press box with Neville Cardus anytime, provided I could have brought along Denis Compton and Wally Hammond, Conrad Hunte and Viv Richards, Mike Procter, Neil Harvey, Richard Hadlee, and Sunil Gavaskar ... and someone to play Elgar's Cello Concerto as a mellow sun dropped slowly behind a drowsing West Stand.
Kim Shippey, a radio and television sports commentator, broadcasts for the World Service of the Monitor. Cricket-playing nations will compete for the World Cup in India and Pakistan in October and November.