Autumn is fast approaching in the Western world, a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, according to the English poet John Keats. It also marks the end of the cricket season in England and Wales, as the final first-class matches ended on Sept. 29.
It is a month later than it used to be in my boyhood. Then, there was a fairly clear demarcation between summer and winter sports.
Sixty years ago, the 1964 first-class cricket season began on May 6 and ended on Sept. 1. The English football league matches kicked off on Aug. 22, the last match in the 1963 to 1964 season having been played on April 27. There was a gap of almost four months.
Times have changed. Setting aside long football World Cup tournaments, regional, international, and club competitions, and extended international pre-season events, domestic fixture schedules have been elongated.
The opening 2023 to 2024 English Premier League fixture was on Aug. 11. The last one is scheduled for May 19. In the previous season, the last fixtures were played on May 28. The gap has narrowed to less than three months.
This is anathema to diehard cricket lovers. Some of them have been known to take it to extremes.
One Saturday in early September 1961, when the cricket and football seasons marginally overlapped, a team of cricketers bought an evening paper, another relic of the past.
Much to their chagrin, they had difficulty locating the cricket scores among the football coverage. Spurred on by this perceived sleight that soccer was encroaching into their season, they resolved to fight back.
The outcome was a match played on Dec. 26. Interestingly, they chose the 20-over format, long before it was introduced professionally in 2002. Soup and baked potatoes comprised lunch between innings. Spirits were provided at 10-over breaks. The event was repeated in 1962.
Given that wintry conditions were ever probable, an appropriate team name was adopted – Jack Frost XI.
The origins of Jack Frost are uncertain, but he is usually caricatured as a mischievous boy who personifies frost, formed when water vapor is deposited onto freezing surfaces. However, he failed to stop the Jack Frost XI from blossoming into a healthy club, which exists until this day.
In 1975, it played in every month of the year and has undertaken both domestic and overseas tours. Cricket has also been played on ice, as early as 1826. An international tournament, Cricket on Ice, has been played on Lake St. Moritz since 1989.
Another consequence of the closing of the gap between the end of the football season and the beginning of the cricket season – and vice versa – was to eliminate the dual professional. These were players who excelled at both a summer and winter sport to the extent that they performed at the highest levels in both. There are four categories of these talented individuals in England.
First, there are 13 who were double internationals, representing England at both cricket and football, 12 men and one woman. The last man to achieve this was Arthur Milton in 1959, but Clare Taylor made her mark in the 1990s.
Secondly, there are 22 individuals who have played cricket for England and professional football. This group includes Denis Compton, who did play football for England, but in unofficial wartime matches. Ian Botham is also in the group. The last player to achieve the feat did so in 1985.
Thirdly, there are 72 individuals who have played first-class cricket in England and have turned out for the England football team. The latest was Geoff Hurst, who played one first-class cricket match in 1962 and is most famously known for scoring a hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final.
The fourth group of 64 individuals played both first-class cricket and professional football.
Since 1980, these dual arrangements have been scarce. Currently, in English first-class cricket, there is only one player who has played professional football and is performing at county level.
It should be no surprise that there are many individuals who are multi-talented in sport. Increasingly over the last 50 years, they have had to make a choice on which sport they should focus.
Gary Neville, best known as a football pundit following a trophy laden career at Manchester United, played cricket for Lancashire at under-14 level.
Jonty Rhodes, a South African cricketer and outstanding fielder, was part of his country’s hockey team in the 1992 Olympics.
A more recent South African player, AB de Villiers, who retired from cricket in 2021, is one of few players to average more than 50 in both Test and one-day international cricket. He was also a talented tennis player, but practice sessions clashed unforgivingly with cricket.
An all-time cricketing great, Vivian Richards, represented Antigua in a qualifying match for the 1974 football World Cup. Botham, his friend and foe, had to choose between football and cricket in his youth, having been offered an apprenticeship by a First Division club.
Although he did play 11 matches for a lower division club, Botham’s choice of cricket proved to be a wise one.
One of India’s most famous dual sporting personalities was Subimal “Chuni” Goswami. He captained India at football, most famously to gold in the 1962 Asian Games. In that year, he made his debut for the Bengal cricket team, playing with distinction until 1973.
Since 1980, the opportunities for multi-talented individuals to pursue a prolonged dual-sport professional career have become practically impossible.
A classic case is Ellyse Perry. At 16, in 2006, she made her debuts for both the Australian women’s cricket and football teams. Between 2012 and 2016, clashes between cricket and football demands resulted in a focus on cricket, in which she is regarded as one of the greatest ever female players.
The spread of multi-format cricket for both men and women, accompanied by increased remuneration, demands that players are full-time, single sport, professional athletes. Effectively, this renders futile any nostalgia for demarcation to exist between sporting seasons.