Siegfried Sassoon was an extraordinary character. A soldier whose reckless regard for his own safety and his sacrificial concern for his men earned him the nickname “Mad Jack,” he was awarded the Military Cross for bringing back the wounded in one action, and would have received the Distinguished Service Order for his bravery in another action, if the overall action itself had not been adjudged to have been a failure. Serving on the Western Front and Palestine, Captain Sassoon was once shot through the torso by enemy fire and once suffered a bullet wound to the head from a rifle fired from his own lines, both wounds requiring his return to hospitals in England. A war hero, a major poet and memoirist, a renowned anti-war campaigner, he was also known as an enthusiastic huntsman, a skilled horseman, a good golfer, and a handy cricketer.
Of all the qualities of Siegfried Sassoon that I envy, it is his proficiency at the cricket crease that I most admire.
It was cricket played at local club level, but such cricket seems to capture the essence of the game. When Sassoon describes turning out for local teams and batting in the middle of the order and scoring a respectable thirty or forty runs, I wish that I could have had that degree of hand-eye co-ordination and that degree of athleticism.
Cricket grounds were more plentiful in his times, the sport more widely played. There would hardly have been a village that did not field at least one team. Quantity did not mean quality when it came to playing conditions. Pitches were much more primitive, the bounce of the ball was much more uneven, the equipment much more a random collection of what could be gathered up.
Yet no matter how haphazard the game, no matter how basic the amenities, there is an aesthetic quality about cricket. Pitches are immaculate, the square at the centre is as smooth as baize. Pavilions are often quaint, sometimes pretty, always homely. The game is not merely competitive sport, it is an experience and a culture. Stand at the gateway of a village cricket ground and you are standing at the entrance to a world of tradition, skill, friendship and beauty.
In the 1990s, in times when I still bought a hard copy newspaper, I remember that I bought the Daily Telegraph for no reason other than its cricket writing. Siegfried Sassoon would have made an unmatched cricket correspondent.