Sporting life of a master wordsmith

Summer was always the sweeter for reading Jim Kilburn. Duncan Hamilton pays tribute to Yorkshire's voice of cricket.

J.M Kilburn was one of cricket's major romantic poets; the Coleridge to Neville Cardus's Wordsworth. Kilburn believed that "beauty we see in cricket because cricket is beauty", and for more than 40 summers – "sweet" summers, as he described them – his cultivated essays captured the essence of it.

For Kilburn, the blunt statistics of the game were used merely as evidence of quality. But, as he made clear, "figures cannot convey the splendour of an evening's innings" and so his words did the job instead.

He gave imaginative life to everything he saw, and his perceptive vignettes of players were always gilt-framed by the landscape into which each one was set: the ground, the weather, perhaps a distant church tower, the mood and feel of the occasion.

What fascinated Kilburn, and which illuminated his writing, were the technical aspects of cricket and the disparate skills and characters involved in its pure, hard combat. He wrote about them analytically and with a supple intelligence: the way a bowler's knotty fingers gripped the ball, the skill in a wristy flick that sent a loose delivery scorching past point and the tactical chess between captains.

With intense observation, he was able to fasten on to a splinter of detail and fashion it into a phrase that gave high definition to a man or a specific moment. Walter Hammond's walk to the wicket: "He came like a king and he looked like a king in his coming"; Brian Statham's removal of his sweater, which was achieved "by stretching one hand over his shoulder to the small of the back, indicating an uncommon suppleness of joints"; Fred Trueman's argumentative streak: "Trueman always had breath to spare for an expression of opinion"; Jack Hobbs "burning the grass with boundaries"; Don Bradman as a "textbook of batting come to life with never a misprint or erratum".

Kilburn created portraits as vivid as lightning, and quickly established himself as a respected correspondent during one of those Golden Ages of cricket writing. He didn't go in for fence-sitting. "What I thought praiseworthy, I praised. What I thought inadequate, I condemned," he said. Along with cricket, which he studied obsessively, his head was full of literature; his books and articles are garnished with quotations from writers and poets such

as Shakespeare, Stevenson, Kipling and Brooke.

Serendipity began Kilburn's cricket writing career. Born in Sheffield in 1909, he went to university there, taking a degree in economics, and briefly became a teacher at a Harrogate prep school before spending a year in Finland, where he sent travel articles to the Yorkshire Post. On his return, the editor, Arthur Mann, immediately agreed to meet him. Oddly for a newspaper which took cricket seriously, the Yorkshire Post no longer had its own correspondent attached to Yorkshire. But Mann liked Kilburn's writing, and he liked Kilburn. His first assignment was daunting: the Roses match at Sheffield. Kilburn sat on the back row of the Bramall Lane press box and "spoke only when I was spoken to". His writing spoke eloquently for him. So eloquently, in fact, that Cardus wrote to the newspaper and said of Kilburn: "To my mind, yours is the best cricket reporting today". It was the equivalent of a papal blessing.

He vehemently disapproved of chasing quotes or tit-bits of gossip. The reporting of dressing-room tittle-tattle was demeaning and unnecessary, he argued; the Yorkshire Post was paying for his view. If asked to cover something he regarded as detached from, or superfluous to, what was happening inside the boundary rope, he would reply firmly: "I am here to write about the cricket". His principles made Kilburn a confidant of players, who came to trust him implicitly.

Kilburn cast light on to eras long gone – and that appear only tangentially connected to the present – but which are deserving of more than just sentimental reflection. The easiest thing to say after reading him is: how times change. In 1934, when Kilburn began writing for the Yorkshire Post, Bradman effortlessly stroked 304 in the Headingley Test, Yorkshire's daily attendance for County Championship matches nudged 8,000 and amateurs frequently enjoyed superior dressing room or hotel accommodation to professionals. There were no motorways, no TV coverage and radio was still in its crackling infancy.

In 1946, the journey to Australia for the first post-war Ashes series took a tedious three-and-a-half weeks by boat; Kilburn was squashed into a cabin with EW Swanton, who wrote: "Jim Kilburn and I shared a cabin so small that we literally could not stand up in it together – a trial of friendship which I'm glad to say survived." When Kilburn retired in 1976, the Packer revolution of World Series Cricket – coloured clothing, floodlights, the white ball and the original bulky helmets – was less than a year away. By then Kilburn's longevity had enabled him to witness the genius of Bradman, the extraordinary gifts of Hutton, the arrival and dominance of Garry Sobers, the departure of the amateur, an end to uncovered pitches, a waning of interest in the Championship, the establishment of three one-day competitions and the widespread commercialisation of cricket.

While Kilburn fretted about the route cricket was taking, his response was not a blanket rejection of progress. He believed cricket was in danger of losing its spirit and purity. What he had to say about it made him a high-minded and slightly idealistic critic, but also a prescient one. His worry about the proliferation of one-day cricket and its impact on the County Championship and Test matches might equally apply today to the spread of Twenty20. His concern at declining moral standards in cricket, and his thoughts on the meaning of sportsmanship, still resonate far beyond the boundary ropes of his sport. Perhaps things haven't changed as much as we think.

The romantic streak in Kilburn is, thankfully, never far from the surface. It comes out in his claim that: "No day passes upon a cricket field without some joy is brought to someone." The joy it brought him is explained in his account of the start of a new season. "We go again where we have so often been before, to find new paint upon the same pavilion railings, to see new figures tread the old steps well worn by the feet of the mighty ones of yesterday."

He revered players who possessed virtue: Hedley Verity fizzing each ball; Trueman's daggered glares; Keith Miller as tough as galvanised steel; Bradman's regal grace.

Kilburn's closeness to cricket and to the men who played it gave him an insight into the scalding stress that Len Hutton's 364 brought with it, Verity's rigorous self-examination of his art ("To dismiss a modest batting side on a turning pitch was to him no more than the routine

of a bank cashier completing a simple balance") and the joie de vivre of Percy Holmes. If Holmes was the first to arrive at the reception desk of a hotel before an away match, he would tell the clerk: "Register us as Percy Holmes and his circus.".

Studio photographs make Kilburn look austerely formal and patrician. But there is a dry, mischievous humour in some of the pieces, such as his verdict on Maurice Leyland's bowling to a rampant Bradman. "No-one expected him to get a wicket," wrote Kilburn. "He was neither good enough nor bad enough for that"; the parallel he drew between Emmott Robinson and the characters of Dickens; and his account of what he saw one baking afternoon in Adelaide. "At the kerbside, five or six strikingly attractive young ladies were standing beneath a sign that read: Queue for Kilburn. An envious companion assured me that the girls were merely waiting for a local bus."

Less than a year after he covered his final Test match for the Yorkshire Post, in 1976, Kilburn began to lose his sight. Age-related macular degeneration left him with just peripheral vision.

He could neither read nor watch cricket. But he listened to commentary on radio, and continued to talk about the game and take an interest in it. He died in Harrogate, aged 84, on August 38, 1993.

Fittingly, Yorkshire were playing at Headingley that day. As well as his writing for the Yorkshire Post, he left behind 10 books and was a significant contributor to two more. Of everything he wrote about cricket, one sentence encapsulates Kilburn's unshakeable love for it and his belief in its capacity to stir emotions. "Cricket is of us," he wrote, "as the very breath in our lungs, (and) makes poets of the incoherent and artists of the artisans." Even without cricket JM Kilburn would have been a poet and artist. With it, he soared. He enriched it with his pen as indisputably as Bradman enriched it

with his bat.

A great cricket writer of my time. ... his cricket writing made a massive contribution to a memorable era.

Sir Donald Bradman

I detect three things whenever I read Jim Kilburn's words. Firstly, the sheer pleasure he took from watching the game. Secondly, the warmth of feeling he generated in writing about it. Thirdly, the unmistakable fact that he loved and respected cricket so much. He was a cricket man.

Geoffrey Boycott

The cricket world will be reminded of Jim Kilburn's writing skills and his knowledge and love of the game.

Richie Benaud

I will never forget Jim Kilburn, a great man, the voice of Yorkshire cricket, who became a wonderful friend to me throughout my career. It makes me very proud when I say that I could count Mr Kilburn as one of my very best friends. That's what I used to call him – Mr Kilburn. Always.

Dickie Bird

To some, my father Len Hutton, might have seemed enigmatic but Jim saw that he approached things tangentially, was oblique and astute, and held views that had not occurred to others.

Richard Hutton

Jim Kilburn wrote as he lived – with disciplined, somewhat austere urbanity. He was no more likely to construct an untidy sentence than to raise his voice.

John Woodcock

This is an edited version of Duncan Hamilton's preface to Sweet Summers, The Classic Cricket Writing of JM Kilburn, which is published by Great Northern.

It also includes contributions from: Dickie Bird, Richie Benaud, Richard Hutton, John Woodcock, Matthew Engel, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Geoffrey Moorhouse, David Frith, Brian Close, Ray Illingworth, Chris Waters and Stephen Chalke.

To obtain a copy of Sweet Summers for 19.75, including p&p, ring our order line on 01748 821122, Monday-Saturday, 9am-5pm. To order by post, send a cheque or p/o made payable to Yorkshire Books Ltd and send to Yorkshire Books Ltd, Castle Hill Richmond, North Yorkshire DL10 4QP.