Alan Hill

Daring Young Men

Rob Steen
Rob Steen reviews Daring Young Men by Alan Hill

Forget 1981 and 2005. If you really want to play parallels, how about 1954-55 and 2005? Both provided famished Englishmen with a rare and convincing Ashes triumph, plotted by a Yorkshire batsman and executed by a versatile five-man attack. Both saw the victors go one down before snatching a close-run second Test. And both inspired too many hardbacks - more than a dozen apiece, most of them unimpaired by perspective. That England won only one more Ashes series before drawing a complete blank in the 1960s is not entirely propitious.

"England, not being grotesquely bad at cricket like Australia, won the Ashes ..." Thus that unfailingly contrary Australian opener Sidney Barnes began The Ashes Ablaze, his (ghosted) account of England's most fondly remembered triumph down under since Bodyline. But then Australians are uncommonly adept at diminishing their vanquishers. A more disinterested view would be that England were further along the road to renewal, and could have reversed history's tide had Colin Cowdrey built more assertively on the rich promise of his maiden tour and Frank Tyson not been confined to a handful more Tests.

This was the final Ashes trip for the postwar pillars - Len Hutton and Alec Bedser, Denis Compton and Bill Edrich - and it was Alan Hill's "Daring Young Men" who now walked tallest: Peter May and Cowdrey the batting heartbeat, Brian Statham and Tyson, whose pace capitalised on some iffy surfaces and consistently beheaded the opposition before Bob Appleyard (cut and spin) and Johnny Wardle (left-arm orthodox and chinamen) tussled over the torso. Had Michael Vaughan held such a hand, September's tense finale would have been unnecessary.

Yet Hill reserves his most fervent (and not unbiased) admiration for Hutton. He scorns those - Richie Benaud among them - who criticised an intentionally slow rate of 60 eight-ball overs a day (about 80 six-ball overs) and skates over the enigmatic captain's failure to apprise Bedser of his omission from the Melbourne Test. Still, if semi-blinkered idolatry is your thing, it is hard to conceive of a more deserving object. Hutton battled illness, nerves and the strain of a decade spent manning burning decks; he also carried the burden of being England's first professional captain of the 20th century. He deserved a George Cross more than a paltry knighthood.

One of the elite to have won the Cricket Society Literary Award twice (for biographies of fellow Yorkists Herbert Sutcliffe and Hedley Verity), Hill is a nostalgist of occasional elegance and vast industry. Here he has interviewed most of the surviving players, which is why, though this tour now seems almost too familiar, and nothing especially revelatory emerges, the book remains eminently worthwhile. One could be picky. Hill has been ill-served by both editor and proofreaders, which may explain some atypical lapses: even pre-Laker, Tyson's 7 for 27 in Melbourne were nothing like the best figures in Ashes history. More vexing is the lack of context: bar a snap of the four-shilling turnstiles at Adelaide there is little sense of time or place. Still it is a happy tale lovingly retold.