Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps

A phoenix of anecdotes

Paul Coupar reviews Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps

Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps: A Sledger's History of the Ashes
by Simon Briggs (Quercus, 280pp) £9.99

"How's your wife and my kids?" asked Rod Marsh from behind the stumps. "The wife's fine," replied the batsman, Ian Botham, "but the kids are retarded."

Ah, sledging and the Ashes - two of our favourite subjects, perhaps too much so. The ground is so heavily trodden that it is hard to find anything fresh, or even alive.

But Simon Briggs, a cricket writer on the Daily Telegraph, pulls it off. His anecdotal history of the Ashes - long on stories, refreshingly short on statistics - is a crackling tale. There are enough fresh insights to hold the interest of the specialist.

Here is Graham Dilley on Botham's rejuvenation after losing the captaincy in 1981: "It was almost as if you'd taken a child, made him an adult for a while, then allowed him to go back to being a child."

The writing is wonderfully crisp. Using vivid snapshots of key players and moments, Briggs rattles through the 123 years with a scriptwriter's feel for pace and detail. He puts in what the scorecards leave out.

What emerges is a snappy, funny, vivid and accurate telling of the Ashes story: the 19th century and the reign of WG ("the perpetual schoolboy"); the golden age of classicism, bookended by two pragmatists, Grace and Warwick Armstrong; the 1920s and Armstrong, "who treated cricket as war"; Bradman ("not a single redeeming defect"); Bodyline (Jardine: "I've got it! Bradman's yellow!"); 1953 ("Wear the buggers down"); the 1970s ("gang warfare"); 1987-2003 (the onslaught of the "Baggy Green Machine"); and finally English catharsis in 2005 (Edgbaston - "the most famous insertion since Brutus did for Caesar").

It is all hurried along by some corking quotes. So, without further ado here are The Best One-Liners in Ashes History -

The Colin Cowdrey award for chivalry: "It doesn't worry me in the slightest to see the batsman hurt, rolling around screaming and blood on the pitch" - Jeff Thomson.

The Sid Vicious award for lèse majesté: "Nice legs for an old Sheila" - Rodney Hogg, while in earshot of the Queen.

The Sydney Hill award for audience participation: "Hey, Warr, you've got as much chance of taking a Test wicket on this tour as I have of pushing a pound of butter up a parrot's arse with a hot needle."

The chances of making an Ashes history sing afresh would seem to be no better. But Briggs's chronicle is a delight.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer and will be covering the first two Tests for Cricinfo