Ashes book reviews November 19, 2006

Brimful of Ashes

Martin Williamson reviews the latest Ashes books offerings

In his foreword to Cricket's Burning Passion (see below), Michael Atherton writes: "In the aftermath of the wondrous 2005 Ashes series, a raft of cricket books appeared on the bookshelves. There were the usual gruesome mix of ghosted autobiographies, ghosted diaries and rushed, ill-considered reviews ...". Ahead of the 2006-07 series a number of books have been issued, as expected, but the quality is far superior than those Atherton refers to. In 2005, the writers were all up against tight deadlines as publishers sought to cash in. The current offering shows that the authors have had the advantage of having time to prepare, and the result in a much more enjoyable and readable selection

Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps Simon Briggs (Quercus, 280pp)

So much has been written about the Ashes, especially since September 2005, that finding a fresh angle on such a well-documented history would seem to present an almost insurmountable challenge. However, Simon Briggs has managed to rise to the occasion, and the end result is a delightful offering which should appeal to both seasoned fan and relative newcomer. The strength of the book is that it eschews the worthy-but-dull statistics which often form the bedrock of such histories and, by concentrating on the colourful characters and events the result is an easy read but a far from unfulfilling one. If you want a potted history of Test cricket's oldest continuous rivalry - and you want to be entertained into the bargain - then look no further.

The Ashes Miscellany Clive Batty (VSP 146pp)

The problem with books of miscellany is that the originals have spawned some dreadful offspring with little merit aimed at nothing more than cashing in on the sales boom. In the last couple of months there have been two such dire offerings, so it was a delight to find that The Ashes Miscellany is a return to the well-researched and entertaining kind of book that made the genre so popular in the first place. The contents will appeal to both those who consider themselves well versed in Ashes history and casual cricket fans who want trivia to impress their friends in the pub. It would have been too easy to pad the book with well-worn anecdotes and page-filling statistics, but Clive Batty has avoided that short cut and produced a genuinely good publication.

The Book of Ashes Anecdotes Gideon Haigh (Mainstream 376pp)

The delight of setting out on a review of anything by Gideon Haigh is that you know it will be a quality read, and this collection of quotes and book extracts is no exception. He has produced a similar offering before - his 1997 Australian Cricket Anecdotes is well worth snuffling out - and this follows a similar format. Some of the entries are familiar but many are not, and it is those that shed a new light on many events in Ashes history. What really makes this, however, is that Haigh has not gone down the route of reproducing pithy one-liners but has opted for longer extracts, and this allows the flavour of the writers and characters to come through and make a more lasting effect. I found the Bodyline section the most interesting, especially Douglas Jardine's reflection on it and Bradman some years later. "You know, we nearly didn't do it," he said. "The little man was bloody good." That last sentiment also applies to Haigh's book.

Cricket's Burning Passion Scyld Berry and Rupert Peploe (Methuen 206pp)

In his introduction, Michael Atherton notes that amid all the Ashes brouhaha in 2005, few actually knew much about the urn at the heart of all the fuss. The challenge for Berry and Peploe (the great grandson of Ivo Bligh, the man who regained the Ashes lost in 1882) was to bring alive a tour which took place 124 years ago. That they have done, and the end result is a remarkable story and a compelling read. Bligh is one of the game's more colourful characters and those who toured with him - and almost all of them died young - are a fascinating rabble. And as for the urn? Well, there remains some uncertainty about its contents. Some say it is a burnt bail, others a burnt piece of leather from a ball. Most likely, however, it is ash from fires at Bligh's run-down stately home - more than one tale exists of the urn being knocked over and the contents spilled and replaced from the fireplace by clumsy servants. The Ashes are possibly sports' least intrinsically valuable trophy. This book helps to explain why they are priceless.

Match of My Life Sam Pilger and Rob Wightman (Know the Score books, 240pp)

It requires something really unique for a new Ashes book to poke its head above the masses. And though Sam Pilger and Rob Wightman's Match of My Life lacks a certain gravitas, the 12 names featured provide enough interesting and amusing anecdotes to hold the reader's attention span. The premise is simple: 12 famous Ashes names recount their stories. The usual and the modern are all there: Ashley Giles, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer - but far too much has already been said about 2005, the series which apparently beats all that precede it. Fortunately there are others to address the balance and Neil Harvey opens the book's innings. Written in his own words Harvey recounts his first Ashes Test (he made 112 in the first innings scored the winning run in Australia's chase of 404). It is written with candour with amusing stories of the tours - meeting King George VI and Keith Miller's friendship with the current queen, Elizabeth - which comes as a relief. Langer's, on the other hand, is too misty-eyed; a syrupy tone is best left for the biography. And writing in the third person, which he does once or twice, is an instant mood-killer too. Talking of killing the mood, Geoffrey Boycott - an inevitable name to appear in such a collection - is characteristically candid, although offers a little too much on his own achievements. It's Geoffrey, though, and therefore required reading. Overall, it is a crisp, brisk and enjoyable view into players' experiences of playing in the Ashes. It's a little different, too, and therefore worth a look.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo and Will Luke is editorial assistant