Pageant of Cricket March 1, 2008

Big pictures

David Frith's masterly pictorial history of cricket captures the game in its totality

The principle behind the long-running radio show Desert Island Discs has always seemed tantalising, even excruciating. Imagine being able to nominate eight pieces of music but only a solitary book. Re-readability, of course, is the key, but since the programme's format has yet to embrace DVDs, wouldn't you want something that stimulates the eyes while feeding the brain? That's why, for me, David Frith's consummate labour of love eases out The Great Gatsby and The Long Goodbye.

Sometimes I wish it had been published 20 years earlier than it was. That way it would have given me the best possible grounding in cricket history. It's a toss-up as to what says more for its timeless allure: that it mesmerised a 27-year-old cricket writer or that the more venerable model constantly returns to it.

Perhaps because the photography it inspires so often embraces art, reflecting the game's essential stillness, cricket is a marvellous subject for a pictorial history, for all that this is a publishing genre long fallen into disrepute. Here, though, is so much more than a scrapbook of faces and forward-defensives.

From an illustration of a monk and a nun playing an unidentified bat-and-ball game circa 1340 to a smile-filled snap of Mike Gatting's 1986-87 Ashes winners, all of cricketing life is here, adding unforeseen dimensions to familiar names and episodes. A Punch cartoon featuring WG and Wally Hammond, the 78 vinyl recording of Harold Larwood's controversial Bodyline postcript, Hugh Tayfield bowling to two silly mid-offs and two silly mid-ons, Khan Mohammed dismissing Vinoo Mankad. Equally priceless are the captions, which are masterly in somehow capturing moments and people with precision and economy while embracing depth and colour.

As Sir Donald Bradman put it in his foreword, this 640-page doorstop "goes closer to providing us with a complete picture of the past than anyone else has been able to achieve". The Don also noted that the author "seems to regard a contribution to cricket history as a duty to mankind". On behalf of mankind, may I express our gratitude. And offer fervent wishes for the eventual coming of that long-promised update.

Pageant of Cricket
by David Frith

Macmillan, 1987

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton