April 13, 2008

Three misfits

Long before Shoaib Akhtar, cricket had its share of rebels who didn't fit the social mould
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Parker: 'Mr Bloody Warner will go to bed when I've finished with him' © The Cricketer International

Cricket periodically produces a player who is a rule-breaker, whose talent seems on the verge of being overcome by his temperament, one who can be frustrating and is widely seen to be his own worst enemy. No, this is not the start of an essay on Shoaib Akhtar, but if the cap fits him, it also fit many of his predecessors. Some of them had near-successful careers, others faded away quickly, and some others inhabited the no man's land between a successful first-class career and a forgettable international one.

In the 1926 Ashes Test at Headingley, England, according to RES Wyatt, made the "most extraordinary mistake in Test history" by leaving out Charlie Parker, the best left-arm spinner in the country. Parker finished his career with 3278 first-class wickets (only Wilfred Rhodes and Tich Freeman took more) and six hat-tricks, but he played only one Test match, against Australia in 1921.

David Foot, biographer of "characters who do not fit into their social mould" begins Cricket's Unholy Trinity, about Parker, Jack MacBryan and Cecil Parkin, with the story of Parker confronting Plum Warner, the establishment's establishment man. Parker grabbed the lapels of the older man when asked to stand aside to make way for him. "I'll never in my life make way for that bugger," Parker declared. "He's never once had a good word to say for me. This so-and-so has blocked my Test career. I played once in 1921 and he made sure I never played again. Make way for him? Mr Bloody Warner will go to bed when I've finished with him."

As Foot says, "This is not quite a cricket book. It is a story of three fine cricketers. There is a subtle and important difference." Foot has written biographies of the Somerset genius Harold Gimblett, and Walter Hammond, revealing in the latter book that the great English batsman had a venereal disease that required treatment with mercury and was the reason for his curmudgeonly character.

Here Foot paints a picture of three players dedicated to their craft, but who had no patience for the artificial rules surrounding their sport. They played their best cricket in the 1920s, when cricket was indeed a reflection of society, and anyone who questioned its codes was immediately labelled a maverick and found no place in its cosy insularity.

The controversial threesome emerge as men with an earthy sense of humour and a life beyond cricket. When did he set an attacking field for a batsman, Parker was asked. "As soon as I saw the batsman coming down the pavilion steps," he replied.

 
 
Foot paints a picture of three players dedicated to their craft, but who had no patience for the artificial rules surrounding their sport. They played their best cricket in the 1920s, when cricket was indeed a reflection of society, and anyone who questioned its codes was immediately labelled a maverick
 

MacBryan scored 18 centuries for Somerset, for whom he also played rugby, golf and hockey. He played hockey at the 1920 Olympic Games and, Foot tells us in an aside, received a medal for the 100 and 200 metres. The South African winner couldn't make it to the podium and MacBryan, who looked a bit like him, was awarded the medal by the King of Belgium.

In fact, part of the charm of the book lies in the casual asides, which are the result of deep research. The story of Parkin's wife helping him with his offspin bowling by batting at the other end, and Parkin's tribute to her, are touching.

If Parker's problem was Warner, Parkin's was Lord Hawke. Parkin took 1048 first-class wickets and played ten Tests. He asked the famous, and then unpopular, question about the custom of having only amateurs captain England. "What's wrong with Herbert Sutcliffe or Jack Hobbs?" he wrote in his signed column. "Pray God no professional will ever captain England," responded Hawke - although Foot takes care to put that in context for us.

It was, in fact, a ghostwritten column that ended Parkin's career - one in which the ghost wrote that Parkin would not care to play for England after the way he had been treated by his captain, Arthur Gilligan, in a Test match.

The stories of these three complex personalities are told with compassion and an underlying regret for what might have been. Cricket's Unholy Trinity is a wonderful antidote to today's statistics-based player biographies, which tell us more about Cricinfo's Statsguru than about personalities, character or motivation.

Cricket's Unholy Trinity
by David Foot

Stanley Paul, 1985

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore