Beyond Bat and Ball October 11, 2008

Player pages

Reading David Foot's warm, conversational profiles of cricketers is like sharing in the camaraderie of a dressing room

Siegfried Sassoon's is perhaps the definitive portrayal in Foot's book © Getty Images

"This is not really a book about cricket," begins David Foot's introduction to Beyond Bat and Ball, and it is not so much a disclaimer as a personal descriptor. In the course of his several works, Foot has seldom had cricket in mind as often as character. The figures wield bats and propel balls, enjoy success and brood on failure. But the bonds that the writer strikes with his subjects are more personal. Reading Beyond Bat and Ball is like joining a wonderfully various and eclectic club, and sharing in the happinesses and heartaches of a noisy dressing room. Cricket provides the entrée - it is not why necessarily why one stays.

Superficially at least, nothing links the subjects of Foot's subtle, chiaroscuro profiles, save the writer's involvement with or interest in them. Some, such as Somerset's Bill Andrews, are drawn from his round as a west-country county cricket reporter; others, like Jack Fingleton, came into Foot's ken in the press box. A couple, Tom Richardson and Bertie Poore, are historical curios.

The "inner game" is Foot's stock in trade. He is best known for his biographies of the endlessly troubled Gloucestershire contemporaries Harold Gimblett and Walter Hammond; here, I fancy, he is better employed, for all humanity's humours are encountered. There is Bill Greswell, thwarted in his promising cricket career when sent to Ceylon to manage his family's estate, a bitter, morose, emotionally constipated man who disliked Jews, blacks and Yorkshiremen; but there is also the big-hearted, big-brained Bev Lyon, too heterodox to interest anyone in his idea, 30 years ahead of its time, for a county one-day knockout, but unforgettable to anyone who travelled in his yellow Rolls Royce.

The tone is warm, conversational, confidential: the reader is introduced to flawed friendships, failed marriages, shattered allegiances and numerous miscellaneous personal sorrows.

There is ample fun to be found in the Falstaffian Jim Smith, who when he last broke down needed four men to freight him from the field, and conjurer-cum-raconteur Jack Mercer, who prevented interruption of his storytelling with a pointed gesture to his hearing aid: "Not working today."

Ten of the portraits are of first-class players. The "odd man out", as Foot calls him, is the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, hardly a cricketer but a genuine man of cricket, being "happiest of all on a cricket field", especially when his beloved local club, the Ravens, were playing.

Cricket as an institution and ritual was important to Sassoon, just as the hunting pink had been. Yet the feudal side of his interest was only nominal, a concession to his background. The war had made him more liberal and he privately wished he could have shown it more as he sat in front of the old pavilion, waiting his turn to bat. He loved the shepherd and the chirpy village boys, especially when they bowled out the opposition by four o'clock. Sadly his classlessness remained theoretical.

Cricket was his game because it gave him space and time. If his eyes misted over as he reflected again on how his best friend died from a rifle bullet, no-one knew. Mid-on was as good a cavern as anywhere for introspection: offering as much solitiude as he found on his daily stroll through the woodland of his estate. There were times when he needed to unburden himself, to wreak his anger on man's inhumanity: it helped when Edmund Blunden was around to share and do his best to absorb some of the pain, before lightening the gloom with a droll memory of Fenner's.

Far from being the "odd man out", in fact, Sassoon's is the essential portrait. Foot reminds us of cricket's "dark theory", that it harbours a disproportionate number of self-destructive souls: "The chilling division between the visible joy and animation of the game and cricket's nagging mental torment cannot be ignored." But "nagging mental torment", un-ignorable as it may be, is all relative: Sassoon, who endured torments beyond imagining, found in cricket an endless source of affirmation. Cricket, for all sorts of reasons, is sometimes a little overfond of "dark theories"; vastly more existences otherwise unendurable has it relieved, rejuvenated and prolonged. Which is why while Foot takes us Beyond Bat and Ball, he ends up leading us back there.

Beyond Bat and Ball: Eleven Intimate Portraits
by David Foot

Godo Books, 1993

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer