If you read only one cricket book in your life, which one should it be? A biography, a tour book, an autobiography, a diary, a coaching manual, fiction, history, a collection of essays, or Beyond A Boundary, which is all (well, most) of the above? Put like that, the choice is easy. But what if we go outward in ever-widening circles, to two, four, ten, 20, 35, 45 books? Strangely, it becomes more difficult.
Cricinfo's "Must-Read Books" series sounds intimidating. I can understand "Please Read" or "Read if Possible" or "Read When John Grisham is Not Available", or even "Read So You Are Not Left Behind", but there is a finality about Must Read that makes it seem solemn, worthy and a Zeus-like commandment from on Mount Olympus. But frankly, it is impossible to pick an alternative 45 - any such selection must have its Neville Cardus, its John Arlott, its Ray Robinson, its Robertson-Glasgow, its Jack Fingleton and so on.
Choosing a list of must-read books is rather like picking an all-time Earth XI to play a Mars XI - in any group of people there will always be a few names in common, a few surprises, and a couple of personal favourites who are not on anybody else's list.
I think it was the former Australian prime minister and cricket lover Robert Menzies who said that in summer you played cricket, in winter you read about it. Of all sports, with the possible exception of boxing, it is cricket that has inspired writing that verges on literature day in and day out. Like the game itself, cricket writing accommodates the delicate touch of an Alan Ross, the passion of an Arthur Mailey, the quirkiness of a Gerald Brodribb, the well-reasoned arguments of a Mike Marqusee, the humour of a PG Wodehouse, the orthodoxy of a Ramachandra Guha, and the youthfulness of a Rahul Bhattacharya without any strain.
All these writers are represented in the list, some more than once. History is a leading sub-genre, with as many entries as biography and autobiography put together. Of the half-dozen odd tour books, three feature trips to the subcontinent, captured by writers with a sense of history and a nuanced understanding of the people. Cricket Wallah is the most remarkable of these, for it is about the 1981-82 England series in India, by common consent one of the most boring, with six Tests of such stunning insipidity that mere mention of them is guaranteed to inspire a rash of yawns even today. Phil Edmonds, the England spinner, later said he was certain "a number of players went to South Africa [then banned] not just for the money but because they were bored to the soul with Test cricket after that tour".
Yet it produced one of the finest tour books ever written - a work of research and imagination, of reportage and insight, of personalities, of the smells and sights of India. Somehow through all the dullness, Scyld Berry was able to perceive a future when India would be ruling the cricket world.
There cannot be better books on coaching than the two in the list. Don Bradman's The Art of Cricket has authority, common sense, and probably tells us more about the author than even his autobiography did. Mike Brearley's The Art of Captaincy stands alone for much the same reason. Whether cricket is an art form or not - both Neville Cardus and JB Priestley have a simplistic answer, but we must turn to CLR James and the brilliant essay in his book for a fuller understanding - cricket writing is certainly an art.
The list shows a bias towards history, and it is not surprising that the finest modern historian of the game, David Frith, has four books on it. The Fast Men, Bodyline Autopsy and Pageant of Cricket are there by right, but there is, too, a charming biography of Archie Jackson, slated for greatness but dead at 23. It is written with the same delicate touch the genius is said to have brought to his batting.
David Foot's biography of Harold Gimblett and his ghosts (he finally took his own life), and Peter Roebuck's diary of a cricket season, It Never Rains throw light on an aspect of the game that is not generally commented upon, but is now becoming increasingly relevant with the emotional crises in the lives of such as Marcus Trescothick. Cricket can be a hard taskmaster. How often have players wanted to say: the hell with winning or losing, let me end it all here.
Wodehouse at the Wicket is the only work of fiction here. And, with Martin Johnson's Can't Bat, Can't Bowl, Can't Field, one of only two that can be filed under Humour. This is perhaps the biggest drawback of the list. Cricket is a game that lends itself to laughter. First of all there are the ridiculous postures one gets into (thus, someone has pointed out, cricket is like sex). Then there is the gap between the game played in the mind and the one played on the field. Officialdom tends to be pompous; tours at lower levels are often disasters. Marcus Berkmann's Rain Men is funny because it mirrors the experiences of players across the world. Berkmann's team is the Captain Scott XI (named after the polar explorer who is the symbol of the second-best). "To be treated with the respect you don't deserve," Berkmann writes, "is the dream of every talentless sportsman." He is not on the list, nor is Bernard Hollowood (Cricket on the Brain).
Gideon Haigh's book on Packer cricket, The Cricket War, is there, and so is Marqusee's Anyone But England. Also, Derek Birley's The Willow Wand, essays de-mythologising the game. Still, this still has the feel of an "establishment" list, with not too much boat-rocking or too many uncomfortable questions asked.
Sometimes it is good to begin with an author, and ask the question: if you were to read only one Cardus (or Robinson or Frith), which one would it be? The List gives you an idea of where to start. It also recommends books not as well known, but which are gems, like Sujit Mukherjee's Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer. Again, like in a cricket team, what you are looking for is balance.
Reading is a lonely activity. Yet when the writing is evocative or provocative, and throws light on great players and great characters, you are never alone. Sport is also about fantasy - 11 men doing what 11 million want to do. When you read about a Bradman drive or a Trueman express, you become Bradman or Trueman. The best books transport you regularly between the cricket field at Eden Gardens, say, and the one deep in your heart where it never rains.
Must Read - and not just Must Read Because I Say So.
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore