January 10, 2009

Cashman and the Demon

An Australian historian who produced a classic on Indian cricket and one on a fast-bowling legend

Spofforth "seemed to reflect the popular physical notions of what the Devil looked like" © Getty Images

It is possible to pinpoint the day when Australia's first great fast bowling hero, Fred Spofforth, earned his nickname, "Demon". It was Monday, 27 May 1878, when his 10 for 20 helped Australia defeat the MCC in a day at Lord's. But it wasn't his bowling alone. He was, in the words of his biographer, Richard Cashman, "eminently recognisable, with a prominent nose and seemed to reflect the popular physical notions of what the Devil looked like". Cashman quotes a country vicar writing in 1933: "Spofforth had the type of countenance which one associates with the Spirit of Evil in Faust: A long face, piercing eyes, a hooked nose, and his hair parted in the middle giving the impression of horns."

Thus in the very first chapter of The Demon does Dr Cashman, historian and author of some of the best-researched books on cricket, introduce us both to his subject and his own style of teasing out facts.

Spofforth will forever be associated with the Ashes legend, but Cashman takes it a step further, telling us that the famous notice in London's Sporting Times mourning the death of English cricket ("The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia") was a topical one. The Cremation Society, founded seven years earlier, oversaw the first modern English cremation six weeks after the notice appeared.

In the first week of this year, when a statue of Spofforth was unveiled at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the piercing eyes stood out. "I was afraid the eyes might scare children," said the sculptor, "but I was told they should scare them."

Spofforth opted out of the first-ever Test, in Melbourne in 1876-77, because his club and state wicketkeeper, Bill Murdoch, was not selected. "It was," writes Cashman, "an arrogant and astonishing demand made by a 23-year-old yet to establish his international reputation." But that reputation was not long in the coming. Spofforth is best known for his 14 wickets at the Oval in 1882, which helped Australia beat England, who were set 85 runs to win, by seven runs, and gave birth to the Ashes legend.

Cashman tells us that the famous notice mourning the death of English cricket was a topical one. The Cremation Society, founded seven years earlier, oversaw the first modern English cremation six weeks after the notice appeared.

Cashman has held the position of Professor in History at the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology, and is the editor of the Oxford Companion to Australian Cricket. He is best known in India for his study Patrons, Players and the Crowd: The Phenomenon of Indian Cricket.

Written in 1979 (and therefore due for an update), it tells the history of Indian cricket from a variety of angles, each a starting point for a full-fledged investigation by later writers, only some of whom then took up the challenge. For long this was, along with Edward Docker's History of Indian Cricket the only serious attempt to tell the story of the game in India. Why only two Australians, both from Sydney, thought it worthwhile to even make the effort is difficult to explain. Docker apparently was moved to write after India's victory against England at the Oval in 1971. Cashman was familiar with India, having written a book on Bal Gangadhar Tilak earlier.

The Phenomenon's greatest service to cricket lovers in India lies in a table at the back of the book. Here we are told about Test players - their record, height, birth and death (and place of), mother tongue, Ranji team, level of education, occupation and father's occupation. This is Cashman research at its best. As Vijay Merchant says in the foreword: "This is not merely a history of Indian cricket as we normally understand it. The material Cashman has incorporated here, which up to now has not seen the light of day, answers many questions which cricket lovers have posed over a period of years."

Cashman has shown, too, that research need not be restricted to matters on field. Ave a Go Yer Mug, the story of Australian crowds, and in particular their famous barrackers, traces changing patterns in behaviour. The best known of those barrackers, Yabba (Stephen Harold Gascoigne) has been immortalised in bronze at the SCG, in the Trumper Stand, where he could be seen during the recent South Africa series with his hand acting like a megaphone as he shouted out his one-liners.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore