Life Beyond the Airing Cupboard January 31, 2009

Out of the darkness

John Barclay was a nearly man as a player, but absolutely makes it as a writer of memoirs



John Barclay's was a career of almosts. As an offspinning allrounder he fell just short of Test class. As a talented, unorthodox captain of Sussex he ended 1981 a fingernail short of their first Championship. As manager of England tours in the late 1990s he left just before the Duncan Fletcher renaissance. But there is no "almost" about this memoir.

The closest he came to Test cricket was in that bittersweet summer of 1981, when he captained the Test and County Cricket Board XI (TCCB XI), in effect a national 2nd team. Addressing the squad in front of Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors, Barclay took his speech to its rousing climax. With the words still hanging in the air, he turned to his left, opened the door to toss up - and walked directly into an airing cupboard. The dressing room fell about, Bedser looked startled, Barclay never played for England.

For many cricketers those near-misses would have produced a bitter, score-settling sort of memoir. But these moving reflections on cricket and life glow with a winning, almost Hobbsian, generosity of spirit, soaring above petty rivalries to approach, at times, the level of spiritual meditation.

Barclay the cricketer presents himself as a kind of offspinning Bertie Wooster, bumbling through a career of occasional lucky successes and many routine failures. These included the key role his captaincy played in bringing Sri Lanka to the public's attention and catapulting them into Test cricket, when a ploy to let the opposing batsman set the field went wrong for the TCCB XI.

However, as well as laughter, we find a moving human story of quiet courage in the face of an enemy more formidable than anything he met on the field. From his first days as an outstanding public-school batsman he knew "the fear and insecurity that accompanies talent". The airing cupboard of the title was his refuge, into which he disappeared to calm himself before games. Nerves became crippling anxiety and depression. Though he smiled in front of his team, he secretly took anti-depressants for most of his career. Trying to come off them he ended up spending a long period in a hospital for the bewildered, a place of dressing gowns and shuffling silence from which he periodically tried to escape. For years he played on, disguising his illness as "glandular fever". It is a moving story, the more so for its lack of showy self-dramatisation.

The book comprises 30 episodes, each carefully evoked. This eliminates dreary stretches of routine reportage - a format other publishers could fruitfully investigate. What emerges is a rounded portrait of a quietly remarkable man. The last scene is a contented portrait of his garden, with a lawn for football and cricket, and rabbits for the Jack Russell to chase. Perhaps that is the real secret of Barclay's lack of rancour: a man who, against the odds, has learnt to tolerate himself perhaps finds it easier to tolerate everyone else too.

Life Beyond the Airing Cupboard
by John Barclay
Fairfield Books £15


Paul Coupar is assistant editor of the Wisden Cricketer. This review was first published in the January 2009 issue. Subscribe here