January 9, 2011

The hardest yards

Murray Hedgcock
Entertaining accounts of post-war Ashes series in Australia written from an unabashed English viewpoint


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© Aurum

It would be pleasingly provocative if this book, based primarily on the memories of post-war England tourists in Australia, included an appendix naming those players who turned down the invitation to speak up. But there is fun to be had also in debating who might be on that list. Regardless, Huw Turbervill has done an effective, often revealing and entertaining job in summarising each of the 16 Ashes series played in Australia since 1945.

It is immediately fascinating that Alec Bedser, in possibly his last interview before his death last April aged 91, should say it was for the good of cricket that Don Bradman was given not out in that controversial Brisbane first Test incident of 1946. The Don had made a scratchy 28 when he chopped down on a delivery from Bill Voce and Jack Ikin took what looked a catch at second slip.

Bedser explains: "I think if he had been dismissed cheaply, he would have packed it in and then he would not have come to England in 1948" - when Bradman's Invincibles etched their name decisively in cricket's history.

That 1946-47 MCC party of 17 players travelled with a manager, a baggage man and a local physio - and not a WAG in sight. The book sketches the changing shape of touring teams and the steady expansion of support staff to today's extraordinary levels.

Some of the 23 player conversations backgrounding this book, personal or by phone, succinctly encapsulate a tour result - notably the memories of Frank Tyson, who more than any other player resolved the Tests of 1954-55, his brief blast of speed bringing him 28 wickets. His pace is summed up in Tom Graveney's account of Tyson's Sydney rampage (match figures of 10 for 130): "He had a 40mph gale behind him - I was standing 50 yards back at slip."

Turbervill marks the passing years with summaries of the changing nature of cricket, the way MCC (later England) tours were run, and how an authoritarian period surviving from the 1930s, when officialdom still reigned, gave way to the Packer revolution of 1977 and a new world of player power. Clearly the game lost much of its grace and dignity at that point, especially in Packer's homeland: sledging arrived, crowds (and the media) became more abusive. On tours the upcountry games, so much valued in the world beyond the capital cities, were steadily abandoned - a great pity.

There is much inside detail about less-than happy teams and tours and about players who did well or, equally, did not.

An oddity is Turbervill's summary of the no-ball law at the time of the 1958-59 "chuckers and draggers" row. Focusing on the draggers, he says the Law required "only that one foot be behind the popping crease". Not so: it read, "at the instant of delivery, the Bowler has at least some part of one foot behind the Bowling crease"; i.e. the old "back-foot" Law, to give way a decade later to the "front-foot" Law.

This account is not all about distant memories. A player who may be a key component of the current England team, Ian Bell, rather sticks his neck out with this thought on the crowds of 2006-07: "When you go to New Zealand you can get quite witty banter, but in Australia… it is pretty basic abuse." Bell may escape retribution; The Toughest Tour is not likely to be a big-seller in Australia. Written from an unabashed English viewpoint, it makes for a rewarding read - in England.

Finally a word of praise is due to the designer, Mark Swan, for his eye-catching cover. Cricket book jackets tend to be much of a muchness; this is refreshingly different.

The Toughest Tour: The Ashes Away Series since the War
by Huw Turbervill
Aurum, hb
244pp, £16.99

Murray Hedgcock is a London-based Australian journalist. This review was first published in the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here