Ashes 2011 April 9, 2011

Quick on the draw

Steve James
Publishers may be keen to get their Ashes books out as fast as possible. Is that a bad thing? Not if the writer is Gideon Haigh

Not even a month had passed since the final day of England's triumphant Ashes campaign when the first book about it pounded through my letter box. My reaction? Utter indifference. It was just too early. It was like seeing Easter eggs for sale days after Christmas. For goodness' sake, this was published when England were still in Australia slogging their way through a seven-match one-day series.

So it is fair to say that I approached Ashes 2011 with a healthy dose of cynicism. Haigh is a brilliant writer, probably the best in the business, but I had read his daily columns in the Times (he and a chap called Atherton do make the financial leap over their paper's paywall worthwhile) during the series, and exceptional though they were, I expected not much more than a collection of these pieces. Microwaved journalism to us, money for old rope to the author.

What I had not bargained on were daily match reports, filed for Business Spectator, an Australian website. Combined with the Times column on every day's play, they provide the most comprehensive and thoughtful review of the Ashes possible. Suddenly I was recalling the sheer excitement that, in cricket anyway, only an Ashes series can provide. It was my first trip to Australia and this book will serve nicely as both reminder and reference.

Haigh did, of course, have to commit fingers to keyboard for this. His introduction is laced with warning about the immediacy of his observations, all filed within an hour of each day's conclusion and left unaltered since. "Caveat lector," he writes.

There really is no need. Not once does hindsight render Haigh foolish. The closest he comes is when writing at the end of day three in the first, eventually drawn, Brisbane Test. "England now need to bat perhaps 150 overs," he says, "about twice as long as in their first innings, to salvage a draw; it is not beyond them by any means, but nor theoretically is a political comeback by Margaret Thatcher."

Haigh's unique power of description stands him apart. Take Alastair Cook's batting: "He wears his method like a shabby but comfortable jacket, too-long sleeves worn through at the elbows, yet imbued with pleasant associations." Or a poor shot from Shane Watson, "as arrogant and foolhardy as lighting a cigar with a $100 note". Or the opening partnership of Watson and Simon Katich: "Of Ponting at number three they have been contrasting protectors, Katich stepping across his stumps like a secret serviceman guarding a president, Watson more like a bouncer in a swanky nightclub."

The technical analysis is sharp. On Ricky Ponting's batting travails: "Anxious to cover off stump, Ponting has been jumping into, and outside of, the line of the ball; moving so far across, in fact, as to expose his leg stump, down which side he has twice nicked fatally."

After the second day's play in Perth, Haigh used a tale about Keith Miller to begin a piece about the frustrations with Mitchell Johnson following his heroics that day. Having taken 7 for 12 to bowl out South Australia for 26, Miller was asked by a journalist about the spell's secrets: "There are three reasons," he answered, "First, I bowled bloody well. Second… Second… Awww, ya can forget about the other two." I saw Haigh the next day in Perth. "Nice tale," I said. "There are plenty more where that came from," responded Haigh with a glint in his eye. Indeed there are.

Ashes 2011
by Gideon Haigh
Aurum, hb
285pp, £12.99

Steve James is a cricket columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. This review was first published in the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here