March 19, 2012

Good reader of the game

Eleven recommended cricket books

On Top Down Under
Ray Robinson's collection of essays about Australia's Test captains has been a favourite of mine ever since it arrived, neatly wrapped, in an exciting package from my Dad in Australia soon after publication in 1975. Each chapter contains enough factoids to keep you going for a week - how dentist Monty Noble, for example, arrived home from one Ashes tour with a German-made machine for shaping readymade false teeth - plus crisp writing, like this description of Ian Craig, during a bad patch in England: "His average was retreating as quickly as his hairline." Robinson's book was updated a few years ago by Gideon Haigh, just about the only modern writer capable of matching him fact for entertaining fact.

The Tests of 1930
Early tour books tended to be more travelogue than Test report - not surprising perhaps when crossing South Africa meant a stagecoach or rickety train - and are sometimes (like the journeys they describe) rather hard going. But Percy Fender, the innovative Surrey captain who never got a chance to lead England, shook up the genre - and not just because he usually chose odd titles, such as The Turn of the Wheel (1928-29 Ashes tour) or Kissing the Rod (1934). My favourite, probably because it covers Don Bradman's triumphant first trip to England, is his more prosaically titled 1930 tour account. Fender's reports were among the first to try to explain what was happening on the field, and why: his books also used innovative statistics - so we discover that, of Bradman's record 974 runs in that series, 238 of them came off 461 balls from Maurice Tate (who did at least get him out three times). Fender had been one of those who had thought the Don would struggle in England, but was forced to admit afterwards that "Bradman as a batsman is a mechanical genius".

It Never Rains ...
Peter Roebuck's sudden death late last year sent me scurrying to the shelves to revisit some of his writings. Probably his best book is an account of Somerset's 1983 county season, an up-and-down affair. During a break he reflects on his fortunes so far: "It has been a surprising season for Roebuck. He has scored most of his runs with shots he decided to cut out in April." He spent much of the season as the warm-up act for Viv Richards and Ian Botham. Often they tried to out-hit each other, but occasionally they both came off together: against Leicestershire "Richards finished with 214 and Botham 154, both making it all appear as if it were an afternoon tea party. I'm sure they edge the ball as often as I do, it's just that with them the slip fielder is at deep long-off." Snippets like that, and a lot more introspection besides, make this arguably the best season's diary of them all.

No Coward Soul
I knew that Yorkshire's Bob Appleyard was a remarkable bowler, even if he did have a brief international career (just nine Tests). But I didn't realise quite how remarkable he was until I read his 2003 biography, written by Stephen Chalke, after Derek Hodgson did the early groundwork. Appleyard was lucky to be alive, let alone playing cricket: he'd lost a lung (and a season and a half of county cricket) after contracting tuberculosis in the 1950s. And if facing the Aussies wasn't bad enough, after finishing with cricket, Appleyard worked for Robert Maxwell. Eventually he fell foul of him and was sacked. With typical Yorkshire grit, Appleyard sued for wrongful dismissal... and won.

The Art of Captaincy
After retiring from playing, the former England captain Mike Brearley produced an absorbing treatise on leadership in 1985, stuffed with enough insights to turn anyone into a better skipper, although whether they'd be game to post a helmet at short midwicket to a left-arm spinner, as Brearley once did (I was there!), is unlikely. It's a great read. But isn't it time Brears presented us with an autobiography of the man Rodney Hogg said "has a degree in people"?

Pageant of Cricket
My first editor David Frith has produced many enviable books, from his biography of the 19th-century England captain Drewy Stoddart to the last word on Bodyline, via several tour books and a much-quoted history of cricketers who committed suicide (foreword, chillingly, by Peter Roebuck). But the biggest project was his weighty 1987 pictorial history, with more than 2000 illustrations - many of them from his own massive collection - in nearly 700 pages. If your coffee table is sturdy enough, try to find a copy.

Cricket Crisis
Talking of Bodyline, if you want to find out what the fuss was all about then the best contemporary account (well, reasonably contemporary: it wasn't published until 1946) came from Jack Fingleton, who was 24 when he opened in that fractious 1932-33 series. He later became an acclaimed journalist, and this book shows why. In the second Test, he wrote, "Larwood bowled a short ball to me. I walked further down than where the ball pitched and ostentatiously patted the wicket. I intended Larwood to infer that if he pitched much shorter he would be in danger of hitting his toes ... I was then very young." Fingo admits that some of his team-mates thought, "with some logic, that Larwood was dangerous enough without being baited". And the payoff? Larwood dismissed him for a pair in the next Test, and Fingleton lost his place for a while.

Mystery Spinner
Jack Iverson, a spinner with a freak grip on the ball (not unlike Ajantha Mendis's today), made a fleeting appearance on the international scene, playing only in the 1950-51 Ashes series ... but doing much to win it for Australia (21 wickets at 15). He couldn't bat, and wasn't much of a fielder: Gideon Haigh suggested, in this 1999 biography, that Iverson might well have been the worst all-round cricketer ever to play a Test match. But he could bowl, and this painstakingly researched story of where "Big Jake" came from - and where he went after that one shooting-star series - makes a surprisingly good read in a book that weighs in at over 350 pages.

A Cricket Odyssey
In 1987-88 England went to the World Cup (where they should have beaten Australia in the final in Calcutta), moved on to Pakistan, where they ran into Javed Miandad and Shakoor Rana (and Abdul Qadir, who took 9 for 56 in the decisive first Test), nipped to Australia for the one-off Bicentennial Test, and ended up with a forgettable series in New Zealand. Luckily for us, Scyld Berry was there throughout to make sense of the travels - and the controversy. He's got a soft spot for the subcontinent, and it shows through with his trips off the beaten track in Pakistan to meet up with Hanif Mohammad (and the ground where he made his 499), Qadir at home in Lahore, and even the cricket-loving spiritual leader the Pir of Pagaro.

Sir Donald Bradman
Among a sagging shelf of books about the Don, Irving Rosenwater's chunky 1978 tome is the biggest - and probably the best, if you want a factual account of the great batsman's life. Re-reading sections still leaves one amazed at Bradman's relentless ability to produce one big score after another. Rosenwater's writing is not flowery, but it does have the occasional flash of humour, as in describing Bradman's three-over century in an up-country game: he was confronted by a bowler who'd "been boasting about it ever since" after dismissing him in a similar match a few years previously. "Two overs later, Bill Black had to plead with his captain to be taken off, nursing an analysis of 2-0-62-0."

Fred Trueman: the Authorised Biography
I thought I'd finish with a current book. There are several volumes by and about Fred Trueman, including John Arlott's excellent Fred (the one the man himself apparently wanted to subtitle "t'greatest fast bowler who ever drew breath"), so the arrival of a new one, by Chris Waters of the Yorkshire Post, did not initially set the pulse racing. But it's an absorbing read, starting with an account of a meeting of Yorkshire minds - Trueman, Boycott, Close and Illingworth - which really should have been filmed and played weekly on TV. Almost every FST story you've ever heard - and several you haven't - is dusted off and put into context. A personal favourite is the time he was hauled before the Yorkshire committee for a supposed misdemeanour in Bristol, only to escape punishment when he pointed out that 20,000 witnesses would testify that he was playing a Test at Lord's at the time. It's captivating stuff, and a suitable tribute to a legendary cricketer.

Which are your favourite cricket books? Tell us in the comments section below

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2012.