A Scottish gaze at the Ashes
The law of diminishing returns applies to even the best Test series. I've already read two books about England's last tour of Australia, and I also watched it, listened to it, read about it, and wrote about it at the time. As such, I have to admit to approaching Australia Blues with a degree of trepidation. This was compounded by the fact that it's a book about following the team as a fan. I've read a few of those too.
The twist is that the authors, Stuart Croll and David Alexander, are Scots supporting England. This is fairly unusual, but is it really worth 300-plus pages?
While the premise seems limp and uninspired, it doesn't really matter because the whole thing is saved by the quality of the writing.
On my website, I publish match reports from readers. The submission guidelines are very straightforward: on no account should you mention the actual cricket. Croll and Alexander have adopted a similar approach. The point is that if someone wants to find out about a cricket match, they come to ESPNcricinfo or they buy a newspaper. With something as well documented as the Ashes, the more a writer focuses on the action, the more pages he wastes. Croll and Alexander sidestep this by focusing on what we don't see while we're sitting at home.
As much as anything, this book is about being in Australia. It is not a cricket book. It is a humorous travel book where cricket is the theme. They do attend the matches, but the action only really matters for its impact on those watching. Other than that, they see the sights, they go for a beer, and Stuart has a series of arguments in phone shops. It's relaxed and funny, but serious points are made from time to time as well.
It was a struggle to get into the writing early on. The jokes are frequent and for the first few chapters the relentless whimsy was a little bit wearing. However, this feeling didn't last. I don't know whether I warmed to the style or whether the rhythm settled down a bit, but it didn't take long before I was absorbed as well as amused.
Maybe I came to trust the writers (there's only one narrator, incidentally, despite there being two authors). The great benefit of being Scots supporting England is that they are both insiders and outsiders and can therefore offer perspective. They are emotional fans but can also see the intrinsic pointlessness of it all, which gives rise to a healthy distrust of the nationalistic tribalism that can sometimes infect sports fans.
The feeling of being part of a group while simultaneously apart from it applies to their relationship with the Barmy Army as well. Both are members, but they haven't been conscripted. Instead, they dip in and out, frequently going off to do other things. Equally they clearly love Test cricket without being in thrall to tradition. In a world of extremes, they provide a happy middle ground.
If there is a criticism, it is that the editing is a bit slapdash. Rogue words crop up in the middle of sentences quite regularly - the kind of thing that could easily be spotted with a quick read-through. It's annoying and the book deserves better, not least because all proceeds go to the Lord's Taverners, who strive to improve the lot of disadvantaged young people through cricket.
by Stuart Croll and David Alexander
Jibba Jabba Publishing
Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket