Cricket's finest minds ponder the game's vital questions

Which are the finest cricket books?

Cricket probably boasts the best writing in all sport. We asked five writers to pick the cricket books they love most

November 5, 2012

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Cover of <I>The Archie Jackson Story</I> by David Frith

The Archie Jackson Story
by David Frith

Mike Coward: In this very series David Frith noted that of the 10,000 or so books that have been written on cricket, he had read about half of them. He concluded that this represented one a week on average over 60 years. Suffice it to say this is an addiction way beyond therapy.

This strike rate is all the more remarkable given Frith is a prolific writer who has made a substantial contribution to the literature and, indeed, the history of the game. His personal archive at Guildford in Surrey is a veritable treasure, as his published catalogue of 2009 attests.

Frith, an Aussie Pom, has often felt conflicted when the game's greatest rivals have been at each other's throats. Having migrated to Australia with his family at the age of ten, he returned to England to work, and until the last few years always spent some time Down Under during summer. Indeed, he rarely missed the traditional opening Test of the season in Brisbane in November.

His body of work is notable for its extraordinary scope - from biography, tour accounts and photographic pageants to comparative studies of the greatest bowlers, to the dark sorrowful subject of suicide within the game's elite and then some.

Frith's finest work, to my mind, in part deals with premature death but not by the subject's own hand. The Archie Jackson Story is a gentle, loving account of a remarkable cricketer who succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 23 in the white-hot summer of 1932-33.

This season sees the 80th anniversary of the infamous Bodyline series, about which Frith has also written with distinction. And it was during the fourth Test of the series in Brisbane that Jackson died in the Ingarfield Private Hospital in the very same city. Indeed, the mail train that took the grieving cricketers of Australia and England to Sydney for the final Test match also carried Jackson's body towards its final resting place.

Five others

  • It has been my good fortune over the past 40 years to have worked alongside the authors of three other volumes that remain atop my reading order. Ray Robinson's endearing studies of Australia's Test captains in On Top Down Under will always stand the test of time. The indefatigable Gideon Haigh's fascinating appraisal of Australian cricket of the 1950s and 1960s, The Summer Game, is rightly celebrated, as is Irving Rosenwater's forensic Sir Donald Bradman, A Biography. To round out the five, the incorrigible Arthur Mailey's 10 for 66 and All That is a joyful and timeless romp with elements that remain as relevant today as when first published in 1958, and Arlott, The Authorised Biography by David Rayvern Allen is a memorable study of the wonderful broadcaster and writer John Arlott.

It is the humanity of Frith's work that makes this book so utterly compelling. The death of a young person is always troubling. In this case it caused a nation gripped by economic depression and deeply offended by the bolshiness of Douglas Jardine to grieve en masse. Even the devout felt compelled to question their faith. Such was the veil of sadness across the island continent.

Jackson's death was all the more poignant as to so many he was the reincarnation of Victor Trumper. Jackson was just five years old when Trumper died of Bright's disease at the age of 38, but by the time he scored a century in his first Test match, at the age of 19, he was already hailed as the second Trumper.

It was, however, the frailty of his body and not the weight of expectation of being compared with the immortal Trumper that so cruelly crushed him. While his mind was willing, his body only allowed him to play eight Test matches.

Don Bradman, who batted with Jackson and helped carry him to the grave at the Field of Mars cemetery in Sydney, believed him to have been a batting genius.

By this memorable account Jackson was a beautiful man, a thoughtful, god-fearing soul with an abiding love of his fellow man, of music, and of an ancient game that gave him a precious and timeless identity.

Few portraits of a cricketer of any age can have been so sensitively and beautifully drawn.

Mike Coward's books include Cricket Beyond the Bazaar, Caribbean Odyssey, Australia v the New South Africa, The Chappell Years


10 for 66 and All That
by Arthur Mailey

Australian legspinner Arthur Mailey, circa 1910
Mailey: would rather have been hit for four than have bowled a straight one at a batsman © Getty Images

Suresh Menon: Today the most prized cricketer might be the one in coloured clothing who hits a ball into the dinner basket of a spectator near third man while intending to clear the fielder at midwicket. But not so long ago, it was the "character" who was the most popular. Of one such, Neville Cardus wrote: "The most fascinating cricketer I have known was the Australian [legspinner] Arthur Mailey, an artist in every part of his nature."

The writer and the cricketer were firm friends; both emerged from slums (though thousands of kilometres apart), both taught themselves to write well, each had a personal manner of demonsrating he had climbed out of the past to walk among kings and prime ministers. Cardus wrote on classical music, while Mailey threw champagne parties.

Mailey once said, "I'd rather spin the ball and be hit for four than bowl a batsman out by a straight one." And on another occasion, "If ever I bowl a maiden over, it is not my fault but the batsman's."

Yet the line he is best known for is the one he wrote in his autobiography, 10 for 66 and All That. He had just dismissed his great hero Victor Trumper, stumped off a googly, and the batsman walked back, pausing only to tell the young bowler, "It was too good for me." Mailey captured that moment thus: "There was no triumph in me as I watched the receding figure. I felt like a boy who had killed a dove." This most glorious of lines in all cricketing literature has, in recent years, had doubts cast upon its authenticity. Yet character is revealed as much by what a man has said as by what he would have said. If it is not factual, it is still truthful, and that's what matters.

Mailey, the only Australian to have claimed nine wickets in a Test innings, was an accomplished cartoonist, and his cartoons, which tell of a time and a place, enrich his autobiography. Even if it were merely a well-written story of an unusual life, 10 for 66 And All That might still have made the cut among the best books on the game. But it is more, its insights and predictions both startling and original.

And another five

  • Jack Hobbs: Profile of the Master by John Arlott A warm and affectionate story of a great batsman, the highlight for me a letter from Hobbs to Arlott that ends: "Thank you for everything John. You have been very kind and good to me over many years."
  • It Never Rains... A Cricketer's Lot by Peter Roebuck Comparable to the great mathematician G H Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, this takes you inside the heart and mind of the cricketer and his futile search for perfection.
  • Pundits from Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya The cricket tour as excuse for history, travel writing, biography and cultural commentary.
  • A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha A historian and cricket nut brings his two passions together in this story of a man, his time and the consequences of the events that took place then.
  • On Top Down Under by Ray Robinson: An incredibly detailed story of Australian captains, most of them even more interesting off field than on.

Like those who go against the grain by temperament rather than planning, Mailey displayed a combination of authority and empathy that was unique. He was the one Australian who was sympathetic towards Douglas Jardine and Bodyline. What the series did, according to Mailey, was, it changed the face of cricket reporting. "On the next tour of Australia came an army of 'incident-spotters'," he writes, "just in case there were repercussions that were too newsy... it was then we saw a blast of criticism about umpires' decisions, about playing conditions, about the advisability of players having two or three eggs for breakfast, and of fried liver being on the menu... some of us viewed the future of cricket journalism with apprehension."

Mailey was an accomplished painter too. At an exhibition of his works in London, a royal visitor told him he "had not painted the sun convincingly". Mailey's response was: "You see, Your Majesty, in this country I have to paint the sun from memory."

Mailey, who played his last Test in 1926, was 70 when he wrote this book. And there was nothing wrong with the memory then of the man described by Cardus as an "incorrigible romantic".

Suresh Menon is editor Wisden India Almanack and author most recently of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer


Cover image of 'The Willow Wand' by Derek Birley

The Willow Wand
by Derek Birley

Gideon Haigh: "The appearance of a completely fresh and unpredictable cricket book is a rare event," began John Arlott's review of The Willow Wand in the November 1979 issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly. It set the cogs ticking in the mind of a 13-year-old in country Victoria, who decided it was a book he simply had to have.

These many years later, Derek Birley's peppery survey of "cricket myths" remains for me a benchmark book, as much for its voice as its content - provocative, sceptical, independent, holding no brief for anyone. It belongs to perhaps the tiniest of all cricket sub-genres - not literature, not history, not reportage or anecdotage, but genuine critical inquiry.

Birley's particular target was the association of cricket with "not cricket": the game's self-legitimising claim to the occupation of a special, rarified and inherently English moral universe. Of this he made both utter mockery and delicious fun, concluding that "not cricket" could only be translated in circular fashion as "not the kind of thing which those who claim that cricket observes exceptionally high ethical standards happen to approve at any given moment".

In the course of his travels, the then-Rector of Ulster Polytechnique scourged almost every reputation precious to cricket's establishment: Lord Harris was a punitive reactionary; Lord Hawke was a tiresome braggart; Sir Pelham Warner was a brazen hypocrite; Sir Neville Cardus was a snob, a sycophant, and a "blatant purveyor of debased romantic imagery", capable of "shameless if sometimes skillful assemblages of emotive language". In his essay "Cardus and the Aesthetic Fallacy", Birley argues that it was Cardus "as much as anyone who created the intelligentsia of the game, giving respectability to attitudes that would otherwise have remained inarticulate or seemed merely snobbish special pleading".

For good measure, Birley took to task both CLR James, for his guileless effusions about WG Grace ("drawing a distinction between the sort of thing WG was reputed to go in for and real cheating'), and EW Swanton, for his majestic condescension toward cricket north of Watford ("'The North' is all the same to Swanton - accents, social standing, smoky chimneys - and all quite different from the leisured and gracious south").

The condition of my copy - battered, yellowed, dog-eared, annotated - is testament to its inspiriting qualities. I'm bound to say that here and there, it has worn less well. Birley's jeremiad against the "virility cult" of short-pitched pace bowling seems dated, for something has gone from the game with the lack of physical threat to batsmen. Birley was also probably too indulgent of his fellow Yorkshireman Geoff Boycott, and unduly hostile towards Tony Greig. But Birley was among the first to identify the implications of the game's infiltration by "the values of show business", noting its abiding tension: "The needs of cricket as a contest have always been to some extent at odds with the notion of providing entertainment." He thought also that cricket's survival depended on the emergence of a "new and more astringent literature" - and provided a sterling example.

Gideon Haigh is the author of The Summer Game, The Big Ship and other cricket books


Jack Fingleton, September 1936
Jack Fingleton: humorous, sensitive and combative © Getty Images

Cricket Crisis
by Jack Fingleton

David Frith: It's a real conundrum. Well over 10,000 books have been written on cricket. I've read about half of them. That's over one a week on average since the first (Elusive Victory, EW Swanton's 1950-51 Ashes book). I was further weaned on the little Cardus books, after which has followed some truly wonderful reading, alongside much junk on which (too late) I regret wasting precious time. Publishers are a mixed bunch.

Since this is not the first time I've had to deal with this challenging question of selecting the "best", my chief concern is the risk of inconsistency, for the nomination some years ago of Jack Fingleton's Cricket Crisis could easily have been superseded by now.

But it hasn't. It is much to do with time and place. That volume went onto my bookshelves a long time ago. Fingleton, an unusually interesting man, although extremely sensitive, inscribed it for me at Lord's in 1968, and we became quite close - either side of a rift. Nobody became a true friend of his unless there'd been a rift along the way - although the long-term and deep-seated animosity between him and Don Bradman was beyond healing.

So what makes this book so appealing? It is not solely about the 1932-33 Bodyline series, in which Fingleton played a major role. While there is much about that most famous of Ashes battles in the first half of the book, there are also colourful profiles of other great Australian cricketers, such as Bill O'Reilly and Stan McCabe and Clarrie Grimmett, all highly skilled and, equally importantly, strong of character. Let no modern-day cynic doubt that these men would have dominated in the modern cricket world as they did in the 1930s.

Fingo dug into his detailed diaries to recall Australia's tours of South Africa and England in the 1930s, shrewd observation blended with keen humour. One wicked crack: passenger asks railway guard why they've stopped so long in the tunnel. "This is no tunnel," comes the reply. "This is Manchester." And when I read again of his twin ducks in the stormy Adelaide Test of 1932-33, I think of the hilarious on-air exchange between broadcaster Fingleton and scorer Bill Frindall many years afterwards. Bill innocently referred to Fingo's "pair", only for the proud Australian to snarl back: "And did you ever make four consecutive Test centuries, Bill?"

That combative spirit, usually garnished with mischievous humour, echoes through this compelling book, his rasping voice rising from the pages.

David Frith's books include Bodyline Autopsy, The Archie Jackson Story and Silence of the Heart


Cover image of <i>Masters of Cricket</i> by Jack Fingleton

Masters of Cricket
by Jack Fingleton

Ramachandra Guha: Although weaned on the English romantics, as I grew older I grew to appreciate Australian cricket writers more. They had a knowledge of the game's history and of its technique that men like Neville Cardus and AA Thomson lacked. For someone who had played some decent cricket himself, this mattered - the English knew to turn a phrase (if also to mix a metaphor), but reading them, one rarely got a sense of how an innings was crafted or an over bowled. This preference, once established, has stayed with me. My favourite contemporary cricket writer is Gideon Haigh, my favourites among writers of the past, Ray Robinson and Jack Fingleton.

Robinson had an economical, witty style and a capacious internationalism. While his style was not the equal of Robinson's, Fingleton was not a narrow nationalist either. And where he scored over his compatriot was in the fact that he had played 18 Test matches himself. His writing thus carried an authority that the work of a club cricketer, or even one who had played Sheffield Shield cricket, could not convey.

Fingleton wrote four top-class cricket books. One was on the first Tied Test; a second on the Bodyline series; a third a report on Don Bradman's last tour of England. These I have read and re-read, but my favourite "Fingo" book remains Masters of Cricket (1958). A much-loved teacher, Vijayan "Unni" Nair, loaned it to me when I was in college, and I must have read it half a dozen times before I graduated. Years later I came to possess a copy of my own, in the handsome green-and-yellow hardback reissue from Pavilion Books.

Top six

  • Twelve years ago, in the appendix to The Picador Book of Cricket, I listed 50 of my favourite books on cricket. The editor now asks me to pare this down to six - Masters of Cricket and five others. These might be Ray Robinson's From the Boundary (a study of cricketers of the 1940s and 1950s), Sujit Mukherjee's Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer (whose title says it all), Alan Gibson's Cricket Captains of England, RC Robertson-Glasgow's 46 Not Out (another charmingly whimsical cricketing memoir) and Ralph Barker's Ten Great Bowlers (since batsmen hog too many headlines anyway).

Where Fingleton's other books are on a single theme, Masters of Cricket ranges widely. There is a wonderful portrait of Victor Trumper, a essay in which not a word is wasted (years later, Fingo returned to the theme in a full-length book, which did not work); fine sketches of Warren Bardsley and HL "Horseshoe" Collins, and a superb short study of SF Barnes, whom I still think, Shane Warne and all, to be the greatest bowler who ever played. These portraits paid tribute to cricketers of a generation before Fingleton. A brilliant cameo, called "Cricketing Farewells", saluted English cricketers of a generation after his.

I recently read Masters of Cricket again after a gap of about a decade, and it still moved and educated me. Fingleton was the least chauvinistic of writers, more ready than the rest of us to praise foreigners, and youngsters too. His own cricketing expertise and experience informs every page, albeit very subtly. Although he had a reputation for being gruff in person, on the page he was unfailingly generous, and even, when the occasion demanded, tender and sentimental.

Like most others who write on the game, I would have to name, as my favourite book on cricket, CLR James' Beyond a Boundary. It is sui generis - simultaneously a memoir, a sociological study, a literary-critical exercise and a work in cultural studies. Asked to choose my favourite "cricket book" (rather than "book on or around cricket") I nominate Fingleton's Masters of Cricket.

Ramachandra Guha's books include A Corner of a Foreign Field and The Picador Book of Cricket

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (November 7, 2012, 12:45 GMT)

I have seen many encyclopaedia's of ESPN, but never on Cricket, Field Hockey, and very unusually, not one on the Summer Olympic games. I look at Amazon, to see how the readers like the books available to other readers. The book on Australian Cricket seems the best, but I don't think anyone in Amazon has reviewed it. I refer to the book published by Hardie Grant. I must buy it. And, if I wait unusually, the book will not be available to buy, perhaps.

Posted by maddy20 on (November 6, 2012, 8:35 GMT)

10 for 66 and all that seems to be an intriguing read, but I cannot seem to find a a published copy, atleast on ebay India. I have always been fond of cricketers with a humble personality and as such would be the first among these 5 that I would love to read. @BoonBoom What was the need for you to troll on such a wonderful article about what seem to be 5 of magnificent pieces of cricket writing? Seriously may be you Pakistanis would want to read about the great Afridi and all that but we Indians would love to read anything thats great, whether its about our folks or not.

Posted by InsideHedge on (November 5, 2012, 21:37 GMT)

@Yogi108: You can hope but let's be honest, there's almost no demand for any of the books in these lists. While no-one is doubting the quality of the works, almost all the books cover subjects from many generations ago. How many of the current generation of readers - who are into Kindles, Androids, etc - would want to read about Archie Jackson?

There is one silver lining, the cost of e-books is incredibly low, so perhaps your wish will come true.

Posted by YogifromNY on (November 5, 2012, 19:07 GMT)

Sad that not one of the great books listed here is available as a Kindle edition. Indeed, some of them are out of print or unavailable in the US. I am aware that a lot of these books were published long before e-books were even contemplated, but I sure hope publishers of these volumes will see fit to publish them in e-book format soon.

Posted by BoonBoom on (November 5, 2012, 18:58 GMT)

No book on tendulkar???? Millions will disagree with this list!!

Posted by InsideHedge on (November 5, 2012, 14:02 GMT)

I'd like to see all the columnists state their "Top Five".

Posted by IckiIqbal on (November 5, 2012, 10:17 GMT)

A belated entry of my favourite books. Unusually they do not relate to my early reading experiences

1. David Frith: The Bodyline Autopsy 2. Alan Ross: Australia 1955 3. Stephen Chalke: At the Heart of English Cricket 4. David Frith: Caught England Bowled Australia 5. Ray Robinson: Between Wickets

Posted by   on (November 5, 2012, 9:12 GMT)

I have David Frith's book, and while the story itself is riveting, and desperately sad, I was particularly impressed by the photographs. The pictures taken during his debut test century are remarkable, particularly that late cut played miles outside the off stump with a horizontal bat inches above the wicket. beautiful, unique

Posted by InsideHedge on (October 30, 2012, 16:52 GMT)

@Bull Narayanswamy : There's no point looking for brick and mortar cricket bookshops, most of these books are readily available from INTERNET bookshops. Many can be found on Ebay too, and in most cases the internet bookshops sell on Ebay too, typically they are a tad cheaper when purchased from their own website. The challenge is to find a copy in acceptable condition, most of these sellers display a "stock photo" rather than a picture of the actual 2nd hand book. Your ability to find a NEW/unread book from this series is very difficult.

Posted by   on (October 30, 2012, 9:57 GMT)

It says on the cover of Gerald Brodribb's Next Man In, "Quite one of the best books on cricket ever written". Rings true even if the words 'on cricket' are taken out of the sentence.

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