April 21, 2014

Desert-island reads

Cricket has probably spawned more books than almost any other sport. Here's a personal selection of favourites

© Steven Lynch

On Top Down Under
Ray Robinson's 1975 round-up of Australia's Test captains remains a favourite, not least because it arrived unannounced, in those far-off pre-internet days, in an exciting brown-paper parcel from my father in Australia. The profiles of the players themselves are rich in imagery and anecdote, full of snippets and I-never-knew-that factoids. Herbie Collins, for example, was the only bookmaker to captain Australia: "Nerveless as a city window-cleaner, Sydney's sphinx accepted a full-toss as impenetrably as a full hand." Gideon Haigh's later update is worth a read, too.

With England in Australia
This account of England's 1965-66 Ashes battle earns its place because it was the first tour book I ever read, alerting me to a concept that now fills a couple of bookcases. John Clarke, cricket correspondent of the Evening Standard, might not have been the greatest stylist, but he got the essentials across, and played the occasional flourishing shot: "Parfitt would be bound to succeed were he to sue batting form for desertion."

Mystery Spinner
It's quite an undertaking to produce a sizeable biography of someone who played one Test series before you were born, and who died before you were fully grown. Gideon Haigh did that in his chunky 1999 biography of Jack Iverson, the spinner who perplexed England in 1950-51 with his unorthodox finger-flicking deliveries - and came up with an absorbing, interesting read.

Sunshine, Sixes and Cider
County histories are a mixed bag, often being too serious, too chronological, or too statistical (sometimes all three). But David Foot's 1986 history of Somerset is none of those: it's a gentle, affectionate tribute to the author's favourite county. But you get under the skin of the players, too. Of JCW MacBryan, an amateur batsman of the 1920s, Foot observed: "I wrote a vignette suggesting that he was 'on the fringe of the Somerset elite'. He came back at me, barrels blazing: 'What do you mean ... on the fringe?'"

Sir Donald Bradman: A Biography
Books by or about Don Bradman occupy a couple of my shelves, and it's a little unfashionable to prefer the chunky 400-page 1978 biography produced by Irving Rosenwater, who is largely remembered as a statistician. But although Rosenwater could be prickly and alarmingly thin-skinned - not entirely unlike his subject - he was also meticulous, and his stately account has a feeling of completeness. And Rosenwater's leaning towards statistics is perfect for a player like Bradman, whose stats remain mind-boggling after all these years. While on the subject of The Don, BJ Wakley's Bradman the Great boggles even more if it's figures that float your boat.

Laker: Portrait of a Legend
Don Mosey occasionally gave the impression of being a professional Yorkshireman, with the proverbial chip on both shoulders, and his biographies of Ian Botham and Geoff Boycott were generally unsympathetic. But his later look at the life of Jim Laker, the 19-wicket hero of Old Trafford 1956, was cut from different cloth: admiring, even warm. It might have helped that, as Mosey wrote in his 1989 book, Laker "was a Yorkshireman who thought in almost every way like a man from the broad acres".

The Fast Men
Need to check out what sort of a bowler old so-and-so was? Well, if he delivered with any pace you'll probably head straight for David Frith's "200-year cavalcade of speed bowlers", first published in 1975. I haven't seen a more succinct summary of Australia's 19th-century bowling partnership of Charles "Terror" Turner and John "Fiend" Ferris than Frith's: "The sensational duo of Turner and Ferris... the former fast-medium with uncanny control of length and off-break, the latter left-arm off an idiosyncratic run-up, each bowling into the other's footmarks". For the Australians in England in 1888 they took 534 wickets between them in all matches on the tour.

A Cricket Odyssey
In 1987-88 England followed a successful World Cup (narrowly losing to Australia in the final) with an anarchic tour of Pakistan - the one in which England's captain Mike Gatting had a stand-up row with the local umpire Shakoor Rana. Looking on was the sage cricket correspondent Scyld Berry, who conjured arguably the best tour book of all from that varied winter (apologies here to Jack Fingleton's Cricket Crisis, another classic). Apart from the on-field action, Berry managed side trips to talk with Hanif Mohammad, Pakistan's first great batsman, and the fascinating Pir of Pagaro, an early patron of cricket there.

Vintage Cricketers
In my early days with Wisden Cricket Monthly a regular contributor was the former Evening News cricket correspondent EM Wellings, who was famously combustible in his working days and, even in retirement in Basingstoke, remained superbly splenetic. Late in life, in 1983, Wellings produced an uncharacteristically warm series of portraits of the players he had admired over the years, although with the occasional foray into the press box: "What a decorous place it used to be. There were no typewriters, though they were shortly introduced by Percy Fender, and there was no noisy conversation or laughter."

Not Just for Openers
Keith Stackpole's autobiography, written immediately after his retirement in 1974, wouldn't win many prizes for style. But it's entertaining, and was another one of those Australian parcels that enlivened my teenage years. It's generally honest ("My own scores of 24 and 35 showed I lacked the experience and the temperament to make big scores consistently") and forthright ("The Plunket Shield must be so depressing, it's only New Zealanders who would play in it"). Many years later I bumped into Stacky in a press box, and asked him to sign the book. "Gee," he said, flicking through the ageing pages, "I was an angry young man when I wrote this."

Figures on the Green
There's nothing quite as satisfying, for the statistically inclined, than coming up with a new slant on a set of figures (or scorecards). Derek Lodge used to do this regularly in a monthly column investigating the byways of cricket's records, and expanded these into an entertaining book in 1982, the days before Statsguru and friends made searching out such gems rather more straightforward. Lodge died relatively young, in 1996, otherwise you might have been reading "Ask Derek" now instead of that other chap.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013. Ask Steven is now on Facebook