Ashes wit, wisdom, and wicked one-liners
The Ashes. A rivalry so storied that recording it has become a mini-industry in itself. Series reviews, definitive histories, alternative compilations, celebrity gimmicks, DVD box sets, etc. In England, the 10th anniversary of the 2005 Ashes - aka the Greatest Series Ever - will be marked by reunion dinners up and down the country, ahead of Australia's arrival to do battle for the little urn once again. This will be the third Ashes series in two years but even the most fatigued might admit to a tingling of excitement as July 8 draws nearer.
"Too much of a good thing is wonderful," according to Mae West, and that view chimes, for the most part, with England and Australia's cricketing contretemps. Had she not been American, West would doubtless have found something wry to say on the subject; nevertheless, as Rob Smyth's moreish new book Gentlemen and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations and Confrontations demonstrates, the contest has not lacked for bon mots down the years.
Plenty of collections pull together cricket's best lines but Gentlemen and Sledgers offers a slight twist on the format. Like a history of cinema compiled via the most memorable film posters or a deconstruction of the Beatles' catalogue starting off with the sleeve notes, Smyth charts 130 years of sporting drama using the words of the chief protagonists - plus a few well-chosen ones of his own.
As he notes in his introduction, the Ashes has long been "a contest between bat, ball and mouth".
From Ivo Bligh and his men setting off to "beard the kangaroo in his den - and try to recover those Ashes" in 1882 (a statement of intent that left many baffled) to Michael Clarke's pithier "get ready for a broken f*****g arm" at the Gabba in 2013, the verbal asides are often as memorable as the cricket. Sometimes they were even more so - Rodney Hogg's "he's got a degree in people" line about Mike Brearley is far more enduring than the series in which it was coined, despite England's 5-1 win over a Packer-weakened Australia being their biggest margin of victory.
Each chapter is headed thus, with the quotation providing a jumping-off point for exploring the action. Inevitably there is something of a bias towards the modern - the 2005 Ashes gets a full chapter for each Test, plus the celebrations afterwards - though this is partly down to the increasing breadth and depth of the chronicling of events; it is a pity there were no stump microphones around when WG Grace held dominion, though that doesn't stop the Doctor getting a few pages devoted to him.
Attribution need not be an issue, of course, if everyone simply decides that this story is better than history. George* Hirst denied ever saying "We'll get 'em in singles" to Wilfred Rhodes at The Oval in 1902, but the words still echo more than a century on. In the same series, the original "one-cap blunder" Fred Tate played his only Test, dropping a crucial catch and becoming the last man out as England chased 124 to win. "You old dogs, we've got you this time," England's captain, Archie MacLaren, had confidently said shortly beforehand, though Australia's Clem Hill recorded that it was merely banter - "chilling confirmation," writes Smyth, "that the B-word is not a new phenomenon."
There is a richness in the retelling that makes this a delightful book to keep coming back to; familiarity, in this case, breeds contentedness. There are the headline acts, such as "Let's give it some humpty" (Ian Botham, 1981) and Glenn McGrath's regular 5-0 predictions, and also dozens of other gems besides, as Smyth roots around in the archives. Eddie Paynter's straightforward summary of Wally Hammond's philandering is among the juicier fruit: "Wally - well yes, he liked a shag."
The material is plentiful but it is augmented by Smyth's singular style, full of effortless wordplay and bighearted romanticism. Gentlemen and Sledgers will introduce you to Maurice Mentum and Donald's duck - the direct result of the latter being Bradman's "lore of averages".
Then there is the description of Bob Massie's debut at Lord's in 1972: "Massie didn't just make the ball talk; he made it say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." If you're looking for an Ashes tour guide, they don't come more quotable, or knowledgeable, than Smyth.
Gentlemen and Sledgers is also about larrikins and, occasionally, sportsmanship. Another chapter will soon be written - bring on the bants.
Gentlemen and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations and Confrontations
By Rob Smyth
Head of Zeus
288 pages, £16.99
17:31:21 GMT, June 6, 2015: *Originally wrongly identified as Geoff Hirst
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick