A priceless peek into the county cricket story
Over the past two decades Stephen Chalke has produced a number of books describing the lives and careers of county cricketers in the quarter-century following the Second World War. Now he has written the story of the County Championship, the only competition in which the vast majority of those first-class cricketers learned, tested and practised their skills.
Immediately one protests. The story of the County Championship? Surely there could be hundreds of stories of this glorious, ramshackle hog feast of a competition with its long-standing aversion to order and logic. So the first of many things for which readers of this book can be grateful is that the championship's historian has brought clear-eyed precision to his task. Those who wish to know when the counties joined the fun and where they finished in each year will find it all here.
Statistics and records are supplied throughout Summer's Crown but they never obtrude. Choosing which to leave out and how to present those included must have been very tricky but the selections have been successful. Each season since 1890 is given due attention but the book is never merely a dull chronicle. Even the controversial period from 1864 to 1890 is considered. Some critics might wish that space had been found each year's County Championship table but Chalke has instead opted to list each team's finishing position in the book's first section, which briefly assesses each of the counties, before moving on to the many narratives within the championship itself. The book is already 352 pages long; there seems little doubt that it could have been double that length but nothing like twice as good.
Summer's Crown is also a very clear book. The layout is easy on the eye and the colour contrast in the many tables is invariably attractive. One never has to squint to be sure of particular statistics. The illustrations are always apposite and many of them are in colour. Making production values secondary to content in a book of this type risks the content being neglected by the reader. While Chalke acknowledges the support of the ECB in bearing the costs of production, this is a handsome book because its author plainly understood the importance of making it so.
Also, and this is particularly significant perhaps, readers will find which grounds a county has used and how often its cricketers have played on them. At a time when many good judges are advocating the use of outgrounds for four-day cricket, we have here a clear indication of the importance of club venues in the histories of, among others, Essex, Kent and Yorkshire. It is something to ponder for spectators as they watch fine first-class matches take place in front of a scattering of spectators in soulless concrete bowls designed for Test matches, limited-overs games, pop concerts and not much else.
But as we might expect from its civilised author, Summer's Crown is very short on polemic and rich in celebration. It explains the worth of the County Championship by revisiting some of its greatest matches and exploring the feats of its finest players. It is also laced with quirky incidents and barely credible facts. For example, which county did not even enter the championship in 1919 and which, in 1925, included in its team a 57-year-old vicar whose last first-class match had been played for a Liverpool and District XI in 1893? The answer to both questions is Worcestershire, but eccentricity has not been confined to New Road, and Chalke takes obvious delight in ferreting it all out. "The quirky things always appeal to me," he writes in a prefatory paragraph.
At the same time there is nothing self-indulgent about this book. Those who wish to understand how the format of the championship has evolved will have their desire satisfied in the fine appendix. There is even a list of the winners of the one-day competitions, in addition to those of the Second XI and Minor County champions. We also learn how the business of county cricket has become more professional. In so far as the championship has a single history, Chalke strives mightily and successfully to tell it. He has taken his scholarly duties very seriously; he has also, may we speculate, worked very hard and had a lot of fun.
Summer's Crown possesses a richness and variety far greater than a single review can express. To receive it is a little like being given a huge hamper at Christmas; one is still enjoying fine delicacies well past Twelfth Night. The book is also something of a love letter to all those beautiful grounds in England where championship matches are still played and a tribute to those that will never see another ball bowled. It is also, like Chalke's best work, a tribute to the extraordinarily diverse body of men who have played first-class cricket over the 125 years this book covers. It is a magnum opus with the lightest of touches. It is a deeply humane history. Those who love the championship have probably bought it already, but anyone who cares about English cricket, as well as supporting the national team, should possess a copy. The book costs 20 quid but that price is cheap. The County Championship is priceless.
Summer's Crown: The Story of Cricket's County Championship
By Stephen Chalke
352 pages, £20.00