The final words in Simon Wilde's important history of the England cricket team conclude with where we are now: "Not only the future of the game in England, but the direction of the national team, were shrouded in doubt." A mere 546 pages into a story of success and failure, enlightenment and incompetence, poverty and unimagined wealth, and the whole caboodle is held to be as insecure as ever. Twas ever thus.
There have been histories of English Cricket before, but they have concerned themselves with the social history of the game or with the entire professional set-up, with county cricket often central to the narrative. England: The Biography, is the first time the story has been told of the England team. Five years in the making, it made it just in time for their 1000th Test, against India at Edgbaston last month. Such a study is long overdue.
As cricket correspondent for the Sunday Times for the past 20 years, Wilde has responded weekly to the endless fluctuations of England's fortunes, recording the significant and the inconsequential. But he also possesses a historian's eye and his story of the England cricket team's development is not just highly informative but offers a valuable and lasting perspective, relatively untouched by the age he lives in. Here is a book that all those writing about the game will want in their laptops as well as their libraries.
Even in the hands of a determinedly even-handed and indefatigable chronicler like Wilde, who prefers to present the facts in a measured and unemotional manner, certain themes persistently intrude in a narrative where those driving England cricket forward often seem to be facing almost insurmountable obstacles.
The class struggle, for instance, is never far away. Cricket's damaging obsession with class persistently holds the game in England back as a succession of reactionary administrators throughout the generations either resist change or surrender to it with little or no sense of a long-term vision for the game they love. Wilde, a progressive by nature, just a reticent one, does not labour the point and allows you (should you so wish) to draw a different conclusion.
The award of an England cap for home Tests in 1907 was one of the first signs that this class system was beginning to weaken. The debilitating distinction between amateurs and professionals - 33 percent of caps went to amateur players between 1867 and its abolition in 1962 - was gradually broken down but even then there were commentators who regretted its passing.
Such was the elite's sense of entitlement that Freddie Brown, as chairman of selectors, once picked himself as a 42-year-old. And Peter Lush, one of the early figures to try to market the game, suggested that Gubby Allen, one of the most entrenched traditionalists of all, "seemed to be opposed to anything that needed modernising and changing".
As The Cricketer magazine has already remarked of: "Those fixers behind the scenes: Gubby Allen, Freddie Brown, Walter Robins and later Alec Bedser - at times pernicious and exerting undue influence on selection." The days when men of good character were as important as innate playing ability perhaps still survive today. The Cricketer, of course, at various points in its history, has been part of that cabal and would do well to be forever wary of the fact.
Within this atmosphere, throughout history, players and coaches come and go, all responding to the spirit of the age: attacking one moment, defensive the next, forever seeking greater remuneration from a sport that has only recently provided it, balancing the need for a team ethic with individual freedom, debating whether the captain or the coach or an administrative figure holds the balance of power, debating gut feeling versus data or arguing whether wives and family should be allowed on tour.
Just occasionally, an individual makes a lasting impression and, as Wilde remarks: "In such a stultifying atmosphere, it was little surprise that it took outsiders to shake things up." Douglas Jardine's captaincy imposed strategy and team ethic; Tony Greig's rebellion on pay and conditions shook the game into better remuneration; and Eoin Morgan, as stubborn as either of them, has inspired a renaissance in England's one-day cricket.
What eventually made the England team ascendant, Wilde suggests, was simply money. Eventually they made so much that they got what they wanted - the partial delisting of cricket under the 1999 arrangement with the Labour Government's Culture, Media and Sport department being a key turning point - and the counties had to suck it up. Within that explanation lies a warning: the growth of Twenty20 cricket could dismantle the edifice just as quickly. Follow the money and the money does much as it pleases.
There may not be too much new material here, but to know it all you would have had to have read (and remembered) hundreds of cricket books and to bring it all together brings old stories alive. On well-worn series such as Bodyline, Wilde does not strive for flashy new interpretations but lays out the traditional story. On the past 20 years, he succeeds in drawing back from the minutiae and contextualises what matters (James Taylor retirement because of a heart condition is reduced to a footnote).
To structure such an undertaking is devilishly difficult. Wilde rejects a linear story, which would lack import, and rejects an entirely thematic approach, which would concede a sense of progression, and attempts a hybrid. It is a tough ask but he pretty much pulls it off. One can imagine him shifting paragraphs into different chapters deep into the night.
So much is crammed in that the tone must be informative, with little chance to digress, but this is no dry tome: there is considerable enjoyment to be found, whether it biased umpires (often pressurised by those more rich and powerful), the dull cricket of the 1960s and how the brilliance of England's 2005 Ashes win was allowed to turn sour.
In many ways, this is the book that Wilde was destined to write, a reminder that he is surely the finest editor that Wisden Cricketers Almanack never had; perhaps there is still time.
ENGLAND The Biography: The Story of English Cricket 1877-2018 (Simon and Schuster: £25).