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Cricket probably boasts the best writing in all sport. We asked five writers to pick the cricket books they love most
November 5, 2012
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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