It should come as no surprise that Mark Nicholas considers cricket to be a beautiful game. It had stolen his heart by the age of nine and has been his sweetheart ever since. Beauty is the beholder's business, of course, but "Nicko", the roving romantic who went from captaining Hampshire to helming TV coverage in both hemispheres, puts his perspective across pretty convincingly. Never mind goalposts, jumpers are for keeping you warm in the slips.
For those who know Nicholas chiefly through his work as a commentator and presenter, such ardour has long been obvious. Cover drives are "dreamy", unplayable deliveries "crackerjack". Plenty of cricket fans - particularly those immersed in Channel 4's innovative coverage of England in the early 2000s - will have a favourite Nicholas moment (and there's a good chance it came during the 2005 Ashes): his description of Steve Harmison's slower ball to Michael Clarke at Edgbaston remains gloriously overblown, while other moments of appreciation verged on the pornographic. Nicholas sprayed his enthusiasm around like a Formula One driver with a fresh magnum.
This approach, he notes in his autobiography-cum-memoir A Beautiful Game, meant he "came in for some stick - hyperbole and exclamations being the main grumble". But the Nicko-isms (should that be Nicko-gasms?) were principally what made him one of the stars of the show once the rights to broadcast England Test matches switched from the BBC - staid old Aunty - in 1999. As Nicholas writes, "Channel 4 was where the flame burned brightest for me", though he surprised many by subsequently carving out a niche as the polished Pom host of Channel Nine's coverage in Australia.
The great strength of his style is that it is so genuine. The book's subtitle is "My love affair with cricket" and Nicholas bubbles over with anecdotes, lore and affection for the game. His 18-year career with Hampshire is also described as a "love affair". The Channel 4 years were an equally passionate tryst: "It was a love affair with cricket and we stopped at nothing to make the lover special and everyone else appreciate her."
"The great strength of his style is that it is so genuine. The book's subtitle is "My love affair with cricket" and Nicholas bubbles over with anecdotes, lore and affection for the game"
The first notch on his bedpost came nearly 40 years ago, when scoring a hundred in Dover for Hampshire 2nd XI - "which was orgasmic". Nicholas rose quickly to prominence at Hampshire, becoming captain at 23, though he never quite made the grade for England. He was selected to lead an A tour to Zimbabwe (contracting a potentially fatal strain of malaria while away) and nearly capped via the TCCB's captaincy roulette in 1988, Mickey Stewart informing him during a county match in Guildford that he had lost a three-two vote against Chris Cowdrey.
As a batsman Nicholas was good enough to score 36 first-class hundreds, but leadership was his metier. "Elvis", the overweight public schoolboy who briefly worked as an analyst in the city during the off season, became "Jardine", the bold captain who would lead Hampshire to four one-day trophies in six years. Along the way, he drank deeply of cricket's heady brew: seeking batting tips from Barry Richards and Garry Sobers; being transfixed by Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket in Australia ("cricket porn"); and chatting with Don Bradman and Bill O'Reilly in the back of the press box.
In between sections on playing the game and covering it, Nicholas just loves talking shop too. Whatever your view on his ability or his insight, he has a great store of knowledge about the game, and a range of experience that includes having faced Jeff Thomson, met Packer (one of the book's best anecdotes) and called Richie Benaud a colleague for many years. He writes touchingly of "Maco", his great Hampshire team-mate Malcolm Marshall, and the Smith brothers, Chris and Robin, as well as sadly departed commentary box companions such as Benaud and Tony Greig. In one of the final chapters, he even heads off into the future to imagine an intercontinental championship for Test cricket (played over four days), a 30-over World Cup and the rise of Max10, an even shorter shortest format.
As readers of his work on these pages will know, MCJ Nicholas can rarely be accused of being dull. Peter O'Toole, Tiger Woods and Mick Jagger crop up either side of tales about facing the deadly combination of Derek Underwood and Alan Knott on a wet pitch; there are references to Ziggy Stardust, Alistair Cooke (no, not the England captain) and Bruce Springsteen. Nicholas is not afraid to confront criticism, either, raising the subject of an excoriating 2015 article by Geoff Lemon on the sliding standards at Channel Nine. He concedes that Lemon "had a point" and hopes that changes made to the coverage in Australia reflect a sincere desire to get back on track.
"No one does it better" is a quote on the cover of A Beautiful Game, from Geoffrey Boycott. Few would argue with Sir Geoff. With the passing of a host of iconic broadcasting voices in recent years, it is tempting to suggest that Nicholas is now one of the keepers of the flame. He continues to spread the gospel, over the airwaves and through his work with the Chance to Shine charity in the UK. There is a sense that he wanted to write less about himself and more about cricket, though it is all the more readable for the personality bursting through. Besides, the two seem to go pretty well together: call it a beautiful friendship.
A Beautiful Game
By Mark Nicholas
Allen & Unwin
420 pages, £20