Until now the most significant historical work on the darkest period in Australian cricket was the ABC television series Cricket in the 80s: Rookies, Rebels & Renaissance. The documentary featured unprecedented access to all the major characters and dealt with the shattering incidents: Packer, the '81 Ashes, Kim Hughes' resignation, and the rebel tours to South Africa.

Hughes, the "establishment's golden boy", was captain for the England tour of 1981, when Greg Chappell did not go and Rod Marsh wanted the job, adding to the tense climate of Australia's second successive fractious trip there. "[Hughes] was always, what's the term, not so much picked on, but you could always feel there was an undercurrent there," Allan Border said in the documentary.

Christian Ryan did not have a line to the big-name players for Golden Boy, his meticulously researched, unauthorised biography of Hughes and the "bad old days of Australian cricket". Hughes, his family and confidants all declined interviews, as did Border, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and Ian Chappell.

Without the era's A-list stars it initially seemed impossible that Ryan could provide any insight into possibly the most tortuous tenure of any Australian captain. But the lack of access matters little. Gideon Haigh, a clear mentor of Ryan's, proclaimed Irving Rosenwater's 1978 biography of Sir Donald Bradman the best ever written about The Don, "paradoxically, because it is the one that had least direct input from the man himself". Golden Boy is also a masterpiece, both wonderfully entertaining and a legitimate work of historical significance.

Ryan wanted to create "an unairbrushed history of an era we remember fondly but hardly knew". His interviewing and Haigh-like construction of narrative provide an untarnished classic not only of Hughes but also of Western Australian cricket, and those who did not benefit from Packer's revolution.

Seventy-five people were interviewed, including Hughes' former team-mates, ex-selectors, board members, and characters from his youth. There are also numerous quotes from the past, including a revealing and surprisingly text-heavy interview Marsh gave Playboy. "I honestly would prefer to play under several other players, who I think would do a better job than Kim," Marsh said. Similar comments have been plucked from books authored by Lillee and Marsh, two of the main protagonists in the anti-Hughes camp.

The eyewitness accounts of Lillee's version of Bodyline whenever Hughes stepped into a net - "'Sorry,' Lillee said. 'Oh that's OK,' Hughes replied. 'Sorry I didn't f***in' hit ya.'" - are combined with reports of physical altercations and Chappell's unsubtle attacks. "Three months ago, [Ian] Chappell began [a post-toss interview with Hughes], you claimed Australia possessed no Test-worthy legspinner. So what is Bob Holland doing in the team?"

Marsh said in Cricket in the 80s that the perceived "undercurrent" was blown out of proportion. "There was Marsh and Lillee, and then there was Hughes. And that we hated each other? Further from the truth you couldn't get. We were good mates that didn't see eye to eye on the field some of the time. Not all of the time. A lot of the time? Maybe. And as a result, I mean, we just let our feelings be known."

It all adds up to a story of a man whose life became a living hell due to the actions of the men he admired most. However, three decades later everyone is mates. "Now Kim, Dennis and Rod will have a drink together," Ryan writes. "Greg and Ian are Kim's friends. 'I am sure if I got into difficulty, financial or whatever, they are the first four blokes I would ring.' Dennis says their differences were exaggerated. Kim does not say that. But he does say they are 'great' mates, 'tremendous' mates, 'best' mates, as if 15 years of his life never happened." The group seems to have gathered together and vowed never to speak of what went on.

To most people who remember Hughes, he is the captain who cried when he resigned at the Gabba in 1984. However, Ryan quotes two men who don't believe he is soft or fragile. "Rodney Hogg thinks of courage, not a crybaby, when he thinks of Kim. Daryl Foster thinks of rubberman. 'He had many shocking days. But he would bounce back. There was no weepin' in your beer with Kim.'"

The stories are gripping, rich in detail, and confirmed by those around the set-up. While versions will be denied, there are too many accounts - and they are too consistent - to ignore. Ryan never casts his opinion, but in painting this picture all evidence points to the tragic story of a man who could have been an Australian hero, yet remains the black sheep of a golden group.

Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the bad old days of Australian cricket
by Christian Ryan
Allen and Unwin A$35