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Must-Read Books

Fun and games

Unlike far too many cricket writers, Johnson refuses to take the game too seriously - and thank goodness for that

David Frith

Martin Johnson (the amusing Leicester lad who writes on sport, not the former England rugby captain) has an advantage over most of us in that, while adoring the game of cricket, he flatly refuses to take it or its practitioners all that seriously. The book's title comes from his famous declaration at the start of the 1986-87 Ashes series, which was said to have spurred the outraged England players to get their act together and trounce Australia. When asked to inscribe my personal copy of the book, to my astonishment Johnson scribbled that he had been misquoted by "the gutter Australian press". Such disillusionment.
Whatever the case, his international fame was sealed by the insult credited to him. And fortunately it did not dampen his professional mission to go on contributing whimsical snatches wherever possible to enliven the sports pages. The chief regret is that these days he flirts more with golf and other sports. Cricket needs all the informed levity it can get.
Being Leicester-based in the earlier days meant dealing with Ray Illingworth and David Gower, which in turn meant many a post-publication joust. Gower was once so offended by Johnson's use of the word "lobotomy" that he initiated legal action (or so says Johnson). Forgiveness took the shape of a Gower foreword to this chunky and often hilarious book.
Johnson saw in Angus Fraser's run-up a man who had caught his braces in the sightscreen. Better that than to be Merv Hughes, whose "mincing run-up resembles someone in high heels and a panty girdle chasing after a bus". Visions of so many cricketers and matches are reactivated here, some renowned, others all but lost to the tides of time.
Johnson must surely have had to undergo a facial cheek replacement by now, so hard and for so long has he pressed his tongue against it. Students of the game as played in the last quarter of the 20th century would be well advised not to overlook these profiles of the Bothams and Athertons and Goughs, searching elsewhere if statistical analysis is needed. It is Johnson's chronicles of on-field combat and off-field tangles and theories that will amuse without obscuring the facts.
He is among that rare breed of cricket writers who never lose sight of the fact that - notwithstanding all the indications to the contrary - it's supposed to be a game.
From the book
"Dickie [Bird] never got married - 'married to cricket' - and his sister comes in to cook and clean for him. He lives in the South Yorkshire mining village of Staincross, about a mile from Geoffrey Boycott. 'Huge place he's got, but I've got better views over the Pennines. He [Boycott] invited me round to lunch once, but I didn't get any answer from those machines he's got on his front gate and had to climb over the wall. Toasted cheese sandwiches was what I got. Then I was in Delhi once, and he said, 'Dickie, I'm going to take you out to dinner.' I said, 'Hang on a minute while I lie down.' 'Why do you want to lie down?' he said. I said, 'Because you're the biggest miser I've ever met in my life. You'll put all your money in your coffin when you go, and I hope I'm still around when they bury you, 'cos I'll be right over to the graveyard to dig it up.' Anyway, off I went to meet him for dinner in the hotel foyer, and he gave me two bars of Fruit and Nut, and said, 'Have a nice dinner, Dickie,' and off he went. If I had to pick a man to bat for my life it would be Boycott, but he'd want to know how much it was worth before he took guard."
Can't Bat, Can't Bowl, Can't Field
The Best Cricket Writing of Martin Johnson

compiled and edited by Andrew Green
CollinsWillow, 1997

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly