Grandfather's footsteps

Nick Hoult reviews Test of Time by John Lazenby

Nick Hoult

It is every would-be writer's dream; to find a bundle of curled-up, yellowing letters which lead you on a journey across the world tracing a long-forgotten story. Add in the fact that the subject is your grandfather and you have another component of a great tale - the personal touch.
For John Lazenby the dream became a reality with his book Test of Time, which is part travelogue, part chronicle of cricket's Golden Age and also a reconstruction of a key period in his grandfather's life.
As a child Lazenby found a kitbag belonging to his grandfather, the Kent and England cricketer Jack Mason. Years later he found a box of letters written by Mason while sailing to Australia to play in the 1897-98 Ashes tour.
What follows is a reconstruction of that tour, interwoven with Lazenby's reflections on modern Australia. One moment you are reading about Ranji or Johnny Briggs, the next you are on a dusty train journey with Lazenby, or revisiting one of the back-country towns the team visited at a time before Australia's independence.
Lazenby's writing grows in confidence as the book progresses and the realisation dawns that he has a cracking story on his hands. His research is extensive but this is not a book for cricket purists. If you want a detailed description of every Ranji leg glance then look elsewhere.
Jack Mason until his death carried a faded photograph of himself and Norman Druce sprawled on the outfield at the MCG. His grandson has made an impressive attempt at bringing that photograph back to life by evoking the characters of the tour.
England started out full of confidence but were comprehensively beaten by a better side. Defeat led to divisions along class lines, and the sheer bad luck that dogged the captain AE Stoddart was remarkable. He cuts a melancholic figure throughout, from the theft of his watch at a Queensland train station to the death of his mother on the eve of the first Test.
Even Ranji's presence could not lift the dark mood. When he was not ill, Ranji was upsetting the locals with his newspaper articles and his perceived class arrogance. Stuck in the middle of all this was Mason, a young England cricketer given little guidance by senior players and left to fend for himself when things went wrong on an Ashes tour. Now that sounds a little familiar.