A few words of advice about Chris Ryan's beautiful book: don't cuddle up to it or try to read it on a crowded train. Instead, pick it up off the coffee table and dive in and out. Pick a favourite writer or an intriguing subject and lose yourself. Allow yourself to wonder, as Gideon Haigh does in his mind-bending essay on the "sliding doors" moments in Australian cricket, what might have happened, or not happened, if a coin had fallen the other way here or a catch been held there. Argue about the five greatest Australian cricketers, decided by a "once-a-lifetime poll" of the nation's Test players. Hell, argue about the top 41. Linger over the photographs, lavishly displayed as if in an art gallery. But don't think of this merely as a coffee- table book; it is much more than that.
The title - Australia: Story of a Cricket Country - is important, for this is not a chronicle of Australian cricket so much as a narrative of a nation told by the people who have watched, played, scored, commentated, kept statistics, curated, stood behind the bar, and hero-worshipped at every level of the summer game.
Around the time of the book's publication, Cricket Australia mothballed its old strategic plan, "From Backyard to Baggy Green", and signed off on a new one, which could just as easily be called "From Backyard to Big Bash". At a time when the all-important "pathway" is being re-routed, this expansive collection of essays and photographs attests that the real delight has always been in the detours taken.
The detours are intellectual as well as geographical, and Haigh's piece is a highlight. He warms up by asking what would have happened if Herschelle Gibbs hadn't dropped the World Cup. Well, Steve Waugh would probably have lost the one-day captaincy, which would, in turn, have loosened his grip on the five-day job. What if Australia's Monty Noble had won the toss instead of England's Pelham Warner in 1904? Why, Haigh extrapolates at length, there might have been no Ashes. The same questions are asked of other critical moments in Australian cricket history, raising startling possibilities.
As an editor, a role he has undertaken previously for the Monthly and Wisden Cricketers' Almanack Australia, Ryan is every bit as attentive to detail as he is as a writer, and just as evocative. The photographs are accompanied by beautiful inscriptions that give them the effect of self-contained vignettes. A shot of Phillip Hughes playing a homespun cut faces one of Damien Martyn, still and classical, and the contrast tells its own story. "Just when the textbook was getting boringly dog-eared," the Hughes caption says, "Phil Hughes introduced - here on debut in Johannesburg - his Leaning Tower of Pisa-like stance and his chuck-the-sink at it cutting technique."
There are famous photographs, but just as often recognisable cricketers are depicted in less obvious settings. Neil Harvey, for instance, is pictured in the cobbled Fitzroy laneway where he played cricket with his brothers. Almost always, the players' faces and expressions are visible. "You can't see people's faces when they are wearing helmets," writes Ryan in the preface. "Some say these are trivial points. But they're everything. Give me worry, and faces: give me Trott sneering, Gregory chirping, Macartney puffing, Redpath wincing, Toohey bleeding, Hughes imping, Lehmann melting." And he does.
The Five Greatest Australian Cricketers are celebrated from enjoyable new angles - Ian Chappell's colourful but clear-eyed assessment of Keith Miller, the cricketer and the man, is a particular treat. "Hall of fame footballer, ahem, hall of fame drinker, hall of fame shagger maybe," Miller said when Chappell rang to congratulate him for his induction into the Australian cricket hall of fame, "but not cricketer."
As an editor Ryan is every bit as attentive to detail as he is as a writer, and just as evocative
Malcolm Knox, Mike Brearley, Tony Wilson and Greg Baum complete the countdown, and the writing is as compelling as the cricketers they describe. Just as interesting are the selection criteria applied by the 121 Test players, spanning eight decades, who answered Ryan's call. "Who'd dare leave out Don Bradman?" Ryan wrote. A handful did. One, conscious of the elephant on his ballot paper, felt obliged to explain. "While he was the best bat of his time," wrote big Queensland left-armer Tony Dell, "footage of opposition leads me to believe he would not have fared well in the Chappell era. Stories point to him being a selfish, divisive person who fought advancement. To me that does not constitute greatness."
Many players picked personal heroes, and some went for cricketers they'd never seen. Jo Angel and Ian Healy chose Victor Trumper, "dead ninety-six years [with] an un-blockbuster-like 39.04 batting average". "For months, envelopes were ripped open in the romantic - silly, really - anticipation that Trumper might somehow sneak into the top five," wrote Ryan. "Then, for months after that, another far-fetched possibility dangled: might Shane Warne pip Bradman as the greatest of them all?"
The above chapter provides the most fodder for water-cooler debate, but others are just as relevant. At a time when the iconic baggy-green cap can no longer be relied upon to inspire the devotion of fans and players, Sean Gorman addresses the game's failure to engage indigenous Australia. As the world adjusts to India's political and financial muscle, Rahul Bhattacharya brilliantly, damningly traces the recalibrated relationship between two countries that once ennobled each other through epic battles. "It is a superculture in descent versus a superculture in ascent," he writes, and the results are not pretty.
Many a detour can be taken while meandering through this story of a cricket country; each is rewarding in its own way and needn't be taken in a particular order. Few of its destinations can be found along pathways or in strategic plans, and that is the beauty of it.
Australia: Story of a Cricket Country
edited by Christian Ryan
Hardie Grant Books
Chole Saltau is the chief cricket writer for the Age in Australia