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Review

Here there be chortling

You'll lol, maybe even rofl, as you peruse this superbly illustrated parody cricket annual

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
07-Nov-2010
Getty Images

Getty Images

"Spoof Victorian cricket annuals were funnier when I were playing," states (Sir) Geoffrey Boycott in one of the (potentially fabricated) tributes on the rear cover of WG Grace Ate My Pedalo. But even if the great man had indeed been persuaded to pass comment on the latest primrose-yellow tome to emanate from the stable of John Wisden and Co, it is hard to believe that he could possibly have reached such a conclusion.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Alan Tyers and the cartoonist Beach have come up with one of the wittiest and most original sporting books of this or any other year. Secondly, their timing has been spot-on as well. As Tyers himself noted while researching his "curious cricket compendium", the same issues that vexed cricket's opinion leaders at the turn of the 19th century - match-fixing, mercenaries and a fundamental loss of innocence chief among them - are back with a vengeance at the start of the 21st. Cue an onslaught of trans-generational lampoonery that would doubtless cause the good Doctor's great-great-great-grandchildren to LOL, and maybe even once in a while ROFL.
Between them Tyers and Beach, whose illustrations are superb, capture every nuance of the publications they are mocking. I should know, because in the spring of 2001, it was my enviable duty to photocopy each and every page of each and every Wisden Cricketers' Almanack from 1864 onwards (before shipping the amassed sheets of A4 to India, from whence they were loaded into the database of the soon-to-be-launched Wisden.com). It was therefore my privilege to linger at great length over the preposterous, pompous and innately comical prose of the late Victorian era, and to marvel at the range of often absurd topics (and cricket matches) deemed suitable for inclusion.
For instance, it was reported in the actual almanack section of an early edition that, on one otherwise nondescript Wednesday in November, "Ripe strawberries had been found in North Wales", while the very first Wisden includes this gem of a digression into the tea-drinking habits of the Victorian household:
The graces of the modern tea-table were quite unknown to the country folk, although that favourite beverage, brought by the Dutch to Europe, was introduced into England by Lords Arlington and Ossory in 1666. It was not till nearly a century later that the middle classes of London and Edinburgh began to use tea daily. In the latter city, in the reigns of the Georges, tea was taken at four o'clock, and the meal was thence called "four hours".
Apart from affirming that the taking of tea was indeed a deadly serious business during the days of Empire, such a passage lends splendid gravitas to Tyers' imagined contest between Lord West's XI and an Afrikander XI at "Potchefstroom Yachting Club in January 1896", a match that, he reports, was abandoned due to "tea-time beastliness" and other related issues - namely the suicide (via service revolver, naturally) of the English opener, BP "Kipper" Mantelpiece, who upholds his country's honour after being forced, by local custom, to wait until a quarter past four for his cuppa.
Two other such matches are particularly chortle-worthy - a contest against the Cape Colony in 1896, in which the England XI are bowled out for 31 and 43 in reply to 895 for 4 declared, only for the game to be awarded to England after five of the South Africans (including the outrageously monikered Bakkies Baastaard) are "discovered to be English"; and a subsequent game against a Convicts of Tasmania XI, in which every member of the opposition is run out on account of batting in a ball and chain.
Throughout the book, Beach's grainy pen-and-ink sketches perfectly complement Tyers' satirical whimsy, and the net result often proves indistinguishable from the adverts that began to find their way into the Almanack towards the end of the 19th century
If such accounts strike you as "silly" in the Monty Python sense, then it's worth remembering that truth can be at least as strange as fiction. Take the match between 2nd Royal Surrey Militia and Shillinglee in 1855, referred to in the original Wisden, in which the Militia was bowled out for exactly 0. And then there's WG Grace's soul-baring admission that he was "disgracefully well-refreshed" when he piloted his pedal-propelled vessel into the Gulf of Aden... where would such parodies be without the exploits of the modern-day quintessential Englishman, Andrew Flintoff?
The discovery of the "Cricketing Irishman", E.I.E.I.O Morgan, by the "adventurer, botanist and cricket enthusiast, Dr Henry Rutherford" is another laugh-out-loud passage - ("I knew immediately I had found a cricketer of rare talent, so I hit him over the head and shipped him back to England") - while Dr Aubrey Fotheringhay's studies in Faciodeductiology (well quite) are brought to life, as with so many other aspects of the book, by Beach's effortless aping of Punch-style illustrations.
Throughout the book, Beach's grainy pen-and-ink sketches perfectly complement Tyers' satirical whimsy, and they are particularly fine at lampooning the adverts that began to find their way into the Almanack towards the end of the 19th century. The most renowned of these was for John Wisden's "Newly Invented Catapulta" - the original bowling machine and the furthest cry possible from the Pro-Batter gizmo with which England warmed up for the Ashes.
"The great number of unsolicited but gratifying Testimonials received testify the effective manner the above invention substitutes the professional bowler," states Wisden modestly, a turn of phrase that has clear echoes in the blurb accompanying "Pontius Ponting's Mental Disintegrator - For efficacious removal of unwanted batsmen from the crease; leaves no trace or stain of character."
There are delights aplenty on each and every page of this book, which is destined to become an essential addition to every cricket-lover's bog-time library. In fact, thanks to the wizard advances in portable wireless stenograph machines, I'm even writing this review while perched upon the Thomas Crapper. It really is that good.
WG Grace Ate My Pedalo: A Curious Cricket Compendium
by Alan Tyers and Beach
John Wisden and Co. Ltd
£9.99

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.