It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the cricket-and-books relationship but no other sport lends itself to prose quite like ours. Here, Richard H Thomas runs through 10 titles from the game’s vast library to prove it.
10) Coming Back To Me
Marcus Trescothick (first published in 2008)
“You need someone to break through and call it depression or anxiety… and say, look, we’re not supermen, we’re fallible.” So wrote the late Peter Roebuck of Marcus Trescothick following the publication of the book that would win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in 2008. Trescothick’s agony on tour, where he documents with harrowing honesty his incarceration as “a five-star prisoner” makes for excruciating reading: “Things, beings, beasts, bastards… attacked in waves, one after another, each worse than the one before. Oh God, please, make it stop.” Mercifully he is much recovered these days, contentedly plundering runs for Somerset and working as a spokesman for the charity Mind.
9) 10 For 66 And All That
Arthur Mailey (1958)
Mailey was an Australian leg-spinning cartoonist and journalist who once took all 10 Gloucestershire wickets (hence the book’s name), though he was prouder of his 4-362 for NSW against Victoria in 1926/27, reassuring colleagues he would “take a wicket any day now”. Included within is his famous account of bowling to Victor Trumper. You can almost feel the butterflies in his pre-match gibbering: “Wonder if he knows I’m playing against him? Don’t suppose he’s ever heard of me. Wouldn’t worry him anyhow, I shouldn’t think. Gosh, what a long morning! Think I’ll dig the garden. No, I won’t – I want to keep fresh. Think I’ll lie down for a bit… better not, I might fall off to sleep and be late…” He played, he bowled and had his hero stumped.“There was no triumph in me as I watched the receding figure,” he wrote. “I felt like a boy who had killed a dove.”
8 | Eight Days A Week
Jonathan Agnew (1988)
The motorways, moodiness and mischief of county cricket, held together by the realisation that 101 wickets in a season is still not enough to play for England. Agnew’s bewilderment at this slight turns eventually to frustration and finally resignation, but as the drama plays out – with a support cast of stalwarts like Phil DeFreitas, Peter Willey and Chris Lewis – Agnew, like all true county pros, never loses his sense of humour. This book is as much about ‘Sweaty Betty’ in the rain breaks, losing your favourite tracksuit trousers to find your mate wearing them to nets and motivational advice along the lines of “If you don’t get eight wickets out there today, you’ll be down the dole office”. Still, it all worked out in the end though, eh?
7) Brightly Fades The Don
Jack Fingleton (1949)
The classic tour diary of Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles. At their first meeting, Fingleton mispronounced the word “tetanus”, took offence at Bradman’s correction and the feud began. With simmering resentment, Fingleton largely remains objective in his balanced critique of Bradman as a captain, personality and premier batsman, observing that while “he did not make friends which others did” he was nevertheless “the greatest attraction the game has ever known”. These were gallant words for one with a venomous dislike for his subject; Bradman countered after his rival’s death by suggesting that without Fingleton and Tiger O’Reilly “the loyalty of my 1948 side was a big joy”. A fascinatingly detailed account of post-war Britain, back when a tour was a tour.
6 | Geoff Boycott: A Cricketing Hero
Leo McKinstry (2005)
The title is intriguing enough; a premise from which McKinstry can assert the Yorkshireman’s undeniable greatness. But despite the hagiographic subtitle, this is full of dichotomous evidence – Boycott can renege on a deal to pay a group of Pakistani boys to wash his car, yet treats Derek Randall to an English roast to cheer him up. A groundsman describes him as a “self-centred arrogant man with a vicious tongue”, yet McKinstry defends him as a “victim of the cruel injustice of the French justice system”. Perhaps as paradoxical as its subject, especially in its teasing out of a sensitivity from deep inside the brusque legend, it’s the definitive account of determination facilitating runs rather than friends, exemplified by Yorkshire colleague Don Wilson’s summary that “even though I don’t like him, I would never deny that he was a great player”.
5) Golden Boy: Kim Hughes And The Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket
Christian Ryan (2009)
Australian cricket underwent a kind of renewed adolescence in the Seventies: the voices suddenly dropped, the hair grew longer – and in strange places – and the beery fights got nastier. It was a mythical time that Ryan, one of Australia’s most respected writers, absolutely nails. His hero, and a rather tragic one at that, is Kimberley Hughes, ‘Kim’, a gifted, curly-haired dreamer in a sunhat who could do great things with a cricket bat when the mood took him. But if it was his effete manner which first offended the machismo sensibilities of Lillee, Marsh and the Chappells, it was Hughes’ ascent to the Test captaincy at the expense of Marsh that led to his team ‘mates’ closing ranks, leaving the ostracised Hughes burdened with an impossible job. Suffice to say it doesn’t end well. An unauthorised biography that gets to the heart of the era that changed cricket forever.
4) The Art Of Captaincy
Mike Brearley (1985)
Assuming that somewhere in here is the inspiration for Botham’s 1981 Ashes blitz makes it a must for every captain’s library. The beautifully simple premise that “the captain must get the best out of his team by helping them to play together without suppressing flair and uniqueness” is the starting point from which Brearley explores the nature of leadership, through theory, anecdotes and a series of astutely drawn pen-portraits of the men – the leaders and the led – he encountered during his time in the game. Now a psychotherapist (Brearley has a “degree in people” Rodney Hogg once quipped) he is eminently qualified to tell you how your team ticks. He suggested recently that modern entourages including “coaches, managers, fitness experts, masseurs and press officers” necessitate “real management as opposed simply to captaincy instincts”. Sounds like a pitch for volume two.
3) Rain Men
Marcus Beckmann (1995)
This is for anyone forced to use a communal box and subsequently distracted by what “lurks within” their trousers. Those who have noticed that every team has three skinflints who never buy a round will love it. It will be appreciated by everyone who has admitted to being a bit rusty, only to be told that they wouldn’t take a wicket if they had 20 years unbroken practice against a five-year-old girl who had never seen a bat. Finally, it is essential for anyone who sees the similarity between Chris Tavaré giving it the long handle and “a Shakespearean actor wilfully impersonating Bernard Manning”. One of the funniest cricket books ever written.
2) Beyond A Boundary
CLR James (1963)
Dubbed the ‘Black Plato’ by The Times, James was a Trinidadian scholar and Marxist for whom cricket was a microcosm of life. His epochal question – “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” – provides the central premise from which James addresses the issues of race, politics and class struggle that defined the game – and especially its West Indian expression – in the post-colonial era. His nephew, the broadcaster Darcus Howe, wondered recently what James would have made of contemporary Caribbean cricket. One senses it would have been hard reading. Guardian readers voted it the third best book ever written about sport, the paper itself asserting that “to say ‘the best cricket book ever written’ is pifflingly inadequate praise”.
1) A Lot of Hard Yakka
Simon Hughes (1998)
The ‘journeyman’ tag that so snugly fitted Middlesex’s Simon Hughes is exemplified by Slazenger’s reply to his letter suggesting that the dripping roast enjoyed by its senior endorsers should waft his way too: he got two t-shirts and pair of tennis shorts. If Agnew offered a peep into the dressing room, Hughes drags you in, gives you a wedgie and throws you in the bath. Dermot Reeve, we are told, is too self-obsessed to notice anyone else on a nudist beach. There are insights into Phil Edmonds (who has most of the tantrums), Brearley and John Emburey, who uses the F-word as adjective, verb and noun in a single sentence about his hamstring. There are tales of dodgy mags in Wayne Daniel’s kit and of trashing collar bones, two BMWs, a Porsche and a Range Rover on a benefit jolly-up in St Moritz. But in amongst the mucking about and the playful muckraking, there are also some serious touches that capture the insecurities never far from the mind of the county cricketer. Strap yourself in; it’s a one-sitting feast, just like Nancy’s teas.