Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Reading The Pitch - a Top Ten of Cricket Books (part one)

Of all sport, cricket (with the exception of boxing) seems to attract the most wonderful writing. With its moments of high drama, unfolding plot and an obsession with statistics and detail perhaps it’s no surprise that figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett all played and loved the game.

As a result of this rich literary heritage my book shelves seem to be stuffed with tomes relating to cricket (although comparing Dazzler – The Autobiography of Darren Gough with Waiting For Godot is perhaps pushing it a little). Go into any second hand book shop and you’re bound to find either Geoff Boycott’s autobiography or Ian Botham’s latest list of all that is wrong with English cricket (a list that usually begins with ‘administrators’). In between the many bitter, self serving biogs or the cosy, crumpet stained memories of Bradman, Sutcliffe and Swanton you’ll find some genuine gems which made me regard recent article in The Wisden Cricketer on the best 50 cricket books with such interest.

I consider myself pretty well read but was amazed to find that I had read or owned only seven of this illustrious list. Admittedly many of them seemed to be by Neville Cardus and date from the twenties but it still made me think about the books I had read that were missing and the impact some of them had made on me. So here in no particular order are ten cricketing books which I have loved for a variety of differing and sometime strange reasons:


When Freddie Became Jesus
Jarrod Kimber

This strange and incredibly rude book about the 2009 Ashes series is surely the only one on this list to contain the phrase “the pitch was a shitty slow son-of-a-bitch”. Kimber, an Australian, who seemingly can’t believe his luck to be getting paid to watch cricket, swears like a docker with haemorrhoids, throughout this story of the series that never quite lived up to 2005’s legendary contest.

Despite the swearing, or more accurately because of it, Kimber catches in brilliant and vivid detail the frustrations of fan and player alike as they attempt to somehow recapture the wonder that flowed through that glorious summer like cheap lager. Neither team quite manages it but Kimber plays a blinder, putting all thoughts of his impending nuptials to one side as he produces a hilarious book that is worth twenty Stuart Broad autobiographies.

Here’s a few one liners from the book:

On seeing Richie Benaud for the first time in flesh in the media box:

“He was so close to me that I could have turned around and licked his trouser leg. And don’t think that it didn’t cross my mind”

On the difference between the previous 2 Ashes and the 2009 version:

“Where 05 and 06/07 had greatness, 09 had Ravi Bopara and Nathan Hauritz”

On Ian Bell:

“If I were a mad billionaire who hosted parties that people came to just because there was a lot of booze and freaky shit going on, I’d hire Ian Bell, strip him naked, oil him up and make him practice his cover drive for hours on end in a giant birdcage.”


Coming Back To Me
Marcus Trescothick

From the hilarious to the heartbreaking. When Marcus Trescothick returned home from a tour of Pakistan in 2006, his explanation that he was suffering from a stress-related illness confused many cricket fans who refused to consider that depression was just as serious an injury as a broken arm. As Trescothick recently said “If I had cancer, no one would dream of taking the mick, so why should they over this illness?”

Trescothick’s account of his mental health problems is incredibly moving and honest. As someone who has also had a number of similar issues, I found the book incredibly helpful and Trescothick has stated that he gets letters every week from people thanking him for writing it. The passages where he describes his helplessness after his father-in-law suffers a life threatening accident while Trescothick is the other side of the world are beautifully written.

Thankfully the book is equally direct on Trescothick’s cricket career and his insights on England’s transition from the dark days of the noughties to the 2005 Ashes win are interesting and perceptive. It also reminds England cricket fans what a wonderful player we have missed.


Life Worth Living
C.B. Fry

This is a ridiculous book about a ridiculously talented man. It reads more like one of Michael Palin’s ‘Ripping Yarns’ and is almost as funny, although in this case perhaps unintentionally.

A summary of Fry’s life could include the following: He set a world record for the long jump, played football for England, appeared in the 1902 FA Cup Final, scored over 30,000 First Class runs, met Churchill, Hitler and Ghandi, represented India at the League of Nations, stood for Parliament and even turned down the throne of Albania.

Fry’s chapter titles are a delight on their own:

Chapter 7: Motorin’, Huntin’, Fishin’, Shootin’
Chapter 15: India of the Princes
Chapter 18: Adolf Hitler
Chapter 20: Hollywood

Sadly the great Corinthian lets himself down with some ill advised upper class nonsense about Hitler:

“The fact that we have come to look upon the Nazi system as hostile and dangerous to our interests does not prove that the means whereby Germany has reformed herself into such a capacity are not worth our close attention.”

But let’s try and ignore that and revel in passages like this instead, possibly my favourite in any book:

“It is half-past ten: time for the caravan to start from Brown’s Hotel. The Bentley is at the door; Mr Brooks, the chauffeur, is wise-cracking out of the side of his gutta-percha mouth. Aboard are writing pads and binoculars and travelling rugs, a copy of Herodotus, a box of Henry Clay cigars and reserve hampers of hock and chicken sandwiches. A monocle glitters. A silver crest passes, high and haughty, above the cities of the plain. C.B. Fry is off to Lord’s.”


On and Off the Field
Ed Smith

This was one of those books that sneaked up on me and ingrained itself in my memory without me expecting it. The diary of the season is one of cricket literature’s go to books, but apart from the brilliant Simon Hughes, most players turn it into a dull tale of dressing room ‘japes’, moaning about the weather and the contents of the tea at Lords.

Ed Smith’s book was always going to be a bit different: Smith got a double first in History from Cambridge and reviews books for the Telegraph so amusing anecdotes about Gatt’s love of pickle sandwiches were always going to be thin on the ground. Instead what we get from Smith is an incredibly intelligent insight into the mind of the professional county cricketer which is full of gripping descriptions of matches, players and spotting pretty girls in the crowd.

It helps of course that Smith’s 2003 season was amazing. Playing for Kent he has a Bradmanesque July with the following run of scores: 135, 0, 122, 149, 113, 203, 36, 108, 32 and is picked for England.

It’s here that the book really touches greatness with his descriptions of the pressure and nerves of playing for your country and his colorful descriptions of fellow internationals: Flintoff prepares Smith a vodka and tonic after his first England innings, Mark Butcher confesses to reading a Graham Greene novel every week, Nasser Hussein is described as “burning with an anger that often borders on hatred”, while a touching portrait of Smith’s county colleague Andrew Symonds belies his drunkard reputation.

Using the word ‘journey’ smacks of reality show blandness but that’s exactly what ‘On and Off the Field’ is. It’s a brilliant book and one which leaves you full of admiration for Smith, possibly the most intelligent player to put pen to paper since Mike Brealey.


Morning Everyone
Simon Hughes

Hughes’ 1997 book A Lot of Hard Yakka: Triumph and Torment – A County Cricketer’s Life is rightly hailed as a classic but I enjoyed Hughes’ 2005 Ashes cash in just as much. In similar self-deprecating style Hughes describes his misadventures in journalism with an honesty that must have lost him a large number of friends and contacts. The book reaches a climax with Hughes joining the cast of Channel 4’s excellent and much missed cricket coverage as he settles into his role as ‘the analyst’.

He bravely criticises Boycott (“a sharp eye but his attitude and turn of phrase is a little old hat”), is constantly amused but impressed by Mark Nicholas’ hair, idolises Richie Benaud (Benaud describes his daily 6.15am walk as taking “between twenty-nine minutes and fifty-five seconds to thirty minutes and five seconds”) and to his credit even broaches the sticky subject of Dermot Reeve’s burgeoning cocaine habit:

On the second day, Reeve looked rather the worse for wear, with staring eyes and hair all over the place and his manner veered wildly from confrontational to dopey.”

Things reach a head when Reeve criticises Fred Trueman in front of Boycott and shows Benaud his recently pierced nipple.

If nothing else reading this book has made me all the more determined to write about cricket.


Joseph O’Neil

I'm reading this book called Netherland by Joseph O''s fascinating. It's a wonderful book.'
Barack Obama

One thing which struck me about The Wisden Cricketer’s list of cricket books was there was no fiction. How could a sport with such literary pedigree not attract some wonderful novelists? Thankfully, Joseph O’Neill, an Irishman like that fellow cricket lover, Beckett, comes to the rescue with his excellent 2008 book Netherland.

On paper it’s an unlikely tale. A dislocated Dutchman, alone in New York after 9/11, turns to his love of cricket to try and make sense of his life. As a result he finds himself entering the murky world of cricket US style – a rough and violent game played on marginal urban parks by various characters from America’s immigrant population. It’s here he finds Chuck Ramkissoon, a West Indian dreamer who longs to bring cricket to the States and in true Field of Dreams style decides to build a stadium.

The novel is beautifully written and Dutchman Han’s lyrical descriptions of the various games he plays in are worthy of C.L.R James:

“I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice.”

Given the recent farce of the first Twenty20 game to be played on American soil, a match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand which saw all of 5,000 people turn up, Chuck Ramkissoon’s dream could be a long way off.

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