Originally I was most sceptical, probably for no other reason than snob value. But after a modicum of dipping one’s toe in the water I was hooked. My wife had extolled the virtues of wandering around charity shops in search of books and I quickly became a convert. For upon one of the early delves into the shelves was a rather serendipitous discovery. Yes, the books were cheap and, in some cases, in so-so condition but the sighting of a tome from the past provoked a sense of excitement. This is the sort of book that may well still be stocked by Amazon (other internet shops are available) or Flea-Bay but discovering a copy whilst ambling around provides a frisson of frivolity and a large helping of serendipity, rendering the purchase somewhat more enjoyable. Said book had obviously been residing in someone’s attic or in the bowels of a well-stocked bookcase for some time but now it had been released and given a second life. Trawling the charity shops for interesting reads had taken on a more alluring character as the book equivalent of the thrill of the chase began. In some respects it is not the finding that proves most enjoyable but the searching and the anticipation. The discoveries also prompted a desire to locate further tomes of a similarly mature nature.
All of which is something of a prevaricated amble toward a selection of reviews for cricketing books that might provide enjoyment and intrigue during the dark recesses of winter and early spring. All of the books listed are probably still readily available via the internet but discovering one or two residing unassumingly in a charity shop does provide that aforementioned frisson of frivolity and excitement. This small selection is not meant to rank some above others or prove exhaustive and definitive. It is merely a handful of favourites, a selection of books that have made an impact or left a memory.
Village Cricket – Tim Heald
The term ‘village cricket’ is one that is used frequently in the cricket lexicon, particularly regarding the game in English climes, and has developed something of an all-encompassing, covering all bases type of phrase to describe the game played in bucolic, urban free surrounds. Identifying such a nebulous concept whilst producing enough material to forge a tome that would prove interesting and informative could have proved a capricious business but author Tim Heald managed to capture that potentially elusive essence in his book simply named after the concept.
Somewhat aptly, I discovered my copy sitting quietly on the shelf of a charity shop in Marlow, that beautiful Thameside town that, whilst too big to host village cricket, still possesses that wonderfully bucolic ambience nestled delightfully in the valley of the river as it heads toward the capital.
Nevertheless, the book undertakes a curious journey during the first seventy-odd pages as the author indulges in a rather detailed procession of personal reminisces which, after a couple of chapters, becomes rather frustrating. Perseverance is required though for, as soon as the sepia tinged moments have been completed, the book undertakes a meandering journey around a number of villages to inspect the state of play. Thus, amongst others, there is the Cornish team Boconnoc with its presence in the eponymous estate, fellow Celts Troon and their Village Cup heritage, a brief history of the fabled Village Cup itself, Coldharbour Cricket Club on Leith Hill in Surrey with its rather precipitous home ground that still possesses a beautifully secluded, sylvan ambience and tales of Stoolball in neighbouring Sussex. It is a wonderfully whimsical read that provokes thoughts and mental images of blissfully sunny summer afternoons in glorious bucolic surrounds where characters are plentiful and the standard of raconteuring at its highest and most hyperbolic. Once beyond the rather ponderous opening couple of chapters one soon reaches a point where the diminishing number of pages still to be read becomes ever more disappointing as one hopes there is just one more village to be described, one more team to be introduced. The book itself is a dozen years old now and likely to only be sold as second-hand. Nevertheless, it is well worth purchasing even a dog-eared copy to enjoy the moments of escapism provided by author’s journeys.
Not Dark Yet – Mike Harfield
From a literary point of view Mike Harfield’s 2008 offering was very unlikely to win any awards. It is a simply written book without any pomp or gravitas but as an account it proves most joyous and memorable. Detailing an annual fixture between Harfield’s eponymous team and a Clifton Hampden representative side, anyone who has organised or played for a recreational side or club equivalent will empathise with the issues highlighted in Not Dark Yet; a book detailing the travails of finding eleven players and then the achievement of said eleven players all arriving at the ground proving a somewhat Sisyphean task. The scenarios may possess outdated, old fashioned charm and be readily dismissed in some circles but the chuckle value of the text provides another angle to the sport rather than the pursuit of victory, points, series results and other such serious parameters. Harfield’s opening gambit describing the rhythm of a cricket match proves particularly memorable.
A Cricket Odyssey – Scyld Berry
The Sunday Telegraph’s Scyld Berry may not be everyone’s cup of tea but this gem of a diary covering the 1987 World Cup and England’s subsequent tours of Pakistan and New Zealand represents the first foray of an impressionable child into the complex but fascinating world of international cricket. The mists of time dictate that I cannot remember where I purchased my copy (possibly Devon, possibly the Isle of Wight) but it was a much cherished buy on a family holiday, one that has remained one of my most loved books despite its slightly dog-eared appearance. If nothing else the book provided an education on the sport and some detail on matters such as Mike Gatting’s infamous reverse-sweep in the World Cup final, Chris Broad clattering his own stumps in the Bicentennial test, the Faisalabad affair and the term ‘Antipodes,’ all of which would previously have been beyond the comprehension of a young boy. Curiously, as a child the book seemed interminably long with unnecessary filler chapters interrupting the business of one-day internationals and test matches but the reality of adulthood highlights that it barely reaches 200 pages, including pictures and scorecards, whilst the filler pieces add intriguing context and a break from the hurly-burly of what must have seemed an endless winter of touring.
The prose itself sets off on a galloping pace but soon settles into a cantering rhythm, mixing reports from the matches with various historical titbits and points of reference from the World Cup and the competitors themselves.
Of particular intrigue is the marked difference in the scoring rates and how the game has evolved over the last thirty years along with certain other liberal attitudes. For instance, a score of 240 would win many a contest in 1987, as Peter Moores and his laptop still believed nearly three decades later, whilst attitudes toward security were certainly more cavalier. England’s contest against Sri Lanka in the frontier town of Peshawar featured certain instances that would at least raise eyebrows, at most lead to the abandonment of the contest if it were played today; prior threats from the Islamic Students Organisation to disrupt the match, time bomb blasts in the week leading up to the contest, political protests outside the stadium and machine gun fire not far from the stadium during England’s innings all seemingly inconsequential in what were seemingly less turbulent times.
Curiously, one of Berry’s more prescient passages discusses the plight of Zimbabwean cricket and their quest for test status; the loss of players to other countries and the lack of matches against the major teams eerily reminiscent of Irish cricket’s current plight and pursuit of reaching the top tier. There is also an intriguing juncture where Berry highlights how the England squad for the 1987 World Cup appeared to have been chosen with ‘anything except fifty-over cricket in mind’ whilst his muse about England’s failure to play Abdul Qadir lay with county cricket and its failure to produce quality leg-spinners rather than the standard of pitches on offer bore chillingly familiar similarities to England’s recent failure to play Ravi Ashwin in India. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose per chance?
Ultimately though, the middle section of the book, despite the controversies of the series, provides a wonderful insight into Pakistani life and cricket that is sadly lacking at present times due to teams not visiting the country in the wake of the 2009 terror attacks. Perhaps best of all is the beautiful chapter on the career of Hanif Mohammad which would have proved incomprehensible for a young boy a quarter of a century previous but is an absorbing and engrossing essay to someone with a better understanding and appreciation of the game. It is a book that one is only likely to discover in a charity shop or a jumble sale but it is worth the search for what is an enjoyable read.
The Authors XI
Having highlighted the correlation between cricket, books and writing it seems almost consequential that a book inspired by cricketing authors should come to fruition. In truth, and as is highlighted by the team itself, the Authors XI is inspired by the itinerant team of the same name from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that included stellar names such as Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse and JM Barrie. The twenty-first century incarnation arrived courtesy of Charlie Campbell and Nicholas Hogg; the team’s first season chronicled in the book The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon. Each chapter features a brief report of a specific contest surrounded by wonderful prose describing an aspect of cricket that is of particular relevance to that author. Of great personal resonance was the chapter by Nicholas Holland describing the process undertaken by the Chalke Valley Cricket Club in creating a new ground back in the village of Bowerchalke where the team previously played, a location that struck a chord due to the new ground residing little more than ninety seconds walk from my friend’s front door. The magnificent setting also helps.
Further excellent chapters include Jon Hotten’s wonderfully reflective piece on John Arlott, TMS and broadcasting, Tom Holland’s detailed passage describing his first ever six (which quickly achieved cult status) at Eton, Charlie Campbell’s endearing essay on cricket kit, Sam Carter’s chapter on the capricious nature of cricket writing and a wonderfully thought provoking thesis on sport and acting from the cerebral, erstwhile Middlesex and England batsman Ed Smith.
Also of note are the mustard coloured, Wisden style jacket and old style cigarette card pictures of the players on the front cover, providing a nice nod to the past and the first incarnation of the Authors team. The current version does not disappoint.
Zimmer Men – Marcus Berkmann
Back in the depths of book reviewing history one newspaper whit rather disparagingly highlighted that there generally is one book on amateur cricket published each year. Marcus Berkmann’s tome Zimmer Men: The trials and tribulations of the ageing cricketer is a follow on to the classic Rain Men from a decade previous and follows the travails of Berkmann’s newly formed team, amusingly called Rain Men. The tales of hilarity, fun and frolics undertook a different direction from the book of the same name which detailed the activities of the Captain Scott’s XI, a team formed at university by Berkmann and his close friend the late Harry Thompson.
Curiously, both Thompson and Berkmann released tomes during the same year (the latter posthumously) detailing their two separate teams after Berkmann retired from the Scott’s XI due to differences in where the team was heading. Scott’s became more serious, utilising better players and searching out stronger opponents whereas the Rain Men preferred the more social form of cricket which had served Scott’s so well during their formative years. The two books predictably head down the same directions with Berkmann’s tales providing more smiles, moments of whimsy and a greater sense of fun; an ideal trio for a book detailing the self deprecating cricketer for whom the game still remains a game.
Cricket is unique in that writing, stories and accounts of the game at its lowest levels enjoys such great success in the publishing world. (and by default the internet equivalents) Scan the bookshelves (literal and virtual) and one can discover tomes such as Marcus Berkmann’s Zimmer Men or Harry Thompson’s Penguins Stopped Play. Continue along into other sports and there is unlikely to be an equivalent detailing the year on year travails of a nondescript football team yomping its way around various council pitches or a golfer hacking his way around a litany of parkland courses. Cricket provides its very own niche for such writing though and the sport’s Wisden inspired, bookish persona is enriched by such accounts, most of which are undoubtedly aided by cricket’s association with sunshine, the countryside and achingly beautiful grounds.
Sphere of Influence – Gideon Haigh
Choosing a favourite Gideon Haigh offering is a bit like choosing one’s favourite child; fraught with danger and irrevocable consequences. At least the books won’t remind you of any such mistakes. Nevertheless, as a choice needs to be made then the 2011 release Sphere of Influence provides as stellar an example as any of Haigh’s brilliant analysis of the sport at large and the nuances, some subtle, others less so, that are changing the game.
Indeed, like a quality batsman that scores runs in difficult conditions when it really matters, Haigh’s combination of essays detailing cricket during one of its most tumultuous periods demonstrates the quality of the Australian’s skills. At the vanguard of the tome is the now famous maxim: “Does cricket make money in order to exist, or does it exist to make money?” The question found its genesis in the rapidly changing cricket world in the wake of the Indian Premier League and the hyperbole and mania that enveloped the competition.
Haigh beautifully takes the reader through the important moments of the last quarter of a century in the introductory chapter entitled ‘What just happened?’ detailing the seemingly irrevocable changes as Indian cricket not only flexed its financial muscles but ostentatiously kissed its guns (those of a bicep variety) as the cricket world watched in awe. Further articles and essays highlight the aforementioned maxim as certain aspects of cricket were morphing from a sport into a freakish, nip tucked, gaudy entertainment equivalent euphemistically daubed with so-called razzmatazz. Whilst four of the other five books in this piece focus on the carefree, whimsical side of cricket, Sphere of Influence highlights the more concerning shifts in the upper echelons of the sport.
Haigh’s pieces on the ECB’s disastrous dalliance with Allen Stanford prove particularly amusing for someone very much ‘outside cricket.’ Of similar note is Haigh highlighting that the public aren’t necessarily getting what they want but being told what they want, harking the brilliant lyric from the Jam’s hit song Going Underground: ‘And the public wants what the public gets.’
The hysteria surrounding T20 cricket (remember when it was called Twenty20?) also led to the rise of dirty, vulgar words such as market, (and its ability equivalent) consumers, stakeholders, cricketainment, strategic time outs (who are they trying to kid? Strategic for whom?) monetising of opportunities and product, all of which have entered the cricket lexicon. Has any sport been markedly improved under the burden of such distasteful terms?
Ultimately, whether the reader likes it or not, Sphere of Influence highlights many of the sport’s most unsavoury aspects, those which one might forget whilst enjoying an afternoon’s play in a deckchair at some sun-kissed countryside venue. Despite all the concerning passages and one’s ire at some of the shenanigans that have taken place over the last decade though, Sphere of Influence remains a fascinating read, particularly with the value of hindsight.