Herding Cats Review

Early summer 2013 and a new curious book hits the shelves. Featuring a mustard yellow cover harking similarities to Wisden itself and some old cigarette card style pictures of the dramatis personae the tome The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon detailed the resurrection of the Authors XI cricket team that had graced many a field during the formative years of the 21st century and featured stellar names such as Arthur Conan Doyle, JM Barrie and PG Wodehouse. The revival of the team produced a beautiful read that highlighted the glories of amateur cricket and the almost natural symbiosis between cricket and quality writing.

Nearly four years on from enjoying such wonderful tales a sort of follow up has been released into the cricketing wild. Written by the Authors XI’s bold skipper Charlie Campbell, Herding Cats: The art of amateur cricket captaincy arrived with some proclaiming it the amateur equivalent of Mike Brearley’s famed captaincy guide from the 1980’s. Somewhat aptly, Brearley himself has penned the foreword. For an Authors XI aficionado this was a much anticipated release. It’s not often one pre-orders books these days but this proved a rare exception. I even indulged in reading a couple of newspaper reviews prior to the book’s release. Thus, with copy in hand it was off to a holiday retreat in the north Weymouth hinterlands for a spot of R&R and a good read.

The introduction sets a resonant theme with a selection of amateur cricketing maxims including the paradox of over / underestimating a team according to their kit and equipment  and how many runs one can steal to a fielder according to what non-cricketing apparel they have attired themselves in for the afternoon. Author (both of the cricketing variety and the writing equivalent) Charlie Campbell begins his guide by highlighting the correlation between all players contributing and team happiness, a crucial symbiosis if a team is to enjoy significant longevity, although the captain’s own personal health is perpetually tested by the late arrivals of his players, another unique facet of the amateur game. Said health is further put under stress by the myriad of non-playing duties, an aspect that, as Campbell highlights, excludes many from the role.

The text soon develops into a fine rhythm roughly following the path of its professional predecessor from three decades previous, albeit highlighting the vast chasm between the very professional game and its very amateur little brother. Mike Brearley never had to placate a batsman who had been caught by a slip cordon sat in fold-out chairs after all. Very soon any reader who has played amateur cricket will be nodding their heads and chuckling at familiar scenarios whilst weary captains will sigh and empathise.

Some aspects of the game readily transcend both genres though: player egos, clashes of personality, the skipper pondering over their own form and inspecting the pitch (even though most amateur cricketers have little idea how the cut strip will play) are all familiar whether you are Joe Root or Joe Schmo. Such moments are very much ephemeral though as the amateur agonies soon return to the fore. The varying subjects of ringers, a captain’s deputies and selection (not the luxury of picking from a squad but working out the best order / roles for the 11 players one has just about managed to muster together that morning) all enjoy amusing coverage, particularly if said XI includes a newcomer that has uttered the immortal, yet ambiguous, words ‘I bat a bit’ when asked if they’ve played before. Shoehorning in a newcomer is a capricious business as almost everyone wants to bat at 4 or 5.

Dealing with players is not the only management issue that the Authors skipper artfully regales though. Managing match situations is certainly an aspect of the game very much part and parcel of playing at a recreational level. Thus, Campbell highlights how sometimes it is a case of winning but not winning too well so that the game is over before tea has been consumed, for instance. A last over / last ball finale still remains king in the amateur game.

For all the amusing, guffaw inducing moments there is the odd vignette of serious, yet extremely useful, insight. Thus, Campbell’s suggestions on the quality of ball one uses and his Brearley-esque analysis of Ben Stokes’ now infamous final four deliveries to Carlos Braithwaite prove particularly thought provoking. Of similar intrigue is the thought that village cricket doesn’t really exist abroad. The genre that caters for the more social, more limited player is a very English phenomenon as the pursuit of talent and greatness is the chief arbiter elsewhere. Hence, the Authors’ tours to the subcontinent have featured some heavy defeats.

Perhaps the Authors themselves are the ultimate beauty of the book. One aspect that is particularly endearing is the references to Campbell’s team-mates at various junctures throughout the prose. For someone who thoroughly enjoyed the first offering from the Authors the referred to players are somewhat familiar courtesy of the individual pieces in that tome and the cigarette card pictures on front of the book. Rather than simply nondescript names, one feels a small sense of familiarity courtesy of these first book occurrences.

One could argue that this occurrence sums up the book as a whole. The very amateur cricketer and his / her captain will identify with plenty in the book with the latter likely finding some catharsis that the issues highlighted happen to fellow skippers as well. For Charlie Campbell it is tales and anecdotes involving Sam, Tom, Alex, Jon, Richard, James, Nick et al. For others it may be similar tales involving Phil, Mike, Chris, Bob, Rick, Laura, Jayne, Melanie, Michelle etcetera. The parallels and comparisons are where the joy resides. The book may not attain the same import or hold the same gravitas as Mike Brearley’s seminal tome but it highlight the beauties, joys and struggles of the amateur skipper at large whilst asking one very salient question as the prose heads toward the close of play: how long does one carry on? How long indeed.

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4 thoughts on “Herding Cats Review

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  1. Hi Hector,

    My instinct is that what’s done here may have been done at least as well and certainly more originally by Marcus Berkmann in Rain Men. It’s rarely mentioned these days, but it was a book which, in retrospect, was a real trailblazer, coming as it did well ahead of the era of blogs, and even the widespread development of mainstream web-based cricket writing. But I may well be being unfair, since I haven’t read this. It’s another one for the very long list of cricket books which I may read one day.

    I do, however, share your regard for the Authors XI book. Hardly surprisingly, given the range of writers involved, it’s an absolute masterpiece. It’s unlikely to ever be widely recognized as such in a world where books about Dickie Bird outsell every other cricket book by a factor of about ten, but I regard it as one of the finest anthologies of cricket writing ever published.

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    1. Hi Brian,

      I’ve not read Rain Men but have read Zimmer Men and Penguins Stopped Play. Undoubtedly there are going to be similarities and, i would guess, that if you read them one after the other those similarities would be obvious. Herding Cats is a more enjoyable read if you’ve read the Authors XI book and know some of the characters involved. As a genre i enjoy these type of books as they tend to be well written and have highlighted some beautiful grounds (the Valley of the Rocks for instance) which i previously did not know about.

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  2. Sure, I can see what you mean about knowing the players. I know Jon Hotten and have met one or two of the others, including Charlie Campbell once (although he’s highly unlikely to remember). The way to do it is probably to read the Authors book again first, then Herding Cats.

    I live in Devon and while I don’t really play anymore I’ve done my time on the village circuit all over the county, including several games at the Valley of the Rocks. I feel privileged to have played there.

    I’ve also read Zimmer Men and Penguins. Penguins is very good, but my view is that Zimmer Men isn’t as good as the original.

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