Category Archives: Good Reads

A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas

 A semi-autobiography and  the winner of The Cricket Society/MCC Book of the Year for 2017, A Beautiful Game was worth the time it took to read it. Mark Nicholas gives a very readable account  of his playing career, nearly two decades with Hampshire; the early years in the 2nd XIs  running errands for the first team and generally looking up to playing greatness, to the decade when he was captain of his county,  narrowly missing out on becoming England captain in 1988 at one point.

While this part of the book is likely to be of most interest to those who remember him playing, he is frank, disarmingly so at times, about key relationships with his team-mates, a fund of good stories and generally draws the reader into how he sees things well. He is also good on his playing triumphs, Hampshire eventually got to a Lord’s one-day final under his leadership (they were the 17th county to do so), the near misses (a Championship in the mid-80s in particular) and the days when things went badly (most notably in a match against a Pakistani touring team). His account of Robin Smith’s struggles with alcohol and depression after his playing career was over was written with great heart.

The writing is full-on for much of the book, which achieves its dramatic effect in the telling of his encounter with Kerry Packer that helped set his media career on its way in Australia, the re-telling of  the 2005 Ashes series and also in his comments on the game’s greats. In relation to his playing career the built environs of domestic English cricket were, by contrast, sometimes rather modest; the dressing room for the home players at Southampton for example the small cottage in the photos above (the visiting team a room behind opposite the gents used by members).

In a career lasting some forty or so years in the game, some things of course, as the saying goes, could have gone even better. He played a prominent role in Hampshire’s  move to the Rose Bowl, the development  of a purpose built ‘England outground’, a risky venture, that over the years has been rather fraught financially and  overall it seems to have been a less happy change than, say, the relocation of Southampton FC to St Mary’s.

The final chapter, his crystal ball, is thought-provoking. CLR James argued that cricket, its people should be seen in societal context; WG Grace a figure produced by Victorian England, the  market reforms on the sub-continent of the early 1990s and the rapid growth that followed background context for Lalit  Modhi and the IPL. In the last decade the Indian economy has more than doubled in size, that of this country has not and the monies from the media rights deal negotiated by the BCCI  this year were about twice those announced by the ECB; left to market forces the future of cricket, it seems fair to say, is likely to be what the sub-continent wants.

A member of cricket’s global media,  he appears to tacitly accept this and his view of things contrasts rather with those in this country who see the longer form of the game as being above T20 cricket, and who might also see the ECB’s revenue generation from overseas markets as being decidedly two-edged. He comments on a structure for Test match cricket, which seems largely uncontroversial and likely to be quite widely welcomed,  other things, four days for a Test and his support for a city based T20 competition are or have been contentious; England, he comments, desperately wants an equivalent to the Big Bash. The  point of a crystal ball, is of course, to try and shape the future, as much as to see into it, and reading the final chapter does rather prompt the question as to how much of England there now is in the Englishman that wrote it?

 

 

 

 

 

Summer’s Crown by Stephen Chalke

A beautifully illustrated book, written with great clarity by a hugely well-informed author; part social history, although as much as anything the strength of the book is the character portrayals of the players who played the game in different eras, individuals as different as Brian Close and Shane Warne for example. The format of the book, picking out particular performances and matches, teams in particular seasons works well; it is just a pity that many of the grounds that appear in the book are no longer in use by county teams.

It is the story of a competition which in the parlance of modern analysts is not particularly well-balanced; Surrey, Middlesex and Yorkshire have been champions in roughly half the years it has been played, three counties have still to win it and a fourth, Derbyshire, won  it once, before WWII. To some extent this seems to have been rectified in the modern era with the arrival of one-day competitions in the 1960s, and the history of the competition has surely been more interesting, happier, as the number of winners has increased over the years.

Quite how much the Championship and one-day competitions have fed off each other and in quite what ways is an interesting question, and is touched on in the book: a ‘grounded’ club like Essex, for example, first champions in 1979, six time winners now and have now won sixteen trophies in all. The likelihood of three counties still to win the Championship actually doing so at some point in the future, has also probably been generally helped by them winning their share of  limited-overs competitions; although not always, Gloucestershire in 1977 denied by Hampshire who they had earlier in the season narrowly defeated in a one-day semi-final en route to winning that trophy.

Deck chairs, trees at the county ground, Hove.

It is striking that the photographs in the counties section has just one, Trent Bridge, which is a test match venue and one that is a current county ground, Worcester. The view that county cricket is often at its best for spectators when sitting in deck chairs at tree-lined out grounds is well-represented in this book: Colwyn Bay or Cardiff, Aigburth or Old Trafford; Scarborough or Headingly? Hopefully at some point more matches will be played away from the centres.

The book comes with  handy stats for reference, some extras on the scorers and umpires.  There is also a contender for a gremlin on page 274, but nothing that  detracts from the pleasure of reading this book.

 

 

The Kings of Summer by Duncan Hamilton

This book is a celebration of the best of county cricket and the author does a fine job of narrating his readership through the epic finale at Lord’s at the end of last season.  Having attended on three days, it was a welcome reminder.

Three points : I He seems to have had a rather variable relationship with Lord’s as a place to watch cricket. Thirty years ago when bacon and egg tie were high royalty, certainly some staff knew how to (un-)welcome non-members; but now from ticket office, through the Grace Gates to those at the tea-urn they seem as polite and friendly as a great many. The criticism of Lord’s as home of cricket seemed a bit misplaced.

II In reaching into the past for comparisons to last year he references Hampshire, who ‘astonishingly’ beat Gloucestershire on the last day at Bristol in 1977.  Their openers then were Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge (both of whom made scores in the nineties in the match) and of whom it could reasonably be asked has there been a stronger pairing? Being fortunate enough to have seen the last day, it was pretty obvious that Hampshire were going to win from the mid-point of the innings on.

III What that game did have in common was that a county that  had not previously won the Championship entered the final day with a fair chance, but ended it disappointed.  There is an inconvenient question about the declaration last year which is under what circumstances, if any, were Somerset going to win? In other words when does a contrived finish become a fixed one; hopefully someone keeps an eye on the influence of betting patterns in order that others can write and appreciate Cardus.

Ordinary spectators with ordinary pockets paid £80 for a ticket  for Test cricket at Lord’s last summer, £5 for the finale of the domestic season.  Perhaps the county game just needs a bit more care and attention and hopefully this fine  book will help it get it.

Cricket : The Game of Life by Scyld Berry

 

Every reason to celebrate says the front of the book and certainly it is impressive in both its scope and detail. The author’s ‘net’ on the game was in the 1960s when John Arlott was the voice of cricket, a man remembered for his sympathy for the ‘county pro’, who wrote of his abiding nostalgia for the domestic circuit when he retired in 1980. Those at the top of the game have moved a long way since then and in its own way this book shows just how far.

There is much on the development of the game around the world and much is drawn from the 400+ Test Matches the author has attended. This makes it good on, for example, what happened when Captain Gatting met Umpire Rana and why. There is sharp observation on the behaviour of Hanse Cronje and his personality and the extent to which match-fixing is hidden from view by vested interests. The chapter on the psychological framing and stresses at the top is a good one and Marcus Trescothick is rightly applauded for his honesty, although it is not always clear just how much sympathy the author has for his subjects, if any; perhaps it was just intended that readers should decide when to supply their own.

The account of the match between Kent and the Rest of England at the Artillery Ground in 1744, the first match for which an entrance ticket survives, does a good job of bringing history to life. Kent, captained by the Duke of Dorset’s gardener pointing the way for the game to challenge the established social order and arguably thrive because of it. The book also mentions that there were matches between cities in the 19th century, whether the current proposals just represent the latest challenge to the established order and the game will thrive anew, or the opposite if the elites at the Nursery End has miscalculated an open question now.

For those with the time to read its 400 pages a book to educate and inform, some strong opinions given to make the reader agree with or not, for which bravo the author.