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?