Saturday, December 29, 2007

Book Review - Silence of the Heart by David Frith

Many commentators have said that cricket is, when you break it down to its purest essences, just a game. This definition is certainly simplistic, and perhaps even a little sacrilegious for many, but ultimately it is true. Nonetheless, cricket is a subject that arouses great passions in people all around the world, and the results of either their team or their own performances can have a decided impact upon an individual’s state of mind. Cricket has also been called a team game played between individuals. Sadly, cricket has attracted many participants who have battled themselves and their own inner daemons as much as any opposition players. David Frith’s book, Silence of the Heart (originally published as ‘By His Own Hand’), is a look at the tragedy of those cricketing heroes who were unable to cope with the demands of an existence post-cricket, and who sadly chose to end their own life.

Suicide would appear to be a very strange topic for a cricketing book, and without reading Frith’s work, it certainly appears quite macabre on face value. However, Frith has managed to look at many cricketers who have killed themselves, and produced one of the most fascinating books on the sport. Cricket has a suicide rate that exceeds the national averages for the respective cricketing nations, and it is estimated that more than one hundred and fifty professional cricketers have chosen to end their own lives. The hallmark of all Frith’s books is impeccable research, however, in Silence of the Heart he also manages to write with great poignancy and respect for the individuals concerned.

It is possible to read the book from start to finish, but the subject matter almost encourages the reader to instead take a more measured approach and dip into it over a period of time. Frith has written the book as a mini-biography of selected players, which allows the reader to take the time to examine and evaluate each individual situation without becoming overwhelmed by underlying sadness that each case invokes.

Frith’s research records the famous to the almost unknown, from legends of the past such as Shrewsbury and Stoddart through to more recent cases such as David Bairstow. However, it does not, and could not, provide the answers to why. Whilst some of the suicides described could be understood in the light of financial pressure, marital breakup or depression, others remain a complete mystery. One of the most striking aspects of the book for me personally were the pictures; you can see the face each cricketer presented to the outside world, but their inner turmoil remains hidden. Looking at the many photos of smiling and seemingly happy cricketers affected me more than I would have thought. I look back now and I know what fate is to befall the person in the photo, but they appear ignorant of their future despair. I can’t help but wonder what more could have been done to help them.

This is ultimately a very sad and moving book, but one of great value to both cricket lovers and the wider community. 4 stars.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Book Review - Rain Men by Marcus Berkmann

Marcus Berkmann is well known to many cricket lovers as both a writer for Cricinfo and Wisden, and as the author of Rain Men and the sequel Zimmer Men. His first book, Rain Men, has been acclaimed by many readers and journalists as a masterpiece of cricketing literature. I had not read it until recently, so it was with interest that I finally opened it up.

Simply put, Rain Men is a recounting of the events of a cricket team and the characters that haunted it. Berkmann tells the stories and describes the personalities in a wonderful manner, and his laid back style of writing is perfectly suited to this format of book. The anecdotes and events will be familiar to all cricketers who never quite reached the heights of international play, and have had the enjoyment of playing cricket simply for enjoyment. The staples of lower grade cricket such as umpiring, the selection process for the team, trying to even find enough players to make up numbers, and the often bizarre and psychologically twisted individuals that play are obvious fodder for Bermann, and he makes the most of them. Discussions of afternoon teas, the rocky road of captaincy and the often futile attempts to organise everyone to turn up on time are also covered in a very amusing manner that will bring back fond memories for many of us.

Rain Men is a funny book, and cleverly covers the incompetence that plagues cricket at the levels most of us dwell in. He does also manage to weave into the book some amusing references to professional players, and the peculiar devotion to statistics that many cricket lovers have. I must admit that whilst I certainly enjoyed Rain Men, however, it did not deliver the life changing experience that other people seem to have had with it. Prior to reading it, I had read Jim Young’s ‘Any Old Eleven’, which recounts the exploits and characters of a suburban Melbourne side through the 70s and 80s. I had also read Gideon Haigh’s ‘The Vincibles’, which was similarly a recount of the trials and tribulations of a weekend social cricketing team. I had also read Harry Thompson's "When Penguins Stopped Play", which is again a story about cricket at less than serious levels. Rain Men is a very funny book, and is a great read. However, for me, the novelty that other readers may experience with it had been significantly dulled by the similarly themed books I had already come across. Recommended reading for all cricket lovers, and particularly if you haven’t yet read the other titles I mentioned. 3.5 stars.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Book Review - The Summer Game by Neville Cardus

Neville Cardus was born in Manchester in 1888, the illegitimate son of a woman described as a ‘genteel prostitute’; hardly the auspicious birth for a man who became renown around the world for his wonderful skill with words. Cardus wrote a number of books and anthologies, primarily on his two loves of cricket and music. The first book of his that I read was ‘The Summer Game’, and probably cause it was my first experience with Cardus, it remains my favourite.

Cardus only went to school until the age of 13, then leaving to take up employment as a clerk. He read widely and was attracted to writing about both cricket and music from an early age. Cardus was first able to write for a living when he started work with the newspaper the Daily Citizen, however, his skills with the pen meant he moved onto bigger and better things with the Manchester Guardian.

The Summer Game was written in 1929, and like all of Cardus’ work, features wonderful prose. He obviously knew the game well, and had great knowledge of the actual players. However, it was his skill to bring the game to life that separated him from so many other writers. Cardus was a great analyst, and could dissect a day’s play, but he could also highlight the frivolous parts of the match to counterbalance too much seriousness. ‘The Summer Game’ contains a wonderful variety of stories. It touches upon the great players of Cardus’s past such as W.G. Grace and Victor Trumper, as well as more contemporary cricketers including Wilfred Rhodes, Ted McDonald and Jack Hobbes. One of my favourite parts of the book is semi-autobiographical, with Cardus examining his time working as the Assistant Cricket Coach at Shrewsbury School in Shropshire around 1912.

The great commentator, John Arlott, summed up his views on both Cardus and ‘The Summer Game’ with this quote;

"I owe almost everything to Neville," he said. "I remember reading 'The Summer Game' when I was in my teens. Suddenly, my eyes were opened to this semi-mythology of cricketers and always said to Neville that any success I had was due to the imaginative stimulus he gave me.”

Cardus wrote a number of other cricket books (such as Days in the Sun) that are justifiably remembered as classics of the genre. However, ‘The Summer Game’ remains my favourite, and is one that I re-read every now and again just to sample Cardus’ magical way with words. Perhaps one of the greatest tributes comes from Gideon Haigh, probably the best current writer on the game, who used Cardus's title for one of his own books. Highly recommended – it can be found in second hand bookshops if you search hard enough.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is Test Cricket Being Killed?

Flicking between the two tests played this week has been pretty dreary, even for an absolute cricket junky like myself. Are games like this killing test cricket? The pitches have no pace or bounce, and rely on batsmen getting so bored they get themselves out. This isn't what test cricket is meant to be about. There is meant to be a decent contest between bat and ball, not something so biased towards batting that bowlers just give up.

This problem isn't limited to the sub-continent. Australia is serving up batting paradises that are similiarly unfair to the bowlers. No spectators are going to pay decent money to watch a yawn-fest, when tickets are so expensive. Sadly, I can see more and more people chosing to go to ODIs and 20/20s rather than Tests. Already the trends are there in India and Pakistan, with the grounds packed for meaningless ODIs, and often empty for test matches. And that is really depressing.

I hope that the ICC starts to take some action on this issue, or the test match that we love may well become economically unviable, and therefore be abandonded by the money-driven authorities that rule the game today.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Best ways to rule yourself out of a game

In tribute to the home state of the best cricket blogger out there (the mighty Uncle J), I thought I would quickly touch on some of the better reasons players have missed games.

The top of the list has to be the Victorian batsman Brad Hodge. After a season of frustration in trying to win his Australian spot back, Hodge finally got an opportunity to play for his country when Ponting showed Australia’s dedication to 20/20 by dropping out. Hodge was so excited by this chance that he somehow managed to injure his back in the dressing room prior to the game starting. Evidently, Hodge strained his back whilst putting on his trousers. His replacement, Luke Pomersbach, made his debut whilst ironically still being banned from representing his home state of Western Australia due to a few nights on the turps.

Abdul Razzaq's international career has always been a bit stop-start. However, one of the weirdest incidents occurred when he contracted a mysterious illness during the Melbourne Test against Australia a few years ago. Razzaq suffered from vomiting, dizziness and breathing difficulties on the third day of the test, and didn’t recover in time for the final game at Sydney. This illness was eventually put down to his addiction to spinach.

Ian Botham has a lot to answer for. England selectors spent many years trying to find an allrounder that was as capable of winning matches with both bat and ball. While they eventually found Andrew Flintoff, they tried a lot of duds along the way. One player who never had Beefy’s skills, but did match his general stupidity, was Chris Lewis. During a cricket tour of the West Indies, Lewis thought it was cool to shave his head. He played the next day, and promptly got sunstroke.

Shane Watson – enough said really.

Australians often think it amusing to come up with nicknames that are completely inappropriate. People with red hair are called blue, quiet people are called 'rowdy' and Shane Watson is called talented. But Greg Ritchie's nickname of Fat Cat doesn't fit that category of supposed humour. And one day, he managed to damage his knee whilst walking down the steps of the pavillion just before the game started.

Shoaib Akhtar is known for being permanently injured, but perhaps his most mysterious injury occurred just prior to the World Cup. After it was announced that he would be drug tested at the tournament he was then strangely ruled out with injury. Mysterious in the extreme.

Stuart MacGill has recently injured himself by reading too much. He has developed a form of RSI in his hands, due to reading too many novels. Spinning had nothing to do with it. Shows that intellectuals have no place on the field.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

When England needed Four Keepers

It is not commonplace for teams to use more than one wicketkeeper during the course of a match. In first class cricket for Western Australia, Tim Zoehrer used to start keeping to the quicks, before relinquishing the gloves to Mike Valetta so that Zoehrer could bowl his more than useful leg-spin. Likewise, a number of wicketkeepers have had to retire hurt whilst fielding, often suffering nasty blows to the mouth and nose while keeping to the spinners. However, in 1986 England had cause to use four different keepers during the same test.

The nominated keeper for England in the First Test against New Zealand at Lords in 1986 was Bruce French. Unfortunately, he was struck on the head by Kiwi maestro Richard Hadlee and forced to retired hurt without scoring. By the time of the commencement of the New Zealand innings, French was still not well enough to take his place behind the stumps. Accordingly, his team-mate Bill Athey took up the gloves. This was not the ideal solution, and with the sporting agreement of New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney, Bob Taylor was drafted onto the field to keep. It is worth pointing out that Taylor was not only 45 years old and had been retired from first class cricket for a number of years, but also that he had also been sitting happily in a hospitality tent watching the events unfold. Nonetheless, Taylor did an admirable job for the remainder of the day.

The next morning, again with the agreement of Coney, Bobby Parks took over from Taylor. This was a more logical replacement, as Parks was the current Hampshire keeper of the time. Parks was the wicketkeeper until French was able to return, ironically for only one ball of the New Zealand first innings. French had recovered enough to keep throughout the abbreviated New Zealand second innings of only fifteen overs, but he showed no significant effects of the blow from Hadlee. Ironically, none of the four keepers were involved in any dismissals and the match ended in a tame draw.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Best of the Best Book

For all of those people who have contacted me wanting to find out how to get a copy of "Best of the Best", there is currently one on Ebay in Australia.

I am not the seller of this item, I know nothing about the seller and I make no recommendation of this seller. Please take the usual precautions in bidding, and make your own judgement if you wish to bid. I do not know if they are willing to post overseas, but most sellers are happy to do so if you contact them prior to the auction ending.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Derivations of Cricketing Terms

I am always interested in finding out where certain words or terms have come from. There are heaps in cricket - below are a few (the correctness of them all is debatable, but anyway). It may not be as comprehensive as the A to Z of Cricketing Terms, but what the hell.

Bosie - This term was used in the early 1900s in Australia to describe the wrong-un. It was so called in deference to B.J.T. Bosanquet, who is believed to be the inventor.

Googly - The English term for a wrong-un. So called because (evidently) it caused the batsman's eyes to goggle.

Popping Crease - Under the rules of cricket in the 1700s, a batsman had to place his bat into a hole cut in the turf to score a run. The wicketkeeper/fielders had to get the ball into the hole before the bat in order to affect a run-out. This hole was called the popping hole (as in popping the bat/ball into it), but after too many fielders had their fingers broken by the batsman slamming his bat into the hole at the same time as the fielder's hand, it was decided to change the hole to a line. The name popping hole then became popping crease.

Crease - After the popping hole went out the window, a crease (or furrow in the ground) was actually cut into the turf. This continued until the mid 1860s when they started using white paint.

Umpire - The word umpire evidently stems from the French 'nompere' which means 'not equal' or 'odd man'. This is to imply that the 'odd man' is called in to make decisions between two contestents.

Slips - The term slips comes from early times, with reference to these fielders covering 'slips from the bat'.

Point - This is a shortening of the phrase 'point of the bat', a position where the fielder stands close to the end of the bat.

Gully - Refers to the gap or 'gully' that exists between the slips and point

Cover - Refers to the position that 'covers' the point and middle of the wicket

Mid off and mid on - Shortenings of the terms 'middle wicket off' and 'middle wicket on'

Silly Mid On - the mid on is self explanatory, however it is believed that the silly refers to an old definition of silly, meaning 'defenceless'.

Third Man - This is so called because it was a position brought in with the advent of over-arm bowling, and the player supplemented the pre-existing positions of slip and point, thus being the 'third man' on the off-side.

Yorker - There are various different supposed meanings behind yorker. The one that seems to have reasonable credence relates to Tom Emmett, a highly successful Yorkshire bowler in the 1800s. He was very skilled at bowling full balls at the popping crease, and they became known as 'yorkers' because that is what batsmen had to cope with when they went to Yorkshire.

Maiden Over - While most people associated 'maiden' with female, another definition is 'unproductive'. Therefore, an unproductive over (i.e. one with no runs scored) became a maiden.

Wicket - Comes from the old english definition of a wicket being a small gate. Cricket is believed to have its origins with shephards, and very probably they used the gate on pens as the target to bowl at.

Bail - was originally a french word that described the top part of the gate of a sheep pen. See above re wicket.


The past decade has seen the development of professional players’ associations, an equivalent of a union, to represent the views of the cricketers in discussions with the various bodies that administer the game. The late 1990s saw a few threats of strike action, but nothing ever eventuated. However, striking because of concerns about conditions or payment is nothing new. In 1896, a number of English professionals refused to play a test match against Australia as a result of anger regarding payments made to W.G. Grace – an amateur.

The 1896 Ashes between England and Australia was set down for three tests, and leading into the final game, the series was tied at one all. This followed on from the amazing 1894/95 series in Australia that had produced a number of close results, and amazing comebacks. The final and deciding match therefore setup to be a great game, and was to be played at The Oval in Surrey. However, five professionals who were named in the side, refused to play unless their match fees were doubled. The reasons behind this demand were more complicated than a simple pay increase.

W.G. Grace was, almost without argument, the most well known figure in England at the time. His fame and performances were already legendary throughout the cricketing world, surprising for a player who had yet to retire. He was also an amateur, and supposedly did not receive payment for playing the game. This was clearly untrue; whilst his profession was as a medical doctor, Grace gained most of his income from cricket. In 1895, Grace had an amazing summer, becoming the first player to score 100 first class centuries, and also to score 1,000 runs in the month of May. He finished the 1895 season with 2,346 runs at an astounding average of 51, which is even more remarkable as he had turned 47 years old in July. The Daily Telegraph newspaper was suitably impressed by this achievement, and organised a testimonial to celebrate the feat. It ran articles encouraging readers to donate one shilling each to the appeal. As the testimonial gained momentum, the MCC joined in, along with Grace’s home county of Gloucestershire. Grace was the eventual beneficiary of a figure of 9, 073 pounds. Translated into today’s money, it is estimated that this would equate to a payment of around a quarter of a million pounds.

Not everyone was stoked about this. It is fair to say that the professional players of the time were fairly miffed that an amateur player could take a payment of such magnitude without any qualms, whilst they were left slaving away for significantly lesser amounts. What added to the professional players’ disquiet was the fact that whilst they received a payment of ten pounds per test match, they discovered that Grace was actually paid more than that to appear. The resentment started to bubble up, but the professional players took no action until they saw an opportunity to make a statement. And this opportunity arrived in the final test of the 1896 Ashes with the series tied.

In the days leading up to the Oval test, five of the professionals in the team announced publicly that they would not pay unless their match fee was doubled to twenty pounds. In addition, they advised the newspapers of the day that the main reason for their discontent was the double standards associated with the amateur Grace receiving match payments disguised as ‘expenses’. The five professionals, Billy Gunn, George Lohmann, Tom Richardson, Tom Haywood and Bobby Abel, had their bluff called by the Surrey Cricket Club, who hosted the game at the Oval. Surrey refused to pay the additional amounts, and Haywood, Abel and Richardson then backed down on their original demands and agreed to play. However, Gunn and Lohmann both stood by their convictions and declined the invitation to represent England. England went on to win the game in spite of their absence, benefiting from a rain affected pitch that saw Australia dismissed for just 44 in their second innings.

This incident caused a significant divide between the amateur Grace and the professionals. Grace was evidently livid that he had been targeted by them, and argued that he had supported the professionals by appearing free of charge in their own testimonial games. The professionals were still unhappy that the governing bodies appeared to simply cave into Grace’s demands; his presence as the largest figure in cricket allowed him to dictate his own terms. Lohmann never again represented England. His bowling statistics remain to this day the most impressive of any player who has taken over 100 test wickets. Lohmann’s bowling average of just over 10, combined with a strike rate of 34, is astounding even by the standards of the day. The divide and lingering resentment between the professional and amateur player continued for many more decades in England, until the separation was finally abolished at the end of the 1962 season.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Book Review - Best of the Best by Charles Davis

As my university maths lecturers would attest, I am not overly gifted numerically. However, I do enjoy the statistical side of cricket, and love pouring over player performances. Statistics never divulge the full truth – but they can be used to provide some useful context for cricketers from other eras. Charles Davis, a cricket historian and statistician from Melbourne, produced one of the most fascinating books I have ever read – “Best of the Best”.

Davis has used statistics and statistical analysis in a bold attempt to standardise the performances of players across all eras of test cricket. He has come up with a methodology for both batsmen and bowlers that tries to take into account the historical variables such as uncovered pitches, the quality of opposition, and the length of career. This statistical re-balancing allowed Davis to arrive at an adjusted batting average and bowling rating. Batsmen who feasted on weak attacks in good conditions will see their average reduced, whilst batsmen who performed well against strong opposition bowlers would see a rise in their figure. This recalculation is done for all players across all test cricket, and by doing so, Davis has come up with a system that allows direct comparison between eras.

This methodology naturally has some inherent assumptions that may or may not be completely valid. However, it is undoubtedly the most comprehensive attempt to re-rank every test player in history, and the results are fascinating reading. The greatest bowler of all-time under Davis’ system is the great Sydney Barnes. Whilst his rating was affected by the fact he played in an era of lower scoring (1901-1913), Barnes still came out on top. He finished in front of another legend in Bill O’Reilly. Interestingly, Don Bradman personally rated these two individuals as the greatest bowlers of all-time. Other bowlers in the top ten include Richard Hadlee, Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall. George Lohmann, who played in the 1880s and 90s, has probably the most amazing test bowling statistics of all-time. However, because of the limited opposition and bowler friendly pitches, he drops to no. 7 in Davis’ rankings.

The greatest batsman of all-time is, unsurprisingly, one Donald Bradman. However, it is interesting to see what happens to Bradman’s average after Davis’ recalculates it. Bradman’s original test average is 99.94, but after Davis takes into account the limited number of teams he played, and the batsmen friendly pitches, his average drops by nearly 15 runs back to 84.5. This figure is still in excess of 25 runs in front of his nearest competitor, Graeme Pollock (whose own adjusted average is 58.9, down from his test figure of over 60). Other great players in the top 10 include Gary Sobers, George Headley, Jack Hobbs and Clyde Walcott. Viv Richards is an interesting case, falling outside the top 20 due to the number of runs he scored against statistically weak attacks.

I have not done justice in explaining Davis’ system, but neither do I have the space to do so. He explains it all in great detail in the book, and manages to do so in a manner that is easy to understand. The recalculation of all test cricketers also facilitated Davis in exploding some interesting myths. One of these is the issue of the ‘nervous nineties’. Davis shows that players are actually 10 to 15 percent less likely to get out between 85 and 100, than they were up to 85. However, once they reach 100, they suddenly relax, and have a 10 percent greater chance of being dismissed up until 124.

Another myth that Davis examines is the issue of remaining not out and its affect on your batting average. Davis turns our thinking around, and points out that a not-out innings is actually a missed opportunity to score more runs. By missing out on runs whilst set, the batsman is actually reducing his overall career average. Davis explores this situation, and puts forward a convincing argument that if batsmen were able to play all their unbeaten innings to a conclusion, they would actually end up with a higher career batting average.

“Best of the Best” is sadly no longer available from publishers, but it can be found through Ebay and other sources. I would recommend cricket lovers who enjoy some of the more cerebral aspects of this great game trying to find a copy. A fascinating look at cricket in a different light.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Book Reviews - The Warwick Todd Trilogy by Tom Gleisner

Tom Gleisner is a well known comedian and writer in Australia, and has been an integral part of many successful television series including The D-Generation, The Late Show, The Panel and Thank God You’re Here, and films including The Castle. He is a cricket lover, and has written three satirical books based around the life and times of a mythical test player called Warwick Todd. Gleisner writes in the first person as Todd, recounting his experiences as a member of the Australian cricket team. The book are presented as tour diaries, parodying the annual Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting efforts since the mid 90s. The diaries describe actual real-life matches that were played by the national side, with Warwick Todd slotted into the lineup in a fictional capacity.

The first diary was "The Warwick Todd Diaries", which recounts the events of the Australian 1997 Ashes tour of England. Mark Taylor was going through a fairly wretched patch with the blade, and this provided Gleisner with plenty of material. After a brief retirement, Todd’s second diary “Back in the Baggy Green”, describes the Commonwealth Games of 1998, and the Australian team’s tour of the sub-continent. Cricket often plays a secondary role to the off-field hijinks described in great detail. The third, and to this point, final diary is “Going the Tonk", which covers another Ashes tour of England in 2001.

The humour is often blunt, sometimes offensive, and also surprisingly clever at time. Drinking, carousing and sexual innuendo is the basis for much of the content, however, there is also a lot of far more subtle gags. It is clear that Gleisner is a genuine cricket fan (the lucky bastard is even invited to play as Warwick Todd in charity events with real test cricketers), and has also done his research carefully. Gleisner uses the real tensions and events of the time extremely well. An example of this can be seen with the following paragraph that encapsulates the problems actually expressed by test players in relation to the perceived conflict in Bob Simpson being both a selector and the coach.

“Put yourself in the position of a player with a minor technical problem and ask yourself if you would go to the coach for advice if he was also a selector and the side was being chosen that night? This exact dilemma presented itself to me on the eve of the First Test against England in 1993 when, after a lengthy session in the nets, I discovered a footwork problem. Should I tell Simmo? Should I not? In the end I decided yes, and pointed out to him just how badly Matt Hayden was handling the leg-spin bowling. Next thing I knew – Hulkster is carrying the drinks. Not fair is it?”

Gleisner has also read similar tour diaries and the autobiographies of the players of the time. There is a great reference to not trusting chiropractors that is a direct rip-off of the Geoff Lawson book “Henry”. Unless you have read “Henry”, you would miss Gleisner’s beautiful parody of Lawson’s initial paranoia about chiropractors. Gleisner also managed to delightfully puncture the robotic and choreographed responses that our current day cricketers are taught in Media Training 101.

“Our 12th man was announced during the pre-game warm-up and Julian was something of a surprise choice, considering his excellent form thus far. That a player of BJ’s calibre could be omitted indicates just how much better than him the rest of us clearly are.”

The Warwick Todd diaries will not appeal to everyone. They can be extremely crude and rude in places, and political correctness goes completely out the window in “Back in the Baggy Green”. They are, nonetheless, exceedingly funny in parts, and I recommend them to fans of the sport. Cricket can be taken far too seriously at times – it is just a game after all, and Gleisner managed to remind us all of that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Book Review - Bodyline Autopsy by David Frith

The 1932/33 Ashes contest in Australia was and still is seen by many commentators as the most controversial series of all time. The mere word ‘bodyline’ conjures up strong images of short pitched bowling to batsmen ducking and weaving to avoid being struck. Bodyline has been the subject of video, a fairly forgettable mini-series, and more words than can be counted. David Frith’s offering, Bodyline Autopsy, is another review of the events of this series.

Frith has a long standing reputation as one of the leading cricket writers in the world. He has written over 20 books, and has also edited and worked for many major newspapers and cricket magazines. One of Frith’s greatest strengths, and it comes through strongly in this work, is his intimate knowledge of cricket history and his personal relationships with many of the leading players from the past. Frith’s research into the Bodyline series takes the time to carefully examine not just the 1932/33 Ashes, but also both the lead-up to that point, and the ongoing ramifications from it. Precedents of intimidatory bowling from quicks such as Jack Gregory in the 1920s, as well as more current examples from the West Indian attacks of the 1980s, are used to balance the recitation of the events of that summer.

Many other books on this topic have suffered greatly from the inherent biases of the writer. Frith has managed to provide a balanced critique of the highly emotional subject, and is to be congratulated for it. He spends each summer living in Australia, before spending the next six months in England. Frith’s autobiography is called “Caught England Bowled Australia”, and this underlines his shared loyalties between the land of his birth and the new country he subsequently grew up in. It is perhaps this shared background that allows him to take a subjective view of the Bodyline issue, whereas other writers have been blinded by their own singular nationalistic tendencies. The complex events of the series are reviewed and examined, and presented to the reader in a very comprehensive, but still highly readable, manner.

Frith has known and spoken with many of the central figures of the series, and was close friends with both Bradman and Larwood amongst others. This familiarity has given Frith a wonderful insight into the thoughts of the protagonists, and his portraits of the characters are fascinating and well developed. One example of this can be seen in his presentation of the English captain Douglas Jardine. In Australia Jardine is generally thought of as a dour and ruthless bastard, whose win-at-all-costs attitude was simply too excessive. It is to Frith’s credit that he manages to both confirm this image, but also to counter it with examples of both Jardine’s sense of humour, his courage and his sportsmanship.

Prior to reading it, I must admit wondering what Bodyline Autopsy could provide that previous books hadn’t. However, Frith has managed to write the definitive analysis of the series, and it should be part of all serious cricket lovers collections. Very highly recommended, and one of my top 10 cricket books of all time.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Why do off spinners fail in Australia?

The Warne V Murali debate has reignited, and whilst I'm not going to buy into that here, I thought I would look again at the issue of pitches, and what bowlers are suited where. Why do Indians play Warne so easily, and why does Murali get carted by Australia?

Australia has never produced great off-spinners (well, not since 1900 anyway). The pitches simply don't suit them, and the change to covered pitches has reduced their effectiveness in England as well. There is little spin to be had for off-spinners on hard pitches that don't break up excessively. If you try to come up with a list of good Australian offies, it is pretty hard. Ashley Mallett was pretty handy, but the cupboard is pretty bare after that. Tim May did OK, but was hardly a world beater. Australian left arm orthodox is even less impressive. Anyone remember Murray Bennett, Ray Bright (most over-rated test cricketer ever) or Tom Hogan?

Offies will always have a role in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as their pitches tend to have a softer crust, and to crumble. This suits an offie, as they get bite with their flatter trajectory from the front of the hand. A 'loopy' leggie (like Warne and MacGill) will not have the same effect as they bowl the ball over the wrist (which naturally throws the ball out slower, but on a higher trajectory).
India has produced very few loopy legspinners (with the notable exception of the great Gupte), instead having bowlers like Chandra and Kumble who spear the ball through at a faster pace. A loopy leggie will get extra bounce from hard pitches, and therefore do well in Australia, but the lack of bounce in India etc will enable batsmen to sit back and cover the spin easily.

We saw this with the last Australian tour of India, when Michael Clarke was the most effective Australian bowler as he darted them in. Hauritz gave it too much air, and didn't get the best out of the unstable pitch. Australia needs to look at what bowlers are going to perform well in certain conditions. Hogg looks a far better bet than MacGill for games in India and Pakistan, as his style is better suited to those pitches.Greg Matthews and Ray Bright both have taken bags of wickets in India, and yet look like absolute no-hopers in Australia. The selectors may well gamble on the best young offie (or Cameron White if he starts bowling again) in Australia as backup for Hogg on the next tour, as history would indicate this strategy is more likely to achieve success than a loopy leggie like MacGill.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Book Reviews - Some Christmas Recommendations

Turn, Turn, Turn … Please by Kerry O’Keeffe

If you have read O’Keeffe’s previous book, “According to Skull”, you will know what to expect from this effort. It is a series of short and sweet pieces describing various events throughout his life, with a very light hearted spin. O’Keeffe has built up a cult following for his commentary on ABC radio, and this book is very similar to a O’Keeffe session in the commentary box. Entertaining, but often diverging from the original context, it is never dull.

O’Keeffe varies his topics from horse racing to cricket to the forced land of aircraft. Mixed into the humour, there remains enough insight and analysis to sustain the interest of both casual and more serious cricket lovers. Not high literature, but makes no apologies for that. It delivers what it promises – a fun read that is ideal for a lazy Boxing Day.

150 Years of NSW First Class Cricket by Colin Clowes

Clowes, one of the honorary Cricket NSW Research Librarians, wrote this book to celebrate, perhaps not surprisingly, the 150th anniversary of first-class cricket in New South Wales. It is a thick book, and with good reason. It details in excess of one thousand first-class cricket matches played by New South Wales to the end of last season. Clowes covers every first-class game that the Blues have played, with an analysis of the matches and description of individual performances.

This book is naturally aimed at New South Wales cricket supporters. However, there is a large amount of content that will fascinate readers who are simply interested in cricket in general. Great names of Australian cricket including the Gregory family, Victor Trumper, Don Bradman, Alan Davidson, Richie Benaud, Doug Walters and the Waughs are all integral parts of NSW’s history, but international players such as Imran Khan also contributed and are included here.

The book has a vast number of old photographs, scorecards, statistics and accounts of the players that made NSW the leading cricketing state in Australia. Not for the casual reader, this book is a treat for true cricket connoisseurs. Highly recommended.

The Whole Hogg by Rodney Hogg

This book is an interesting first attempt by Hogg. Unlike most autobiographies, it is not self-serving at all, and in fact, often seems to delight in portraying Hogg in the worst possible light. Some of his words are so unbelievable for a former test cricketer that you assume that they must be true. An example of this can be seen with Hogg’s recall of faking an injury so as to be made 12th man for a test match. “Being 12th man for Australia was a lot better than playing because you got the same money and could legally get on the drink every night.”

One of the most interesting pieces of information revealed was that Hogg came within one vote of taking over from Kim Hughes as test captain. Quite what Australia’s future would have been if Hogg, rather than Allan Border, had taken the reins hardly bears thinking about. Hogg also finally admits that he did try to punch Kim Hughes’ head off during a test match. Hogg’s part in the famous Dennis Lillee aluminium bat incident is also fascinating to read about. This book is certainly not your run-of-the-mill cricket autobiography – recommended but not for cricket purists.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Book Review - Beyond a Boundary

C.L.R. (Cyril Lionel Robert) James was born in Trinidad and Tobago on the 4th of January 1901. As a child, he grew up observing and playing with many of the great players in the early days of West Indian cricket. He moved to England at age 31 in order to further his writing aspirations, and gained a reputation as a social theorist. Over the following years, he spent significant time in both England and the United States, and wrote prolifically on Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. James returned to his birthplace, and was a leading figure in the development of independence in the West Indies. Over all this time, James’ love of cricket remained undiminished, and he is now best remembered for his 1963 book, “Beyond a Boundary”. Over the years since its publication, Beyond a Boundary has been nominated by many readers as the greatest book ever written about sport, but it now seems to be popular to criticise it. As such, I thought it worthy of a re-review.

“Beyond a Boundary” is a combination of a personal memoir, an examination of the social history of the West Indies, and a commentary on the role of cricket within the Caribbean islands. The book is partly autobiographical, and James begins “Beyond a Boundary” with his family history, his childhood and school years. Into this mix, James commences his analysis of West Indian society and politics. James was close friends with the great Learie Constantine, and he recounts personal encounters with Constantine, and other famous cricketers of the day including George Headley, George John and Wilton St Hill.

Many people will have read the defining quote of the book “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know”. This quote serves as the basis for James to critique the game of cricket with the historical and political role that the sport has undertaken in the ongoing devleopment of the West Indian islands. It is worth noting at this point that “Beyond a Boundary” is not a book written for the masses. It is a complex analysis of politics, race and class struggles. The modern cricket book landscape is characterised by ‘ghosted’ autobiographies of players who have just completed their first year of international competition. Beyond a Boundary clashes with this current trend, and this point of differentiation is undoubtedly difficult for casual readers. James’ qualities as an academic are seen in his writing, and the language he chooses has not been simplified for popular consumption.

James discusses the role of sport since Greek times, and puts forward his views regard its importance in relation to the social history. Essays on great players such as George Headley and W.G. Grace are counterpointed to literature and events of their time. An example of this approach is seen through James’ association of Grace’s career with the book Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and argues how the written word provided a setting for Grace to gain social prominence. James also covers the unrest surrounding the English tour in 1960, and how the politics of the islands could be seen through the selection of both the national team and its varying captains.

Whilst you don’t have to be a cricket fanatic to enjoy this book, it is certainly not for everyone. The combination of cricketing anecdotes, social commentary, politics, race, class and sociology is not one that makes for easy consumption on the beach. Nonetheless, James has managed to weave these diverse and often disparate elements together into a book that is highly compelling and interesting to read. As mentioned earlier, it seems popular to now criticise Beyond a Boundary for being overly intellectual, complicated and difficult to read. These criticisms are not without some merit, but they are to overlook the point of the book. It is a product of a time of massive change, of social, political and economic upheaval. Beyond a Boundary is certainly one of the most important books about cricket ever written, and no fan of the history of either cricket or the West Indies should miss it.