A cricket lover’s achievement that will appeal to other cricket lovers, old and new

Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy | @russinthezone

Richard H. Thomas
Cricketing Lives: A characterful history from pitch to page
437 pages, hardcover, ill
London: Reaktion Books 2021
ISBN 978-1-78914-371-3

As the international cricket calendar continues to expand, the chronicling of the game, more especially the essence of the sport and the role of some of its key participants, expands as well. In taking on this huge challenge, Richard Thomas chooses to approach his subject matter by focusing on the cunning, the generous, the charming, and the outright cheat. In his overview of the development of cricket from its earliest to its current varied manifestations, Thomas utilises a selection of personal choices to illustrate its sublime talents as well as the heat of battle as evidence to explore the realities of the conflicts and contests central to the cricket’s appeal and longevity.

In Cricketing Lives, Richard Thomas provides a veritable smorgasbord of observations and facts that trace the game from its origins, as possibly an Anglo-Saxon creation, to one played by the Normans and more recently a past-time that Cromwell wished to ban as he sought to snuff out anything that remotely resembled fun. However, Frederick Prince of Wales took an interest in the game, enabling it to spread beyond the Home Counties and gave it royal patronage, thus helping it to survive and flourish in its early form through to the modern day offering, which at international level is evermore shaped by the demands of broadcasters coupled with the slick advertising campaigns of marketeers and public relations specialists.

Within the canon of sports writing, cricket features very prominently and this is not just the case with output originating from the United Kingdom. Irrespective of whether attention is focused on the exploits of the 1800s or those of modern day cricketing superstars such as Ben Stokes, Virat Kohli or Steve Smith, the great bulk of what has been published tends to favour a portrayal of personality and how this impacted on personal achievements, as opposed to an analysis of how the performances or actions as captain or key player for their respective national sides or franchise teams are shaped by the currents of history, political factors and critical sociological trends.

Having entered the psyche of the United Kingdom’s proud sporting tradition, cricket is exceptional in that to some degree it has acquired its special position because it has been appropriated by literary figures (Bateman & Hill 2011) who have often focused on striking personalities and personal feats of individuals such as Edward Lumpy Stevens, William Bedlam and Alfred Mynn in addition to WG Grace and Victor Trumper, with many of these texts visibly Anglocentric in terms of how their arguments are shaped. However, some figures have chosen to focus almost entirely on memories of people, places and relationships that are no longer relevant to understanding the game today. This is most notably the case with Nyren (1832), Blunden (1944), Cobbett (1893), Cardus (1930) and Scruton (1993). Furthermore, cricket possesses some intrinsic qualities based on a clear set of values which have relevance not just for those devoted to the game, but for wider society too, with the spirit in which the game should be played set out in a detailed set of laws. Much has previously been written on the continuing evolution of cricket and the performance of the national side at different times in its history, though often in a socio-economic and political vacuum.

Thomas achieves a work that is enthused with passion for its subject matter and will provide a valuable companion for many despite its lack of revolutionary zeal and deep concern for the future direction and survival of the game.

Far less attention has been devoted to the context and environment in which the sport has been played. In this instance the changing political, economic and cultural framework is raised without being confronted head-on. Although Thomas is keen to reveal the less agreeable side of some of the sport’s greatest figures, despite the readability of this volume, its rationale limits the book and its orthodoxy curtails the parameters of the analysis offered.

Although riveting, the volume continues this tradition, and the approach taken to the sport does not rattle the cages of the cricketing establishment although there is a willingness to reveal the less agreeable side of some of the games’s greatest personalities, such as Ranji (Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji) Len Hutton and CB Fry.

Strikingly, it takes until page 208 of the volume to reach 1945, leaving just one hundred and forty pages to explore the dramatic changes the game has undergone in this period, more especially in the last seventy years. However, within these limitations, the focus on George Headley, the so called “Black Bradman”, the development of Caribbean cricket, and the significance of Barbados as a cricketing fountainhead is impressive, whilst the overview of the impact of the Packer revolution with respect to dragging the sport into the modern era is both fair and detailed. However, the treatment of white ball cricket is very limited, surprisingly as some of the key exponents of this format such as Tendulkar, Gayle, McCullum, Azam, Malinga, Starc and Gilchrist, have demonstrated themselves to be notable figures within the traditional red ball game, the author’s preferred cricketing format.

This compendium is lucidly written and constitutes a real page-turner with an appeal to the longstanding follower of the game as well as to those relatively new to the sport, as it offers colour, a route in to the sport via the author’s capacity to thread disparate issues together combined with a quirky selection of illustrations to argue his point. The recollection of detail of some major matches also sucks the reader into the volume’s gentle tone.

However, the publication is lacking a little in reference to contemporary trends in the game with only three chapters for the last forty years, a truly tumultuous period with some great players and complex characters, most notably during the 1980s and the 1990s, when the sport became increasingly monetised. Additionally, the women’s game demands more than one chapter of coverage, as the nature and explanation of its recent notable expansion is vital to any effective analysis of the fortunes of the men’s game.

This is undoubtedly a cricket lover’s book but one that is likely to win over some members of the wider sporting constituency that have displayed a passing interest in the game without having explored it at a great depth. The volume is a touch too geographically limited in its outlook, despite the author’s undoubted affection for two legendary non-British batsmen, the South African Barry Richards and the West Indian Viv Richards. Thomas achieves a work that is enthused with passion for its subject matter and will provide a valuable companion for many despite its lack of revolutionary zeal and deep concern for the future direction and survival of the game. The rose-tinted spectacles that the author often utilises in his coverage (reflected in some of his chapter titles) serves to hide the possibility and fear of the game becoming a niche past-time, with access to opportunity and disposable income (especially beyond the confines of the Asian continent) possibly driving the game into the sporting margins. Yet the introduction provided by Daniel Norcross serves to provide us with a timely reminder of how cricket can and does enhance the quality of life for many of us regardless of race, identity and nationality as well as lifting personal and collective morale in times of anxiety and depression.

Copyright © Russell Holden 2022

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