In the last century, cricket writer A A Thomson gave this advice to a friend who asked which ten books he should start a cricket collection with: “Any eight by Cardus.” What about this century? I shall borrow from Thomson and start by saying, “Anything by Gideon Haigh…”
Three personal favourites are Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot That Changed Cricket, about a player, a single stroke, a history of the game and what it means to people, identity and more. Mystery Spinner is the story of Jack Iverson while Silent Revolutions is a delightful collection of Haigh’s journalism. Haigh’s secret has been known for some time. He brings to his journalistic pieces the same discipline, controlled intensity and authority that he displays in his books.
For the remaining titles, I have divided the books into five broad categories: Concerning India, biographies and autobiographies, history, issues of the game and anthologies.
Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field brought Indian cricket writing into the 21st century, weaving together many threads — historical, biographical, personal, political, cultural, philosophical — in a vibrant, original pattern. Prashanth Kidambi’s recent Cricket Country, the well-researched story of an Indian team’s first tour of England in 1911 sits comfortably alongside it, another fine example of a scholar turning his attention to cricket.
Pundits From Pakistan, written a decade and a half ago on the Indian team’s tour of Pakistan remains fresh and reaffirms that its author, Rahul Bhattacharya is one of the finest cricket writers anywhere.
Among efforts by players, there is Aakash Chopra’s debut Beyond The Blues and its companion, Out of the Blue. The diary of a season, and then the story of Rajasthan’s maiden Ranji Trophy triumph are narrated with an empathy few players bring to their writing.
The final choice is James Astill’s The Great Tamasha, a story of Indian cricket with all its chaos and mismanagement. “There’s great passion for cricket in this country,” the late Tiger Pataudi told Astill, “but little knowledge.”
Knowledge comes through in Michael Atherton’s Opening Up, by a sportsman with the rare quality of self-awareness. Perhaps there is something about opening batsmen — Chopra was one — for my next choice is Marcus Trescothick’s moving, candid story of his depression in Coming Back to Me, which brought mental issues out in the open.
When Jack Fingleton first met Don Bradman, the latter corrected his pronunciation. The relationship never improved. The story is told in George Growden’s The Man Who Stood Up to Bradman. The famous Bill Woodfull quote in the dressing room during Bodyline (“there are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket, the other is not”) was leaked to the press. Fingleton was responsible, according to Bradman. No, it was Bradman himself who leaked it, Fingleton always insisted and provided the clues.
Cricket: The Game of Life by Scyld Berry, ex-editor of Wisden and the doyen of journalists is a paean to the game by someone close to it in every sense.
The history of Pakistan cricket, The Unquiet Ones by Osman Samiuddin is an account by an insider who had the advantage of distance, while The Fire Burns Blue, the story of women’s cricket in India is a lovingly constructed history by Karunya Keshav and the late Sidhanta Patnaik. Bodyline Autopsy by David Frith might well be the final word on the subject, it is that comprehensive.
A study of cricket suicides
Frith also wrote Silence of The Heart, a study of cricket suicides. It tries to answer the question: Are cricketers at greater risk of suicide, and if so why? The conclusion may not be scientific, but the research and the narration — two Frith specialties — are impressive. Mike Brearley, who wrote the foreword to that book, examines with his usual combination of authority and profundity the question of form in cricket in On Form. There is width as well as depth here.
Malcolm Knox’s Never a Gentleman’s Game is a reminder that the game has seldom been pure. Most of the maladies afflicting the game today have a long history, and this book is recommended to those who think match-fixing began at the turn of the century. To be read with Simon Rae’s story of “skullduggery, sharp practice and downright cheating in the noble game”, It’s Not Cricket.
The century’s most original book analyses its most original format, the T20. Cricket 2.0 by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde takes us where cover drives and vicious pulls are not as important as the data they give rise to. The IPL is no longer “cricketainment” but a business venture where the computer is king and the number-cruncher is coach. A fascinating look at a format we are still coming to grips with.
Finally, the anthologies. Frith, Atherton, Richie Benaud, Brearley have all had their journalism put together in books. Picador Book of Cricket by Ramachandra Guha stands out here. The Meaning of Cricket by Jon Hotten is a delight. The subtitle — How to Waste Your Life on on Inconsequential Sport — says it all.