Monday, 4 January 2016

Book Review - Cricket - the game of life by Scyld Berry

Cricket - the game of life : every reason to celebrate by Scyld Berry

London : Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2015                     ISBN 9781473618589

What a great book. I have not knowingly read Scyld Berry before but this book is eye opening in so many ways - to Berry's knowledge of cricket, his ability as a writer, and to so many things about this greatest of sports that I didn't know - there is much in this for any and every cricket fan.

You could call this book a bit of a grab-bag, in that while it contains much history it is not a historical work, while it contains autobiographical and biographical material it is not of that genre either. It is in fact a celebration of all that is great (and some that is not-so-great) about the game, its history and its players, and why, to Berry and a lot of us, there can never be enough cricket.

The book opens with a poignant insight into Berry's childhood and the early death of his mother, which he feels led him to find solace in cricket. He then quickly moves into a highly diverting section on the first cricket match for which we have commentary, in the form of an epic poem. The game, Kent v England in 1744 is the second for which we have a scorecard, and thanks to the poem - and Berry's knowledge of early cricket - we know quite a bit about how the game was played.

In these days of fixing, it is enlightening to read that the first organised games of cricket were played for money - Lord Sackville of Kent organised the game for a prize pool to help him with his growing debts, and the poem makes clear that one of the major interests of the crowd was betting on the result. Also fascinating is how many things about the game haven't changed - pressure leading to dropped catches, the sound of wood on leather, and the joy in getting the opposition's best player out.

Berry then continues with the history lesson, describing how cricket grows with the ability of potential players to actually practice and play, and how those situations have moved and changed across England as the centuries have rolled on. His exposition explains well how the England side has come to be dominated by those from the North Country.

Interestingly, when he discusses Australian cricket - in a chapter about the "ardent desire" of the Australians to win, especially against England - he mentions the dominance of New South Wales in Shield cricket and discusses the salaries for Australian Football League (AFL) players being worrying for the future of attracting players to the game, but seems to miss the fact that the biggest worry in AFL spreading across the country is that AFL uses players of all shapes and sizes: one reason for the preponderance of NSW and Queensland players in the Australian team is that Rugby League requires a certain physiology in a player, and if you don't have that, cricket is the place to go. I also wonder about the money equation as well, in this T20 age....Cameron White is rumoured to earn $1 million a year without representing his country: more than most AFL players.

However that may be, Berry's cultural nose is quite sharp: finding in history the roots of the current styles of cricket that appear around the world. From the native-born vs. the troops in Australia leading to the desire that has brought so much Ashes success, to the caste system in India leading to their (until recently) relative lack of skill in the field. he ferrets through the past to find interesting facts that enliven one's understanding of today's game.

As a life-long cricketing journalist would, Berry has a section in the book on words and numbers, with a nice essay on how description of batting always uses positive language, whereas bowlers are usually described with negative or destructive language. This is undoubtedly true, and something that on a subconscious level we all know, but no less eye-opening as Berry lays it out for us. The Numbers section has some interesting statistics (as all good cricketing books should), partly about fathers or brothers helping each other to the highest level. There are also some firsts here - of interest is that the first ever recorded innings of 300, 400, 500 and 600 were all scored at Clifton College in Bristol. The other number from that school that astounds in the most appalling way is that 578 of Clifton's pupils died serving in WWI - it is also interesting in this context that Douglas Haig was a former pupil.

That last sentence in a way sums up all that is great about this book - Berry has written a book about cricket, but it is also a book about so much more - whether it be an investigation of a photograph of Wally Hammond playing a cover drive that leads on to how man shows physical presence and how some cricket shots bear comparison with the greatest of sculptures, or whether Test Match Cricket is the pinnacle of sports because it lasts (coincidentally?) as long as that greatest of all matches, the battle for Troy in The Illiad. Berry shows us that this glorious thing, this wonderful game that consumes us, is at the same time strong and fragile: strong in the millions upon millions of cricket lovers throughout the world, and fragile in that despite the 300-odd years that have passed since the first games, cricket still relies on the mutual trust and sense of fair play among the 22 players out on the field, which has to survive everything that the modern world can throw at it.

I can't recommend this book highly enough - fantastic reading for the cricket junkie.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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