Mr. Nice

Original Spin : Misadventures in Cricket / Vic Marks. Allen & Unwin, 2019

Broadcasters on ‘Test Match Special’ require many attributes.  Some are needed by other sports commentators : a deep knowledge of the game ; a pleasant and distinctive voice ; a gift for description.  The most difficult requirement, and one which I think is unique to ‘TMS’, is that they have to be likeable enough for the listener to want to spend five days solidly in their company.  He might not be the only one of the current crop, but my first choice as a companion for five days at the cricket would undoubtedly be Vic Marks, if only because there would be the least chance of the conversation degenerating into a monologue.  As he says : ‘’TMS’ works better when it is off the cuff and when it sounds as if it is coming from a country pub rather than a pulpit or a comedy club’.

I am not the only one to find Marks likeable.  The description that seems to dog him (it crops up in his entries on Wikipedia and Cricinfo) is Matthew Engel’s ‘a mild, nervy, self-deprecating farm boy with an Oxford degree and no enemies’ ; other common descriptions seem to be ‘mild-mannered’, ‘modest’, ‘self-deprecating’, ‘amiable’ and ‘nice’. If it had not previously been bagged by his namesake Howard, he could have entitled his autobiography ‘Mr. Nice’, instead of the rather disappointing ‘Original Spin’.  His previous book, written, as he says ‘a mere 32 years ago’, had the memorable title ‘Marks Out of XI’, but that one had rather fallen into his lap (he had been commissioned to write about the 1984/5 tour of India, when he was not chosen to play in any of the Tests).  There is a danger that niceness, like happiness, ‘writes white’ : I found that the pervasive amiability and discretion made the book a pleasure to read, but harder to write about than one which is persistently wrong-headed and obnoxious.

Marks (and his publishers) cannot be accused of going for the hard sell.  Apart from the lacklustre title, the cover features an unflattering photograph of the author wearing one of England’s many questionable one-day strips, tossing up a (perhaps anachronistic?) white ball, so that it forms the O of ‘Original’.  The expression on his face may be meant to convey that he is plotting some fiendish variation for his next delivery, but it looks more as if he is squinting into the sun and struggling to stifle a sneeze.  In the first chapter, he provides a kind of reverse trigger-warning ‘do not anticipate passages specifically designed for lucrative serialisations in the national press.  There may be a few insights into some of the foremost cricketing characters of the last four decades ; don’t expect too many revelations’.  (He may have read Derek Pringle’s recent book, and decided that the public’s appetite for sensational revelations about cricket in the 1980s had already been sated.)

If he had wanted to choose a cover image which more accurately represented the contents of the book, he could have chosen the one which appears on the back cover, depicted himself, Vivian Richards, Brian Rose, Ian Botham and Peter Denning sharing a joke on what I take to be a balcony at Lord’s.  Alternatively, he could have gone for the one of Peter Roebuck, himself and Botham, captioned ‘Ian, now playing for Worcestershire, and Pete are not talking. And I’m stuck in the middle.’ Between them, they cover the main themes.  The first sentence establishes two of the main characters, as well as the pervading tone of self-deprecation : ‘’Well, we’re not going to get into the team ahead of him.’ Peter Roebuck and I stared at one another and simultaneously came to the same conclusion’ (‘him’ being Vivian Richards).  The other principal (Botham) makes his entrance on page three.

Although his insights into the characters of Botham and Richards are shrewd enough, I did not feel that I had learned anything new about them. As in most accounts, Richards is portrayed as imperious, supremely self-confident and intimidating (not only to opposition bowlers, but also his own team-mates) : Marks seems to have admired him from a distance, rather than becoming in any way intimate with him.  He also seems to have maintained a prudent social distance between himself and Botham (whom he always refers to as ‘Ian’, rather than ‘Beefy’), bringing off the useful trick of keeping on amiable terms with him, without being drawn too far into his boozy orbit (the main revelation about him being what the index refers to as his ‘cribbage addiction’).  Perhaps the truly great players always seem to have this one-dimensional quality, either because we have heard their stories too many times, or because a lack of psychological complexity is a prerequisite for greatness in cricket, or possibly a consequence of it.

The third main character, Peter Roebuck, also remains an ultimately enigmatic figure, in spite of the fact that Marks spent most of his career playing alongside him, and could claim to have known him as well as anyone.  In his case, the problem seems to have been an excess of psychological complexity, rather than a lack of it : although he paints a vivid portrait, Marks generally declines to play the amateur psychiatrist (some might think that Roebuck would have benefited from consulting a professional one).  When speaking of (or to) him, Marks chooses his words carefully : when told of the decision to dispense with Richards and Garner, ‘my immediate view, which did not change, was that ‘In your shoes I would not do that’’.  Twice, with regard to his partial estrangement from his old friend, he uses similar formations : ‘He always sought affirmation from me that he had taken the right course in 1986 and I was never able to give it to him’ and, later, ‘on that score Pete kept seeking my seal of approval for the upheavals of 1986, without success’.  He is clearly baffled and saddened by the activities that brought Roebuck into conflict with the police, and more so by the ending to his story.

Marks’s England career (6 Tests and 34 ODIs) overlapped with Derek Pringle’s (and he went on three tours to Pringle’s one), but they appear to have enjoyed very different off-field experiences.  Either Marks is too discreet to report on the more bacchanalian aspects, or he may have been temperamentally disinclined to indulge in them (his attachment to his wife, Anna, whom he met at Oxford, and who is a happy presence throughout the book, may have precluded him from joining Pringle in any air-hostess related shenanigans, even if he had had the inclination).  He makes a promising start by receiving his first call-up to an England squad after an evening drinking free Pernod in Bournemouth, followed by an unbeaten 81 and 1-26 in 11 overs in a B&H zonal match, which was fortunately witnessed by the then Chairman of Selectors, Alec Bedser, but after that the nearest thing to a lurid revelation is that some ‘dope’ ‘may’ have been introduced into A.C. Smith’s birthday cake.  (He generally seems quite keen on the stuff (though less so than his namesake), and, in a rare almost controversial aside, suggests that ‘some dope should almost become compulsory after an England ODI victory, especially in Bristol’.)  

I found the sections relating to his England career the least interesting in the book.  He has some acute insights into his fellow-players’ characters (especially Botham’s), and some good stories, but the drawback with waiting 32 years to write a second book is that I seem to have heard most them of them before : I find that there are only so many times that I want to read about Chris Tavare folding his pyjamas, or Eddie Hemmings snoring.  What he does have in common with Pringle is that the heart of his experience as a cricketer lay with his county, and the most rewarding sections of the book (apart from those devoted to his family) are about his days with Somerset.

Even as someone with no connection to that county, I found it pleasantly evocative of the times to read about the ‘couple of sofas and an old gas fire’ in their ‘homely dressing room’, and the ‘dingy stone-floored room, which in later years would serve far more appropriately as modest toilets for gentlemen spectators’ which served as accommodation for newly recruited players (when they were demolished to make way for the new pavilion, ‘there were no preservation orders to overcome in that process’).  I enjoyed being reminded of half-forgotten names : Bob Clapp (‘a gangling pace bowler from Burnham-on-Sea … who would one day become a far better teacher’) ; Mervyn Kitchen (removing his false teeth before going out to face Colin Croft at Southport, and taking his dog Thumper to pre-season training) ; Trevor Gard (‘his sense of fair play could be infuriating’).  I also liked the story about Marks attempting to distract Richards from menacing Jim Lawton (of ‘The Express’) by saying ‘Viv, they’re out there’ (‘a reference to the umpires putting the bails on, which were also the words that often constituted a team talk at Somerset’).  If these sound like some of your favourite things too, you will find plenty more to enjoy in the book.

True to his reputation, Marks rarely has a bad word to say about anyone (other than himself), and when he does, he can usually find some mitigation.  He admits that the young Imran Khan ‘could sometimes appear haughty’, but ‘in part that may have been due to shyness’.  E.W. Swanton ‘was renowned (quite rightly) for his pomposity’, but ‘by the time he reached his eighties he was, I think, prepared to parody himself now and again’.  He even allows that Giles Clarke, who comes in for more sustained hostility than anyone else (going so far as to break out his Latin) was, as Somerset chairman, ‘undoubtedly a positive influence’, but, moving on to his time at the ECB ‘It is not so easy to be positive about his contributions there’.  Daniel Norcross is ‘seldom dull, not a bad attribute for a broadcaster’, and he even manages to describe ‘The Guardian’ as ‘civilised’.  When he disapproves of something he tends to couch it in general terms, without mentioning names, and allows the reader to join the dots : ‘you are on air [on ‘TMS’] for so long that it would be impossible to sustain an act as a clown or a curmudgeon throughout an entire test match’.

It is only when talking about Victor Marks that he allows himself to be ‘brutally’ honest.  He describes his brother’s sending-off of a teammate at Middle Chinnock for ‘boorish behaviour’ as being ‘as impressive as anything I ever managed on a cricket field’.  He admits that he was more effective as a bowler in ODIs than Tests : ‘In Test cricket more was required from a spin bowler, more zip through the air and spin off the pitch that might actually dismiss batsmen when they were defending’.  His first Test wicket ‘- and there would not be many more – was a bogus one’.  Against Pakistan in 1984 ‘my batting was hopeless and my bowling no more than adequate’.  When he plays his final Test : ‘I would have liked to play more Tests but … I can understand why they did not pick me again’.  His self-praise tends to be pretty faint, any blowing of his own trumpet muted.  His 5-20 against New Zealand (a record at the time) was ‘thanks to the sluggishness of the surface and their yearning to accelerate, plus the fact that the off-breaks were landing in the right place’.  On taking 9-28 in Australian grade cricket ‘it must have turned a bit, I suppose, and I did not bowl much rubbish.  Even so … it’s hard to imagine how this ever came about’.  On taking his career-best 8-17 ‘on a worn pitch at Bath’ : ‘the ball spun a lot and I must have bowled well’.  

So, a modest man with much to be modest about? Not at all. His estimate of his Test career may be accurate rather than merely self-deprecating, but his one-day bowling (which he rather underplays) entitled him to respect (both his average and economy rates were superior to his England contemporaries Emburey, Miller and Hemmings).  His contribution to Somerset’s successes went far beyond his skills as a ‘conciliator’ (his word), and he was memorably and unusually (for an Englishman) part of a Sheffield Shield-winning side.  The secret of his success as a journalist is similar to that of his bowling, in that it is based on relentless accuracy (not a bad attribute for a cricket correspondent), combined with the ability to impart an unexpected spin on to an apparently straightforward delivery.

He gives the impression of being a rather reluctant author.  Apart from emphasising the 32-year gap between books, he writes of chairing the Cricket Society Book of the Year award for nine years : ‘The company and erudition of the judges … were always a delight.  So too were some of the books, but not all of them.  And I’m increasingly conscious that I’m now adding to the pile.’  In the same way that he has no pretensions to being a Verity or Laker as a bowler, he does not attempt to compete with his predecessors Robinson-Glasgow and Ross as a writer, and there are few attempts at virtuoso literary effects.  When he does employ a simile (describing Phil Edmonds, who had temporarily lost his run-up, as ‘shuffling one step, like a nervous duckling on a riverbank’) it makes you realise how rarely he uses them (perhaps taking to heart the advice of one of his editors).

His techniques for imparting his spin are harder to detect when reading a single article than they are over the length of a book.  One, as Paul Edwards noted in his review for Cricinfo, is that ‘He is a master of the paragraph that recounts an event only for the final sentence to offer a pleasing contrast or dry observation on all that has gone before.’  Another is that when he wants to make a point, or even just a joke, he tends to conceal it in parentheses (Geoffrey Boycott, in particular, comes in from some quite pointed parentheses).  His mastery of these contrapuntal techniques is also one of the qualities that make him perfectly suited to his role as a radio summariser (he admits, characteristically, that he was less successful as a commentator).

So, a likeable book by a likeable man.  This may sound like damning with faint praise, but in a time when his virtues – modesty, fairness, subtlety, good humour and reticence – are not only often underrated, but even regarded as defects, I intend it as a strong recommendation.  The ending of the book does not have a precisely valedictory tone (he is not intending to say goodbye quite yet), but he is aware that ‘the invitations [to appear on TMS] may not be quite so frequent now’, and that ‘I may be regarded as something of a throwback at ‘The Guardian’ and in the press box’.  We should make sure to enjoy his company while we still can.

The Casual Knack of Living

Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning

With cracked images, they won’t forget

The confusion and the oily dead,

Nor yet the casual knack of living.”


In the course of a season, I have the habit of accumulating second hand books, found at those grounds that still offer some for sale (the Friends of Grace Road have a good selection, as does the Supporters’ Club  bookshop at the County Ground, Northampton).  I might leaf through them during the occasional longueur during the game (for these have been known, even at Grace Road), or a break for rain, but generally I stow them away, like a squirrel burying nuts in the Autumn, with the intention of returning to them in the Winter ; quite often, like that squirrel, I neglect to do so. This Winter, like a squirrel gratefully unearthing a long and deeply buried acorn during a lean period, I discovered that I owned two unread books by Alan Ross.

That might imply that I own a lot of books by Ross which I have read, but, in fact, I have read very little of his work, having tended to think of him primarily as an editor (both of the ‘London Magazine’ and the anthology ‘The Cricketer’s Companion’).  In spite of that, I find that I have previously described his writing as ‘elegant’, an impression, in so far as it more than a convenient cliché, that I may have formed from having read his biography of Ranji (some years ago), from his ubiquitous photographic portrait, tanned, suave and half-goateed,

or, perhaps, some ancient memory of reading his pieces about cricket in ‘The Observer’, whose Cricket Correspondent he was from 1953 to 1982.

The first book has the spine-title ‘Cape Summer’, hinting at why I have not read more : most take the form of tour books (or books-of-a-series), of which I have a not unfounded suspicion ; even Arlott, who turned out a number of them, could be said to have written his ‘with his left hand’ ; some less distinguished practitioners of the once-commonplace genre appear to have written theirs with their foot.

Although it is ‘Cape Summer’ (an account of England’s 1956-7 tour of South Africa) that appears on the spine (perhaps to lure readers of the straightforward travel books that precede it in Ross’s bibliography), the first half of the book concerns Australia’s tour to England in 1956, which is best remembered, if at all, for Jim Laker’s having taken 19 wickets in the third test in Manchester. In a very wet Summer, in which four of the five Tests were, to some extent, affected by rain, England won the series 2-1, to retain the Ashes they had won in Australia the previous year.

As with most books-of-a-series, Ross reproduces the reports that he wrote about the five Tests as they originally appeared in ‘The Observer’ (‘revising a phrase here and there, for stylistic reasons only, but neither a mood nor comment’).  I would have guessed that he had employed his editorial skills to iron out a few kinks and wrinkles in the texture of his prose, which is as smooth as a pair of cashmere combinations (from somewhere exclusive in Jermyn Street, no doubt), but he appears to have been gifted with an internal autocorrect which enabled him to eliminate any obtrusive vulgarities as he wrote.  (The first sentence of the book is ‘As I write, in an Autumn that has assumed the better manners of summer …’, and he was a very mannerly writer.)

Ross had first made a small name as a poet, taking as his principal subject his wartime experiences serving on destroyers escorting the arctic convoys, and, like Arlott, his cricket-writing is poetic in the sense that he has a gift for precise observation, rather than employing high-flown diction.  In a poem, he describes a fly that has landed on the paper he is writing on : ‘as if carving a joint / It carefully sharpens its legs’.  In a match report, Harvey, Craig and McDonald ‘brought off magnificent one-handed pick-ups. Thus do Cossack riders at brisk canters swoop from the saddle to snatch handkerchiefs from the sawdust’. 

With television still in its youth in 1956, the presumption was that it was the writer’s responsibility to paint a verbal picture for readers who would not have seen the game, whereas contemporary writers (and, worse, radio commentators) tend, at least subconsciously, to assume that the reader is able to see the match, and be in search of analysis and opinion rather than description.  As a result, I find that I now have a clearer mental image of how the young Cowdrey batted than – say – Dominic Sibley.

In an introduction, Ross explains his ambition to do what match reports alone cannot do and ‘elaborate about … scene or social background … convey a feeling of movement, or the personal discovery of place … a sense of a journey … those marginal impressions that make a summer of cricket what it is’, and my lasting impression of the book (perhaps more apparent in retrospect) is of a vision of England in the nineteen-fifties that contradicts the received view of it as stultifying and repressed, always in ‘monochrome’, dozily waiting to be woken into technicolour by the arrival of the Beatles.  Ross’s England is certainly relieved from the strains of war and austerity, but various, both traditional-pastoral and optimistically modern (there is an enthusiastic portrait of the rebuilt Coventry, which reads oddly now), and offering plenty of scope for stylish hedonism for those with a little money (Ross had married Jennifer Fry, the chocolate heiress, in 1949).

Between games Ross motors between grounds, at a time before mass car ownership or motorways, when motoring was an activity that could still be undertaken for pleasure (it is not until page 100 that he reveals he is driving a convertible, but I think that might have been assumed) :

‘Making my way out on the Buxton road, the evening was as clear as a bell.  A week earlier I had been sitting in the warm, riverside darkness of the Trout at Wolvercott, fireflies cruising the banks, and the crowned lion on the island thrusting through the poppies at the marauding peacock.  In hot sun, the hood down, I drove out of Oxford northwards through Warwick and Lichfield, skirting the sunken and smoking areas of the Potteries …’

and on until shadowing the Australians’ itinerary has shown him, as he says, ‘more of my own country than in all the other summers put together’.  A striking thing about these landscapes (and, as his allusions to Claude and Poussin suggest, he was a connoisseur of them) is that they are largely unpeopled : the few human beings who do stray into view are as voiceless as figures in a landscape.  Most travelogues depend for their colour (or ‘social background’) on chance meetings with interesting characters, or overheard conversations ; Ross’s is an interior, if not introspective, monologue voiced over exterior views.

His points of reference, when describing the cricket, sometimes glance backwards to the war : (at Headingley) ‘a cold wind blows up at us as sharply as over the bridge of a destroyer’ ; ‘One felt the bridge telegraph ringing down for more speed, and Lindwall hurled down several at Cowdrey.  The pitch softened them like a head sea …’ ; ‘far from forming the spearhead, they [Tyson and Statham] had ambled up like Base majors just in time for the champagnes of victory’ – allusions, which eleven years after the war had ended, will have been familiar to many of his readers.

Fewer of them will have had first-hand experience of quite the way of life implied by his other points of reference, which are those of a more intellectually sophisticated, less brutish, James Bond (Ross’s friend Ian Fleming later awarded him a cameo appearance (promoted to ‘Commander Ross’) in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, in which he was fed to crocodiles). 

‘Rain had toned up the pitch, acting on the close-cropped, fawn stubble rather in the manner of an after-shaving lotion’ (probably from Trumper’s, and exotic for 1956) ; Graveney’s batting ‘disseminated an air of the Burlington Arcade’ ; ‘a gentleman in white waiter’s jacket who looked as if he ought to have been dispensing Martinis rather than delicately brushing the wicket’ ; ‘fifty-nine runs, as reviving as a Bloody Mary to the appetite, came in the forty-five minutes play’ ; ‘A lot rested on winning the toss first – a simple roulette gamble, but the wheel stuck in mid-spin for a while …’ ; ‘Cowdrey and Richardson … played with such ease of attitude that they might have been club members reclining in favourite chairs, whisky and cigars to hand’ ; ‘one has become accustomed now, at about the aperitif hour, to this ritual procession to the Test match wickets …’ (I would have put the aperitif hour at not earlier than 5 o’clock, but Ross appears to be referring to the scheduled start of play).

The cricket, however vividly and scrupulously observed, features in the narrative only as a part of a civilised, and, apparently, enviable life, and reading the first half of the book offers an opportunity to take a cheap holiday in someone else’s happiness.  One might have expected (and Ross might have been hoping) that this post-war idyll would continue when he followed the England touring team to South Africa the following Winter, but, from the outset, his pursuit of pleasure is undercut by a creeping sense of unease.

The voyage out takes in a (largely) pre-tourist Las Palmas (‘the seedy and depressed-looking port’), passing Dakar two days later, encountering dolphins who are ‘unhindered by the hangovers and accidie of shipboard life’.  In a portent of changing times, he notes oil tankers diverted from their normal route by the Suez crisis (which, as readers of ‘The Observer’ would have been aware, had flared up between the two series).  He arrives at Cape Town twelve days after leaving the Canaries: ‘it has been an overcast and heavy trip, on which all bar records for the line have been broken. One felt oneself gingerly all over every morning and assessed the damage’ … ‘We tie up, and within the dusty howl of the wind, the heat is like an oven’. 

Ominously, before the first Test, ‘Hot Steam, a much-fancied runner in the Johannesburg Summer Handicap, broke a leg and was destroyed an hour after I had backed it.  Its owner-trainer suffered a simultaneous heart attack, as well might I have, as well might I.’ 

As in his account of the Summer, the narrative between Tests is mostly taken up by journeying, though the distances involved are greater : he travels from Cape Town to Pretoria by train, a distance of 999 miles, taking twenty-seven hours, mostly through semi-desert, but, luckily, the catering is well up to standard (‘Meals are six-course and admirable and the bar in the Observation Car sells you almost anything, including sherry at 9d. a glass, and gin at 1/-‘).  The African landscapes are more spectacular, and less unpeopled, glimpses of the native population adding colour to the flora and fauna :

‘The encircling mountains give off a bluish powder, low stony ridges lying like recumbent sphinxes under the afternoon glare.  Beneath occasional eucalyptus, groups of Africans are stretched out asleep.  I lunch on sweet melon, Cape Lobster and Chicken Maryland …’.

Although his natural inclination is to enjoy the sybaritic lifestyle available to English visitors, while painting picturesque word-pictures of the scenery, he cannot ignore the figures at the margins of the picture :

‘The Africans again are conspicuous by their absence, more noticeable sprawling at the roadside on the outskirts waiting for buses to their locations than in the heart of the capital.  They are, or have become, an unobtrusive people.’

Having quoted at length from an editorial in ‘Africa South’, probably by the soon-to-exiled Ronald Segal, written at the time of the ‘treason’ trials (his inverted commas) which coincided with Christmas and the Johannesburg Test, he concludes, with a hint of reluctance :

‘One can no more avoid, if one is a sentient human being, being involved in what goes on day to day than one can avoid being involved in the weather.  One may lunch in the Rand Club, play tennis in the afternoon, bridge in the evenings, and discuss over endless whiskies anything under the sun, but the shadow remains, the issue returns.  Moral problems have a way of refusing to be shelved.’

Although the shadow can never quite be lifted, it can be lightened by good food, drink and other pleasures, even cricket : as he says of the fourth Test (a South African victory) ‘a thrilling Test match has miraculously squeezed some of the poison out of South African life’.

His most memorable journey was a drive of nine hundred miles from Johannesburg to Cape Town, in his new car (a Nash Rambler), as the ‘speedometer needle dances between eighty and ninety’, embarked upon having stayed up all night (‘suddenly it was not worth going to bed at all’) to celebrate England’s victory in the first Test : he observes that ‘its charm, for those of a contemplative nature, is that, for the first eight hundred miles, there is precisely nothing to see.  Nothing, that is to say, which could commonly be called spectacular.’  This ability to derive and convey pleasure from contemplation for its own sake, rather than any inherent interest in what is observed, was to come in handy during the Test series, which contained very little that could ‘commonly be called spectacular’.   

The series was mainly notable for low, and slow, scoring.  Peter Richardson’s century in the First Test was, at the time, the slowest recorded, taking eight hours and eight minutes.  In the third Test, Hugh Tayfield bowled fourteen consecutive (eight-ball) maidens (nine of them to Trevor Bailey).  The fifth Test was the slowest in history, with runs coming at the rate of 1.40 per six balls. (Ross was either unaware of these records, too indifferent to statistics, or too mannerly to mention them.)  Later that year, restrictions on the number of leg-side fieldsmen were introduced, perhaps by someone who had witnessed the defensive bowling to a packed leg-side by Tayfield and Goddard that had stifled England’s batting. 

Ross contemplated Richardson’s innings with the same equanimity as his long desert drive : ‘bare as the Karoo though his innings had been, it was a fighter’s innings and even such spareness had its beauty’.  Bailey’s was of more a test of his patience, and provoked a rare example of Ross expressing overt disapproval, albeit with a lovely image :

 ‘The batting after tea was terrible in its listlessness and passivity.  Not only was no attempt made to score, but it seemed to be a point of principle to avoid runs.  Tayfield was encouraged, rather than allowed to bowl 14 maidens in a row, 9 of them to Bailey … For a whole hour Bailey neither envisaged nor made a scoring stroke … the sharp single had been discarded as a youthful frolic : the hypnotic maidens of Tayfield had become as soothing and necessary to Bailey as opium to a mandarin’.

As for the last Test, he is generous enough to lay most of the blame on the ‘ludicrous’ pitch.

At least at the beginning of the series, Ross was able to spin a silk purse out of this unpromising material, studded with sparkling observational gems.  As the tour progressed, and the length of time away from home increased (he arrived in South Africa on 5th December, and left on 11th March), his mind seemed increasingly to wander from the cricket and on to other matters, the nature of which we can only guess at (the reports on the last two Tests, which England lost, having won the first two, are, by his standards, a little perfunctory). 

On the drive through the Karoo, he had described lizards startled by the sound of his approaching car as ‘shooting into fresh positions with the alacrity of hotel guests surprised in unauthorised bedrooms’ ; from the air, some kopjes appear to him ‘as perfectly formed as the breasts of a Maillol woman’ ; Endean ‘had been on view four hours, and a stationary Follies’ nude does not bear contemplation without greater show of animation for a quarter that length of time’ ; after a burst of scoring, a difficult target becomes ‘like the desired wife of another … an unlikely, but faintly permissible dream’.

In the plane, on the first stage of the journey home with a selection of players from both sides, ‘Nobody has much to say.  Everyone, I think, has had enough, a little more than enough’.

On the cover of the other book I have found I had acquired, ‘Coastwise Lights’, it is hopefully trailed by the publisher as a volume of autobiography, an impression the author corrects in his preface, admitting that it is only ‘incidentally autobiography’.  Although it covers the period when he was the Cricket Correspondent of ‘The Observer’, the subject of cricket makes only a fleeting appearance, but then so does the author. 

The book opens with Ross staying in a shabby hotel in Paris : on a hot night he discovers that, by standing on the lavatory seat and looking through a ventilation grill, he can observe the occupants of a neighbouring flat : three middle-aged French people, mostly naked because of the heat.  By his usual method of close observation and vivid description, he makes their domestic doings fascinating, for a few pages. It seems apt that he was to go on to write for ‘The Observer’.

Looking back at his early book about a trip to Corsica, with the painter John Minton, he writes :

‘For some reason, perhaps out of genuine diffidence, I decided that ‘I’ or ‘we’ should not figure in the narrative, that Johnny and I should be invisible travellers, observing, experiencing, recording, but not intruding.  It was the result, perhaps, of too literal an obeisance to Christopher Isherwood’s method in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, though his ‘I am a camera’ technique did not preclude his own considerable involvement in the lives of his characters. … The best travel books are nearly always as interesting for what the traveller tells us of his own experiences and feelings as for what he says about the country he travels through.’

Although he claims to think this self-effacement a fault, there is little sign that he is willing, or able, to overcome his extreme reticence about too much unmannerly self-revelation.

The book is in six sections : one about the painters Keith Vaughan and John Minton (and his travels with them) ; a British Council trip he made to Iraq ; various ‘drinkers and dandies’ he has known ; being sent by ‘The Observer’ to cover the war in Algeria in 1958, when their regular correspondent ‘went off his head’ (it is hard to imagine Vic Marks being pressed into service in similar circumstances) ; his time as Editor of ‘The London Magazine’ and publisher of London Editions ; his life, friends and neighbours in  Sussex and, finally, anecdotes from his time as a racehorse owner.

Ross seems to have known, or encountered, a remarkable number of well-known writers ; a tribute to his talent for making friends and connections, or, perhaps, the smallness of English literary life.  On a flight to Baghdad, he sits next to Agatha Christie (‘noticing her quiet assurance and fat legs’) ; he rents a villa in Ischia next door to one owned by Terence Rattigan (who ‘only wanted to talk about cricket’) ; John Betjeman (who was Godfather to his son), Stephen Spender and Anthony Powell were friends (originally, I think, of his wife) ; Derek Walcott and Laurie Lee signed his visitor’s book, alongside Len Hutton and Keith Miller. Looking for an illustrator for a children’s book he has written, he is introduced to a young Raymond Briggs.  His chief companion watching cricket at Hove is Jeremy Hutchinson QC (defender of Christine Keeler and Lady Chatterley, amongst others).

In a conventional autobiography this might seem like name-dropping, but in Ross’s it seems more of a ruse to avoid having to talk about himself.  And, rather than the great names, he devotes the most space to more minor figures who had been entertaining drinking companions, my favourite being Bernard Gutteridge, an advertising copywriter and poet :

‘Bernard was an unusual drinker.  He would be sitting happily beside you in a restaurant and bar, seeming to have drunk not very much.  Then, when it was time to go, he would turn rather guiltily and say ‘I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m not going to be able to get up.’  Nor could he.  He would have to be carried out.’

The book does shed a little retrospective light on the composition of the English section of ‘Cape Summer’, which seems to have been a less sunny time than I had supposed :

‘I drove about the country, mainly on secondary roads, trying to see it as if it were abroad … the attempt to write about England through a stranger’s eyes led me to all kinds of places I would never otherwise have seen.  Apart from the cricket it was a solitary, reflective time ; I drove alone through all kinds of weather and stayed in small country pubs when I wrote up the day’s journey.  At the end of it I felt I had learned something about England and something about myself.’

It is characteristic that he is too reticent to tell us openly quite what it was that he learned about himself.  Even when it comes to the more dramatic events in his life, he is the soul of indirection : although he apparently suffered from debilitating bouts of depression (perhaps caused, or exacerbated, by his wartime experiences), the only reference to this (in this volume, anyway) is in connection with Ian Fleming having featured him in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ in return for giving him ‘only too familiar details about ECT’.  His only allusion to his wife having had the obligatory affair with Cyril Connolly is even more oblique (Connolly had given up the editorship of ‘Horizon’, then claimed that he wanted it back when it was offered to Ross) : ‘this was, alas, a typical Connolly reaction, often demonstrated in his relations with women, as I came to know to my cost’.

Occasionally, an observation about a friend leads to a personal admission : having reported Keith Vaughan’s feeling that he was being ‘superseded’ by newer styles of painting, he is prompted to reflect :

‘He was not alone in this feeling.  Like most others of my age, for whom the war had been the central experience of our lives, I too felt myself cut off, before I had even started, from an emerging generation for whom the war was an irrelevance and Britain’s imperial past, on which I had been brought up, an obscenity.’

Hints at this feeling that the world he had known was about to be swept away are sometimes detectable in his account of the South African trip, perhaps triggered by having witnessed Frank Tyson ‘rock’n’rolling’ at a party in Durban given by the Comptons (Ross’s bag was more in the way of blues and jazz). 

Ross had a natural cosmopolitanism, and a classical frame of reference, that was becoming unfashionable in the later nineteen-fifties (the time of ‘The Movement’, decolonisation and the kitchen sink) : like Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Lawrence Durrell (two writers who inhabited a similar mental universe), he had been born in India (and spoke Hindustani as a first language), although, unlike them, he was not actively anglophobic, tethered to England by, if nothing else, his love of cricket, and able to write as lovingly about Hove as they were to write about Greece.

Ross’s obituary in ‘The Guardian’ said of his poetry that it was ‘oddly impersonal’, and the same might be said of his autobiography, but, at a time when self-revelation is hardly in short supply, I find his reluctance to indulge in it more of a relief than a frustration : it is unusual, these days, to finish a book wanting to know more, rather than less, about its author.  Nor do I regret the lack (for all his intentions) of socio-political context in his writings : we are hardly short of that either.  Ross was a fetishist of the particular, a mind too fine to be violated by ideas, and the substance of his writing lies in brilliant images, rather than sustained argument (which is why, as you may have noticed, the best way to illustrate it is by extensive quotation).  So, as a farewell, here is his own farewell to South Africa :

‘But in the end, it is not the problems that one takes away : they are for those who remain, though inevitably in what one writes and thinks and says elsewhere, one carries on the act of identification. There are many sides to every South African question, but problems of behaviour are the same the world over, however unique their context. 

Rather do I think now, with the rain dripping from the plane trees and the mist softening the harsher outlines of mines and suburbs, of that quality of light and landscape which is peculiarly African : the red, grass-brushed earth running away into the purple-blue of the mountains – colours that are indefinable and which do not travel in painting – the flat-topped hills and kopjes, green and curled in Natal, dry and dusty in the Transvaal, the grey-green watered silk of the sugar cane, the terraced vines of Constantia in the Cape that have produced, among a dozen admirable wines, one spectacularly good dry white one, the Residence Montpelier Riesling, from Stellenbosch ; the coast north of Durban, with its pines and rocks and sand firm enough to inscribe with messages between tides, the fresh-scented beginning and end to day in the Karoo, the palm-divided sundowns over Johannesburg.  It is out of these that we make our private image of Africa, these are what sustain the long vibrations and distant drum-beats of the heart.’

I now know whose works to look out for next season, to lighten a dull moment at Grace Road (should there to be any).

Half Man Half Tetley

Pushing the Boundaries : Cricket in the Eighties / by Derek Pringle (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998)

You may have heard of the ‘New Statesman’ competition that asked for the most unlikely combination of author and title : the winner, famously, was ‘My Struggle’, by Martin Amis. An alternative suggestion might be ‘It’s Been a Lot of Fun’ (actually one of Brian Johnston’s many productions), by almost any recent England cricketer.

Although there have always been exceptions, readers of a cricketer’s autobiography used to know what they were in for : a plain (‘My Story’) or punning (‘A Spinner’s Yarn’) title, a discreet acknowledgement of the faithful ghost (‘with thanks to my old pal Ted Corns of the Bolton Evening Gazette for his assistance in writing this book’), then a largely untroubled progress from the cradle (‘Early Years’) to a well-deserved benefit and retirement. Shortly before the Statistical Section (‘with thanks to Irving Rosenwater’), there might be a conclusion along the lines of ‘It’s been a wonderful life, so here’s to cricket – the finest game in the world!”.

The ‘dairy of a season’ genre, which enjoyed a vogue in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties (Willis, Brain, Agnew and (particularly) Roebuck), may have suggested that the lot of a professional cricketer was not always a cloudlessly happy one, but the clouds were rarely darker than boredom, frustration, mild anxiety at a loss of form, or mounting irritation with team-mates. Actual mental illness was largely absent, from the text, at least (historical biographies, from Shrewsbury to Gimblett are another matter).

The first outright cricketing misery memoir I can remember reading was Graham Thorpe’s ‘Rising from the Ashes’, published in 2005. Largely concerned with his marital difficulties, it managed to convey the impression that playing cricket professionally would be an attractive option only if the alternative were being a galley slave. He also, I felt, cut a fairly unsympathetic figure, which was not the case with the title that really opened the floodgates for the genre, Marcus Trescothick’s ‘Coming Back to Me’, published in 2008.

By the time that his book came out it was, I think, common knowledge that Trescothick had retired from playing for England because he found the stress of it had driven him to depression, but the openness with which he described his illness was, at the time, rather shocking, and, as it was often said, brave. Since then, there have been similar accounts by Jonathan Trott, Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and, from earlier eras, Graeme Fowler and Robin Smith. This year’s film about England’s tour of Australia in 2013-4 was entitled ‘On the Edge’ (apparently of a collective nervous breakdown).

I am not seeking to belittle these books, or underestimate the positive effect that they have had in improving the public’s understanding of depression and anxiety. However, they do make me uneasy, in that I am reluctant to feel that I am deriving pleasure from watching a game which drives its participants to the verge of suicide. Even at the time, I found that tour of Australia increasingly hard to watch (or listen to, in my case), as it became clear that several of the English players were being subjected to intolerable mental strain, and were unravelling before our eyes (or ears).

I accept that this feeling is not universal among followers of cricket : there are those who like to think of cricketers as tragic heroes, whose every trip to the crease represents an existential crisis (among them some of our sports-writers). There are also those of us, however, who prefer to think, perhaps deludedly, that cricket ought to offer an escape from gloom, a comedy with occasional excursions into farce, albeit sometimes tinged with pathos. I think it is this latter group that has ensured the notable success of Derek Pringle’s ‘Pushing the Boundaries’.

Even from the cover, there is no mistaking Pringle’s book for a misery memoir, where convention dictates that the author is portrayed in full face, with an expression suggesting that the photographer has written ‘abyss of despair’ on his forehead, and invited the subject to stare into it. A monochrome Pringle is depicted in his delivery stride, watched, like a moth-eaten hawk, by that reliable guarantor of old school japes , Dickie Bird, in a kind of sepia wash. (Bird, in fact, only makes one appearance – the one about water springing up around the run-ups at Leeds, which you may have heard before).

Anyone still apprehensive that they might not be in for a cheerful read would be reassured by the preface, in which Pringle suggests that having played in the Eighties was like ‘being first in the queue at the January sales’, that it ‘wasn’t always pretty but it was a hell of a lot of fun’, and that ‘cricket was about fun, joy and self-expression, not the endless and often futile quest for constant self-improvement’. This period, he feels, came to an end with the arrival of ‘coach culture’, which he dates precisely to being made to do shuttle runs in 90 degree heat in India in 1990 (shortly before his retirement).

As a player, Pringle was classed as an all-rounder, initially miscast as the ‘New Botham’. Botham was one of the rare all-rounders who would have been picked for either discipline ; Pringle one of the more common type (particularly in England in the ‘eighties) who would not have been picked for either (in Test cricket), but was useful for plugging a gap. Not short of self-awareness, he soon abandoned any attempt to become the hoped-for swashbuckler, and settled for being a niggardly line-and-length seamer who could contribute some handy late-order runs. (He also returned his sponsored yellow Porsche to the garage, after Steve O’Shaughnessy had emptied a bucket of whitewash over it).

Looking at his Test career, it is hard to find much retrospective logic to his selection or non-selection. After his first year, when he was taken to Australia, he did not tour (his bowling was felt to be suitable only for English conditions), and came closest to playing a whole home series in 1986, while Botham was serving a ban after admitting to smoking cannabis. Pringle himself admits that ‘the selectors picked Beefy and me … on several occasions, yet at times it was difficult to see why’. Younger readers may also be surprised that a player with a Test batting average of 15, and only one 50 to his name, could be picked as an all-rounder, sometimes batting as high as no. 6. (In one-day cricket, to be fair, he was worth his place).

Purchasers of an old-style autobiography could be confident of finding two things : amusing anecdotes (sometimes gathered together at the end, shortly before ‘The Greatest of my Time’, under a chapter heading such as ‘The Lighter Side of Cricket’), and blow-by-blow accounts of some of the subject’s more memorable games (often cobbled together from old match reports in ‘Wisden’ by a conscientious ghost, to pad out a thin narrative). There are plenty of both in ‘Pushing the Boundaries’, although it is the anecdotes that are the selling point, as if Pring, in return for a few pints of Old Ratbiter, is prepared to tell the one about Derek Randall’s evening as a transvestite prostitute, but only after he has taken you through the closing stages of a tight Benson & Hedges quarter-final against Glamorgan in 1987.

Many of these anecdotes concern one of two subjects – women and alcohol – which tend to feature in new-style autobiographies in the context of ‘problems with’ : ‘by now my drinking was completely out of hand and, in retrospect, I don’t know how Karen put up with me for so long. I must have been very difficult to live with’. Pringle’s approach, on the other hand, is in line with his response to Somerset Chairman, Tony Brown, when asked to apologise for flicking a v-sign at a section of the Taunton crowd (who responded by pelting him with ‘lunchboxes and half-eaten drumsticks’) : ‘I give you the words of Edith Piaf – ‘Je ne regrette rien’’.

One of the few occasions when he does express a hint of regret occurs early on, when he discusses his pre-England relationship with ‘Claire’, a South African medical student, responsible for his notorious ear-stud : his only named paramour, she even qualifies for a photograph. In a rare excursion into Mills and Boon territory, he recalls

‘we shared a sleeping bag under clear desert skies. Naturally I told Andre that nothing had gone on, but heavy condensation on the bag the following morning suggested otherwise. … those seven heavenly days … stirred emotions hitherto dormant’.

Unfortunately, being selected for England turned his head, and, ‘selfish, small minded and weak-willed’ (he is not short of self-knowledge), Pringle threw her over for the shifting cast of air hostesses, ‘models’ (his inverted commas) and camp followers who flit in and out of the rest of the narrative.

Michael Atherton is quoted on the cover as saying that the book ‘is a love letter to … the greatest player of his generation, Sir Ian Botham’. It is true that Botham is a central character, and the source of some of the more lurid anecdotes (most of which prove that, if he took to you, ‘Beefy’ could be a generous, loyal and life-enhancing companion), but, if the book is a love letter to anything, it is one to ale. I think the last time I read a work with quite such a high level of alcohol consumption, it was a biography of Malcolm Lowry, or possibly an autopsy report.

There are the great set-pieces of intoxication, such as the night that he and Botham, after a ‘skinful’ in the local pub and ‘a few spliffs’, polish off a ‘61 Chateau Latour to accompany a late night supper of bacon and sausages, or the time that he drank 17 pints of Tetley’s bitter during the rest day of the 1986 Test against India at Headingley (leading J.K. Lever to dub him ‘Half Man Half Tetley’), but throughout there is the steady drip of alcohol, like water leaking from a cracked pipe. Nor was he alone in this : even the Essex scorer had ‘non-drinking days’, when he drank only two bottles of white wine, and ‘drinking days’, when he would sink at least three quarters of a bottle of whisky (‘preferably the Famous Grouse’).

Nothing disturbs the insouciance with which he surfs this river of booze, not even an encounter with a ‘permanently drunk’ and out-of-control Peter Cook on a trip to La Manga in aid of Botham’s benefit year. After recounting Cook’s atrocious behaviour, which ended in a well-deserved black eye from the wife of the boxer Jim Watt, he observes of this ‘functioning alcoholic’, ‘his actions lacked, utterly, … any kind of judgement or humanity’. Perhaps Pringle felt reassured that, however much Tetley’s he sank, he could never sink quite that low.

Cook is one of a number of non-cricketing celebrities who make cameo appearances. Elton John and Eric Clapton are two of the more predictable : more surreally, he also meets Siouxsie and the Banshees in the lobby of a Sydney hotel, sipping crème-de-menthe (which sounds like the result of a game of Consequences).

Sitting there like the Sphinx of Gaza, [she] rebuffed all attempts at conversation with a wall of silence, her disdain for something as unhip as a cricket team written all over her face.’

She might be similarly unimpressed to find herself in the index, between Singh, Maninder and Slack, Wilf.

Anyone pining for the old-school autobiography will be cheered by the reappearance of some familiar motifs, which tend to be thin on the ground in the more intense variety of memoir : snoring room-mates are dealt with in some detail, as are Keith Fletcher’s difficulty in remembering names, and long car journeys with team-mates who are terrible navigators, or who have conflicting musical tastes. He was, though, slightly too young to have been driven by Brian Close, which always used to be worth a couple of pages.

The only readers who might be disappointed would be puritans who resent the fact that anyone has ever enjoyed themselves without receiving some form of come-uppance, and, to be fair, those who prefer some element of profound self-reflection in their memoirs. One answer to the latter is simply that Pringle has chosen not to write that kind of book, and, as he is writing it himself, there is no-one to encourage him to do so. The death of his father in a car crash, the moment that would have prompted any self-respecting ghost to probe more deeply (‘so, Derek, how did you feel …?’) is passed over in a paragraph. He may not be an unreflective man, but he has not chosen to write a deeply self-reflective book.  (It is also, perhaps, not irrelevant when he observes (of David Gower) that ‘like a lot of public schoolboys of that era, he thought it uncool to care too much about anything, especially something so footling as a game of cricket‘.)

It is, though, difficult for the reader to resist reflecting on the quite remarkable lack of angst, not to mention rancour (few, other than England physiotherapist Bernard Thomas (‘chief sneak to the selectors’) and the ‘sanctimonious clots that populate most national newspapers‘ receive less than generous treatment). Pringle’s own explanation is that the 1980s were a unique decade, when players had been freed from the quasi-feudal restrictions that had once prevailed, but had not yet been stifled by micro-management from over-mighty coaches, enabling ‘mavericks’ to flourish.

Earlier ‘mavericks’, from Lionel Tennyson to Denis Compton, might dispute that there was anything novel about the idea of an England tour as mobile bacchanalia, and there is some reason, on recent evidence, to suspect that excessive hedonism has not so much disappeared, as been forced underground, away from the scrutiny of, not so much the tabloid press (Botham’s nemesis), as its natural successor in combining prurience and sanctimony, social media.

While on the subject of snoring, Pringle does suggest, in passing, that ‘the depression that now seems to afflict so many modern cricketers appeared less prevalent when players shared rooms’ : I suppose being knocked onto his backside by an electric shock from Chris Lewis’ malfunctioning (and superfluous) hairdryer might have acted as an impromptu form of ECT.

Most players of any era, though, would have expressed some resentment at being dropped and called-up so many times, with so little apparent reason : the furthest Pringle goes is recording that his non-selection for the 1988-9 tour of India ‘hacked me off no end’. Some might have been more self-critical about not having made more of the opportunities he was offered (by, perhaps, laying off the ale during Test matches, or learning to swing the ball a little earlier in his career than 1989) : Pringle seems to have taken the robust attitude that he was lucky to have been in the side in the first place, and grateful that it offered him so many incidental benefits.

It must have helped that, before the age of central contracts, Pringle was not primarily an England player : he was an Essex player who was occasionally chosen to play for England. His place in the England team might have been precarious but he was a secure and valued member of the most successful county side of the decade, who seem to have been a companionable, and almost equally bibulous, collection, even if on a slightly smaller budget : some of his warmest, if least sensational, recollections, are of his Essex colleagues, and life on the, now sadly depleted, county circuit. Contemporary England players have fewer opportunities to escape from the spotlight in the company of friends in the familiar surroundings of a homely dressing room, or to refresh their skills in front of a smaller, and less exacting, audience.

When the last chapter, entitled ‘Endgame’, arrives, one might expect the tone to darken slightly, or at least turn a little wistful, but not a bit of it : rather than any lament for failing powers, the book ends abruptly, after an account of the 1992 World Cup final (one of his better games, in which his ten overs cost only 22 runs, and he took 3 wickets), simply noting that it was followed, shortly afterwards, by the retirements of Botham, Gower, Tavaré and Randall, and then himself. He does not quite drink a toast (or 17 pints of Tetley’s) to ‘cricket, the greatest game in the world’, but he does conclude :

‘I spent the next 20 years covering cricket instead of playing it – a job that was almost as much fun. Almost.’

The last time I saw Pringle was at Fenner’s, reporting on the game in which Surrey, lead by Kevin Pietersen, were defeated by the University. I seem to remember him rather ostentatiously standing up when Pietersen came into bat, some time before lunch, and announcing that he was heading to the pub (presumably one of his favourite local watering-holes) : he only returned some time after lunch, by which time Pietersen was out. I expect the presumed next volume of his memoirs, covering his time in the press-box, to be almost as much fun as the first.