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.