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.