Friday, 7 September 2007

Sixty Summers - Review

With the 2007 Test summer now packed away in the tool shed, the 0-1 in India’s favour still faintly visible on the pavilion scoreboard, I thought it high time for something of a history lesson. Literary reviews may not be regular fare for the Third Umpire, but we can all do with a little book learning from time to time. Sixty Summers, by Peter Cox, tells the narrative of English Test cricket from 1945 to the Ashes triumph of 2005, and is published by Labatie Books. I should say, that although I have never met the author, Peter is a friend of a friend, and my copy was complimentary. Now, guard taken, let us begin...

To cricketing aficionados, the game’s ineffable charm is difficult to characterise in purely rational terms. Deep into Sixty Summers, its author evokes Tom Stoppard’s description of the sound of ball meeting bat with a “noise like a trout taking a fly”, and almost sums it up.

The pleasure derived from our famous national pastime is made up of many component parts: the feel of a hard, shiny new cherry in hand; the driven four, straight through the ‘v’; an umpire shifting stones from pocket to pocket, steadily making an over; or the gradual accretion of runs and wickets that form the statistical tale of a player’s life. Cox’s knowledge of these moments of private joy informs his project, and helps prevent any dilution of interest despite a timespan that covers more than half a century.

Appropriately for its subject matter, Sixty Summers is a thoughtful and discursive book, full of discrete episodes drawn together to create a larger, more complex picture. Rather than ball by ball, or over by over (imagine the tomes that could be filled with such Guardian-style commentary), the action is presented to the reader series by series, with Cox interweaving his chronicle of the English game with chapters on a variety of sub-topics.

Equipment and run rates, the state of the county system and the grubby world of match-fixing all fall under the microscope; but it is as a record of England’s Test-playing fortunes that the book scores the bulk of its runs. Like a companionable regular talking you through the ups and downs of the local side, Cox attempts to guide his reader around the boundary rope of English cricketing history, pointing out the key protagonists as they come and go, explaining various incidents and their significance, and interjecting with his own perspective on the general state of things. His first impulse may have been to “write the book I wanted to read”, but it is a narrative that all cricket lovers will enjoy.

In his documentation of the sport from post-war to 2005 AP (Anno Pietersen), Cox takes a linear approach, charting each encounter as the years tick by, and breaking off at appropriate moments to dip into one side issue or another. It would seem possible to get easily lost in the slew of names, events, and figures, but the book’s index is a comprehensive and blessed assistant - allowing, for instance, the separation of Edrich, Bill, (38-’55) from Edrich, John, (’63-’76) with the minimum of hold-up.

And as much as cricket is about scorecards and averages, it is also about the players: Denis Compton’s friendship with Aussie juggernaught, Keith Miller; Frank Tyson’s recovery from being knocked unconscious at Sydney in 1954 to lead England to victory over Australia - and Devon Malcolm’s parallel exaction of revenge after being struck by the South Africans forty years later; Derek Randall doffing his cap to Dennis Lillee, having ducked a bouncer in the Centenary Test.

Through West Indian ‘blackwashing’ (twice), the rebel apartheid tours, and the ever-changing LBW law, Sixty Summers offers a comprehensive look at the evolution and incidence of a sporting milieu that clearly enthralls its author as much as he hopes it will his audience. If the book were a painting, it would be right up there with one of Jack Russell’s best efforts, refusing to be harried in its musings, keen to etch a picture not only in its finest detail, but to provide splashes of colour and illumination wherever possible.

Cox notes that the 22 yard strip which still comprises the principal cricketing battleground is one of the few remaining vestiges of the game he first encountered as a child (and a “blessed relief” at that); but undaunted, he attempts to analyse the changes - the advent of one day competition, the influx of foreign players, coloured strips, increasing run rates - that have taken place during his lifetime, and given us the spectacle to which we are accustomed today. Perhaps most innovative is his home-grown method of measuring the ‘action rate’ in First Class cricket. Whilst I’ll not be drawn into revealing the method here, Cox’s system takes into account both runs and wickets, and offers some interesting observations on cricketing cultural shift.

Less successful I would suggest are the author’s attempts to forecast developments we might expect over the next fifteen to twenty years. Prediction is, of course, much more tricky than analysis, but the proposed ‘Test World Cup’ seems an unwieldy project at best, and likely to be little better an indicator of the top team in the game’s long form than the current ICC league system (Tests, after all, remain a series of duels against one opponent, rather than individual encounters against a variety). Cox’s hypothetical restructuring of the County system is much more thought-provoking; however, the apparent renaissance within the Championship currently appears to render his musings redundant. On technology, that pernicious interloper in many a traditionalist’s eyes, he is refreshingly open-minded, although blanch I certainly did at the thought of electronic transmitters embedded within balls, despite the warning.

The odd typo and printing error aside (which could surely be ironed out with a second run...), Sixty Summers is a remarkably good read, and one that would doubtless fit in nicely on any enthusiast’s shelf. Anecdotes and historical documentation are smoothly allied with the keen knowledge of personal recollection, and through his three score summers Cox’s simple pleasure in “a game of ebb and flow that can be played over three hours or five days” appears to remain undiminished. For that reason alone, it’s worth a look.

3 comments:

Tim said...

Interesting stuff - it's a book I have noticed but, after reading your review, will now endeavour to read.

Am I correct in thinking the highest 'action rate' in county cricket in the past 60 years is the 2000s?

allrounder said...

Yup, you're spot on - well, in the 'Action rate per 100 balls' measurement, at least.

There's also a measure of 'Action per day' in Tests (taking into account the greater amount of overs bowled in the olden days) which makes 1946-50 the most action-heavy period. The rate has climbed again since 2000, but apparently there are still less 'happenings', mainly because you never get 130 overs in a day anymore.

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