Ashes 2011Martin Chandler |
Author: Haigh, Gideon
Rating: 5 stars
Gideon Haigh covered the 2010/11 Ashes series for The Times and Business Spectator. Each day he wrote match reports for the latter and an overview for the former. The bulk of this book consists of those pieces, interwoven to provide a seamless account of a series that will live long in the memory of every England supporter. The daily match pieces are prefaced by nine articles that Haigh wrote in October and November, as the anticipation built on both sides of the world.
In England all those who could afford it, and whose lifestyle could bear it, were able to watch, as it happened, every single delivery that the contest produced. While we all have our favourites almost all viewers would concede that overall Sky employ a superb commentary team, and that accordingly we also had all the analysis and insight we could want. For those of us who were unable to stay up all night every night there were extensive highlights packages, and even those who had to rely on mainstream television also had access to all they needed, albeit a few hours later than they would have liked. If that were not enough the series has, of course, been repackaged for the DVD market.
Why then bother to buy a book on the series? What is the point in reading about events as seen by a professional writer, when instead one can view the action as it happened and hear it described and deconstructed by a bevy of former international cricketers? It is a good question and one to which the answer, depending upon who has written the book, might well be that there is no reason at all to make that purchase. If however the author is Gideon Haigh, then there are compelling reasons to invest in the written word.
The first point to be made in Haigh’s favour is that he is the most elegant of writers whose prose is a delight to read whatever the content. In these pages he does not, as his other work occasionally does, require his reader to have constant access to a dictionary, but he still makes use of the full range and versatility of the English language in a manner that all too few sporting journalists do.
Haigh also knows the game inside out. He may not have played at the highest level, but that does not prevent him having a thorough grasp of the technical issues facing Test cricketers. In addition there can be few men alive who have a greater knowledge of the game’s history and, importantly, how that past influences the present. The Ashes 2010/11 was part of a continuing saga, and not a self-contained contest, and while Haigh is certainly not a writer to overuse history, where it is important and relevant, which is not always obvious, his reader is reminded of it.
The above said the most compelling reason for reading Ashes 2011 is the reminder it gives of the issues that in years to come England supporters would probably otherwise forget. We weren’t happy during most of the first Test, and at Adelaide the weather, the portents from history and the Australian batsmen’s records at the ground meant it looked like Ricky Ponting had won a good toss. Two matches later, before that historic Boxing Day at the MCG the momentum, to the extent that it actually exists in sport, was with Australia and nothing was being taken for granted by any England supporter.
As Haigh is at pains to point out none of the pieces that comprise the book have been retouched in any way, and as a result it captures the ebb and flow of a turbulent series superbly. What is written also confirms Haigh’s depth of understanding of the game, as despite some self-deprecating comments in his introduction, he struck me as being a pretty shrewd judge of a Test match.
In terms of exactly what a reader can expect from Haigh the good news is that author and publisher generously agreed to provide us with an extract from the book for our feature entitled Gideon Haigh on the Melbourne Boxing Day Massacre. Even better was the fact that I got to choose the extract – for a while I thought about consulting the rest of the CW staff and making that choice democratically, but I soon gave up on that. As an Englishman I make no apology for choosing the first day at the MCG. I will resist the temptation to say that this represents Haigh at his best, as in truth that would be misleading as his writing is of a uniformly high standard – the reason I chose it was because, despite everything that took place in 2005 and 2009, it was that day that finally exorcised for me the cricketing demons that have haunted me since 1989.
Having chosen the extract for our feature without his assistance I decided to let Archie decide how we rated the book. That was a clever move on my part, inspired by watching Andrew Strauss’s captaincy this winter. I well know that the Mac is as big a fan as Haigh has, and that being a man who took the defeat rather more graciously than I fear I would have done had our roles been reversed, that he would feel a maximum was appropriate – as ever his judgment is impeccable.
An English friend asked me to secure a hardback edition about the Ashes series of 2010-2011. So I contacted CW’s old friend, cricket book dealer Roger Page, and ordered two signed copies of the best cricket writer’s account of the series. The uninspiring name Ashes 2011 and the lack of an index were, in the end, the only complaints I had about the book, but still I dragged my heels knowing this was the worst Ashes series from an Aussie point of view in my lifetime.
My copy arrived first and despite reading 50 pages before my English friend received his, he finished before I was even halfway through. I put that down to the scoreline. I asked his impressions and he said he enjoyed reading about the series more than watching it. His only complaint was the book concentrated more on the tribulations of the Australian team rather than the joys of the English.
Well the vanquished always make for better copy and with the one sided result of this series it would not be surprising if Haigh focused more on the Australian team, however personally I did not notice this trend while reading the book. My slowness in perusing the account may be forgiven, as apart from Perth and a couple of days in Brisbane it was a tough summer to be an Aussie supporter.
Tough going it may have been but this was made up for by the fine writing of Gideon Haigh. This is Haigh’s fourth Ashes tour book with publishers Aurum, the first was on the greatest of all modern Ashes series, that of 2005. In Ashes 2011 he has ironed the bugs out and has discovered the perfect formula for a touring book; four to five pages dedicated to each day of a Test with the same amount of space given to, what may be termed ‘fillers’ in between days. These usually focus on a player having a good or bad day but can be on almost anything related to the series.
Haigh writing about on-field events or off-field events demonstrates a fine eye for the interesting, bringing back memories of the summer. From the poor American woman with no idea of cricket who was inundated with Ashes speak because her twitter site was named @theashes, to Shane Warne bowling to David Hasselhoff at the SCG. In fact it was ‘Warney’ whom Haigh points out seemed to be an omnipresent part of the summer more so then any member of the Australian team.
The author doesn’t just recall events. His descriptive writing still manages to sum up a player’s style in the manner suggested by Struck & White: ‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words’ his description of Bell achieving this mantra ‘he again looked a treat, driving like a Rolls-Royce, and cutting like a sushi chef.’
I once had a friend who had a lovely singing voice, which meant she would often win Karaoke contests and would gladly shout beers with her winnings. Her boyfriend would often critique her singing expecting nothing but the best. She on the other hand took little notice of his well meant opinions, dismissing them because he could not carry a tune.
Well I like to think I am one of Gideon Haigh’s biggest fans and although I can not write remotely to his standard, I still expect nothing but the best when I read his books. This for me is the best of his four tour books for Aurum. A big call when one considers his Ashes 2005 was for many the cricket book of that year. Ashes 2011 may not have the quality of cricket which Ashes 2005 featured, or the sublime cover pic of “Freddie” consoling a defeated Brett Lee, but in Ashes 2011 Haigh hits all of his notes perfectly and still reaches the highest one at the end to evoke a standing ovation.
5 stars – 10 out of 10 – A+ A+ A+ write it how you wish; this is the best tour book the Mac has read.