Richie Benaud’s Blue Suede Shoes

Published: 2024
Pages: 299
Author: Kynaston, David and Ricketts, Harry
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: 4.5 stars

The first thing I do with a new book is go to the back. Is there an index and if so is it a ‘proper’ one, or just a list of names? The other questions are how detailed is the list of acknowledgments and sources, how comprehensive are the statistics and is there (and I always hope there isn’t) a long series of end notes?

With Richie Benaud’s Blue Suede Shoes there is a promising start, with an excellent index and a faultless list of sources. The absence of end notes was a pleasure to see, and a quick skim through the narrative confirmed that whilst there are additional snippets of information provided, those always appear at the foot of the page to which they are relevant.

The one slight disappointment was that there were that I saw no scorecards, particularly surprising given that the subject of the book is a single Test match. My immediate thought was that I was expecting to see that card, as well as those of the other four Tests, and also the series averages. But then you rarely get everything, so I went back to the beginning and started to read.

The missing scorecard did not trouble me too much, primarily because I already knew how the match unfolded, and I very much doubt that anyone will pick up the book and not know the  basics of the story of the fourth Test of the 1961 Ashes series, as ever a five match contest.

Going into the game at Old Trafford the sides had won one Test each so, having won comprehensively in 1958/59, Australia just needed to win this one to retain the Ashes. In the event England started well, and took a first innings lead of 177. Australia batted better second time round, but when their ninth second innings wicket fell were only 157 ahead. At that point Alan Davidson and Graham Mckenzie added 98 for the last wicket. England needed 256.

If England succeeded they would have become only the third team to have scored more than 200 in the fourth innings to win a Test, and they had only a fraction over two sessions to play. The match was, until Ted Dexter got to the crease at first drop, evenly balanced. Lord Ted then batted superbly, so much so that England, well up with the clock, reached 150-1 before Dexter was dismissed. That was however England’s apogee, and one superb spell of bowling from Richie Benaud later and England were 201 all out, and Australia had retained the urn.

The match over I turned the page and there it was, the scorecard, on page 201. But I’m glad I didn’t know that before I started the book, and equally relieved that I hadn’t been tempted to get it from elsewhere, which is a roundabout way of giving potential readers of Richie Benaud’s Blue Suede Shoes a piece of advice, that being that your enjoyment of the narrative will be enhanced by virtue of not checking in advance exactly how the drama unfolded.

Authors David Kynaston and Harry Ricketts were both old enough to have fallen under cricket’s spell by 1961, and both are now in their early seventies. Both are exceptional historians in a number of fields and both have oeuvres that contain many published works. Kynaston has written four previous cricket books*, all of which I have read and merit similar acclaim to the plaudits his books on twentieth century social history have earned. Ricketts by contrast has written just one cricket book**, which I have to confess to not having read, but his name is a familiar one so, given that I have certainly not read his biography of Kipling, his book about the poets of the Great War or any of his own poetry then it can only be that I have read his cricketing output in newspapers, magazines and journals.

In any event the point is that the authors are both exceptional writers, diligent researchers and above all lovers of our great game. Their coming together for this look back to a time just before the so called ‘swinging sixties’ really began has produced a superb account of a remarkable game of cricket which is full of insights into the social mores of the times, as well as the characters and personalities of the men involved.

In any Ashes campaign the roles of the two captains are pivotal, and the first part of the book compares and contrasts the two men involved, the great Australian titular character, and the always slightly distant and aloof Peter May. The authors then go on to examine the events of the tour leading up to Old Trafford, again concentrating on the fortunes of May and Benaud, both of whom were troubled by injury.

The account of the match itself is the largest part of the book and is inevitably therefore a much more detailed account than the sort of commentary on a Test match that normally finds its way into a series retrospective. In 1961 newspapers were still the way most people got their news, and the authors have read all the available reports, all of the six full length books that the series inspired not to mention the many biographies and autobiographies of the players on both sides.

In addition to the written word Kynaston or Ricketts had opportunities to speak to three of the surviving players from the series (Raman Subba Row, Graham McKenzie and Bill Lawry) as well as some of those who were present at Old Trafford for all or part of the match. The narrative makes extensive use of quotes from all those sources, as well as those parts of the television commentary that survive. There was rarely unanimity amongst the observers and it is interesting to note the different opinions and perspectives.

There was, naturally, an inquest launched in the press as to what went wrong, and the 22 players who appeared in the match had the rest of their lives to lead, and those are the two aspects of the story that occupy the final part of the book. Given the way he got out in the second innings was Brian Close to blame, or was it Freddie Trueman for the way he bowled at Davidson and McKenzie? They were the pair that paid for the defeat with their places in the side for the final Test, but was May, because of the decisions he made throughout and the way he was dismissed in the second innings the real culprit, or was it simply the genius of Richie Benaud on that final afternoon?

In the end no one is ‘convicted’ and the reader has to make up their own mind, but all the evidence is presented and, beyond any doubt, the definitive account of the 1961 Ashes series has been written. Richie Benaud’s Blue Suede Shoes is highly recommended.

*(1) A biography of the diminutive Surrey and England batsman Bobby Abel published in 1980 and in  a revised and updated edition 25 years later.

(2) Published in 1984 an account of the MCC tour of New Zealand in 1922/23 led by AC Maclaren, who was then 51 year sold.

(3) WG’s Birthday Party, published in 1990 and an account of the Gentlemen v Players match of 1898

(4) With Stephen Fay what amounts to a double biography of EW ‘Jim’ Swanton and John Arlott.

** How to Catch a Cricket Match, first published in 2006.

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