Edging Towards DarknessArchie Mac and Martin Chandler |
Author: Lazenby, John
Rating: 5 stars
A view from the Southern Hemisphere …..
This book is about the Timeless Test of 1939 which famously ended in stalemate, after almost two weeks. Even then it only ended because the England team had to catch their boat home. If Edging Towards Darkness, just stuck to its remit, a bore draw, it could have been dry reading, however Lazenby’s skilful writing has produced a serious contender for book of the year.
A quality book should grab you from the opening and Lazenby does just that with his superb and informative introduction on the South African cricketer Norman Gordon. For those unaware Gordon was the first confirmed Test player to bring up a true century before his death aged 103 in 2014. He also bowled 732 balls in the Timeless Test which remains the most for a fast bowler in a Test. His reward was a solitary wicket on a batsmen’s paradise.
Lazenby highlights that the batsmen in the England team didn’t need much assistance from the pitch as they boasted some of the all time greats. Captain Walter Hammond, who equalled Bradman with the most Test centuries during the match; Len Hutton, fresh from his record breaking 364 in another timeless Test against Australia; Eddie Paynter who finished with an Ashes average of over 80 and Les Ames, the Adam Gilchrist of his day. We learn not just about all the greats but many of the lesser lights too.
The book is written mainly from the English point of view and the cricket coverage begins with the Ashes series of 1938, Hammond’s first in the hegemony role. We learn the social aspects of cricket at the time, with Hammond having to convert from professional to amateur to be considered for the captaincy. Lazenby manages to convey a sense of the difficult personality which was Hammond. His obsession about women, distaste for Bradman and his sublime mastery of the batsmen’s craft, especially the cover drive.
South Africa and how they arrived at the Timeless Test, is also dissected and we meet all their players too. The cricket is not the only thing covered, with Lazenby drawing us back to contemporary world events of 1939 and their impact on the players. The world was bracing itself for World War II and players in the Timeless Test were to be heavily involved, to say the least, with some losing their lives in the conflict.
The way Lazenby is able to describe those involved as not only cricketers but as humans too, is the great strength of the book. Apart for some brief pen portraits at the end of the book, the author manages to weave anecdotes and meaningful insights about all those involved in the match. The quality of his prose equates to a seamless transition from the cricket to world events and personal observations on the players.
Another thing that works well in the book is the regular quoting of two contrasting journalists who covered the series; the positive South African Louis Duffus (born in Australia) and the more pessimistic Englishman William Pollock. The writing of both, and also that of Robertson-Glasgow (he wasn’t actually in South Africa for the match), in Wisden, helped to sway public opinion against timeless Test cricket.
This is the third book I have read, and reviewed, by Lazenby and this is probably the best, although all three have been fine reads. I was especially impressed with his knowledge of the cricket from this period, which no amount of research could provide. That is you would need to have immersed yourself in the game and its combatants for many years to show the understanding demonstrated in this book.
So Edging Towards Darkness, is impressively written by a very knowledgeable author about an interesting subject set against the backdrop of an epic event. What are you waiting for? Buy a copy, I can guarantee you’ll love it.
….. and one from north of the Equator
We rather like John Lazenby here at CricketWeb. He has written two previous cricketing titles, both of which have attracted a four star rating even by the Mac’s exacting standards. The first, Test of Time, published more than a decade ago now, is a biography of Lazenby’s grandfather, Jack Mason of Kent and England. The second appeared rather more recently, in 2015. The Strangers Who Came Home is an account of the 1878 Australian tour of England.
For his hat trick delivery Lazenby moves forward a couple of generations from his grandfather and sixty years from The Strangers Who Came Home. Like England off spinner Tom Goddard in the first Test of the series that Edging Towards Darkness recalls he accomplishes the feat with considerable aplomb. To preserve a bit of symmetry and to recognise the fact that the book will appeal to a limited market I might have kept it at four stars, but the Mac says we should give this excellent book five stars, a rating I am happy to endorse.
Some cricketers and matches are a fertile source of good writing. That may be because of the personality of the individual, the spark of genius he brings to the way he plays the game or a series of Tests in which the fortunes of the sides ebb and flow. An author’s job is trickier where, as here, the series is not particularly exciting, there are no stellar performances and few of the game’s great personalities are on show. Indeed the single match upon which Edging Towards Darkness is primarily focussed is renowned for being one of the most tedious and unsatisfactory in the history of the game.
War clouds were gathering over Europe in 1938/39 when England’s cricketers set sail for South Africa. On their previous visit, eight years previously, an understrength side had lost a series and then, in 1935, the South Africans triumphed 1-0 in England, so it was almost a decade since England had taken a series against the Springboks, as they were known in those days. In the past the MCC had only ever sent full strength teams to Australia, but on this occasion the visitors were, with one exception, intended to be the strongest combination available. The only man missing was Denis Compton, whose ‘other’ employer, Arsenal FC, had first claim on his services that winter.
So how does Lazenby manage to conjure such a splendid book out of some relatively unpromising material? The first essential was to thoroughly research the tour. Naturally he relies heavily on the reports of the two English journalists who accompanied the party, William Pollock and Jim Swanton, as well as the South African writers, foremost amongst them Louis Duffus. A number of the England players subsequently wrote autobiographies, or were the subject of biographies, as were a couple of the South Africans.
One man who has never been the subject of a book is the series’ leading wicket taker, South African pace bowler Norman Gordon. The only five Tests of Gordon’s career were in 1938/39 and his was a name that for many years was recognised by very few. In the 21st century however there are few cricket lovers who have not heard of the man who, in August 2011, became Test cricket’s first centenarian and who died in 2014 at the grand old age of 103. Lazenby begins his account by telling his reader something about Gordon, and returns to him at regular intervals. It is an auspicious start, and the quality of the narrative never flags.
Back in 1997 the late Brian Bassano, a well known historian and chronicler of long forgotten South African Test series, published a full length book on this series. I would imagine he consulted many of the same sources as Lazenby and he produced a readable and, I have no doubt, entirely accurate account. It is however heavy going in places, in much the same way as the play it was describing. And therein lies the difference between Bassano and Lazenby – the publisher’s notes on the inside of the dust jacket of Edging Towards Darkness describe Lazenby as ‘bringing the series to life’ and, in a way that Bassano’s book did not succeed in doing, that is exactly what he does.
The early chapters are taken up with setting out the historical context of the series, and a brief account of the early tour matches and the first four Tests follows. Around half the book is then taken up with an account of the timeless Test itself, all ten days of it. It is clear that for the spectators the entertainment was limited, and by the time the game ended with England 45 runs shy of their target of 696 with five wickets still to fall there was precious little interest left. Lazenby’s reader is spared the tedium however. His is an excellent account, like the rest of the book full of interesting digressions and very well written indeed.
In this reviewer’s opinion the best way of finishing a book like this is to look at what became of the combatants after the series under consideration ended, and in that respect I wonder if Lazenby read my mind as his closing chapter is just that. There is sufficient about all concerned to catch the essence of them as both men and cricketers, and the climax of Edging Towards Darkness is the grandstand finish that the rain and the timing of the MCC’s return passage denied those long suffering spectators back in 1939.