Inside The Selection Room

Published: 2019
Pages: 457
Author: Della Penna, Peter
Publisher: Della Penna, Peter
Rating: 3.5 stars


I don’t much care for cricket fiction. Some of it is bearable, but as a general rule I find it uninspiring stuff. What this means is that, because I rarely read about anything other than cricket, whenever I pick a book up I know the bare bones of the story. The suspense of not knowing what is going to happen next, something I remember from the days when I regularly read novels, is something I seldom experience.

To my eyes Inside The Selection Room is a bit like a novel. I hasten to add immediately that it is very much fact and not fiction, but it concerns events that had, essentially, passed me by when, back in 2015, they started to unfold.

The book is about cricket in the US, a story with a long and noble history. In common with other cricket tragics I have marvelled at the story of the Philadelphian swing bowling pioneer Bart King, and the details of the teams he played for as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, when Philadelphia were a force in the First Class game.

Since King’s time the story of cricket in North America has not been a happy one however, and I was aware that a few years ago the governing body effectively fell apart before, in June 2015, it was suspended. With that, the future seeming so bleak, what interest I had in the perennial dream that one day our great game might take root in the US simply evaporated.

I now know that, fortunately, others did not give up on the game in North America, and that after the suspension the ICC stepped in and made the decision to hold trials in Indianapolis, open to cricketers across the whole continent, to select a team to play in the 2016 West Indies Regional 50 over competition. More than eighty men were looked at by a panel that included Courtney Walsh and Venkatapathy Raju.

What started out as an interesting concept became the more so thanks to Della Penna who was able to persuade the organisers to allow him to take a seat in the selection room throughout. He is, as far as I can see, a 24 carat American who, whilst on a brief sojourn at an Australian University encountered cricket, fell in love with it and successfully carved out a career for himself as a journalist. He is a regular on Cricinfo, but also crops up elsewhere – Inside the Selection Room is his first book.

In his introduction Della Penna describes his own book as a spider killer, a reference to its bulk. He clearly enjoyed being his own boss, and being free of the constraints on his narration that editors impose. He has much to say, and is certainly not verbose but there is perhaps too much detail in places. I much enjoyed a good deal of the first 175 pages, the detailed discussions of the selectors certainly being an education. But that is a lot of words to cover the whittling down of the initial candidates to a squad of fifteen, and there were times when my attention began to wander a little.

The next part of the book deals with the tournament itself. ICC Americas lost all of their five matches and the reports take up the next twenty or so pages. A couple of the defeats were heavy ones, but there were encouraging signs throughout and the descriptions of the matches are well written. There is then a couple of chapters on the Caribbean Premier League auction that followed. At this point I have to make a confession, that being that I have little understanding of these drafts and not a great deal of enthusiasm for the concept. Della Penna’s explanation didn’t make me any keener, but that undoubtedly says more about me than it does about him. As a piece of reportage it cannot be faulted.

The balance of the book is, to Della Penna’s enormous credit, concerned with following through on the lives and developing cricket careers of those involved and their impressions of their cricketing journeys. In many ways the most interesting of these, perhaps inevitably, is that of the man who appears on the cover of the book, pace bowler Ali Khan who, rather belatedly, I realised I had heard of. A fine fast bowler in the game’s shorter formats Khan’s back story is an eventful one and, despite what I said earlier in this review about auctions/drafts I was particularly impressed by the chapter on his experience as he sat through the IPL auction in December 2018. Della Penna’s pen captures very well the personal drama that Khan experienced as he waited in vain for the bid he hoped might secure him a berth in the biggest T20 tournament of them all.

Inside The Selection Room will not appeal to a reader with no interest in the game beyond its established centres, but there are many who do and to them the book is certainly recommended. It may be a tad long in places, but then it is generally better to have too much detail than too little. The book’s greatest strengths are the originality of the subject matter and the quality of the writing and its only real weakness the absence, other than on the front and rear covers, of any photographs. That said I fully understand that self publishing is not easy, and I can imagine that to include any might well have proved problematic on a technical level and/or made the venture uneconomic – perhaps if enough people buy this one the Della Penna’s next book will deal with that omission?

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