Masterly Batting

Published: 2013
Pages: 280
Author: Ferriday, Patrick and Wilson, Dave
Publisher: Von Krumm Publishing
Rating: 5 stars

Masterly Batting

Few aficionados of any sport are as passionate as cricket fans when it comes to reminiscing about the past or comparing the stars of today with the heroes of yesteryear. In recent weeks, we have had plenty of opportunity to indulge in such ultimately futile yet remarkably addictive shenanigans. Wisden – the Bible of cricket – announced with great fanfare its All Time XI, working the world’s online cricketing communities into a lather as they debated the merits or otherwise of the hallowed publication’s selections (Grace over Gavaskar? Knott over Gilchrist? Wasim over Imran? Warne over Murali?). Meanwhile in Mumbai, scarcely had the announcement of Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement left the Little Master’s lips before sentiment moved from the valedictory to the comparative, celebration of a glorious career immediately intermingled with assessment of where he stands among the legends of the past.

Now, spoiling us still further, Patrick Ferriday and Dave Wilson have produced Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries. A true labour of love developed over a period of years, the two men – along with a swathe of partners in crime – have sought to embrace the classic cricketing exercise of the historical comparison, but in a specific and measurable way. Not batsman against fast bowlers, wicket-keepers against leg-spinners, but Test innings versus Test innings rated against a consistent set of criteria that holds up across any era of the game.

An early chapter explains the ranking methodology across ten basic measures aggregated into four overall categories. The system combines the hard facts and statistics of the innings with more subjective elements such as the context in which it was played, the strength or otherwise of the opposition, the support provided by team mates and other “intangibles” that, while impossible to quantify, are essential to consider. Ferriday and Wilson explain that most ranking systems base themselves either on the statistics or on the subjective unquantifiables, whereas their vision was to combine both into something truly meaningful.

The results throw up a dash of the predictable, more than a few surprises, and some downright jawdroppers. That no one has more innings in the one hundred than Don Bradman might be considered a manifestation of the inevitable. That Bruce Edgar appears twice as often as Sachin Tendulkar, rather less so. And even Bradman’s dominance has limits: West Indian genius Brian Lara matches his tally – Lara’s efforts actually rank collectively higher to boot – while no fewer than four batsmen appear more than once in the top 25, and none of that quartet are The Don. And that’s before we even mention the owner of the innings which looks down on all others from the summit of number one (no, I’m not telling you who it is).

Beyond the shocks and quirks thrown up by the order, though, are the details. The depth of research and breadth of innings captured are such that I struggle to believe even the keenest of cricket historians couldn’t learn something – and more likely, a great many things – from this book. Many innings taken for granted as classics of cricketing lore don’t even find a spot in the list, while others that history has managed to all but forget are given the dues they deserve. I don’t mind admitting, for example, that Martin Chandler’s account of Jack Brown’s match-winning century at Melbourne in 1895 was a wonderful new discovery for me and a gratifying one at that, given its importance in deciding the outcome of a particularly celebrated series.

Throughout, the science is rarely allowed to overwhelm the sport. The scoring system, having been described in its own chapter, is not then referenced in the essays, nor is each innings broken down into its component category marks to demonstrate how and why it achieved the ranking it did. The message seems to be: “Right, we’ve told you how the rankings work, now sit back and enjoy the rest of the book”. This approach works well as it allows us to immerse ourselves in the narrative as discrete from the calculations. What we are treated to therefore are the facts of each innings (the final 25 – the heart of the book, as Ferriday and Wilson describe it – are accompanied by the scorecard from the match in question) complimented by the illuminating historical details which not only contextualise the story but add immeasurably to its appreciation. Were the bowlers at the peak of their powers or in terminal decline? Was the batsman injured, struggling for form, fighting for his career? Was it a chanceless masterpiece or was he dropped before he’d even scored? What were the human elements at play – were there off-field distractions weighing on his mind? And what did those most important of judges – contemporary players and spectators who actually saw it happen in the flesh – have to say about it all? The answers to all of these questions are provided and embellished by quotes, anecdotes and media reports of the time.

As could be expected when the range of contributors is as varied as can be seen here, the writing style and approach differs from piece to piece with a slight variance in quality which could reasonably be expected. That being said, the variance is all very much at the high end of the scale. None of the pieces are in any way a let-down or weak link, and for the most part the variance we can see from essay to essay is simply – and thankfully – scaling the range between the merely good and the utterly superlative. That CricketWeb’s own contributors stand shoulder to shoulder with a number of notable professional cricketing scribes is yet another reason to celebrate. The affection for his subject matter flows throughout Sean Ehlers’ piece on one of his historical heroes – the great Golden Age left hander Clem Hill – playing the innings of his life at the MCG in 1898, while Rodney Ulyate’s memories of Adam Gilchrist’s gem at Hobart a century later are equally compelling. Mark Butcher describing his Headingley epic of 2001 in his own words is also a lovely touch.

Indeed, such is the general quality of the writing – it’s no exaggeration to call much of it storytelling, insofar as many of the essays truly transport you to the moments in history they describe – that there is a temptation to feel that the ranking system isn’t even necessary. There is an argument to be made that such a book, given that it specifically refers to these centuries as Great rather than Greatest, could have celebrated the knocks in chronological order or grouped by theme rather than try to order them by quality. The one and only time that the science eclipses the sport is to be found when the formula ends up giving two innings the same score, resulting in a performance being listed as “46=” for example, jarring us – albeit momentarily – out of the romance of the account.

And yet …who can resist a countdown? Debateable though the necessity of a ranking may be, the excitement it adds to proceedings can’t be denied and it was an exercise in self-control to read the entries in order rather than surrender to temptation and flick ahead to see what was to come. Eyes widened as performances I expected to see right near the top of the list came in at the bottom end of the 100, while innings I wouldn’t ever have given such credit to were rated among the very highest. It may be questionable whether the rankings were needed, but it’s irrefutable that they added to the experience.

What Ferriday and Wilson have attempted to give us here is a book that puts a new spin on a classic formula, a combination of the subjective and the objective, the statistical and the romantic, and with one or two of the tiniest exceptions they have succeeded brilliantly. Had this been a new tome from a renowned writer or a faceless publishing house I would have considered it a superb investment and a more than worthy addition to any cricketing library. However, that a book of such quality has been developed, contributed to and produced by so many of our own here at Cricket Web makes it absolutely essential. It’s a work that will stand up to multiple reading, and multiple readings are exactly what I’m going to give it.

And I’m still not telling you who’s at number one.

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