On The Ashes

Published: 2023
Pages: 408
Author: Haigh, Gideon
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Rating: 4 stars

The Ashes is one of the greatest events in sport, and its history is one of its strengths. The novelist LP Hartley famously wrote that the past is a foreign country. That observation is as relevant to the Ashes as it is to anything else, but in the case of cricket’s most enduring contest the scene of past battles is always a welcoming destination.

There are guide books aplenty, most of the game’s greatest historians having turned their attention to the Ashes at some point, either generally or in relation to specific series. The most famous contests, those of 1932/33, 54/55 and 2005, all inspired a bibliography that reached double figures.

That the popularity of the tour account has declined with the increasing availability of visual records does not surprise me, but it is still a source of great disappointment that no Ashes series has been properly chronicled since that of 2013/14. The man responsible for that one was Gideon Haigh, as he was for a number of other accounts of Ashes series starting with that of 1994/95.

That no publisher has been prepared to publish Haigh, or indeed anyone else, on the 2015, 2017/18, 2019 and 2021/22 series is a crying shame, and the absence of books on those them will, I have no doubt, be a source of frustration for cricket lovers in decades to come.

I hope there may yet be a Haigh account of this summer’s Ashes, but if not the great man has at least produced the next best thing, a satisfying and substantial preview looking back through his own oeuvre in order to produce a guide to the Ashes. On the Ashes is a timely reminder of how good a writer Haigh is, and also how thrilling the contest is.

Most, and possibly all, of these pieces have appeared before, if not in print then on the internet. But that matters little as Haigh’s quality as a writer is such that even for those of us who have read a particular essay before it is no hardship to read it again, and there are always new nuances to be found.

In On The Ashes there are more than eighty separate ‘chapters’, helpfully arranged in chronological order. Some are book reviews, and there are a few that are tricky to categorise but, essentially, each focuses on an aspect of the, so far, 72 series that have taken place.

The length of the pieces vary from just a page or two up to around a dozen pages. The longest, entirely fittingly, deals with Victor Trumper, and more particularly Haigh’s book about the great man, Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket.

The very first chapter deals with Charles Bannerman, the man who made that remarkable 165 back in 1877 in the inaugural Test at the MCG, and On The Ashes ends with a couple of features on the rival captains in 2021/22, followed by a short preview looking forward to the series that is about to start.

Most of the pieces concern specific men, matches or incidents and are written in the style that Haigh does so well, looking at a single piece of Ashes history from a variety of perspectives. It is an invidious task to even try to single out specifics, but perhaps I can express surprise at the absence of Haigh’s thoughts on two men. The first is mystery spinner Jack Iverson, England’s nightmare in 1950/51 and the subject of an excellent Haigh biography and, of rather more recent vintage, Scott Boland.

The nature of this sort of anthology is that it can be read for a few minutes at a time, or for much longer depending on the reader’s mood. It can be read from beginning to end or, more likely, its reader can flick through and stop at whatever point the header takes his or her fancy. Whichever way it is approached it is a mesmerising read and one which, I have no doubt, is going to snare casual readers and turn them into cricket lovers, and with nary a white ball in sight.

Back in the day we had some guidelines for review ratings, one of which I am sure I recall was that no anthology should be awarded more than four stars. As the Ashes is cricket’s greatest tradition I feel I should honour that tenet and therefore do so, but that doesn’t alter the fact that On The Ashes is most definitely chock full of five star writing.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler