Rebel With A Cause

Published: 2016
Pages: 284
Author: Booth, Keith
Publisher: Chequered Flag Publishing
Rating: 4 stars

It was just over a year ago I reviewed Michael Burns’ A Flick of the Fingers, a biography of the Surrey, South Australia and Otago all-rounder Jack Crawford. Given it was well over a century since Crawford had made his mark on the game I wasn’t expecting to receive a second biography at any time, let alone so soon afterwards. I am not going to check, but I would be surprised if any cricketer, even one named Bradman or Tendulkar, has ever been the subject of two books that set out to achieve exactly the same result within so short a timeframe.*

At this point I would normally set out a short history of Crawford’s life mainly, I suppose, to illustrate why the author has decided his subject merits a book. But on this occasion I did that a year ago and have linked to my review of A Flick of the Fingers anyway. So what do I do next? Do I compare the two books, or do I try and look at Booth’s book in isolation?

I have decided, on the basis I will inevitably have to compare the books at some point, that the starting point should be to contrast the two authors. Burns was a first-time cricket author, and his “scoop” was access to some scrapbooks of Crawford’s father chronicling his son’s cricket career. He also unearthed some film of Crawford bowling he was able to analyse.

Booth on the other hand is an experienced biographer, steeped in Surrey cricket and in particular the period over which Crawford played for the county. He has already written a biography of Ernie Hayes, who was at Surrey throughout Crawford’s time there, as well as books about Tom Richardson, George Lohmann, Walter Read and Ted Pooley from slightly earlier. His best known book to date is probably his biography of Charles Alcock, who was Surrey Secretary from 1872 to 1907, and therefore during Crawford early years.

There is also a difference in the style of writing adopted by the two men. Burns is more of a storyteller, his prose easy to read and flowing freely. Booth’s approach is more matter of fact, and there are many quotations, some of them very substantial, interspersed within his own writing. It is impossible to say either approach is better and all a reviewer can do is point out the difference. I am more used to the latter, which I dare say is how a biography should be written. And it is perhaps that familiarity with a more austere manner which made Burns’ book such a refreshing change. I should add, lest I be accused of suggesting otherwise, that Booth is certainly able to write more in the manner of Burns if he so chooses, as his editorial assistance to Younis Ahmed in his recent autobiography amply demonstrates.

In the introduction to Booth’s book he indicates he did approach Burns on learning of his interest in Crawford, but Burns did not wish to collaborate. I detect a degree of disappointment at the reaction, as Booth makes the self-evident point that the sum of their joint efforts might well have produced a better book than either of them could on their own, although I suppose at least Booth had the opportunity to read A Flick of the Fingers before he finalised Rebel With A Cause.

In terms of content the difference between the two books is most apparent in the latter stages after Crawford’s Surrey career ended in 1909. There are important inconsistencies between the two accounts, for example regarding Crawford’s military career and the breakdown of his first marriage, and it must be the case that the biographer’s nose has correctly assembled the relevant facts. Booth lists a most impressive list of sources and in addition the ‘Surrey letters’ are reproduced in full in an appendix. They were well publicised at the time and Burns had access to them in full, but there is certainly something to be gained from reading the exact words used by those involved.

Ultimately I greatly enjoyed both books. They deal with a fascinating man who was a hugely talented cricketer, albeit one with what was undoubtedly a somewhat flawed personality, and there is room for both on any cricket lover’s shelves. I rate Rebel With A Cause with the same four stars I gave to A Flick of the Fingers as I am unable to separate them. But for anyone who wishes to buy just one of the two the choice, perhaps, depends on whether they feel the statistics and index Booth provides, which Burns didn’t, are more important than the rather better selection of photographs Burns used.

*Of course there had to be an example, and Archie Mac has pointed out to me that both Peter Sharpham’s and Ashley Mallett’s biographies of Victor Trumper appeared in 1985

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