Spirit in the WaterDavid Taylor |
Author: Mike Harfield
Publisher: Loose Chippings
Rating: 4 stars
Books about amateur cricket teams have been popular in recent years, kicking off, in England anyway, with Marcus Berkman’s Rain Men in the mid-1990s. Books about cricket’s history have always been widely read. Here we have two books in one. Mike Harfield, whose debut Not Dark Yet was reviewed here just over a year ago, has selected eleven tours, three of them by the Ash Tree pub team, one by the Australian Aborigines to England in 1868, and the remainder by Test teams.
I’ll start with the Ash Tree, for whom Mike plays in addition to his once a year game for his own team as chronicled in his previous book. They sound like the sort of team I’d have liked to turn out for myself – the village XI for which I sometimes made up the numbers in the 1990s took it far too seriously. Suffice to say that one of their opponents had this to say about them in a local newspaper: “though Ash Tree may not be the finest (cricketing) side we have met this season, they are certainly one of the friendliest and their apres cricket is without equal.” That, perhaps, says all we need to know about the relaxed atmosphere their matches are played in.
The international tours are an interesting selection. Some of the most obvious candidates are omitted: the Invincibles of 1948, the Lillee and Thomson carnage of 1974-75, and the Bodyline tour of 1932-33. I suspect that Harfield came to the conclusion that everything that needs to be written about Bodyline has been written by now, and interestingly he goes back to England’s visit four years earlier, when Jardine, Larwood and Bradman all played, and the last named announced himself to the world with two hundreds.
Three of the most notable tours undertaken by West Indies teams are also covered. The events of the “blackwash” year of 1984 are, unfortunately, still quite fresh in the mind, and an attempt to draw comparisons with Orwell’s classic doesn’t really work, but the two led by Frank Worrell in the early 1960s, to Australia and England, make for fascinating reading. The 1963 series took place against the backdrop of the Profumo affair, and also less famously the Bristol bus dispute, when Learie Constantine intervened in the case of a company refusing to employ black and Asian staff.
The highlight for me was a detailed account of the Aborigine cricketers’ visit of 1868. I haven’t read Ashley Mallett’s book mentioned in the bibliography, although I will seek it out, so I knew only the barest details of the trip, such as the boomerang throwing exhibitions and the death of one of the tourists. I was particularly amused by the mention of one ball going for an all-run nine due to the reluctance of the nearest fielder to go in pursuit, something which the writer recognises from his own side. One glaring error stood out though – George Giffen, Australia’s greatest all-rounder from the pre-1914 era, was never “England’s opening bowler for a while.” Recommended, not least for this chapter.
Just when you think there are no more original ideas for a cricket book, someone comes out with one and you think “why didn’t I think of that?”
Mike Harfield’s idea is to feature a chapter – that there are 11 is not lost on the cricket tragic – on a particular series throughout history. Seven chapters are dedicated to Test series throughout the world the oldest being the England tour of South Africa in 1913-14 and the most modern being New Zealand’s tour of Australia in 1980-81.
One tour featured is that of the Aborigine team to England in 1868, and the other three are dedicated to the author’s own team, the Ash Tree CC, and tours to various locations. All three tours are of a less than strenuous one match duration. The latter three are amusing accounts along the Any Old Eleven line. These are shorter than the first class tours covered, are well written and break up the more serious accounts of Test matches nicely.
When it comes to the Test tours the author is not afraid to express his opinion, being prepared for instance to criticise the West Indies team of 1984 for their bumper barrage, a subject authors have shied away from especially after David Frith was labelled a racist after similar comments. The author is also critical of Lord Harris and his involvement in Wally Hammond having to miss out on a season of county cricket after his Lordship discovered Hammond although living in Gloucester had been born in his Lordship’s county of Kent.
The chapter headings can be misleading, for instance the chapter titled England tour of South Africa, 1913-14 is actually a dissertation of S.F. Barnes Test career and the chapter titled England tour of Australia 1928-29 is a pen portrait of Wally Hammond, although the chapters are none the less enjoyable for this.
The chapters on the Tests, do not shed new light on the series, or the combatants covered in a cricketing sense. Where the author does excel is in describing the series in a social context. The miner’s strike in 1984 and the great support given to the West Indies by the crowds provides a new prospective on the famous or infamous – depending on who you support – of the “blackwash” series in which the Windies defeated England five zip. The crowd support given to the visiting West Indie team reminded one of the Barmy Army who seemingly outnumbered the Aussies at the MCG in 2010.
The author’s little snippets of information such as a locale of China produces half of the World’s socks, or of a man engaging inappropriately with a sheep in Bollington, are not things typically mentioned in the average cricket book. Still it makes for interesting reading which should always be a good author’s aim.
Mike Harfield is a good author. This is his second cricket book, the first Not Dark Yet I have not had the pleasure of reading, but based on Spirit on the Water I will definitely keep an eye out for it.
Although the subject matter of this book is very different from that of Mike Harfield’s first book, Not Dark Yet, he is a man with a distinctive, conversational style of writing. Had I not known when I opened Spirit on the Water that Mike had written it then I would have had my suspicions from the very first page, and by the time I got into Chapter 3 the juxtapositioning of the travails of the English batsmen who were “blackwashed” by Clive Lloyd’s West Indians in 1984, with the equally brave and, ultimately, just as hopeless struggle of the striking miners that filled the news headlines that summer, any doubts would have been gone.
What we have here are the stories of eleven cricket tours. Three of them are tours Mike saw first hand as a player with his club, Ash Tree CC. From my recollection of my playing days a club tour meant a few days away, a lot of eating and drinking, a bit of cricket, and indulgence in sufficient idiotic behaviour to keep the team amused for the following season. By those standards all three of Mike’s tours seem to have been a case of “mission accomplished”.
Do the stories of the eight international tours sit easily with those of Ash Tree CC? To be absolutely honest I am not convinced that they do, but I enjoyed both types of account so I suppose it doesn’t really matter. In fact it could be argued that some chapters are not really stories of tours at all. The tale of the 1913/14 England trip to South Africa is, essentially, an essay about the great Sydney Barnes, and that of the 1928/29 trip to Australia is really just a tribute to Walter Hammond. There is nothing new in either chapter, but both make excellent use of all the best anecdotes that concern a pair of cricketers who, if they had nothing else in common, were both acutely aware of their own worth.
The chapter on the West Indies tour of England in 1963 is a welcome reminder that not all cricket in that decade was dull and boring. It also reignited my interest in the Profumo Affair, so much so that I have invested in the book about the scandal published in 2006 by the son of the disgraced Minister of War. I may go on from there to retrieve the biographies of Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler that lurk somewhere in my loft. So if there are no book reviews from me for a few weeks you can blame, or thank as the case may be, Mike Harfield and his digressions.
I will also mention the chapter on the New Zealand tour of Australia in 1980/81, although in truth to describe it as an account of a tour is once again something of a misnomer. What the chapter consists of is the most balanced analysis I have ever read of the Greg/Trevor Chappell “underarm incident”. I would think that most readers of this review will just remember the final delivery, and will have the standard knee-jerk reaction to what happened. Nothing written here will change your mind, nor is it intended to, but it is a timely reminder that there are several more angles to the story than are immediately obvious.
All in all Spirit on the Water is well worth reading. It is amusing, yet also thought provoking, and while, to borrow one of Archie’s favourite phrases, it does not outstay its welcome, some aspects of it do linger in the memory. I agree with David that the chapter about the Australian Aboriginal tour of 1868 is the highlight. There is a limited amount of source material available on the tour, so the facts are not difficult to unearth. What is much trickier to achieve, and which Mike Harfield undoubtedly succeeds in doing throughout, is knowing just when to bring his 21st century sense of fun to bear, and when not to.