Summer’s CrownMartin Chandler |
Author: Chalke, Stephen
Publisher: Fairfield Books
Rating: 5 stars
It would be fair to say that here at CricketWeb we are rather partial to Stephen Chalke’s work. This is the tenth book bearing his name we have reviewed and he has so far gained three four star ratings, three of four and a half and an unprecedented three maximums. All told there have been 16 books to receive the ultimate accolade from us, and no other author has even two.
I did however wonder about this one. In the past Stephen’s books have been all about people, and his skill at bringing out his subject’s characters and personalities is where he scores so highly. A book about pure history is not, so I reasoned, remotely the same animal, and I was a little doubtful. It was not so much I feared he may have bitten off more than he could chew, rather that what he did bite off he may have found difficult to digest.
There are, inevitably, a shedload of statistics involved in a history of the County Championship, and whilst numbers inevitably play a part in assessing whether a cricketer’s career is an important one, they have next to no relevance in the context of whether he has led an interesting life, and none of Stephen’s previous books have dwelt at any length on the game’s greatest exponents. Of the eleven men he has written most about, six in full biographies and five at substantial essay length in A Long Half Hour, only five were Test players, and of that quintet the most capped is Bob Appleyard with just nine England appearances.
Thus it was with slight trepidation I opened the weighty tome that is Summer’s Crown. My fears were however completely groundless. A dry season by season account of the 125 years over which the Championship has, for Stephen’s purposes* extended, is nothing like that. It is a delightful potpourri of a book full of fascinating snippets of quirky and little known information that holds the attention even of those of us whose knowledge of the Championship was pretty extensive to begin with. That is not to say that for the unfamiliar all the basic information is not present. It is, but it is presented in a way that doesn’t irritate those who are entirely at home with it. For example I don’t need to be reminded Derbyshire’s only title came in 1936, and I don’t want to see valuable space taken up either by the reproduction of that year’s table or by a year on year list. Stephen doesn’t waste a thing though, and gives the reader all of the county’s finishing places in a couple of lines, which gives the additional benefit of seeing the pattern of the county’s progress, be it onwards and upwards, or dropping and downwards.
One of the books in my library is Roy Webber’s history of the Championship, published back in 1957. It is what a reader would expect. A slightly rambling but chronological description of the competition followed by a series of appendices containing the tables and stats. Stephen’s book is not entirely dissimilar in terms of content, but it is presented in a completely different style and format and Stephen does not forget, as he never will, that it is people who shaped the Championship, and human tales abound. Summer’s Crown is in the nature of a coffee table book, designed and laid out as much for the casual reader dipping in and out when he or she has a spare minute or two as for the committed student of the county game. I am not even going to begin to describe the way that has been achieved, but it is very impressive and, rather to my surprise, is a feature that Stephen himself was responsible for. Perhaps though I should have expected that as, after all, in addition to having made a success of his writing Stephen has managed something I suspect is even trickier, to run a profitable publishing house.
In addition to all the expected information and stories there are plenty of barely known asides which give this book its charm. One of my favourites is one that has given me new hope that I may yet make my Championship debut for Lancashire. It is a dream I had given up a decade or more ago, but I now know the oldest Championship debutant was over 57, so if Ashley Giles gives me a call next month I won’t even be a record-breaker! I also didn’t realise there are seven men with career batting averages in the Championship of over 100. Four of them are overseas stars (Ricky Ponting being one of them) who have played very few times and made a big score or two. I am not particularly interested in them, and neither is Stephen Chalke, but the stories of Yorkshireman Cec Tyson and two men of Surrey, Horace Bloomfield and renowned variety artist Joe O’Gorman, all from the 1920s, are fascinating.
There are 352 pages to Summer’s Crown, so even allowing for the fact that ten summers were lost to war there are barely three pages available per campaign, and there are approaching 300 photographs included as well. In my own mind I marshalled a few important aspects of Championship history at least one of which I was convinced that Stephen would have had no choice but to overlook. But he covered them all, and in the entertaining and enlightening way that has become his trademark has produced another masterpiece, and he comfortably gets another five stars from me.
*There are various schools of thought as to when a Champion County was first identified all of which have had their followers in the past but, after a number of false starts 1890, for reasons succinctly explained in Summer’s Crown, now seems to be accepted by most as the correct date.