Sundial in the ShadeMartin Chandler |
Author: Murtagh, Andrew
Rating: 4.5 stars
I’m sure he set it up every time it happened, but I have more than one memory from my early teens of hearing people ask John Arlott who he considered to be the best batsman of the modern game. He would always answer in the same way, pointing out there were two candidates, and they both had the same surname. He would then sing the praises of both before, Hampshire man that he was, almost as an aside suggesting he felt the South African was marginally superior to the Antiguan.
That was then and now is now and author Andy Murtagh has an updated version of the story for the 21st Century. The question now is slightly different of course, and amounts to an enquiry as to who he considers to be the best batsman he has seen. His answer is ‘Richards’, and his audience will always assume he is referring to ‘The Masterblaster’. They are wrong though, as former Hampshire teammate Murtagh will, when he gets a chance to re-join the conversation, make it clear he means Barry and not Sir Viv. There may be a degree of understandable loyalty there to an old colleague and a man who has agreed to give him the fullest possible co-operation in the writing of Sundial in the Shade, but for what it is worth I will support him fully on that. You can ask me every day for a week who the second best batsman I have seen is, and I will give you a different answer each morning, but it won’t ever be Barry Richards who, without a doubt, is the finest wielder of the willow I have had the pleasure of witnessing.
There won’t be many who open Sundial in the Shade who are unfamiliar with the bare bones of the cricketing life of Barry Richards. He made a memorable if slightly delayed start to a very brief Test career before South Africa’s sporting isolation began. After that he provided rich entertainment for followers of the domestic game in England and South Africa and, briefly, Australia. Sadly however his enthusiasm was blunted by being unable to compete at the highest level. Richards eventually became disaffected by the English game and walked out on Hampshire in 1978, shortly after the rarefied atmosphere of World Series Cricket had given him a belated opportunity to show what he could do against the best bowlers around.
Andy Murtagh played with Richards at Hampshire between 1973 and 1977. He was an all-rounder who never quite made the grade and he went into teaching. Since retiring he has written biographies of George Chesterton and Tom Graveney, neither of which I have yet read. If they are half as good as his life of Barry Richards they will be well worth investing in.
The strength of this book, so rare in a cricketing biography, is that as the last page is finished the reader feels not only that he knows what Richards has accomplished in life, but rather more importantly knows exactly what makes him tick. It is easy enough to regurgitate a serious of facts, quite another to uncover a man’s attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Much is in Murtagh’s favour of course. He knew Richards and played with him often enough. They must have been friends then and clearly are now as Richards has been happy to answer all the questions asked of him, and in particular was prepared to discuss the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of his son in 2009. I suspect the sort of trust that enabled Richards to open up to Murtagh about such a nightmare, and to be as candid as he was about many of his views on less emotive subjects, is as rare between subject and biographer as it is welcome.
It is also clear that both men put much time and effort into the project, a blessing of being retired I suppose. The style of the narrative works well too. Murtagh tells the tale in the third person but every so often a question appears in the text, italicised so it is clear where it comes from, and the way these ‘interruptions’ are dealt with produce some of the most insightful sections of the book; Richards on Apartheid, Richards on Politics and Richards on the professional cricketer’s lot being infinitely better expressed than they were in his distinctly ordinary mid-career autobiography, The Barry Richards Story . There will doubtless be a few who don’t like the conversational feel to the text, and indeed without the unusual nature of the author/subject relationship that might not have worked, but I found it a refreshing change.
There are plenty of occasions when Sundial in the Shade enters largely uncharted waters. There are a few biographies and autobiographies from Richards’ contemporaries around, but none that I have read that have been so honest about their subject’s views on apartheid and the long isolation. Even less have they dealt with the, in this reviewer’s opinion, sad and unnecessary lack of respect and support for the Springbok stars of the past. The modern Proteas are rightly lauded in the modern multi-racial South Africa, but the old Springboks should not be treated as second class sporting heroes in the same the non-white population in their time were treated as second class citizens.
All in all there is little to fault in Sundial in the Shade. If I were being overly critical I would express disappointment at the brevity of the statistical appendix, which does not contain very much at all, although it partially redeems itself by including Richards’ averages from World Series Cricket. The lack of an index is, as ever, somewhat frustrating, although to offset that there is an interesting innovation in the photographic section of the book in terms of the lengthy descriptions that accompany each of the images. In the final analysis all that prevents Andy Murtagh’s third cricketing biography getting five stars is the size of the font. If I believed in conspiracy theories I would probably think the publishing industry was trying to tell me it was time to buy a kindle – personally I’d rather have a few more pages than have to dig around for my rarely used reading glasses, even if the additional paper did cost me an extra pound or two.