The Awkward Squad: Rebels in English Cricket

Published: 2015
Pages: 180
Author: Lucas, John
Publisher: Shoestring Press
Rating: 2.5 stars

Professor John Lucas is a distinguished academic, poet and critic who has been widely published. There is one other cricket title in his oeuvre, published thirty years ago. The Trent Bridge Battery is a biography of the famous Gunn family of Nottinghamshire, a book that much impressed Archie Mac when he reviewed it for CricketWeb several years ago.

Against that background The Awkward Squad was a book I looked forward to with keen anticipation. It did prove to be the sort of book, unusual amongst non-fiction titles, that was difficult to put down, but not always for positive reasons.

The sub-title, Rebels in English Cricket, provides a succinct summary of what the book is about. It is a trip through the history of the game showcasing tales of men who have, for a wide variety of reasons, managed to disrupt the natural order of things that those who have run cricket have always sought to preserve.

Lucas is a man with strong views, and he isn’t afraid to express them. In some ways that makes for an excellent read, but there is a loss of objectivity in places as a result. One subject that raises the author’s ire to great heights is apartheid, and the ‘rebel’ tours of the 1980s. The vast majority of readers, this reviewer included, will agree with Lucas on that one, but something more than a perfunctory dismissal of the ‘rebels’ position would’ve made for a more satisfying analysis.

Is there any good in Geoffrey Boycott? Not according to Lucas who highlights all of his many failings, but does nothing to redress the balance. Even most Lancastrians will give Boycott some credit. It is that sort of trenchant criticism that begins to jar after a while, and the reader begins to become irritated by a few proof reading errors. England’s tour of West Indies in 1947/48 is described as taking place in 1946, and Lucas stumbles twice over England’s disappointing tour of Australia in 1958/59, once placing it in 1954/55, and on another occasion in 1957. The long hot summer of 1976 becomes 1975. Desmond Eagar’s surname being misspelt Eager was another unexpected error.

Those aspects of the book that were rooted in Nottinghamshire were, unsurprisingly given Lucas’ previous work, the most satisfying. It is very difficult for any writer to find anything new to say about Bodyline, but the direct involvement of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce in the crisis, and behind the scenes of Sir Julien Cahn and Arthur Carr, mean Lucas does have something to add. In the case of Cahn there is however a major source of frustration, particularly as we do now have a biography from his granddaughter. To learn that a similar venture planned by Lucas and his co-author of The Trent Bridge Battery was not proceeded with is disappointing. Given what is written here I hope that one day a desire to set the record straight about The Eccentric Entrepreneur will cause Lucas to resurrect his project. It would be wrong to describe Rijks effort as a hagiography, but I have always suspected Cahn emerges from it looking rather better than in reality he deserved to.

The Basil D’Oliveira affair quite properly falls to be dealt with in a book like this and raised my interest for a couple of reasons. First of all the account of Tom Cartwright’s withdrawal from the original party selected to tour South Africa, the episode that paved the way for D’Oliveira’s selection, struck me as somewhat misleading. According to Lucas the quoted reason, an injury, was untrue and the reality was that staunch socialist Cartwright had pulled out on the point of principle. There is a full account of that part of the affair in Stephen Chalke’s excellent biography of Cartwright, which confirms there was a genuine injury. Chalke does add that Cartwright had a feeling of unease about the whole situation, and that was a factor in the choice to pull out. But his decision was most certainly not a political statement. Moving forward from there Lucas sets out as fact that prior to the fateful invitation being extended to D’Oliveira the place had been offered to Lancashire’s Ken Higgs and Barry Knight of Essex, only for both to decline, again seemingly for ‘non-cricketing’ reasons – no source is quoted for this revelation.

A former England skipper who gets a mention in The Awkward Squad is Freddie Brown although not, I hasten to add, because he was any sort of rebel. In fact Brown was a pillar of the establishment. A biography of Brown is long overdue but I suspect from comments made by the likes of Brian Close and Jim Laker that the picture Lucas paints of an old-fashioned autocratic amateur is an entirely accurate one.

Later in his book Lucas mentions Bob Barber. He likens Barber, who he describes as former Warwickshire captain, to Brown. One specific comment is that Barber insisted on staying in a different hotel from the Players, and in all ways he treated himself as apart from and above the rest. In fact Bob Barber was never captain of Warwickshire. He had, as a 24 year old, been appointed to the captaincy of his previous county, Lancashire, in 1960. There was a great deal of interference from the committee, most notably their insistence that, despite Barber’s own stated preference to the contrary, he should stay at a different hotel from his team. Despite rather than because of the committee Barber did pretty well before he left Lancashire for the 1963 season, after the abolition of the distinction between Gentlemen and Players, to play under Mike Smith at Warwickshire and for England.

The saddest aspect of the nonsense written about Bob Barber is that it undermined my confidence in the accuracy of what I had read earlier in the book. That is a great shame because I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of The Awkward Squad, and to be quite honest I would be surprised if there were much amiss there (although the sacking of Yorkshire slow left arm bowler by Lord Hawke in 1897 might have been more thoroughly researched) but I can’t now be sure – all in all the book is a classic example of a curate’s egg.



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