The Willow Wand

Published: 2000
Pages: 257
Author: Birley, Derek
Publisher: Aurum Press
Rating: 4 stars

The Willow Wand

The number of cricket books that can genuinely be classed as iconic are few. Beyond a Boundary comes to mind immediately, and of recent times Sir Derek Birley’s A Social History of Cricket, which won the 1999 William Hill Sports Book of the year, may also fit the bill. However, that book was not Birley’s first on cricket, with The Willow Wand : Some Cricket Myths Explored being published two decades earlier in 1979. The success of A Social History of Cricket prompted a re-printing of The Willow Wand in the year 2000.

Derek Birley was a well respected educator with a long career working within the university sector. Born in the cricketing heartland of Yorkshire, he was educated at Cambridge before spending a number of years with the Royal Artillery. Birley then took up a number of minor roles within education before being appointed as the Deputy Director of Education in Liverpool in 1964. He then moved to Ulster to take up the role of Rector at Ulster College. Birley worked within the academic world during a time of enforced changes to the long established education systems. Birley played an integral role in facilitating this change within the sector, and ended up serving as the vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster from 1984 until his retirement in 1991.

One of Birley’s great passions was for sport. He wrote a number of articles and books about a far ranging series of sports including rugby union, soccer, golf, tennis, athletics and even badminton. His great love was cricket, however, and his first significant book was The Willow Wand in 1979. The Willow Wand was an examination of the history of cricket, but with a focus on the sociology of the game as much as any actual on-field performances. Birley sought to put an academic focus onto the reality of the supposed ‘gentlemen’s game’.

At the time of release, The Willow Wand was a highly original and very confronting examination of the established nostalgia regarding cricket. Birley looked at the many established ‘myths’ of cricket surrounding its genteel and refined image, and carefully deconstructed them. Birley’s analysis of how the separation of amateur and professional served to also segregate and isolate certain classes or races of people is particularly well written. The legendary figure of W.G. Grace is a natural enough target, however, other leading players such as C.B. Fry are also the subject of a thorough re-assessment. Birley didn’t just pop the balloon of pompous cricketers though, as he also took aim at the establishment and literary figures such as Neville Cardus.

Birley’s writing style, whilst somewhat scholarly, is not too unfriendly to the normal reader little interested in reading academic dissertations. The text does not become bogged down with unnecessary socialist theories or overly complex explanations. Birley manages to convey the story and analysis with a quite lyrical style that manages to overcome most of the potentially dry parts of the book. Ian Wooldridge, a journalist not generally known for giving glowing compliments, stated that “You are unlikely to read a more sheerly intelligent book about cricket”. Eric Midwinter, a fellow academic and social historian, praised The Willow Wand for “its iconoclastic demolition of cricket’s sentimental fallacies”. John Arlott also expressed his admiration for Birley’s work, calling it “A quite remarkable cricket book; it is also witty, scholarly, readable and thought-provoking”.

However, I must admit that I wasn’t completely taken with the book. Birley is perhaps overly critical. It is possible to deconstruct a myth without necessarily destroying it completely. At times, I felt that the author was overly dismissive of the role that many fine amateurs played in developing the game. Birley is also very disparaging of county cricket; some of his criticism was legitimate and some was actually quite unfair. Overall, however, it is a fascinating book and recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the game of cricket itself, rather than just the latest tabloid scandal.

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