Tom Richardson: A Bowler Pure and SimpleMartin Chandler |
Author: Booth, Keith
Rating: 3.5 stars
Tom Richardson is a wonderful subject for a biography. There is a bit of mystery about his ancestry, and a victorian background to delve into. That is followed by a speedy elevation to the status of a professional cricketer. There are then some dark mutterings about a questionable action before a rapid and stellar rise to become the finest pace bowler in the game. A succession of records were set, some of which will never be broken, before lifestyle issues took their toll on a once magnificent physique. As a result as Richardson approached his thirtieth birthday his skills began to diminish, and three years later, no age at all for a cricketer in those days, it was all over. The gradual disintegration of his private life compounded his problems and Tom Richardson died in France, in circumstances that have never been fully explained or understood, at just 41.
Keith Booth is no stranger to the lives of victorian cricketers, having previously contributed books to the Lives in Cricket series on Walter Read and Ernie Hayes, and biographies for other publishers of George Lohmann, Charles Alcock and Ted Pooley.
After a varied career Booth has spent more than two decades as Surrey’s scorer. He does not appear, from the very brief summary of his life on the inside cover of the book, to have ever been a professional historian, but he clearly has all the skills and attributes necessary to do that job as well. Diligent research has enabled him to deal fully with the early part of Richardson’s story and in particular to confirm that there was no Romany blood in his veins. He also successfully traces the descendants of his brother Frank, who emigrated to South Africa, six of whom played at least some First Class cricket. The best known of the South African Richardsons, who contributes a foreword to the book, is the Rainbow Nation’s first regular wicketkeeper, David Richardson. Tom’s own children, a son and two daughters, and their descendants are barely mentioned.
One of the impediments to Booth’s research to compile the book was the seeming lack of appetite amongst the newspapers of the time for salacious gossip about sporting celebrities. Thus little other than the fact of his marriage breakdown is known, and in similar vein the ins and outs of a throwing controversy are not in the public domain. There is clear evidence that opposing batsmen at one stage openly questioned the legality of his yorker, their concerns being echoed by Wisden. The action of Richardson in his pomp however was never questioned, so the only reasonable conclusion is that there was a problem that by some means was resolved. It would be interesting to know more.
The treatment of Richardson’s playing career is comprehensive, and I cannot imagine that any sources were missed. The result is very much a historical account, the reader at no stage being in any doubt that this is a story being reconstructed from whatever contemporary sources are available. It is in contrast to the style of David Frith, who wrote a fine book about the 1894/95 Ashes series that Richardson was part of in which the narrative gave the impression that he had witnessed every single delivery. Frith is a master of his craft of course, and I make no criticism of Booth for his sticking to his own rather more workmanlike style, but as a result of reading his book a reader is left with mixed feelings. There is the pleasure of being able to be confident that you know all there is to know about Tom Richardson, and that the old theory that his eventual demise was suicide is almost certainly wrong. But at the same time there is still considerable frustration that there remain interesting aspects of his life, his cricket and his tragically early passing that are not known, and which it can now be said with confidence will never be revealed.
But at the end of the day it is not Keith Booth’s fault that a hundred years ago none of the numerous capable writers on the game decided to write a life of Tom Richardson at a time when his estranged wife, the woman he appears to have left her for, his children, friends and teammates were all still alive and well and available for comment. The bottom line is that a book about Richardson was certainly needed, and there can be no doubt that Booth has done a fine job in reconstructing the life of a Surrey great from the 19th century. By my reckoning he has only got Tom Hayward and Bill Lockwood to go now – after that he can indulge himself a little.