Top 12 Cricket BiographiesArchie Mac |
Author: Iain Wilton
Publisher: Metro Books,London
I started out with the idea of listing the top 10 biographies but thought it much more appropriate from a cricketing point of view, to choose the top 11. I eventually pruned the selection down to 17. Trying to reduce the final number to 11 was a most agonising process far more difficult than ranking the final 11. In the end I could not do it so now it is a Top 12, well what if one of the books was to become injured.
Books such as ‘Life worth living’ by C.B. Fry, and the biography of Bill Ferguson caused no end of trouble with them both being in the final 12 at different stages, but ultimately both missed out. A couple of authors that I would have loved to included were David Frith and Ronald Mason. However there have been so many cricket biographies written that this list is nothing other than an exercise in fun.
Looking over the final selection I noticed only Australian and English biographies have made the final list, in truth I have read less than a dozen books on players outside the two oldest Test playing nations, so if you don’t see your favourite biography in the list maybe it’s simply because I have yet to read it. The only rule I have imposed on myself is that no author can appear more than once.
12. The Fleetwood-Smith Story
Published in 1991 this paperback book slipped under the radar of a lot of people, compared to reviews and even news reports concerning the release of ‘Bradman’ by Charles Williams in 1996. Williams book contained the controversial story of how a number of players, all Catholics were summoned by the board of control during a test match to have a list of allegations read out by a member of the board, which basically suggested some players were not giving the captain, Bradman, there full support.
This subject was covered far more thoroughly by Greg Growden in ‘A Wayward Genius’. In fact it has been covered in almost every book about Bradman, McCabe, Fingleton or O’Reilly.
Greg Growden captures all the rack contour and free go lucky spirit that must have been the life of ‘Chuck’. The only problem about reading ‘A Wayward Genius’ is that you know what eventually happens to Fleetwood Smith.
11. With Bat and Ball
The first true Australian autobiography. Published in 1898 it is a little unclear whether it is an autobiography. Most historians believe this book was ‘ghosted’ by his friend Clarence Moody. It was Moody who in 1898 first compiled a list of what he considered to constitute a test match (South Australian Cricket) which has been the canon ever since.
I thought George Giffen was extremely modest throughout the book but read a contemporary review from The Bulletin: ‘Giffen’s book is profusely illustrated. On the outside cover it has a portrait of George Giffen. Facing page 6is a portrait of George Giffen at the age of 18. At page 29 are portraits of the Australian eleven of 1882, including George Giffen. A portrait of Giffen with a ball appears on page 36. At page 281 there is a portrait of George Giffen ready to meet the ball. As a bowler and author George Giffen keeps himself on’ Fair book; good man – too d – d modest.’ The reference to ‘keeping him self on’ was George’s habit of considering a bowling change; as himself changing ends’
10. Boycs the true story
This book is the apotheosis of a modern cricket biography, with the emphasis less on the subject of cricket and much more on the ‘behind-the-scenes’. This book could well have had a Limp Bizkit type warning ‘some contents may offend’ with many four-letter words being used.
Although Boycott refused to be interviewed for this book he did check facts and helped organise interviews with some of his friends.
After reading about Boycott’s much publicised conviction for assault in a French court, I believe Boycott was innocent of the charges. Boycott probably has the most complicated personality of a cricketer since Wally Hammond, which made for a fascinating read.
Dr H.V. Hordern
This book was released at the height of the Depression in 1932 and sold out within two weeks. The second edition was released straight after and didn’t last much longer. Now it is much sought after by collectors and so is quite scarce, especially with a good dust jacket.
The book features illustrations throughout by famous English sketch artist Tom Glover. The author’s love of the game is obvious after reading his autobiography.
H.V. Hordern was Australia’s first googlie specialist. He retired from test cricket at the peak of his powers and seemed to enjoy non-first class cricket. There are many interesting stories in the book. My favourite one is when he woke up in a Jamaican hotel to find 5 black West Indians hovering over him, one with his hands under the bedclothes feeling down his arm. It seems that they were trying to work out the mystery of the wrong-un and they had suspected a 6th finger ala Gary Sobers.
The only bookseller I know with a copy is Eldorado Booksellers in Albury, it’s a 2nd ed, and unfortunately is without a dust jacket.
8. Give me Arthur
The title ‘Give me Arthur’ comes from the W.G. comment when he was asked who he thought was the best opener. I thought I knew a lot about Arthur Shrewsbury the cricketer before reading this book, but I know a lot more about Arthur Shrewsbury the man after reading it.
Shrewsbury was a very successful businessman and with Shaw and Lillywhite he organised a number of the early English Test tours to Australia, and one ill-fated rugby tour to Australia and New Zealand.
A man with a few idiosyncrasies Arthur Shrewsbury was completely bald and was never photographed without wearing a hat. He was one of the many cricketing suicides.
At just 160 pages Peter Wynne-Thomas has managed to sum up his subject admirably.
7. Batting from Memory
One way to make me interested in a cricketing biography is to select an all time team. In this book Jack Fingleton picks his all time Australian, English, South African and West Indian sides. One of Fingleton’s selections in the South African side is the mysterious J.M. Blanckenberg, when giving his death date references state ‘presumed dead’. As he was born in 1893 maybe they can now remove ‘presumed’.
In typical Jack Fingleton fashion he never misses an opportunity to criticise Bradman. These criticisms are usually put down to jealousy but as Fingleton writes in this book ‘ I have received much criticism over the years, mostly from sycophants, I feel, for having an occasional ‘dig’ at the great man’. Now with the Bradman museum as a self appointed watchdog I fear we will see nothing but hagiographies on the greatest cricketer of them all.
6. Basil D’Oliveira
See full review in this section.
5. P.G.H. Fender
Richard Streeton wrote this book while the paper he worked for ‘The Times’ was on strike. He wrote this book in 1981, I have not come across any books written by him since.
It was said of P.G.H. Fender that he was the greatest English captain never to captain England. He was also a prolific writer and wrote some of the best tour books including ‘Kissing the Rod’ and ‘The Turn of the Wheel’. In the later Fender made his famous gaff when he said just before the 1930 tour. ‘Bradman would always be in the brilliant but unsound category’.
Richard Streeton managed to obtain several interviews with P.G.H. Fender before he died, one imagines Percy Fender in these interviews trying to advise Streeton on how to construct ‘his biography’ He certainly does not appear to have let, what I imagine would have been a very dominant personality dictate the final product.
Richard Streeton is a man of my own heart having a collection of over 800 cricket books. I’m sure that would qualify him to select a much more comprehensive top 12 biographies than the one I have put together.
4. 10 for 66 and all that
Arthur Mailey wrote this book 30 years after he retired from test cricket. Friends and colleagues at the time feared that the public might not remember him. The fears were unfounded, as the book became an instant best seller. He did in fact take 10 for 66 in 1921 against Gloucestershire and still holds the record for Australia for the most wickets in a Test innings with 9.
I only recently read this book (about 12 months ago) but the book has so often been included in anthologies and other cricket books that there wasn’t too much that I had not already perused.
I don’t think a cricketing moment has been captured better than Arthur Mailey description of himself dismissing his hero Victor Trumper in a grade match; ‘I felt like a boy who had killed a dove’. I can still see Arthur Mailey in my imagination, with shoulders slumped as Victor Trumper walks off.
Jack Pollard did some research years later and could find no trace of Arthur Mailey ever bowling to Victor Trumper in a grade match. I think I would have rather not known that.
He also has a chapter in the book called ‘the Party in the Shack’ where he invites Bradman and Trumper to dinner and invents a whole conversation between the three of them.
Arthur Mailey is probably one of the great success stories of cricket – he started with nothing and built himself up to a test cricketer, a widely read author and famous cartoonist. He also picks a world team in his book to play Mars, choosing M.A. Noble as the captain.
3. The Big Ship – Warwick Armstrong
Probably Australians best contemporary cricket writer, although apparently he is a Pom and supports England in the Ashes. But, in typical Aussie fashion – like Russell Crowe and Phar Lap, we will claim him as our own.
His book ‘Mystery Spinner’ the story of Jack Iverson would be most people’s choice as the better of the two biographies, but even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I will still give the kudos to ‘The Big Ship’.
I wrote a letter to Gideon Haigh stating I liked Warwick Armstrong more before I read the book. He replied suggesting he considered it less a biography and more a period piece about Australian cricket.
Warwick Armstrong is one of those few people who have stood up to authority and come out a winner. He died a very rich man.
My favourite Armstrong story concerns Jack Fingleton and Robert Menzies. After Jack Fingleton was dismissed for a pair in a test match, Menzies said to Armstrong ‘That’s dreadfully unlucky for a young batsman. Warwick, how do explain it?’ Armstrong took his pipe out of his mouth and replied ‘Can’t bat!’
Probably not a good biography to start with for the budding cricket reader as the book involves a lot of board room cricket politics.
2. Wally Hammond: the reasons why
I sometimes find David Foot a little too sentimental but I thought in this book he struck the right balance between pathos and bathos. Wally Hammond may well be the most unlucky batsman in the history of the game. He looked like breaking all the records and setting new ones, but less than a year after he rose to the top, along came Bradman.
This is the third biography I have read on Hammond, in the first two mention is made about an illness which almost claimed his life in his mid 20’s. Both books state this was due to Hammond being the victim of a mosquito bite or blood poisoning. Foot however writes that Hammond was suffering from a venereal disease.
David Foot believes it was the treatment for the disease; apparently they used mercury to treat VD in those days (1920’s) that caused Hammond to have such a surly personality. A contemporary, George Emmett, when asked about the great man answered ‘he was the best of my time, though of course a bastard’.
Wally Hammond always had a way with the ladies and was rarely a faithful man. He married his first wife for money, unfortunately her fathers business went broke in the Depression and Hammond beset by money problems left her and married a beauty queen from South Africa. He died a relatively young man and left his family in financial difficulty.
David Foot has written some other very good biographies including one on Harold Gibblet and a biography on 3 players titled ‘Crickets Unholy Trinity’ (well worth the read). But for my money this is certainly the apogee of his impressive writing career.
1. C.B. Fry, An English Hero
It’s hard to imaging that biographies from explorers to Hollywood stars could be much better than this book from Iain Wilton. (James Boswell excepted)
Admittedly he had a great subject to write about, Fry not only scored 94 first class centuries and captained England in tests, and he also represented England twice in soccer and played in the 1902 FA cup final. He held the world long-jump record and said he would have gone to the 1900 Olympics if he had known they were on. He was also a very good dancer, ice skater and one of cricket’s great authors, and picked up 3 blues at Oxford. He was once offered the throne of Albania.
Even though there was no shortage of subject matter Iain Wilton managed to draw all these threads together in what can only be described as a magnificent book.
To top the book off Wilton finishes with my favourite Neville Cardus quote, and I think it appropriate that the greatest cricket writer should have the last say on my list as well:
‘He had heard people argue that C.B. squandered his talents. If only he had specialised, they argued, he could have distinguished himself in the worlds of politics, law, literature or the theatre.’
As Cardus concludes ‘I think there are politician and actors and K.C.’s and authors enough. There has only been one C.B. Fry’.