Top 12 Cricket Books

Published: 2006
Pages: 320
Author: Gideon Haigh
Publisher: ABC Books & Audio / BBC Audio

Top 12 Cricket Books

This is a personal list, and does not take into account other person’s opinions – nor does it consider reputations. So you will find no Beyond A Boundary, or Batsmanship by C.B. Fry, or The Young Cricketer’s Tutor by John Nyren. These are all fine books, but I could not fit them into my list.

Books that I had in my list at one time or other, but did not make the final list include A Breathless Hush, Runs in The Memory, The Top 100 & First 11, A Corner of a Foreign Field, Test of Time, The Taylor Years, Australian Cricket the Game and The Players, On Top Down Under and The Golden Age of Cricket by David Frith.

The only rules were no biographies and no author could appear more than once.

Why a top 12? Well, it is cricket and you need 11 to play. Why the 12th book? What if one of the books develops lumbago of the spine?

12. Cakes and Bails
Henry Blofeld

Henry Blofeld has probably seen more Test cricket than any other living person with the exception of Richie Benaud.

He will travel just about anywhere in the world to watch a Test series regardless of who is playing. So this addiction made him eminently qualified to write a yearly review of an international cricket season.

This is basically the premise for Cakes and Bails and its successor It’s Just Not Cricket. In the former, ‘Blowers’ covers the cricket year of 1997. He mixes controversy – questioning the legality of the action of Courtney Walsh – with comedy, with his hilarious description of Geoffrey Boycott trying to sort out a traffic jam in Pakistan.

I was greatly disappointed when ‘Blowers’ cricketing years ended after just two editions. Maybe the fact he suffered a heart attack during 1998 caused the cessation of the series. I have had to be content with an excellent autobiography and some discourses on the history of the game from Blofeld since.

11. A La Recherche du Cricket Perdu
Simon Barnes

What Simon Barnes has achieved is to write an anthology featuring 25 of the greatest writers in literature, featuring Shakespeare, Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Dante and many more.

It is an amazing effort to be so cognisant in ability to capture the writing styles of such a diverse group of literary giants, but Barnes has succeeded magnificently.

What is more the stories/plays/poems are in keeping with each individual author’s eccentricities so that the language of a Geoffrey Chaucer is maintained for instance; as is the istyle of P.G. Wodehouse.

The danger is that the reader could become easily bored in the same way as an audience watching a comedian mimic famous actors might. No matter how perfect the comic may mimic his subject unless his material is amusing the viewer will quickly become bored. To Barnes’ credit, his writing is never in danger of this.

10. Turn of The Wheel
P.G.H. Fender

My favourite tour book, which is a little surprising as Australia are defeated by England by the decisive margin of four Tests to one.

This publication is very different from a modern tour book with the author concentrating almost entirely on the cricket and very little reporting on peripheral incidents.

No other author I have read seems to have such a comprehensive understanding of the finer points of the game. His evaluation and dissecting of each innings and pinpointing of strategies employed make for fascinating reading.

Quite happy to criticise the English captain Percy Chapman and the England selectors, Fender, in doing so, probably cost himself any chance of captaining his country. It has been often said of him that he was the greatest English captain never to captain England and after reading Turn of The Wheel there seems little doubt that this is the case.

The book also contains some innovative score cards which not only record balls faced by each batsman (which was rare for the time) but also how many deliveries each batsman faced from each bowler.

The one surprising thing was the comparison Fender makes between this 1928/29 English side and the 1920/21 side (of which Fender was a member), which was the only side defeated in an Ashes series 5-0. Fender after comparing the sides gives the nod to the 1920/21 combination!

Unfortunately the book is best remembered for the criticisms made by Fender of the young Don Bradman playing in his first series and these comments have undoubtedly effected the Fender reputation down through the years.

9. The Players
Ric Sissons

This book is a real eye opener to the conditions faced by the professional cricketer in days gone by.

My favourite stage of cricket history is that between 1890-1914 which is often described as the ‘Golden Age’. Sissons shows this period of cricket history was anything but for the professional cricketer with many barely being able to make ends meet, especially during the winter months, when they were paid only a retaining fee.

Even players of the calibre of Jack Hobbs (when young) struggled to “keep the wolves from the door”. Harold Gimblett wrote that sometimes professionals slept three to a bed to save on expenses.

When one considers that these players were the heroes and sporting stars of the time, it seems completely incongruous that they should struggle financially after their careers were finished.

8. Talks With Old English Cricketers
“Old Ebor” (A.W. Pullin)

“Old Ebor” paints a very similar portrait of the professional cricketer from the 1860s to 1880s in his landmark book Talks With Old English Cricketers. Many of the ex-players he conducts interviews with have fallen on hard times, and in many cases are destitute (Sissons quotes heavily from this book).

The interview I enjoyed most was with Edward Pooley, who was a champion wicket keeper for Surrey who missed the first inaugural Test match in 1877 because he was in gaol in New Zealand. He uttered the famous quote on his plight – “for me it was either the workhouse or the river”. He died at Lambeth workhouse seven years later.

A biography of Pooley published over a hundred years later called His Own Enemy by Keith Booth found any number of factual errors in “Old Ebor’s” book, from Pooley’s correct full name to his year of birth. Maybe Ted Pooley who was an irrelevant leg-puller in his day, still had one last prank left.

7. Purple Patches
Ralph Barker

Of all the cricket books I have read, Purple Patches has the most exciting narrative, building up the tension to a fever pitch and making it almost impossible to put the book down; this with most of the results to the matches covered already being known to the reader.

What Ralph Barker has done in this book is to select 11 cricketers in batting order, on which he concedes “a long tail perhaps”. The players covered include Bill Ponsford, Jim Laker, David Hookes and Frank Tyson.

Barker than goes on to describe a purple patch in each of their careers such as Laker’s 19 Test wickets in a single match or Bill Ponsford’s 1000+ runs in 16 days of cricket.

Another reviewer described his writing as “you are there on the terraces in the game” I could not have put it better myself.

6. Sing All A Green Willow
Ronald Mason

This is a cricket book for the true cricket book nut, tackling such subjects as why people enjoy watching the game, or an entire chapter dedicated to Bill O’Reilly claiming three wickets in four balls.

Mason also reviews a book reportedly written by his hero Jack Hobbs called The Test Match Surprise, which I deliberately read before reading Sing All A Green Willow. Mason picked up so many subtle things I had not noticed while reading the text, that I felt embarrassed and in need of reading the whole book again.

He also reviews my favourite cricket poem by Francis Thompson, At Lord’s, which has the famous line “oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!” Again, I felt like I had hardly understood the poem that I had read countless times over the years.

5. Silence of The Heart
David Frith

A melancholy book about cricketers who have committed suicide, this is an enlarged and updated version of his earlier work By His Own Hand, written some 10 years earlier. As Frith writes, since the publication of By His Own Hand, “about 70 further cases have come to light to add to the 80 or so studied in that book”.

Statistically, it seems cricketers are more likely to take their own life than players involved in any other sport. Frith asks the question does cricket draw people more inclined to take their own life, or is it the game itself that eventually turns some of its combatants towards suicide? I don?t think Frith has the definitive answers to these questions but it still makes for fascinating reading.

It seems South African Test cricketers are more likely to take their own lives than any other country with a percentage of 4.12. Frith also points out that many other famous cricketers drank themselves to death – Percy Chapman and Colin Milburn for instance.

Even the cover with the Grim Reaper as Old Father Time removing the bails is a little depressing, but still this is the most thought-provoking cricket book I have read.

4. Great Characters From Cricket’s Golden Age
Jeremy Malies

The title is a little misleading as the Golden Age is considered to be from 1890 to 1914 and some of the players featured in this book played their cricket as late as the 1930s, but this is a minor criticism. In fact, it is the only criticism.

The only thing the subjects had to achieve to be eligible to appear in this book was to have played first-class cricket, so some may not be all that well remembered as cricketers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Henry Hyndman.

Malies has done an admirable job with all of his subjects, putting flesh to the names and reputations of each one. Some of them include:

– Arthur Coningham, who claimed a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket, and later took his wife to court for committing adultery with a Catholic priest and conceiving a child by him;

– Don Davies, a reporter on the ill-fated plane carrying the 1958 Manchester FC; and

– Basil Foster, a member of the Fostershire clan and a very talented actor;

My favourite ended up being Gerry Weigall, an eccentric cricket coach from the 1930s, who fitted the description of “a rich man without any money”. He coined many phrases such as “never run on a misfield” or “never hook until you have made 84”. He once opined “There are only three people who know anything about cricket: Archie MacLaren, Charles Fry and myself. I know more than the other two”.

3. Days in The Sun
Sir Neville Cardus

The greatest cricket writer at his best – page after page of descriptive prose, that I simply do not have the ability to describe justly. So let’s just turn to a random page and quote the master:

“A bat, indeed, can look an entirely different instrument in different hands. With Grace it was a rod of correction, for to him bad bowling was a deviation from moral order; Ranjitsinhji turned a bat into a wand, passing it before the eyes of the foe till they followed him in a trance along his processional way…” (page 72).

2. Australian Test Cricket 1877-1981
R.S. Whitington

I have read this book over a dozen times and every time I read it I love it all the more. I have read it that many times, I had to purchased another copy as the original was starting to come apart.

A contemporary of Bradman (though they were none to fond) Dick Whitington (pronounced White-ing-ton) undertook the mammoth task of covering every home Test played by Australia in this book. He brought the players alive for me and sent me on a journey to learn about Murdoch, Trumper, Bradman and the rest.

For the statistically-minded, there are full scorecards for each Test included, but it is the chatty, relaxed style that I enjoy about Whitington’s writing.

While reading another cricket book (surprise, surprise) there appeared a quote from one of Whitington’s books. The author wrote “the book was written in Whitington’s grating style”. I read the line several times, as I thought I must have misunderstood, and wrote off one of those caustic letters that one does from time to time, but has no real intention of sending.

1. The Summer Game
Gideon Haigh

I often go into bookshops and stare lovingly at all the new cricket books. The Summer Game when it was released was one of my voyeuristic favourites – from Keith Miller on the front cover in one of the greatest of all action shots, to a reproduction of an old telegram on the back.

The problem started when I read the blurb on the dustjacket flap: “this book is a fascinating history of Australia in international cricket between 1949 and 1971”.

I would start to feel somnolent at that point.

This would have to be the most boring period in Australian cricket history (save the odd match such as the tied Test) – The Don had retired and, apart from Sobers, all the best batsman were, to put it bluntly, boring – Lawry, Boycott, Barrington and Hanif among them.

Surprisingly I received the book for Christmas, and started to read it on Boxing Day. Two days later, I had finished the 356-page volume and it remains my favourite cricket book out of the 600-plus I have read.


How can i get a copy of Sing all a green willow by ronald mason.

Comment by Norman Eades | 1:12pm BST 28 April 2019

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