No Coward Soul
Author: Stephen Chalke and Derek Hodgson
Publisher: Fairfield Books
Rating: 5 stars
By Martin Chandler
15 Dec 2008
For those who are wondering the title of the book comes from a poem written by Emily Bronte shortly before her death from tuberculosis in 1848 at the age of 30.
I am not a great reader of fiction but have learnt over the years from what I have read that a central character helps. An example might be a man born into difficult circumstances in the 1920's whose mother deserted the family home when he was aged 7. His life lurched from one tragedy to another losing his younger sister when 13 and then having to discover his father, stepmother and two half-sisters gassed in the bathroom of their family home. Next, on the brink of fulfilling his potential he was stricken by a life-threatening disease and lost half a lung to a surgeon's knife before the grim reaper returned to claim a young son and later a grandson through leukaemia. If that weren't enough on the way he had the misfortune to end up working for Robert Maxwell and had to twice drag the 'Bouncing Czech' through the English legal system in order to secure what was properly due to him.
For a work of fiction you could probably just about get away with that but the author would lose all credibility if they introduced into that man's life story the fact that for an 8 year period either side of his health problems he achieved sufficient as a cricketer to deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest bowlers of all time. That said what is not credible in fiction does occasionally happen in reality and the summary I have set out is the life of Bob Appleyard.
In 1950 Appleyard played a couple of County Championship games for Yorkshire before in 1951 he became the only man to ever take 200 wickets in his first full season. He then missed all but one early game of the 1952 season and the entirety of 1953 before coming back in 1954 and playing on until 1958. Not surprisingly he was never the same bowler after losing half a lung and he lost his leg-cutter and one of the two different off-cutters that he had developed, due to his physical restrictions. The measure of the man is that despite everything in that short first class career he took 708 wickets at 15 and in 9 test matches 31 at under 18. Frank Tyson, with a little help from Brian Statham, is the man who history puts at the forefront of England's famous Ashes Campaign in 1954-55 but Appleyard played his part and ended up at the top of the England bowling averages.
With such a story to tell this was never going to be a dull book but give that material to one of the game's finest writers, and without doubt the finest in relation to Appleyard's era, and you have a book that cannot and does not fail.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that given the anguish and despair that Appleyard must have felt in his life that the whole tone of the book is joyful and uplifting - to read this book is a genuinely moving experience.
I first read the book when it was published in 2003 when it, not surprisingly, won just about every award for which it was eligible and I have just spent a weekend re-reading a new edition that has just been released. There is an additional chapter in which the whole of Appleyard's life is effectively summed up by the obvious pride and delight that he felt at being invited to be President of Yorkshire County Cricket Club in 2005 thus being only the second professional cricketer, and the first without a knighthood, to ever hold that office.
There are, and a number of them have been reviewed on this site, many superb books based on our great game but this is undoubtedly the best I have ever read. I do not expect to see anything better and it would be wholly illogical to give it less than the 5 stars which it fully merits.