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Book Review
First Tests
Published: 2009
Pages: 231
Author: Steve Cannane
Publisher: ABC Books
Rating: 4 stars
By Stuart Wark
24 Aug 2009
First Tests

Stuart Says

It's probably a pretty fair bet that all Australian Test cricketers grew up playing a version of backyard cricket. However, the impact that these games have had upon the development of their technique has never been seriously evaluated or considered. Steve Cannane, an Australian journalist, has attempted to achieve this goal in the recently published book, "First Tests - Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards That Made Them" .

Steve Cannane is not an established cricketing writer, being far better known as a news journalist and current affairs reporter. Cannane worked for the Triple J radio station for a number of years, reporting for and hosting the current affairs program called Hack. Cannane?s quality as an investigative writer and researcher is demonstrated by his winning the 2006 Walkley Award for Broadcast Interviewing. The Walkleys are considered to be the premier recognition of journalistic merit in Australia, and Cannane's stories "Petrol Sniffing, Pill Testing and the Cost of War" meant he joined an elite club of winners including Jim Whaley, Kerry O?Brien, Andrew Denton and Monica Attard.

The goal of Cannane's book is to bring together the stories and experiences of a disparate group of Australian Test cricketers, and to examine how their backyard cricket battles resulted in them becoming international players. He works chronologically through the history of Australia, commencing with greats such as Trumper, Mailey and Bradman before moving through the likes of Miller, Benaud, the Chappells and Border and reaching current stars such as Mike Hussey and Brett Lee. Cannane deserves special commendation for also including female cricketers such as the legendary Betty Wilson and the more recent Belinda Clark in this analysis.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the personal evaluation that the subjects give on how their backyard games affected and influenced their eventual technique. Some examples such as how Doug Walters developed great footwork to combat the spinners as his homemade antbed pitch spun excessively are well known, however, Allan Border, who was also known for his skill against the slow bowlers, similarly describes how his brother exacted vicious spin in their backyard battles. Greg and Ian Chappell, both well known for their hook shots, also recount childhood matches in which they peppered each other with bouncers designed primarily to maim.

These examples made me consider my own (admittedly poor) batting technique and whether I had been similarly influenced. Surprisingly, I realized that one of my most productive shots in serious cricket, a flick off my toes over square leg for six, was probably due to the fact that our backyard pitch was dominated by nearby bushes on the legside, and as such, the only way to score on the on-side was by chipping it high over these close-in fielders (shrubs really). That made me think that Cannane might be onto something interesting here, and it is an issue I had not previously considered while playing with my own kids in our backyard.

Overall, the book does not contain many great secrets or unexpected surprises. A fair amount of the information has been previously contained in other well known autobiographies or cricketing books. Nonetheless, the concept is in itself interesting, and Cannane's writing style is polished enough to pull it off. Not an essential purchase, but certainly worth a read. I will be interested to see if Cannane continues to write about cricket, as his investigative journalist background could lend itself to some truly fascinating work in the future. 3.5 stars.

Archie Says

The first time I read David Frith's By His Own Hand I remember thinking "what a great idea for a cricket book, there can't be many original ideas left." And since then there have been some original ideas but not many memorable ones, until Steve Cannane released his first cricket book First Tests.

Although the title is a little misleading, as the first Test that the book refers to is that of a number of famous Australian players and their early cricketing experiences before they played competitive cricket.

Some of the players and events covered are well known to cricket followers such as a young Don Bradman with his stump and golf ball, or the Chappell family home pitch with extended fences and chicken wire over the house windows (although it seems these precautions did not stop the Chappell boys from smashing around 150 windows). Other players covered whose exploits are not so well known such as Bob Simpson and Betty Wilson are also included.

First Tests would be best described as an easy read, with the author not including any surplus details and possessing a great ability to constantly bringing the story back to its brief. It makes for fascinating reading to learn just how dedicated the eventual Test stars of tomorrow were in their childhood. The word that comes to mind is fanatical, with the young champions seemingly at practice every available moment with not even rain stopping their imitation Test matches.

The front cover which features a young Neil Harvey (he was already in the Test team) defending a wooden box in the back lane of his tough Melbourne suburb, encapsulates the whole ambience of the book. It is hard to imagine the budding cricket stars of today with their full kit and $500.00 dollar bats, playing in a narrow lane way surrounded by houses and a bevy of young crew cut fielders.

Steve Cannane also expounds on the theory that the layout of a young players backyard dictates the Test players strength, for instance if Kim Hughes played a leg side shot in his backyard it was automatically out so he rarely played the pull or hook but he possessed a magnificent cover drive.

Steve Cannane has also compiled an impressive bibliography, derived from the obvious amount of research that the author has undertaken. Although if you have read the biographies of those cricketers covered you will be familiar with their boyhood exploits the book is written in such an entertaining manner that prior knowledge does not affect the reader's enjoyment.

The book is also impressively free of errors (although there are one or two typos), about the only thing that was annoying was the author constantly using 't' instead of 'T' as in tests instead of Tests. That and the lack of any colour illustrations throughout the book are the only tiny criticisms of an otherwise quality read. Four Stars from the Mac.

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