Frith on Cricket
Author: David Frith
Publisher: Great Northern Books
Rating: 4.5 stars
By Martin Chandler
02 Aug 2010
David Frith celebrated his 73rd birthday this year. He called his autobiography, published in 1997, Caught England Bowled Australia. Born in England in 1937 Frith then emigrated to Australia with his family as a 12 year old before, accompanied by the next generation of the family, he returned to England in 1964. Since renewing his acquaintance with the country of his birth he has travelled regularly between here and Australia and spent his working life ensconced within the world of cricket. It must be doubtful whether any other living person can match his depth of knowledge of the game. His numerous previous books have made a significant contribution to the game's literature. There have been reconstructions of English tours of Australia of as long ago as 1861/62 and 1894/95, as well as compelling accounts of series Frith has seen, the most recent dealing with the 2006/07 Ashes. There have also been some fine cricketing biographies with subjects ranging from England's Victorian captain Drewy Stoddart, through the ill-starred Australians Archie Jackson and Ross Gregory, to the rather different personality of 1970's fast bowling legend Jeff Thomson. As a historian Frith has also given us the CW Book of the Decade, Bodyline Autopsy, and, through numerous editions, England Versus Australia: A Pictorial History of the Test Matches Since 1877, the most popular history of the Ashes. His fascination with human frailty has also produced, in addition to the biographies, compelling studies of the significant number of First Class cricketers who have taken their own lives.
Against that background a collection of Frith's writings, after more than fifty years as a scribe, is fully justified, but as ever with such projects, what should be included? There are two approaches that can be taken, the first being to cull from a man's oeuvre a selection of passages from his books in order to showcase them. Alan Ross, in Crusoe on Cricket, an acclaimed collection of the writings of Raymond Robertson-Glasgow, is an example of such a compilation as are a number of the series of collections of the work of Neville Cardus that appeared in the years after his death. This is not, I have to say, my preferred option and I would much rather see something like David Rayvern Allen's Arlott on Cricket, which largely ignored the great man's books, and consisted of writings taken from rather more ephemeral sources such as newspapers, magazines and brochures. Given the quality of, in particular, the numerous vignettes that make up some of Frith's finest work, I have no doubt that a collection of extracts from his books will appear in the future and receive much fully justified praise, but I was very pleased to see, on opening Frith on Cricket, that the man himself has chosen the road less travelled. The result is just a handful of extracts from his books accompanied by a huge, diverse selection of other writings long since lost to anyone but the hardened collector.
One of the reasons it is rewarding to read old articles from periodicals is that, unlike the majority of books, there is no benefit to the writer from any significant degree of hindsight. My eye was particulary caught by a piece about Colin Milburn that was written following the close of the 1973 season. Cricket generally, but particularly in England, was stagnating in the 1960's. Opening batsmen would almost always, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Jardine, bat like old maids defending their virginity. Milburn, with his affable temperament, and figure that would make Jesse Ryder look malnourished, was like a breath of fresh air as he put bat to ball from the opening over. His loss was felt acutely when a road accident cost him one eye, and damaged the sight in the other, in May 1969. Some time later, in 1973, he started a comeback. He was never going to be quite the same but in the final match of that season he got to his half century and then went to Australia to play that winter. Frith wrote a marvellous article, saluting Milburn's past, and expressing cautious optimism for the 1974 season. The tragedy of Milburn's truncated career and his failed comeback is dealt with in several books, but always in the light of the unmitigated disaster that his 1974 season was - I had quite forgotten that, albeit very briefly, a light had appeared to flicker at the end of the tunnel on that late August day in 1973.
Apart from his keen observation and eye for a good story another strength of Frith's writing is the research that goes into it. By research I do not mean days sat in dusty libraries and newspaper offices reading long lost reports and articles, although I have no doubt Frith has done his share of that. What I am referring to are his tireless efforts to track down and speak to the men who were part of what he writes of. The most striking example is an essay about the great Australian fast bowling allrounder of the 1920's, Jack Gregory. After being misquoted by a journalist in 1928 Gregory vowed never to speak to the press again and, until just a year before his death at 77, he kept that promise made to himself more than forty years earlier, relenting only after Frith drove more than 200 miles, without an appointment, in his efforts to talk to him. A similar quest resulted in the aboriginal fast bowler, Eddie Gilbert, described by Bradman himself as the fastest bowler of them all, being tracked down. The outcome was rather less rewarding in the sense that Gilbert, who had been living in an institution for years, was unable to converse with Frith, but a powerful piece of writing emerged nonetheless.
None of the articles reproduced here are particularly lengthy and some are just a paragraph or two. The majority are pieces concerning specific individuals but there are plenty of match reports, book reviews, historical stories and opinion pieces as well. The book is highly recommended. One of the longer essays, an appreciation of his great friend Sir Donald Bradman, written shortly after "The Don" died in 2001, is classic Frith and we are delighted to be able to reproduce it here
Most people with any knowledge of or interest in cricket history will know who David Frith is. Born in England and domiciled here since the 1960s, he spent his adolescence and early twenties in Sydney, and consequently finds himself with divided loyalties whenever the old enemies meet on the cricket field. The editor of two leading cricket magazines, writer of some of the most acclaimed books written on the game in the last thirty years and a film archivist, Frith was also, during his time in Australia, a useful player who featured in first grade cricket with notables such as Norm O'Neill and Alan Davidson, as well as, memorably, Neil Harvey. I was first introduced to his writing when given a copy of 'The Fast Men' in my early teens - 'Ashes '79' soon followed, and I now have half a dozen of his titles. I also borrowed 'Silence of the Heart' from Maidstone library which, shamefully, no longer stocks it although they have room for several Flintoff and Warne titles, naturally.
This welcome anthology takes in extracts from most of his books as well as numerous magazine articles he's contributed over the years. Among the highlights are pieces on some of the most memorable Ashes encounters of recent years (Botham at Headingley 1981, Pietersen at the Oval 2005), interviews with many old players (revived in his long-running 'Frith's encounters' series in the Wisden Cricketer), and some amusing pieces on listening to late night cricket commentary in Australia and shooting cane toads in his yard (number 325 was 'Andy Sandham'). From time to time he lets his imagination run wild - as in an 'interview' with the spirit of Victor Trumper on what would have been the great batsman's 100th birthday, and with an imagined conversation between several greats of the Golden Age.
For me one of the finest pieces was a feature on the recently deceased John Arlott, a personal friend (the two are pictured with Arlott in standard black tie and cardigan combo) - part tribute, part potted biography, spread over six generous pages. And I liked his summary of the West Indies 'mean machine' of 1991, who 'have brought fast bowling to an art form - even if it most closely resembles Picasso's Guernica.' Naturally Sir Donald Bradman's death brought another tribute, and Frith who knew him well paints a picture of a man who was modest in spite of his awesome achievements, while meticulous in his recollection of innings played long ago.
With advancing years Frith has become, like many of us, a staunch traditionalist (he bemoans the advent of the Wisden picture cover, for instance), but it's not mere resistance to change - what comes across is a love of the game and an urge to see it retain its prized values. Personally, I could have done with more from the books - if Frith is remembered a generation or two from now, as he surely will be, it'll be as author of those books rather than as a writer of magazine articles. However, I can appreciate that for those who have all or most of the Frith oeuvre, and haven't subscribed to his magazines, much of the content of this book will be new, and all the more welcome for that. Incidentally, while the book is tastefully put together it's annoying that much of the gold lettering on my copy has disappeared already. Highly recommended, an ideal introduction to this writer.