Cricket's Strangest Matches
Author: Andrew Ward
Publisher: Robson Books
Rating: 3 stars
By David Taylor
09 Sep 2012
The nostalgia gift chain Past Times has run into problems in the last year, closing a number of its high street stores, including my nearest one in Maidstone. I always liked looking in there, even if I tended to do so mainly at Christmas - which may explain why the company has had such difficulty. I mention this because this week's book was usually to be found in there, one of the "Strangest ..." series which also encompassed football, boxing, golf and a collection of offbeat legal stories. Given the chain's popularity with Christmas shoppers I suppose it's not surprising that I own two copies. I imagine it's been a popular choice for cricket-loving relatives everywhere since its first publication in 1990.
About the author Andrew Ward I know nothing, and I'm not even aware if he ever wrote another book on cricket. This is older than I realised; in 1990 dear old John Arlott was still doing the book reviews in Wisden and he made no mention of it, so it was clearly a low-profile publication. But it has had five reprints - I think I've seen older copies without the illustrated cover. The book occupies similar territory to Patrick Murphy's fine work Fifty Incredible Cricket Matches from 1987, which I reviewed here a few years ago. There are more than a hundred matches here, although 'matches' is stretching it at some points: the selection includes a single-wicket contest, a bowl-out to settle a rained-off fixture and perhaps the most uneven of the many 'against odds' matches of the 19th century, in which one side comprised "fifty or more farmers" (41 of them batted, and they managed 92; Ward notes, perhaps unnecessarily, that "it is a rare game that has as many as 23 ducks in one innings").
Murphy's book, with one exception, covered only first-class matches, but Ward looked far and wide for his material, and unsurprisingly, the lower the level of cricket being played, the more extraordinary the occurrences and individual feats. For some reason Percy Chapman, an England captain between the wars, turned out for the Hythe brewery against Kent County Police (Elham Division) in 1925, at the height of his career - and chipped in with 183 out of a total of 201. It's difficult to imagine Alistair Cook, say, playing in a similar match now, when centrally contracted players are virtually wrapped in cotton wool between England appearances, even if he might well do something similar if allowed. We also have a report on the 'Smokers v Non-Smokers' match from Melbourne in 1887, when the Non-Smokers knocked up 803 and doubtless left their opponents gasping for respite. There are also Test matches, including the first tie, and the 1939 timeless Test, memorable limited overs games (such as Durham's 1973 win over Yorkshire) and the famous 'snow stopped play' match at Buxton in 1975. If the writing is not quite in the top class it's hard to find fault with the quantity and diversity of source material.
Perhaps because the book has been a popular gift choice, it's not hard to find on the 'net - eBay always seems to have several copies on offer - but if nobody has thought to put one in your stocking yet you could do a lot worse than track this down.