Cricket’s Hard Men

Published: 2022
Pages: 288
Author: Sydenham, Richard
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 3.5 stars

4Some sportsmen are ‘harder’ than others, although all things are relative. No one who has had the dedication to the cause to rise to the top in any sport could ever be described as ‘soft’, so perhaps this one might have been more appropriately titled Cricket’s Hardest Men, but then we all know what author Richard Sydenham means.

What sets the men Sydenham provides profiles of in Cricket’s Hard Men apart is something over and above mere dedication. All are talented cricketers, and predictably are mainly batsman, but the  exceptional qualities they have seemed to me, initially at least, to be likely to fit into the broad descriptions of bravery, tenacity and a high pain threshold.

I have to concede though that Sydenham has given the make up of his chosen selection a bit more thought than I had, as has the man who contributes an interesting foreword to his book, former Australian coach John Buchanan.

Before he starts looking at individuals Sydenham explores a few concepts, that of having a mongrel streak, the impact of nervousness and vulnerability and the mental health issues that have been brought out into the open in recent years as a number of high profile players have felt able to place the details of their travails in the public domain. 

So who are the cast of Cricket’s Hard Men? There are enough for two teams, so 22 in all. There are one or two surprises, but generally it is the usual suspects, although they have earned their places for different aspects of the concept of ‘hardness’.

First up is ‘Jimmy’ Amarnath who, by no means alone amongst this selection, earns his place by virtue of the courage he showed in standing up to the great West Indies pace attacks of the 1980s. A somewhat different case is Michael Atherton. His courage was perhaps more in dealing with the back problems he was never completely free of, and often severely restricted by, but the world’s fast bowlers always had a stubborn and obdurate opponent.

And on the subject of English opening batsman there is John Edrich, often injured by the quick bowlers he always stood up to. But for Edrich there was an even more fearsome opponent, leukaemia, and for a long time he successfully fended that away too.

Hardness in a literal sense was a quality owned by West Indian Roy Fredericks. Blows to the head meant nothing to the man who became affectionately known as Cement Head. Another West Indian who eschewed the helmet was Vivian Richards, but unlike Fredericks the Masterblaster did not allow himself to be be struck on the head.

But pain thresholds inevitably loom large in any discussion about how hard a man is, and inevitably there is a chapter devoted to the man who argued that anything like a cricket ball that only struck you momentarily couldn’t possibly hurt. All the usual Brian Close stories are here, and some less familiar tales as well.

Adam Hollioake is a man whose criteria for inclusion I expected to be solely based on his captaincy skills, although it seems his post cricket cage fighting and other challenges in life gave him plenty of other reason to call upon his qualities. Leadership, and not just on the field, is also a large part of the reason for Eddie Barlow’s inclusion.

Perhaps the hardest man of all, in terms of leadership alone, is Arjuna Ranatunga, who unsurprisingly entered the political arena after he left the game. Involvement in politics was also part of Barlow’s CV, and Sydenham also tells the story of Andy Flower’s role in the black armband protest in the 2003 World Cup.

One characteristic that all of the 22* share is an inability to give up or back down. Two of the classic examples of that quality are Allan Border and Javed Miandad, both of whom are featured, as indeed is Miandad’s opponent in his most infamous spat, Dennis Lillee.

Of all the men featured in the book my nomination as to the most interesting goes to Peter Willey. A man of such toughness that even Ian Botham would think twice about pranking him the former Noorthamptonshire, Leicestershire and England man is certainly one of the most interesting cricketers never to have been the subject of a book. That he is one of those interviewed by Sydenham helps. His is is the last chapter in the book, and means that it ends on a high note.

The sub-title of Cricket’s Hard Men is The Toughest Characters from the History of Cricket, although the reality is that all bar Douglas Jardine are men who have played the game in my lifetime, and indeed with the exception of Close in my adulthood. There is therefore nothing on the likes of Warwick Armstrong, Bob Wyatt and Bob Crisp, so perhaps we will see a second volume if this one does well. The Jardine chapter contains everything his many admirers will expect, although it does fail to reference anything about Jardine meeting the ‘Bodyline’ thrown at him by the West Indian bowlers in the 1933 series with the straightest of straight bats and the one century of his Test career.

All in all this book is certainly an entertaining read, and as it is on a subject that features in many a banter filled discussion between cricket lovers of different nationalities, ages and perspectives is well worth reading for anyone keen on being able to launch him or herself into such debates with more perspective and knowledge than they have now.

*Others who are the subject of individual chapters are Brian Davison, Steve Waugh, Kepler Wessels, Anil Kumble, Graeme Smith, John Reid and Bruce Laird

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