Richie Benaud’s Blue Suede Shoes: The Story of an Ashes Classic by David Kynaston & Harry Ricketts; Echoing Greens: How Cricket Shaped the English Imagination by Brendon Cooper - review by Peter Oborne

Peter Oborne

Waiting for Benaud

Richie Benaud’s Blue Suede Shoes: The Story of an Ashes Classic

By

Bloomsbury 320pp £22

Echoing Greens: How Cricket Shaped the English Imagination

By

Constable 352pp £25
 

Today is the golden age of cricket writing. We have moved way beyond the biographies that came to fill libraries in the 20th century. The game is being explored and reinterpreted by writers using the techniques of professional historians. In South Africa, a school of new historians led by André Odendaal is applying the insights of critical race theory to tell the story of cricket under apartheid. Ramachandra Guha, Mihir Bose, Prashant Kidambi and others are unveiling the rich history of Indian cricket. New techniques and approaches are bringing a much deeper understanding of the links between sport and empire.

These books are admirable examples of the renaissance in cricket literature. David Kynaston and Harry Ricketts’s beautifully written book is a minor classic. It is unusual because it does not provide, as many other new cricket histories have tended to do, a sweeping narrative. Instead it focuses on a single event: the 1961 Old Trafford test match between England and Australia. As such, it bears comparison as a work of microhistory to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, a work of historical anthropology drawing expansive (and contestable) conclusions from events in a tiny Pyrenean village in the early 14th century.

Le Roy Ladurie used records of the papal inquisition to reconstruct the mental universe of villagers at a time of profound change and persecution. Kynaston and Ricketts use contemporary records (match reports, Wisden, television and radio commentaries) to reconstruct the lost world of the early 1960s. Richie Benaud and Peter May, captains of Australia and England respectively, represent the opposing forces of revolution and reaction.

Benaud – inventive, heretical, emphatic, media-savvy – was an emissary from the future. May – prejudiced, cautious, inarticulate – was a caricature representative of the sclerotic postwar English cricketing establishment. The authors cannot avoid making May the villain of this book, outwitted as he was at every opportunity by Benaud and only appointed to the captaincy because he was the most plausible representative of the amateur ethos that had governed British cricket since the 19th century. They do acknowledge that he was a genuinely great batsman who had enjoyed a long run of success in test matches in his early years. One poor shot against Benaud’s bowling into the footmarks at Old Trafford doomed him. But for that, he might be regarded as a successful Ashes-winning captain. In modern times, Joe Root is another example of a great batsman who was out of his depth as captain.

Twisting the knife, the authors follow May’s career after his premature retirement (batting was the only thing he was good at) from test cricket. This included a spell as chairman of selectors, during which he selected his godson Chris Cowdrey as England captain (he lasted one match) and endured financial disaster thanks to losses at Lloyd’s of London. The political columnist Alan Watkins wrote that May ‘views life from behind his collar stud’. By contrast, Benaud went from strength to strength after his retirement, establishing a career as a crime reporter before becoming the greatest television commentator of his time.

Brendon Cooper’s Echoing Greens shows how deeply cricket has shaped the writers and artists of England. Writers from William Blake and Charles Dickens to P G Wodehouse and painters from Turner to Bacon have been drawn to cricket, and have drawn on it too. The game is a recurring theme in the works of James Joyce. There has been an especially close affinity between playwrights and cricket. Samuel Beckett remains the only Nobel Prize winner to have played the game at first-class level. His disciple Harold Pinter incorporated cricket into his work and the game inspired some of his best writing. In No Man’s Land (1975), he named his characters after four of the finest Edwardian cricketers: Hirst, Spooner, Briggs and Foster. His three-line mini poem ‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime/Another Time/Another time’ recalls Francis Thompson’s celebrated poem ‘At Lord’s’, which ends: ‘As the run stealers flicker to and fro,/To and fro:/O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!’ Hornby and Barlow were two legendary Lancashire batsman from the late 19th century. When Pinter presented his poem to fellow playwright Simon Gray and asked for his opinion, Gray replied, ‘I haven’t finished reading it yet.’

The book gives context to much cricket literature. It is well known that Henry Newbolt’s magnificent ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night –/Ten to make and the match to win’ was partly inspired by his schooldays at Clifton College. I did not know that the second verse of the poem, ‘The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,/And the regiment blind with dust and smoke’, alludes to the Battle of Abu Klea in Sudan in January 1885, and that the dead colonel was Frederick Burnaby. I did not know that H G Wells’s father, Joseph, was a professional cricketer who took four wickets in four balls for Kent against Sussex in 1862. Cooper also notes that P G Wodehouse named Bertie Wooster’s valet after Percy Jeeves, a fine cricketer for Warwickshire who died in the Battle of the Somme. In a rare error, the author says that Jeeves played for England. He did not, though he may well have gone on to do so had he lived. Cooper’s book is not simply a study of cricket literature. It is a welcome addition to cricketing literature.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March