Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Last English Summer by Duncan Hamilton (Book Review)

In cricket, seemingly nothing ever stays the same. The times are always a changin' and seldom, so goes the prevailing view, is it for the better. From the Golden Age to Bodyline to Packer, from run rates to over rates to the Old Lie itself - the 'spirit of the game', cricket has been forever heading on a one way journey straight to hell.

Duncan Hamilton's particular snapshot in time is the 2009 English season. Unashamedly invoking the spirit of J.B. Priestley's English Journey and the style and substance of Geoffrey Moorhouse's The Best Loved Game (chosen, incidentally, by Michael Atherton as his favourite cricket book), he guides us on what feels like a valedictory tour around England (and Wales), from Lord's to Ramsbottom, from Headingley to Hambledon, from Cardiff to Canterbury.

Hamilton is an unapologetic traditionalist, taught to love the game by his grandfather over leisurely summers days at Trent Bridge in the late 1960's.  To Cardus, Nottingham was a 'lotus land' where the score was always 360 for 2. It is no less special to Hamilton whose prose may be a slightly darker shade of violet and more resistant to hyperbole but who is a no less eloquent, honest or heart-felt observer. Whilst his recurring themes may claw with some readers, they merely resonated with this one.

At Trent Bridge, he eavesdrops on a debate over the number of overs bowled in the previous season by the somewhat injury prone Ryan Sidebottom.  On cue, a Playfair Annual, still the essential companion for any self respecting country cricket watcher, is produced. The issue is resolved but self-righteousness and disbelief pervade. It is a scene so familiar as to be almost cliche. At Old Trafford in the late 80's the "three bores", as we came to refer them, frequently (and with disturbing precision for a 25,000 seater ground)  installed themselves and their reference libraries directly behind my father and me in the Ladies' Stand driving us to seat-shuffling distraction with their curmudgeonly chit chat whilst simultaneously enveloping us in cigar smoke. Looking back now with older, hopefully wiser eyes, I wonder whether they too were not simply in mourning for their own halycon days when Brian Statham bowled unchanged from the Stretford End and the opposition were always 36 for 4. Even now it only takes one whiff of a cigar to transport me back to those carefree, oh so innocent times.

The author's major gripe, unsurprisingly, is with the rise and rise of T20. His argument, and it is a strong one, Is that T20 is simply an inferior game, not simply a pared down version of the first class one but one stripped of the qualities that make cricket great.

He takes particular issue with its brashness and superficiality in general and the IPL in particular with its music, gimmicks and incessant, screeching commentary. There is an element of chicken and egg in all this though. Is T20 a mere reflection of today's Snapchat society or have we as a society been simply reprogrammed by modern media to accept that instantaneous, unthinking gratification is the reward most worth seeking?

Despite his disquiet Hamilton never descends into mean-spiritedness, a trap into which other 'traditionalists' like Michael Henderson frequently fall. He writes with sadness rather than bitterness on the changing shape of the English summer and the future of the first class game. However, as he rightly points out much the same arguments were being made when the 40 over Players' League started up in the late 60's. It was supposed to be the beginning of the end but instead it improved standards particularly in fielding and raised the incomes of struggling counties. Sounds familiar? Lessons from history need not always be warnings.

Sometimes though, lessons are simply just not learnt. In mid-May, the author visits Durham as England face the West Indies. For financial reasons the Test series has been crammed into a fixture list bloated by the World T20 Cup which will begin in early June. Unsurprisingly the crowd is pitiful, the lowest in recent memory. Prior to the game, the then West Indies captain Chris Gayle comments that he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket died. The two events sit in uncomfortable juxtaposition.  The author ponders how such scheduling could have come about.

Far worse, however, has been the failure to learn from such mistakes. Another poorly conceived and even more poorly attended Test match in May 2016 exacerbated Durham's already dire financial situation. Cruelly, the 2013 champions started the 2017 season consigned to the second division, punished for their financial failings with relegation and a 40 point penalty.

There are also sobering reminders of tragedy's shadowy presence over cricketing life.  At Worcester, Phillip Hughes, battles with form and footwork on his first Ashes tour whilst at Colwyn Bay, Tom Maynard, cocksuredly predicts and delivers a spectacular hundred. Both exceptional talents, both now gone. Meanwhile at Scarborough, James Taylor plays a stylish cameo for England Under 19s, blissfully and perhaps thankfully unaware of the congenital heart problem that will end a promising international career seven years later.

Hamilton has rightly avoided disrupting the natural flow of the text with too many statistics and instead the book ends with an annexe of approximately 60 pages encompassing almost every conceivable fact and figure along with pen portraits which follow up on the fortunes of the book's  key protagonists. It's questionable whether such detail adds much to the work as a whole and indeed when contrasted with the mellowness of the previous pages this chunk of raw data feels particularly rough, like being awoken from soothing dream by a hotel fire alarm.

I first read this book back in 2010, it was good then but time has given it an extra dimension. Beautifully written and sympathetically observed, it stands and will continue to stand as an historical piece, just as Moorhouse's did for 1978, proving once again just how quickly things can change and yet how much they stay the same. As Cardus once mused " the golden age is always well behind us; we catch sight of it with young eyes when we see what we want to. ."