Dangerous Play

Mike Selvey

  • Gubby Allen: Man of Cricket by E.W. Swanton
    Hutchinson, 311 pp, £12.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 09 159780 3
  • Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack: 1985 edited by John Woodcock
    Wisden, 1280 pp, £11.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 947766 00 6

Do you forget things? I do, more and more. My ailing, failing memory was sorely tested the other day. ‘Do you remember who won the Grand National?’ I was asked. Of course I did. It was the most exciting race for years, won right at the post by ... Then came the blank. I’d sat and watched the race, goddam it, but the winner still eluded me, just as it had at the time. By the same token, quiz me about last summer’s cricket and my response would be sketchy at best. However, I’m of the school that believes it doesn’t matter if you forget facts providing you know where you can lay hands on them when needed. I found the result of the Grand National in a pile of old newspapers.[*] Last summer? Well, that problem was solved last week when the Gospel according to St John, all 1300 pages of it, beat the dust out of the doormat.

It is a sure sign that spring is in the air when Wisden arrives. While there is a good twelve months browse therein, one flick through is enough to stir the brain cells. It is the cricketer’s holy book, their enquire-within; a saviour of rainy days and the winner of pub bets. Test matches to Tonbridge School, the traditional Famous Five cricketers of the year, statistics galore, common sense, whimsy, reminiscence and who popped their clogs last year – all cricketing life is lodged between the familiar custard-coloured covers. A favourite game is to scour the Births and Deaths pages for unusual combinations of names. Black and White are there, and so are Knight and Day, Marks and Spencer, Freeman, Hardy and Willis, Hardstaff and Slack, Halfyard and Inchmore. Then there’s the New Zealander, Cunis, whose bowling was once described as being ‘like his name – neither one thing nor the other’. The amusement is endless.

Naturally, I recognise that Wisden is a serious work, not to mention an annual bestseller. The Cricketers’ Almanack has appeared on my bookshelf ever since I realised it wasn’t Old Moore with jaundice, listing the phases of the Moon or high tide at London Bridge. My entire cricket career, every over of it, is encapsulated in a row of books four feet long. The editor, John Woodcock, the highly respected cricket correspondent of the Times, has now produced the last five of 122 editions, and his editor’s notes, always regarded as authoritative, this year reinforce his familiar view that intimidatory fast bowling is ruining the game as a spectacle. I cannot but agree.

In 1984, prior to the West Indies tour, he suggested that ‘the viciousness of ... today’s fast bowling is changing the very nature of the game.’ Following the ‘blackwash’ of England and the serious injuries to two young batsmen, he is moved to reiterate the ‘chilling dimension’ brought to the game by the undeniably brilliant but potentially lethal West Indian fast bowlers, hunting not in the traditional pairs but in packs.

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[*] Last Suspect, 50-1.