While cricket slips into a comfortable senescence of bland professionalism, propped up by Sky Sports' coffers and happy just to compete for the scraps from football's table, it's no surprise that cricket writers are turning their gaze to the past. Back to times when decisions on the England captaincy could raise questions in Parliament, where Bishops marched on the MCC to demand equality and fairness, and where the sport was part of the national conversation, and not just when the Aussies are in town.
Where the excellent recent documentary Fire in Babylon mapped the rise of the great West Indian cricket team of the 80s to the concurrent rise in black politics and culture, Cricket at the Crossroads focuses on the earlier faultlines that arose in the late `60s and `70s, especially in England where the amateur old boy network clashed with both the growing professionalism of the game and a post-war society that no longer bowed to the old deferences.
When the book opens, the England captaincy was still a fiat to be handed out by former public schoolboys preferably to former public schoolboys; where the "professionals" lodged in different hotels to the "gentlemen" and where a stadium announcer is forced to note apologetically of a printer's error that "F.J. Titmus should read Titmus F.J.", lest anybody mistake his status.
It's a tale bookended by Brian Close. At the start, there's a well-researched account of his shabby dismissal as England captain, where despite his fantastic record, he found himself pushed out in favour of that favoured son of Kent, Colin Cowdrey. It ends shortly after his recall to the side at the age of 45, an old warhorse brought out to battle one more time to face a hostile West Indian bowling attack, one that had recently forced India to declare on 12 in protest.
This sea change in attitude of fast bowlers is among the final straws that lead Fraser-Simpson to some trenchant criticism of the modernising game. Although umpires and administrators come in for some stick, he's clear that responsibility ultimately lies with the players and captains, and the now highly respectable Clive Lloyd is picked out.
Although the book is clear that not all changes were ultimately for the best, it's definitely not one that just harks back to a perceived golden age. The author's sympathies clearly lie with the blunt-talking Yorkie professionals like Illingworth and Close who are prepared to stand up for both their opinions and their players. They're contrasted with the man who would become Lord Cowdrey, who comes across as weak and vacillating, a man who Illingworth says would "promise you the moon and then nothing would happen".
The book covers a lot of ground, but does so nimbly and economically, sketching out the key players with an eye for the telling detail. As well as the Close affair, there's a good miniature study of the D'Oliveira scandal, especially the behind the scenes subterfuge, which shocks even today. There's detailed coverage of all the English test series in the period (stuccoed with the inability to pick a settled and successful middle order). It concludes with the birth of World Series Cricket, when an Australian multimedia magnate attempted to hive off the best cricketers.
As this last chapter shows, it's a book that doesn't overplay its hand, leaving the reader to pick up on the occasions when the past turns out to be not such a foreign country after all. There's an excellent section on the rise of the new John Player Sunday League:
"The action was hectic and fun...[b]est of all, the bars stayed open all afternoon, and sexy young ladies in miniskirts wandered among the crowd dispensing free John Player cigarettes.
"[S]uccess...brought tensions of its own between the progressive elements within the cricket community and the traditionalists. The former saw limited overs cricket as an important part of the way ahead, if only for financial reasons, rather than simply a peripheral bolt-on. The latter saw it as an irrelevant distraction which risked damaging the development of young players by encouraging negative bowling and reckless shot selection."
Comparisons with the rise of Twenty20 are left as an exercise for the reader.
There's also an epilogue on how future cabinet minister Peter Hain was targeted by the South African secret service for his actions in protesting against the MCC over the D'Oliveira affair, leading to him being framed for a bank robbery. Despite a highly prejudiced summing up by the judge, the jury found in his favour. Fraser-Sampson wryly notes that in the judge's obituary it states "one of his many eccentricities on the bench was to keep the jury regularly updated on the Test score", transforming an interesting meander into yet another clash between cricket's old order and the new.
I suspect this is a book that will end up in a lot of cricket lovers' stockings this Christmas. Whether your heart thrills to tales of past heroics, or you're interesting in tracing the often awkward transition between stages of the game, this is a book that rarely plays a false shot.