on 22 September 2011
I am interested in books that shed light on some of the more obscure aspects of sporting history: I would always prefer to read something off the beaten track than the 876th Bradman biography or the ghosted blandness of a contemporary autobiography. So I bought this book. And what a waste of time it is.
It purports to tell the story of the 1933-34 MCC tour to India, led by Douglas Jardine. It does so by going through a match-by-match account of the tour, reproducing scorecards and then repeating information that you could read from the scorecard yourself. In case you think I am being too harsh, this is a slim book of 140 pages with 70 of them taken up with scorecards and averages. Anyone who wants that information can find it on the internet within a few seconds. The scorecards are illuminated by remarks such as "Rubie's opening bowler, Harris, took five for 89 and one for eight in the second. For MCC, Townsend had match figures of seven for 50." So half the book is scorecards, and another quarter is repeating information that we can read for ourselves if we bother to look at those scorecards. Here's another example: "Another double-barrelled European, Oswald Smith-Bingham, went in further down the order and made seven and three." Wasted words: since I can read the scorecard, I can guess that Smith-Bingham was "European", I can see that his name was "double-barrelled" and I can read the numbers 7 and 3. And there's page upon page of turgid stuff like this.
Occasionally, Heald throws in a comment or two cribbed from Ramchandra Guha's "Indian History of British Sport". There are one or two references taken from contemporary newspaper accounts. But Heald resolutely refused to do any original research. And that has inevitable, dismal results. First, the book is boring: there's nothing new to see here, folks. Secondly, Heald doesn't seem all that interested in his own subject. Here's what he says about the tour manager: "The team was managed with Major Ricketss who seems to have vanished without trace." Now, God knows what that means. If, during the tour, Ricketts had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, well, that would actually be pretty interesting. But I think what it really means is this: "The tour was managed by Major Ricketts. I haven't bothered to find out what he did after the tour." I bet you could find out if you tried, you know. It may or may not be interesting. I assume he was the same Major Ricketts who managed the Indian tour to England in 1932. That's vaguely interesting - the same man manged an England team in India and an Indian team in England. Who know's what you'd find if you were to dig around?
But digging isn't Heald's thing. That's why you get statements like this one: in the Second Test, the Indian wicket-keeper made his debut, and "as it was also "Hopper" Levett's [debut] it seems likely that the duo set an unusual record, the first where both keepers made their debut." Now, if you ignore the weird grammar and pause to think for a second, you know this can't possibly be right: both the keepers must have made their debuts in the very first Test of all, in 1877. But, that point aside, someone who cared about the accuracy of the information in his book would check a claim like that, wouldn't he? I spent five minutes on the internet and found eight previous examples of two keepers making their debut in the same Test. I probably missed a few. Those five minutes would have saved Heald from putting into print a silly mistake. But this is nothing if not a lazy book. And I promise you that this is not an isolated example.
It's also annoying. It's full of weird diversions (a silly attempt to argue that Denis Compton was a more courageous cricketer than Bradman, based on a single episode in which Compton was hit on the head), strident opinions for which no evidence is offered, and bizarre non-sequiturs.
You know, I'll bet there is a trove of information about Jardine's last tour waiting to be uncovered. The MCC archives will be full of correspondence, minutes, tour reports. Many of the players will have sent letters home, or kept diaries, that will be extant. There will be documents in Indian archives. Maybe newsreel footage. There will be diplomatic correpondence about the tour. There will be sons and daughters of players who will have been told about the tour by their fathers. You could find at least some of that material and use it to write a good, interesting book about the tour. This isn't that book. At a time when publishers are increasingly reluctant to publish books on subjects of this kind, you have to wonder why Methuen decided to run with this one, and why their editors didn't do more to try to make it readable.