on 4 February 2014
I picked up Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries about a month back, and finished reading it last night. I bought it expecting - and hoping - for a breakdown of Test feats with the willow that was full of refreshing whimsy, insightful insight, and flowering prose of Cardusesque qualities, full of sepia-toned reflections of the great towering figures of the past: Compton, Bradman, Grace, Bannerman, Trumper et al. For recentism, I figured they might go as far as to include Viv Richards or Gavaskar, Border or perhaps Gower or Cowdrey.
Turns out I was partly wrong, though not to the detriment of the book. I did not expect the book to exclude feats of the 1990s and 2000s simply because I thought there were no such feats to speak of - on the contrary, some of the most famous lie in these decades - but I did expect the book to adhere to a seemingly predominant conservative trend of rose-tinted 'to-the-rear' viewing that is found in most cricket history books.
What I found instead was a bar-fly's debate with a group of informed friends on what was the best one-hundred centuries ever scored, with a Cambridge-scholar's mathematical framework doing most of the leg work to calculate their value based on a feat of statistical wizardry that took into account the series, the year, the opposition, injury, weather, pitch, captaincy, form, age, impact on the game, on the team, on the career of all players involved; somehow all of this was broken down into numbers and totalled into a score, and thus the innings were ranked. Though the first chapter - which deals with this calculation - is a bit of a sleeping pill for all those who do not hold the relevant post-grad degree, the writers anticipate critical broadsides levelled at them by agreeing that a) it is an overly quantitative analysis of a largely qualitative concept, and b) that the greatest knocks ever made were not necessarily centuries.
What I also found, contrary to my expectations, was that there was little common thread running through the essays. They were written by numerous people, including former players, and one was written by the batsman himself! Though plenty of evocative, Dickensian prose intertwined many of the essays, others were decidedly Jack Hobbs-like: knowledgeable, written by someone who went there and did it, but by no means gifted with the pen and the ink. One, on a Pietersen innings, was so distastefully filled with bold-type phrases like BOOF and SLAM that I may as well have been reading a Batman comic strip. KP may as well have written it. Suffice to say the style of writing varied greatly through the essays, though none (okay, perhaps the Pietersen one) were actually bad.
There are some gems, and some lovely sentiments and lessons that can be learned from this publication - I shall cease calling it a book, because it is not a book, it's an edited collection of essays - and I'm glad I read it. The vast, vast majority of the centuries included were ones by players that I had heard of, almost all bar a couple of early South African Test crickets, however I did not know all the individual centuries by rote and it was a joy to learn of some of the hundreds made by the great players of the past. The idiosyncrasies of the mathematical calculation systems meant that those hundreds for which a player is most known were not necessarily the hundreds that were brought to light by the equations. Not all were made by players who went on to have successful careers, neither. The weight allotted to opposition, percentage of team innings, and scoring speed, throw up some interesting centuries in the top ten - mostly against the West Indies of the '70s and '80s - and the number one century I did not expect. I bet you can't guess what it would be.
The only thing it really lacks is pictures. There is not one image in the piece. For all the joy brought by connecting the reader with these hundreds, many of which may be before his time, out of his geography, or simply out of his knowledge for whatever reason, barred to him by the passage of time, language, or team loyalty - for all this, there are no visual aids to enrich our learning. Pictures have a way of truly connecting us for the first time with that which we have not seen before. When we remember centuries, we remember images of them happening. For whatever reason, be it copyright, cost, or simply the thought not occurring or the image not existing, only the words of these hundreds, be they remembered by many or only by few or none, are communicated to us. The image remains only imagined.