on 18 September 2011
The resigned words of Sir William Worsley on his dealings with the professional firebrand Fred Trueman perfectly sum up the conflicts and tensions of the game that this book so enjoyably and lucidly encapsulates. Like all the best sports books and recent cricket documentaries such as 'Fire in Babylon' (well worth checking out), Fraser-Sampson's meticulous study informs us of the society of the time as much as the sport. Given the current three-way tussle for cricket's soul between the Test, 40 over and 20 over versions of the game, it's a very timely commentary on how three major events between 1967 and 1977 engendered the modern game. I suppose the main difference is that now players' financial decisions are based on achieving different levels of wealth whereas the era Fraser-Sampson forensically reveals sees players and administrators making financial decisions informed by class, morality and race. What's also refreshing is the author's style - academic but never didactic and witty rather than chortling - i enjoy the style of writing that has become pretty regulation for cricket ever since the onset of the Guardian's brilliant over by over commentary but it's very satisfying to read about this era in such elegant prose - it's the TMS of cricket writing rather than the Sky Sports version. So if you've ever wondered what made Brian Close such an indomitable and prickly character, worried about the English attitudes to race that were revealed by Dolly or sighed in a purist's frustration at the ludicrous garb of the one day game - then this book is for you!
on 13 October 2011
This book is a highly enjoyable and readable account that both indulges cricket fans nostalgically, and, more interestingly, shows us what was going on behind the curtains and the dressing-room doors in a controversial era. It is partly sports history and partly a social history, written in a lively and engaging manner with a good combination of humour and pace. In cricketing terms, it is something of a Graham Thorpe: elegant, to-the-point, and high class, but avoiding too much ostentation and accumulating a good amount of credit all around the ground. We learn of the crises that beset the England team in relation to class, the impact of the D'Oliveira affair (which might have been better integrated with other insights in the field of South African sports history), and the challenge to cricket's identity that came about with the birth of World Series cricket. It would make a brilliant christmas present for dads and grandads, as it not only describes the zeitgeist beautifully, but it also relies heavily on new research and personal interviews with the author, offering quite a personal slant without sounding polemical. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a bit of TMS, but not for those who want to know about KP's latest antics...
on 13 October 2011
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.
on 30 July 2012
The events that this book focus on all happened before I was born. They are events that all cricket fans will be aware of but they may not have an in depth knowledge of what took place. In Fraser-Sampson's excellent book the movement of cricket from a sport run by wealthy amateurs to one that was dominated by professionals whose inclusion in a side as a player or captain was based on talent not background.
Cricket at the Crossroads covers the Basil D'Olivera affair in details, from the time that D'Olivera made it into the England side to the point where his belated reinclusion in the side led to the Vorster government cancelling the England tour of South Africa in 1968-69. The comment and analysis given by Fraser-Sampson in the book is both insightful and informative and has led me to have a much greater understanding of the events that led to South Africa's 21 year sporting exile.
The book also looks at the Amateur / Professional divide and the fact that although this had been officially abolished in 1962, it appears that the MCC still would rather a "gentleman" player was England's captain regardless of whether a more able candidate was available amongst the professionals. Brian Close seemed to bear the brunt of this particular fight and Fraser-Sampson focuses on how he struggled to find his feet as England captain in this climate.
The section of the book that goes into detail of Ray Illingworth's time as England captain was of particular interest. My experience of Illingworth as a cricket fan is only when he was a somewhat disastrous and very controversial England coach and selector in the mid-1990s. As England captain he was a no less controversial figure, but it seems he was well respected by his players who felt that he would do anything for them. Fraser-Sampson paints a picture of Illingworth as a plain speaking and tactically astute captain who challenged authority and his opposition in equal measure.
In contrast, the image of Colin Cowdrey that the book gives us is one of an introverted and sullen character who did not seem able to come to terms with the turning tide within cricket. His siding with the management on England's rift filled Ashes tour of 1970-71 highlights how Cowdrey seemed unable to see how much the cricketing world had changed.
This book has left me much better informed of a pivotal period in English and World cricketing history, and is a must read for all serious cricketing fans. Even more so for those whose own period of cricket following has come in an era where acceptance of a talented cricketer was guaranteed regardless of his social or racial background.
on 10 October 2011
Cricket at Crossroads is a well written and informative read providing a background to a period of change in the world of cricket and of the country - it is detailed but does not get caught up in too much historic information that would detract from making it a most enjoyable read. The book avoids being overly sensational, but does not pull back from suggesting where mistakes were made and who may have been to blame.
I would throughly recommend this book - whilst it covers in detail the D'Olivera issue, it covers the changes leading up to this and beyond - a most interesting period of cricket and social hisotry.
on 30 January 2012
Having just read finance author and novelist Guy Fraser-Sampson's first cricket book I sincerely hope he harbours plans for more. Well-written and researched, this very enjoyable read details the Test series' played by England (or the MCC, as the touring side was still called) from 1967 to 1977. The author honed in on this particular decade as three episodes of crisis occurred that changed the structure, organisation and complexion of the English and international game forever; the Close affair, the D'Oliveira affair and the Packer affair.
The 60s were swinging, the working class voice was being heard on stage, film and in pop culture and gradually the old established ways of the old establishment were being dismantled. Yet cricket was not going to embrace the Angry Young Men or the Carnabetian Army any time soon. The mandarins at the MCC, c(C)onservative and conventional, were reluctant to change their tried and tested ways. Their practices involved covert, un-minuted meetings in oak-pannelled rooms and clubs, committees and sub-committees, nods and winks, the old school tie. It was run by the same gentlemen who ran politics, commerce, the church, education and the armed forces just as their elders had done with no thought that there may be a different way. The divisions of amateur and professional, gentleman and player, the north and south, still existed and the England cricket captain had to be the right sort of chap, regardless of batting average (for he was invariably a batsman), ability to cope with World class pace bowling or prowess in the field.
Fraser-Sampson pieces together the shameful D'Oliveira affair as best he can (rather that should read 'as best as anyone could') from which few emerge with any credit. It was an episode that proved that sport and politics cannot (or should not) always be kept apart and the outcry against D'Oliveira's exclusion, following his scintilating 158 at the Oval, began a campaign that led initially to South Africa's sporting exile, followed by the boycotting of South African exports and ultimately to the dismantling of apartheid.
It is not all politics, however. The on-field action of each series is replayed in detail. The first series I can recall was the 1975 Ashes, the summer of David Steele, Thommo, Lillee, Walker and 'George Davis is innocent', so for me, it has been a joy to have names and games of the immediate years prior to this so expertly fleshed out.
A lifetime of listening to TMS and reading about the game has ingrained legends of Close and Illingworth's captaincy; of inspirational man-management, field placings and bowling changes that only the genius of Brearley could match. However, I was surprised to read that, as skipper, Illy found himself an innings top scorer on more occasions than a late-middle-order batsman should.
Another delight was to read, on page after page, chapter by chapter, APE Knott, my boyhood idol and favourite player, cropping up not for his 'immaculate keeping', but for innings' being rescued from disaster or embarassment (often in tandem with Illingworth or Grieg, it seemed) with gutsy, occasionally classy, late-order half-centuries and centuries.
This is a solid four star/pushing four-and-a-half book. I look forward to Guy Fraser-Sampson's next one.
on 1 October 2011
Apparently, the author was commissioned to write this book by the publishers. It's a shame that they seem to have neglected to commission an editor or a fact checker as well.
It's poorly written with little use of adjectives or decent context. The descriptions are cliched in the extreme - guess how Yorkshiremen, MCC members and West Indians respectively are described!
It's riddled with errors - to take 2 from consecutive pages - Tom Cartwright wasn't playing for Somerset in the mid-1960's, and Trevor Bailey is no longer a TMS summariser.
I'll avoid any direct accusations of plagiarism, but let's just say the author seems reluctant to provide much of his own spin on information he has extracted from other sources. To take one example, Colin Cowdrey's peerage.
A shame really, as it covers a fascinating period in cricket history.
on 19 April 2016
fascinating look at an important era in crickets move from gentleman/players & how it was dragged into the modern era.
on 26 June 2014
It's a reasonably enjoyable read but spoilt by really basic errors which make you end up wondering how much else in the book is just wrong.
Two very obvious examples from the discussion of the D'Oliviera affair:
- D'Oliviera is described as being the first coloured player to represent England after the war within a couple of paragraphs of the author mentioning Raman Subba-Row (who is half Indian and played from a England from 1959-61)
- The rugby player John Taylor (mentioned for his opposition to apartied) is described as English (he's Welsh)
I could go on.
It's a shame as it's an interesting topic and an excellent book could have been written about it, but this isn't it.