(The Greatest Sporting Contest of All)
Published by Allen & Unwin 2023
I made the mistake of going to bed when the final day of the first cricket test between Australia and England was delayed by rain. What an exciting day’s play I missed. Cricket.com called it a “nerve-shredding two-wicket win on the back of a redoubtable ninth-wicket stand between skipper Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon.”
To all those readers who think cricket is a boring and uninteresting game and didn’t understand one word of the Cricket.com quote, please read this book.
For everyone who gets that a five-day sporting contest can be riveting and exciting, even if the game ends in a draw, then this book is one not to be missed.
The marketing blurb says this about the author:
“Gideon Haigh was born in England and lives in Australia, with a parent from each. He was eight when he attended his first Ashes Test, twenty-four when he reported his first Ashes series. Gideon has written about cricket in The Australian, The Times, The Guardian, the Financial Times and in over thirty books.”
When I saw the title of this book, I anticipated that it might be a rather dry chronological history of test cricket between Australia and “the old enemy”, England. But Haigh tells the story of the Ashes, mainly via the personal vignettes of many of those who have taken part in the Ashes struggles over the years.
We are told:
“In On the Ashes, today’s pre-eminent cricket writer Gideon Haigh has captured over a century and a half of Anglo-Australian cricket, from W. G. Grace to Don Bradman, from Bodyline to Laker’s Match, from Botham’s Miracle at Headingley to the phenomena of Patrick Cummins and Ben Stokes, today’s Ashes captains.”
The book is really a collection of pieces written by Haigh over his many years as a cricketing journalist.
Haigh begins the narrative by telling the reader:
“The ashes fails almost every test as a modern sporting trophy. It confers no number one status, involves no massive cash prize and plods along in a slow-moving format widely considered obsolete. The small, frail urn would not catch your eye in a bric-a-brac shop, embodying the rivalry of a distant time, and riffing on a forgotten joke – about, for heaven’s sake, cremation.”
Those of us who have enjoyed playing cricket, even as a ‘park-cricket plodder’, and watched the game over a number of years will find parts of the book a bit of a trip down memory lane. I was reminded about the many delightful hours that I spent as a child listening to ABC cricket commentator Alan McGilvray on my trannie, and at the Sydney Cricket Ground watching games, some more exciting than others.
The first player to get a mention is English-born Australian player Charles Bannerman, who in March 1877, faced the first ever ball bowled in test cricket between England and Australia. He went on the pile an impressive, and match-winning, 165 runs.
We are told the tale of many well-known players, but also some lesser-known lights such as Tom Horan, Billy Midwinter, George Griffen, Bob Wyatt and Harry Trott. Their stories are mentioned for various different reasons. Trott, for example led Australia to its first win in a five-Test ashes series, but in 1899 he was admitted to the Kew Asylum, a Melbourne psychiatric hospital, and later declared bankrupt. Midwinter, who played for both England and Australia, died at the young age of 39 after also being admitted to Kew and being described in The Australasian as a ‘helpless imbecile.’
Haigh explores some of the more interesting historical aspects of the Ashes contest. One fascinating fact is that for many years the England team enforced a strict code of separation between its professional and amateur players. The amateurs were referred to as ‘Gentlemen’ whilst the professionals were ‘Players.’ They had separate dressing rooms and walked onto the field through different gates.
This is not a bland, statistic laden history of cricket, and it is certainly not just a book for the cricket tragic. It tells of triumph and tragedy, struggles against the odds, and anyone who has a taste for human interest stories and social history will find this a fascinating read, as of course will those who love cricket.