Monday, April 25, 2011

Professor Matthew Engel

Here's a treat:

To his great surprise, Matthew Engel was invited to become the News International Visiting Professor of Media at Oxford University, in which capacity he delivered a series of lectures entitled Please, mister, can we have our ball back? Sport, the media, and the people earlier this year. The link leads to the text of the lectures.

I have made plain in other posts my admiration for Engel's writing. He became the cricket correspondent of The Guardian in 1982, after impressing on the county circuit (The Times for Gibson or The Guardian for Engel was a taxing choice for a young student in the early eighties).

From 1987 he divided his time between sport and the rest of the world, including a spell on The Guardian's Washington desk. He follows in the tradition of Cardus, Arlott and Alan Ross in being better known to some readers for his writing on other subjects, though he found time to drag the Wisden Almanack into the modern era. He edited 12 editions in two spells, and improved the quality of the writing in the good book considerably. Nowadays, his journalism is found in the Financial Times, which has a pay fence with lots of holes in it rather than a paywall, so it is easy enough to keep up with him.

So Engel is a splendid choice for an Oxford Chair, if unlikely one for a Murdoch-funded office. When I attended a sportswriting workshop Engel ran at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 1995 he was very much of the he-is-the-devil's-spawn school of thought on Murdoch and his influence on the British media. His view has mellowed into ambivalence: he is for paywalls and admires the success of the British version of Sky TV, while regretting the extent to which some sports administrators are in thrall to it.

Engel identifies other reasons for his being an appropriate choice for an Oxford professorship:

My hair is often rumpled, my clothes a bit askew, my jacket a bit shabby. I have a taste for obscure lines of enquiry. I am hopelessly absent-minded. I am secretly addicted to pointless political intrigues, which I’m told would make me feel at home in any senior common room in Oxford. And most of the time, nobody knows what on earth I’m talking about.
 In the lectures he traces the relationship between sport and the media from cave paintings onwards, outing Homer as a bad sports reporter along the way. He shows how mutually beneficial this relationship has been:
Cricket in particular was a media creation: newspapers, not the MCC, created the concepts of the County Championship, Test matches and the Ashes.
He reminds us how important the game was to the Murdoch when it appeared that Sky TV could bring News International crashing down in the early 90s. The first big spike in the sale of dishes preceded the beginning of football's Premier League by six months: it was the 1992 cricket World Cup. Engel quotes David Elstein, an early Sky head of programmes, as saying “that’s when Surrey discovered Sky”. Before then, a dish was not something that a respectable home would have attached to it.

Engel makes the point that cricket is ideally suited to pay TV, which has hours to fill, and less so to the constricted free-to-air schedules, which have so many demands upon them. Even so, he regrets that cricket, alone of significant British sports, has removed itself entirely from live free-to-air coverage. Evidence that he is right to worry about the consequences of this is already apparent. There was nothing like the public interest in the 2009 Ashes series that there had been in 2005, when key passages of play enthralled the country.

I suggest a solution that I have not seen proposed anywhere else: that play after lunch on the Saturday or Sunday of every Test should be shown on a free-to-air channel (probably the one showing highlights), along with a couple of ODIs every summer. That would allow the general public to recognise the players at least, but would not be enough to dissuade viewers from subscribing to Sky, so would not significantly reduce the amount on the Murdoch cheque.

Engel suggests that TV is responsible for sport being got out of proportion these days. He contrasts the response to the England football team's victory in the 1966 World Cup – which the country's biggest-selling newspaper the Daily Mirror did not feature on the front or back page on the following Monday – with the hysterical, see-pages-1-to-26 reaction to success or failure that is routine these days (he cites Paul Collingwood's MBE for 17 runs at the Oval in 2005 in support: case closed). He says that the recent experience of war 45 years ago meant that people had a sense of perspective and knew how unimportant sport actually was.

Use the link to enjoy the lectures.

There's another Matthew Engel piece that is required reading (but it comes with a resilience-required warning):

It is an account of the terminal illness and death of his 13-year-old son Laurie in 2005. Of course, a writer of moderate talent could produce a tearjerker from such subject matter; but only a great journalist could write a piece of such honesty, wit and humanity.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Harold Larwood" and "A Last English Summer" by Duncan Hamilton

Duncan Hamilton has emerged as one of cricket's most important writers. Until four years ago he was unknown except to readers of the Nottingham Evening Post and the Yorkshire Post, the papers he worked for in a thirty-year career as a provincial journalist. For the former, he reported on Nottingham Forest FC for more than a decade, observing at close quarters the progress of the club's manager Brian Clough from eccentric genius to drunken legend. Hamilton's first book was an account of these years and it won the Sports Book of the Year prize for 2007.

He then turned to cricket (his first love, one suspects), but stuck with the theme of Nottingham heroes, with the 2009 biography of Harold Larwood, the great fast bowler. It also won the Sports Book of the Year Award, making Hamilton only the second double winner, after Donald McRae, who writes mostly about boxing. He followed Harold Larwood with A Last English Summer, a journey through the 2009 English cricket season.

Both books have been on my must-read list for a while and just when I was on the point of resorting to Amazon for one or the other I found both on the shelves of Wellington's splendid Central Library.

Harold Larwood tells one of cricket's most famous stories. Larwood came from the traditional source of fast bowlers in northern England: the pit. He became the fastest bowler in the country and led the attack in the Bodyline Ashes series of 1932/3. Others bowled bodyline – a systematic attack on the batsman's body, with a ring of close catchers on the legside waiting for a deflection as he fended the ball off – but Larwood did so with unequalled speed and accuracy, and that's what caused all the fuss. The Australians were outraged, the public schoolboys who ran the game in England, embarrassed. Larwood, who had simply followed the instructions of his captain Douglas Jardine, became the fall guy.

They even asked him to sign a letter of apology. His mother told him that he would never see her alive if he signed it, which he didn't, but the pressure weighed him down.He never played Test cricket again, and Hamilton shows us Larwood's torment as he spent the next decade or more hiding from the nonsense that Bodyline generated. Hamilton resists the temptation to express his own outrage at the injustices done to Larwood, but tells the story in an understated way that leaves the reader to become angry on his behalf.

The portrayal of incidental figures is strong. It was fascinating to learn how Nottinghamshire's coach Jimmy Iremonger turned the scrawny, five-foot-seven Larwood into one of the fastest bowlers the game has seen. With his strong emphasis on physical fitness, Iremonger was decades ahead of his time, except that his favoured energy drink came in pint glasses with froth on top.

The villains are Sir Pelham Warner and Sir Donald Bradman. Warner was the England manager and appears here two-faced and weaselling. He was knighted in 1937, as Larwood, who he had hung out to dry, faded from the game, to the relief of Warner's fellow Lord's grandees, who were pleased to be rid of an embarrassment.

Jardine (who Larwood revered to the end) adopted bodyline to nullify Bradman, who, alone among the bowler's Australian adversaries, remained cool towards him, and failed to offer any assistance to Larwood when he emigrated to Sydney in 1951. This was in contrast to Jack Fingleton, whose tracking down of Larwood to a backstreet Blackpool sweetshop I have written about:

Hamilton says that the former Australian opener's intervention was more decisive than Fingleton himself described, suggesting that far from building upon an existing notion, it was this visit that set Larwood thinking about emigration to the place where he had been public enemy No 1 less than twenty years before, and where he lived happily for the last four decades of his life.

The book is meticulously researched and has not only a detailed index, but also (and I can't remember when I last came across one in a sports book) a bibliography (so does A Last English Summer).

For me, only David Foot's Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket had passed the ultimate test for a first-rate cricket biography: that it could be enjoyed by a reader without an interest in the game, but Harold Larwood does so too .

A Last English Summer was inspired by Geoffrey Moorhouse's similar account of the 1978 season The Best Loved Game, which I was rather underwhelmed by:

Hamilton's journey is much more to my liking, partly because he is about my age, and we share memories, such as watching Derek Underwood bowl out Australia in grainy black and white at the Oval in 1968. Both of us were drawn to the game by early exposure to the vibrant play of the West Indies. Like mine, his childhood was spent in the shadow of a speech impediment, and I suspect that for both of us cricket grounds were places of sanctuary.

Hamilton appreciates the importance of ritual in cricket. He gets the beginning and end of the season spot on, starting at Lord's for MCC versus the champion county (a game played in Abu Dhabi for the last two years, which alleviates the early-season frostbite, at least), and ending, as I so often did, at Canterbury.

At Lord's he captures the suppressed excitement of the devotee at the start of the season and understands that it is really relief at having made it through another winter.

In September at the St Lawrence Ground he ignores the meaningless 40-over game being played, finding more interest in the Chevallier Taylor painting of Blythe bowling to Tyldesley in 1906 that hangs in the pavilion, a copy now, as the original has been flogged off to ease the county's penury. Something that non-cricket folk do not grasp is how tangential to a good day at the cricket the actual game can be.

Each chapter is an essay replete with pertinent observation and fine writing. There are always two stories to be told: one on the field of play and one off, of which the latter is the more important. Thus a visit to the Cheltenham Festival becomes a polemic in favour of cricket at out grounds. Graham Onions is described as having the appearance of “an estate agent on his morning off”.

At first many of his opinions appear typical of a cricket person of his (my) age, but he is much more aware. He mocks the snooty attitudes of EW Swanton and JM Kilburn to 40-over Sunday county cricket when it appeared in 1969 – he enjoyed this form of the game as I did, even though we both appreciated its limitations – only to ingeniously turn his argument upon himself when he realises that the objections of the old men are precisely those he has against T20. Nevertheless, when he laments T20, he speaks for me.

I particularly enjoyed his dislike of the games of football that seem central to the warm-up routines:

I long for a Saturday afternoon when I turn up at Old Trafford or Anfield and watch Manchester United and Liverpool pitch two sets of stumps and arrange a 5-4 field in the penalty area for a half-hour of cricket before a Premier League game.
Everywhere he goes, Hamilton takes a sense of history with him. At Trent Bridge he begins with a photo of WG Grace and the England team taken during the Grand Old Man's last test, and finishes with a spectacular piece of fielding by Angelo Matthews of Sri Lanka in the World T20 game he is watching, barely twenty yards from the site of the photo. No game has changed more than cricket without becoming something else altogether. WG would recognise T20 as a game of cricket while being astonished at most aspects of it, notably the fielding. Hamilton skilfully celebrates the continuity that cricket sustains.

A visit to the Ashes test at Edgbaston begins miles away, at the grave of Edmund Peate, whose dismissal to a reckless shot concluded the Oval Test of 1882, England's defeat prompting the mock obituary in the Sporting Times which initiated the Ashes legend. He day he chooses to visit Edgbaston is wet, so he has plenty of time to regret that a day at the Test in Birmingham in particular is an occasion for drunks to behave objectionably.

I do have a gripe with the book, bearing in mind that it was written by an experienced sub-editor. There are too many mistakes that should have been picked up by proficient proofreading and fact-checking. Mark Wagh (the Warwickshire/Notts batsman, not the Australian), Sir Frank Worrell, Nigel Llong, Ed Giddins and Chris Gayle all have their names misspelled. He has Dominic Cork taking his Test hat-trick in 1993 (two years early), and Keith Miller scoring a double century at Worcester in 1952 (in which case he was playing for the Indians).

But these are trivial matters and do not impinge upon enjoyment of a substantial contribution to cricket literature. I look forward to much more from Duncan Hamilton in years to come.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...