Christmas books: Freddie - a colossus of heavy drinking

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The Independent Culture

Nobody's going to be too critical of the England cricket team for being thumped by Pakistan in the Test series that finished a fortnight ago. After the Ashes triumph of the summer, the nation is in a mood to forgive, indeed not really to care. Beating Australia seems to have become all that matters.

Still, it took the gloss off things slightly, and you do wonder whether the best use was made of the precious few weeks' break that the players had between the two series. I am thinking not so much about the celebrating as the writing - or at least the dictating. The three most important figures in the England set-up - captain Michael Vaughan, star all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, and coach Duncan Fletcher - were all busy rushing out books about their amazing summer when they might have been enjoying a bit of much-needed downtime.

In career terms, the books - and in Flintoff's case, the DVD - have their place, of course. The extent to which not just cricket fans but the wider public were caught up in the Ashes drama was greater than at any time since the height of the Ian Botham era in the early 1980s. With no international football tournament to distract attention, cricket held centre stage and made household names of men not used to being recognised outside cricket. The moment had to be seized.

For the same reason, accounts of the Ashes series don't stop with Vaughan's Calling the Shots (Hodder £18.99), Flintoff's Being Freddie (Hodder £18.99), and Fletcher's Ashes Regained (Simon & Schuster £12.99). You can take your pick from at least five other titles that concern themselves exclusively with the events of those tumultuous seven weeks. It's the multiple camera angle effect. You can view the same piece of action over and over again and see it differently every time.

Which angle you prefer will depend, in the case of the three insiders, on whose company you most enjoy. For most people, that will be Flintoff, an honest-to-goodness, no-airs-and-graces colossus who through sheer good-natured exuberance has become the acceptable face of heavy drinking. The day Flintoff turns into a connoisseur of fine wine - as Ian Botham and David Gower have - will in many ways be a sad one.

Flintoff writes as he plays - freely, cheerfully, but with his feet on the ground. Revelling in life, he is happy just to get on with it. The greater insights, as you might expect, come from Vaughan and Fletcher, but all three share a sense of proportion that keeps them rooted, and which was surely critical in the defeat of Australia. "A little bit of self-deprecation never did anybody any harm," writes Vaughan, who early in his captaincy was keen to stress that the team wasn't "his" but "England's". There were many who thought this attitude was inconsistent with leadership, notably the former England captain Ray Illingworth, but how wrong they were.

Fletcher remains the unsung hero of England's resurgence, a one-time civil servant in his native Zimbabwe whose combination of people skills and technical understanding have made him perhaps the pre-eminent coach in world cricket. What's fascinating in his book is how much of the players' thinking he does for them without, it seems, ever cramping their style.

If you want an observer's take on the series to balance the view from within the England camp, the choice is really between Ashes 2005 by Gideon Haigh (Aurum £9.99) and David Frith's Battle for the Ashes (Ebury £14.99), both fine books that bring a sense of history to bear on events. There's no sense of history at all in Is it Cowardly to Pray for Rain? (Abacus £7.99), which rightly preserves for posterity the online reporting of the series that appeared on the Guardian's website. The joy is in the jokes and the immediacy.

That leaves two titles. Ashes Victory (Orion £17.99), "the official story of the greatest ever Test series in the team's own words" takes the literature-of-record approach, and because it's produced by the Professional Cricketers' Association is very much an encomium to the men who did it. I think we can forgive them that. Finally, there's the picture-led annual Victory! Battle for the Ashes 2005 by Sam Pilger (Carlton £12.99).

Funniest cricket book of the year: Marcus Berkmann's unmissable Zimmer Men (Little, Brown £16.99), which charts the unsteady progress of his Sunday cricket team into middle age, while Morning Everyone (Orion £16.99) comprises more witty reflections from Simon Hughes, the county pro-turned TV pundit. Richie Benaud's fans will want to mark the year of his retirement from TV commentary in England by picking up his My Spin on Cricket (Hodder £18.99), and 2005 also saw the publication of one of the best cricketing autobiographies of recent years, Graham Thorpe's Rising from the Ashes (HarperCollins Willow £18.99). The IoS's Stephen Fay has done both Lord's and a great cricketer proud in Tom Graveney at Lord's (Methuen £18.99)a portrait of a year in the life of an MCC president.

There's a lot worth getting through - but at least there won't be any Pakistan tour diaries to clutter the shelves further.

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