Ashes to Ashes, By Marcus Berkmann

One of that most peculiar of breeds, the English cricket obsessive, looks back on a lifetime of defeat
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The Independent Culture

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? The brilliant Marxist historian CLR James answered his own question, an inversion of Kipling's imperial quandary, in Beyond a Boundary, his semi-autobiography of 1963 which is rightly considered one of the finest sports books ever written. But there is a short answer too, and it is one that every author of a book on cricket must keep in mind from the outset: for those who really know about cricket, there's not much else in the world that's worth knowing about.

It is probably true that this game, with its arcane laws, peculiar vernacular and eccentric customs, is the most impenetrable of all truly global sports. "The combination of triviality and obscurity is what's significant," as Joseph O'Neill put it when addressing the incompatibility of cricket with the American imagination. And yet it is this very impenetrability, and the associated depth of action, which automatically converts every cricket fan into what common parlance calls "a cricket nut". Watchers of cricket tend not to come by halves: those who understand the game, as O'Neill and James could tell you, live the game. It becomes their every spare thought.

Marcus Berkmann suffers from this affliction. He is nuts about cricket, but also slightly nutty, in the milder sense of that term, when describing it. He makes no apology for this aspect to his character, and consequently has written a book that will be fully understood, never mind appreciated, by only a small portion of mankind – namely those cricket nuts themselves, and especially the English variety. For them, however, it is a rare treat.

Berkmann's specific subject matter is the Ashes contest between England and Australia, as manifested through his lifetime. Cricket history is mostly just a sequence of imperial inversions, wherein the English suffer the humiliation of being defeated at their own game by their former subjects. And no rivalry has been a greater source of sustained shame to the English than the Ashes.

Over 35 years of watching the contest with religious zeal, Berkmann witnesses seemingly interminable defeat. First, the terrifying fast bowlers Lillee and Thomson destroy England in game after game in the 1970s. Then the era of Australian captain Allan Border imposes a similar fate, before passing in the mid-1990s. Only then does his successor, Steve Waugh, torment England further. Respite, when it (rarely) comes, tastes magnificent – not least in 1981, when Berkmann's disappointment at returning from university with a third-class degree is ameliorated by Ian Botham's genius, and in 2005, when England win a gripping series to bring the celebrated terracotta urn home for the first time in 18 years.

Punctuated throughout with conversations between Berkmann and his friends (fellow cricket nuts all), the book oozes a laddish solidarity: we might be crap, but we've got each other, and that's what counts. There is a huge amount of detail on team changes and batsmen's dismissals which people unfamiliar with the game won't fathom. But those who have endured what the author has endured will appreciate the reminders. Berkmann's wit lays bare the painful vicissitudes of hoping for English success, and if his account of the last Ashes series in Australia, when England were thrashed 5-0, is inexplicably brief, his evocation of the 19 preceding series is captivating.

There is charm too, in the indefatigability of his hope for English victory in the future. Hating on your opponents is easy; persevering with the almost incessantly inferior English – that's the hard part. You'd have to be a cricket nut to get it.

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