Christmas Books: Pietersen's prophecy thumped for six by host of classier buys

Works on Laker, the Ashes, arm balls and zooters are the year's best offerings. By David Llewellyn
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The Independent Culture

The folly of writing an "autobiography" before your professional sporting career is not even half over is perfectly illustrated by the England batsman Kevin Pietersen. Published on the back of England's 2005 Ashes success, Crossing The Boundary (Ebury Press £18.99) contains some hard-hitting words to match its author's batting.

The South Africa-born batsman is scathing about the Proteas captain, Graeme Smith, and he slams the quota system that has been forced on sport in his homeland. But he is more likely to be remembered for a statement he made which has since come back to bite him.

The foreword to the book is written by his Hampshire colleague Shane Warne, the Australian leg-spinner. Pietersen focuses on Warne when describing a moment of the Ashes Test at Trent bridge last year.

Pietersen writes: "I know Shane feels he can bowl anyone round their legs, but I don't think he can get me out that way. I just don't feel it's possible."

Ah, the folly of youth. In the second innings of the second Test in Adelaide, Pietersen attempted a sweep shot against Warne and was bowled round his legs. It would appear that in addition to the foreword, Warne also had the last word.

It is an entertaining read, but somehow it does not have the enduring qualities of some of the year's other publications.

The outstanding ones this year have been Peter Walker's It's Not Just Cricket (Fairfield Books, £15.00); 19-90: Jim Laker, by Brian Scovell (Tempus, £18.99) and Cricket's Burning Passion: Ivo Bligh and the Story of The Ashes, by Scyld Berry and Rupert Peploe (Methuen, £17.99).

The things they all have in common is that they have been thoroughly researched and are all well written. They all have something to say - even teach us.

Berry, the cricket correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, and Peploe, the great grandson of Ivo Bligh, have produced a riveting study into what makes the fight for the Ashes so special.

And, along the way, another passion becomes apparent, that of Bligh for a certain Miss Florence Morphy, raised in Australia but of Irish stock. Their courtship is followed closely thanks to correspondence made available through the Bligh family. The cricket is, of course, the main vehicle and as the 1882-83 series Down Under gathers momentum so do the passions.

It is a truly great read. So, too, is Walker's contribution. When C L R James wrote "What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?" it put all these youthful autobiographies into perspective.

Walker's life has been crammed with incidents and accidents, moments and events outside cricket, as well as in the game. That is why this book is so good.

Scovell's study of Laker, the outstanding off-spinner of his day, who was to become one of the game's finest television commentators, is fascinating.

Laker was an outspoken man and upset the figures of the cricketing establishment, most notably Freddie Brown, the Surrey and England captain, Peter May, and a politician, Lord Monckton, sometime president of MCC and Surrey, the county for whom Laker had played a key role during their domination of the County Championship during the 1950s.

This is a tale of prejudice, plots and petty politics. That Laker emerges with escutcheon unstained can be put down to some ruthless research on the part of the author.

These are books with class. They have the literary stamina to survive tests of time, as is the case with two other superb publications.

The first is a reprint of Ranji: The Strange Genius of Ranjitsinhji By Simon Wilde (Aurum, £7.99) and is well worth buying in paperback if you missed out the first time seven years ago. The second is another great work, same publisher, same price, this is a new collection of C L R James' works, A Majestic Innings: Writings on Cricket (Aurum, £7.99). Don't miss them.

A number of people already mentioned above are the subject of another excellent book. It is possible to see the dust gathering on closed eyelids when one hears the title The Presidents of MCC, By Jonathan Rice (Methuen £19.99). But the title belies a fascinating read, because Rice, the national chairman of the cricket charity, The Lord's Taverners, has done a thoroughly good job in painting portraits of the characters who have headed up the cricketing establishment.

On a lighter note Lawrence Booth's A-Z of the game, Arm Ball to Zooter (Penguin £12.99) is a little belter. An informative, amusing guide to much of cricket's jargon.

David English's Confessions Of A Dedicated Englishman (MacMillan, £17.99) is a raunchy romp through the game with names dropped as frequently as England catches.

The website Cricinfo has produced the definitive guide to International Cricket 2007, Edited by Steven Lynch (John Wisden, £8.99) with short essays and career statistics on every player expected to play Test cricket in 2007.

Sadly, Damien Martyn's unexpected resignation has caught them out, but never mind. It is pretty comprehensive and should be useful - as they claim - for the forthcoming World Cup.