Book for Christmas: From the Civil Service to the uncivil side of the game: Martin Johnson thumbs through the publishers' seasonal offerings and finds agreeable surprises

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS most people know, cricket historians are divided as to who exactly the figure on the roof of the Lord's Grandstand is meant to depict. Some say that the hunched and bearded relic is Old Father Time, others think it is Graham Gooch at a press conference, while one or two believe - especially at this time of year - it is Santa Claus shortly after humping the annual avalanche of cricket books on to the sledge.

This year, as it happens, there do not seem to have been quite as many literary outpourings as usual, which is probably the result of publishers' cutbacks during the recession as opposed to authors running out of ideas. If there is a market for a book entitled: A History of Civil Service Cricket, there is clearly no limit.

Anyone whose collection would not be complete without a copy can obtain one ( pounds 7.50 inclusive of p & p) from the Civil Service Sports Council, 7-8 Buckingham Place, Bellfield Road, High Wycombe, Bucks. As you would expect, the publishers do not countenance anything as racy as colour photographs, neither do the black and white ones burst from the page with action. Sample captions: 'An eminent quintet at Chiswick, 1972' and 'Customs and Excise XI, 1973'.

However, it will certainly be of interest to many people connected with the civil service, and neither is it a complete Micky Finn for those who are not. For example, it does tell us that the chap who opened the batting at Chiswick in 1960 with Captain Roy Sewell of the Valuation Office was a certain Geoffrey Boycott, who was then employed by the Barnsley office of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Boycott requested enough time off to play for the Ministry to ask him to choose either cricket or the civil service. 'It's up to you, Mr Boycott. Do you want to be an entertainer, or a churner out of statistics?' Boycs, of course, chose the latter.

If the Test and County Cricket Board's marketing men had been in charge of promoting the book, the title would probably have been something like: Boycott] The Dark Secret He Kept From The World. Years ago, posters used to go up next to cricket grounds saying things like: 'England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, June 17-21.' Nowadays, 11 England cricketers are pictured scowling next to the caption: 'Watch Out For Your Bails, Australia]' Tasteless, about as witty as a tooth abcess, and not least, guaranteed to make you look a total twerp when Australia wipe the floor with you.

It is this kind of thing (ironically, heavily Australian in its style) which taxes the former Wisden editor Graeme Wright in Betrayal: The Struggle For Cricket's Soul (Witherby, pounds 16.99). It is a touch over-emotively titled, and the author will tell you that it was as much a labour for pecuniary reward as an overpowering desire to rescue cricket from the perils of commercial prostitution.

However, when Wright observes that 'cricket is now no more than a car, a beer, or a washing up liquid . . . marketed by people who know little of its history, traditions, emotions, and place in national life,' he is probably investing some of the marketing men with more feeling for the game than they deserve.

Professional cricket, of course, has to be run as a business, but Wright can see a little more of the Arthur Daley forecourt influence than the Barnsley Pensions Office. Everything is up for grabs, right down to the umpires' coats and the grass itself, and whenever a player has a camera lens pointed at him these days, there is usually some bloke in a blazer asking the photographer to hang on while everyone changes into a Tetley hat and grabs hold of a can.

During the 1992 World Cup, the hard sell was so intrusive that when the teams gathered for the opening ceremony in Sydney Harbour, it was a genuine surprise to find that the Opera House roof did not have Benson and Hedges daubed all over it. Before too long, we will have dogs jumping through hoops during the hours of play, with cricket taking place in the intervals.

Wright starts with the scrapping of the old amateur/professional distinction, and traces the hard-nosing of cricket through to the appointment this year of a paid chief executive to the International Cricket Council. This latter system, however, was long overdue, as there was a limit to how long honorary figureheads like Sir Colin Cowdrey could operate in such a way as to require the services of a trusty secretary (Lt Col John Stephenson) to trail dutifully behind him with a pooper- scooper.

Of the player autobiography type genre, some of which can be hopelessly formularised to the point of being unreadable, two of the better ones this year come from Derek Randall and Robin Smith. Rags: The Autobiography of Derek Randall (Sport-in-Print, pounds 14.99) is the more lightweight of the two, as you might expect from a much loved extrovert who often gave the impression of being one ball short of an over. He wanted to play cricket for ever, and it is the spectators' loss that he could not.

Anyone who has watched Smith murdering some of the world's best bowlers will find it hard to believe that he is almost as nervous a character as Randall, and in Quest For No 1 (Robin Smith with John Crace, Boxtree, pounds 15.99) Smith gets involved in the psychology of the game. A quiet, likeable character, Smith has only once wanted to punch someone's lights out, which is when the sledging went over the top in a recent home Test series. Clue: it wasn't against Australia.

One of the great Australian fast bowlers, who achieved it with an on-field persona directly opposite to Merv Hughes (he once fell asleep fielding at third man), was Graham McKenzie, and Garth: The Story of Graham McKenzie (Sportspages, Caxton Walk, Charing Cross Road, WC2H OJG, pounds 9.95) is a well told story of a charming and talented cricketer.

Two other books that would make ideal gifts are the Benson and Hedges Cricket Year (12th edition, Headline, pounds 19.99), 300 colour photographs in addition to a comprehensive record of the year's cricket, and The Innings Of My Life (compiled by Jack Bannister, Headline, pounds 16.99), in which 40 cricketers, from Bradman to Hick, reveal what they consider to be their finest individual performance.