Book of the Week: Alley's typical late show

The Autobiography of Bill Alley (Empire Publications, pounds 16.95)
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BILL ALLEY did not play for New South Wales until he was 26, started his county career at 38 and was over 40 when he became the last man (ever?) to score 3,000 runs in a season. He became a Test umpire at an age when others are planning to hang up the white coat in retirement, so it is appropriate that cricket's late starter should publish his autobiography 15 years after it was written and submitted.

What the Test and County Cricket Board found in it that had to be suppressed in 1984 is something of a mystery now. Alley's approach to telling the remarkable story of his career is a little like one now imagines his batting - trenchant, aggressive and forthright - but there is nothing here to damage the game.

He has his grievances - his dumping by Somerset when, at 48, he felt "fit and strong enough to continue for several more years" and his exclusion from Tests for two years after enraging Australia by failing to give Geoff Boycott out in 1977 - but this is essentially a celebration of a career made out of grabbing opportunities after they often seemed to have gone.

A candidate for Bradman's 1948 tour, Alley instead took the route that leads to Lancashire and league cricket, before belatedly joining his adopted county. Why Somerset, just about the furthest removed of all the first- class counties from his English home? He liked the name. Conversely, he would never have joined Hampshire, because he didn't like the sound of it. Nor would he have even considered Warwickshire or Sussex, whose badges he considered ridiculous!

On such shrewd calculations are legendary careers built. He might not have known it at the time, but Somerset was to be his true ecological niche. Even in the laissez-faire cricket atmosphere of the late Fifties, it was not every county that would have applauded his in-season training regime of six or seven pints of black and tan, washed down with half a dozen gin and tonics. It was, he says, "a tasty little habit I picked up in the north".

Ironically, for a man who performed his most memorable feats in his fifth decade, he advocates weeding out county professionals at half that age if they don't look like making the grade. And, despite being a famously abrasive character at the crease in his playing days, he deprecates modern standards of behaviour; the dissent, the sledging, the miserable demeanour. He also bemoans the death of the leg-spinner, but takes the chance 15 years later to recant from that particular misreading of the crystal ball.

Still, a man with his record is allowed the occasional dodgy interpretation of the past, present and future. The delayed publication of his autobiography has been timed for the year of his 80th birthday. The least we can do is to raise a dozen black and tans and gin and tonics in salute.