Book of the Week: Did the Romans foresee Atherton ploy?

The Cricketer's Bedside Book by Julian Bedford
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The Cricketer's Bedside Book

by Julian Bedford Colt Books, pounds 18.95 hardback

PICKING ONE'S way through an anthology must be rather like scuffing over a patch of ground where precious stones are known to lie. The sense of pleasure when a gem is unearthed has to be similar.

Often the anthology comprises clusters of literary jewels, each one striving to out-dazzle the rest. Of all sports, cricket has lent itself over the ages to voluminous writings on the game (not all of them worthy of collecting) which, in turn, has given birth to numerous anthologies, drawn not merely from newspapers or magazines, but also from novels, plays, collections of poetry, or even academic works.

They are generally thoughtfully compiled, and, while selection is utterly subjective, it is remarkable how frequently the readers will find themselves nodding at the choice.

It is quite a while since a cricket anthology as eclectic as Julian Bedford's has been available for public consumption. Long overdue would not be overstating the case. But Bedford's book has been worth the wait.

Compiling an anthology is no simple matter of culling this extract or that poem, that feature or that chapter. It also requires a sound knowledge of the subject as well as a great deal of time to research the bibliography. But, above all else, what is required is imagination.

And, judging by his choices, Bedford has plenty of that. The section he has called Early Days begins with a fascinating piece by H S Altham entitled History of Cricket. Had Fronto foreseen the infamous dirt in the pocket affair, which sullied Michael Atherton's captaincy almost two millennia later? Writing to Marcus Aurelius in 150AD Fronto refers to an argument between the two men and writes: "Malitiosam pilam mihi dedisti" which, Altham suggests, translates as: "You have bowled me a pretty dirty ball."

And, however early everyone thought the 1999 season started, it would appear that Prince Edward, son of King Edward I ("Longshanks") was at it even more prematurely, according to the Wardrobe accounts of the Royal Household. On 10 March 1300 they had to fork out 100 shillings (pounds 5.00) "... for the said Prince's playing at Creag... at Westminster."

The reference to "creag" inspires Altham to suggest it was a forerunner of the game we now know. But that is the nature of this anthology.

The ancients and the moderns, from Homer to Cardus, from Nyren to Woodcock, they are all here; poets like Betjeman, Wordsworth; the literati CLR James, Julian Barnes, VS Naipaul, Dickens. And some funnies too. The late Willie Rushton's piece on gamesmanship, while having a serious dig some 20 years ago at sledging and appealing for catches that weren't, is extremely amusing. In short this is one of those "must haves" for every enthusiast of the game and, in particular, of its writings.