Crciket: Rich seam of the unseemly

Andrew Baker applauds a brutally honest account of life as a county cricketer
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The title needs translation: "Yakka" is Australian slang for hard work, and that is what Simon Hughes describes: a decade of bowling into the wind in front of near-deserted grandstands, underpaid by his county, underestimated by his country, under the influence most evenings.

Unlike most ghost-written memoirs of famous cricketers, A Lot Of Hard Yakka, the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, is vivid and revealing. And unlike the autobiographies of the eminent, it is of great comfort to the talentless many. You don't close this book thinking: "I wish that had happened to me."

Yet the young seamer started on the long run-up fired with enthusiasm, fuelled with contempt for his contemporaries who had chosen conventional careers, who "grudgingly donned a jacket and tie to sit in a stuffy office each day while we cricketers roamed around, free-spirited, wearing V-necks and sponsored polo shirts".

Disillusionment quickly set in. The roaming was done on gridlocked cone- spattered motorways, the free spirits were limited (even if the cheap lager wasn't) and the cut-rate leisurewear was in short supply unless you were a Test player.

Yet the romance never disappeared. The highs of cup victories inspired a response that clearly exceeded other experiences. On bowling the winning delivery in the Benson & Hedges Cup final in 1986, he writes: "The moment of winning had been a climax, a thrill, but the warm glow of achievement, of earning the respect and gratitude of your colleagues, was a deeper sensation. Now I understood why women usually preferred the post-coital embrace to initial penetration."

This latter observation may owe something to the author's own description of the sexual act as "too short and predictable", which does not seem to have put him off. The life of the county pro may have many privations, but celibacy is not one of them.

Hughes is tough on himself, detailing failures both professional and domestic, painfully recording a receding hairline and dwindling talent. Such honesty is rare in a sportsman's memoir. But then he is not sparing of his colleagues either, and while this adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the reader, it can hardly have warmed the author's welcome at the county grounds of England.

Dermot Reeve is described as "self-obsessed", indeed "even on the nudist beach he only admired himself". The fast bowler Wayne Daniel is portrayed as a relentless lecher, "who would softly chat up your girlfriend in the bar afterwards, plying her with drinks and compliments before coming out with such toe-curling lines as 'Do I make your juices flow?'". Phil Edmonds "often swigged brandy during the day, which only made his fuse even shorter..." The author is harsh, too, about other players' wives, who "were called Steph or Jacqui, slightly less common than Sharon or Debbie". The second Mrs Hughes, it transpires, is called Tanya.

But there are affectionate portraits. Daniel, for all his rapacity, is painted in an endearing light. Hughes' Middlesex captains, the Mikes Brearley and Gatting, emerge with credit, and even Geoffrey Boycott is "a dedicated, bloody-minded, fastidious, outspoken, immaculately turned out egocentric".

It is not usually a compliment to say a book smells. But this one reeks of jock-straps and stale beer, coffin bags and boots. Opening it is like swinging back the dressing-room door: it smells right.

A Lot Of Hard Yakka (Headline, pounds 16.99), available from all bookshops, or to order by credit card at the special price of pounds 14.99 (P&P free), phone Bookpoint on 01235 400414.

Extract from the William Hill Sports Book of the Year

Saturday, 20 June, 1987. Hampshire v Middlesex, Southampton.

When someone of Malcolm Marshall's calibre comes raging towards you, instinct takes over. I shuffled back, peered for the red lump, and somewhere between it leaving his hand and extracting my off stump, I did see something. I was vaguely conscious of a seam homing towards me at one point, and that's all. The first golden duck of my career. "Did you bat today?" asked Robin Smith, trying to stifle a laugh, in the bar afterwards.

Heavy rain delayed the start of play on the Monday and the umpires, Dickie Bird and John Harris, decided there would be no play before lunch. Southampton is one of the better places to be stuck if it's raining - there are squash courts, a health club and bevies of attractive waitresses to exchange small-talk with. Dickie and I took the chance to try out the leisure facilities, ambling between the sauna, steam room and finally the Jacuzzi - something he clearly hadn't experienced before. At first he tried to get in wearing his long johns. Eventually he stripped down to his war-issue Y-fronts and dozed in the warm, frothy water. I knew he must have nodded off because he stopped talking for about three and a half minutes.

When play began I was given the new ball and was soon confronted by the Smith brothers, hungry for runs. With his bristling pectorals and iron wrists Robin is quite inhibiting to bowl at. As I ran in to begin my third over, Dickie stuck his arm out. I assumed there was debris blowing across the pitch, or movement behind the arm, or that he'd dropped one of the miniature beer barrels he used as counters. I came to a halt beside him. Beaming with satisfaction, he exclaimed, "Ee, it were grand in that booble bath, wannit?"