Wisdom of cricketers and the Wisden of facts

CRICKET: Explore the dark side of Wally Hammond and the light side of `Dickie' Bird with David Llewellyn
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The Independent Online
There is nothing like a good mystery story to fill the long hours between meals over the festive period. Before giving in to pre- and post- prandial sleep, scratch the itch of curiosity and dip into one of the most absorbing cricketing biographies to hit the shelves since David Foot's last work.

Wally Hammond, Gloucestershire and England, professional and amateur, batsman and bowler, had the lot, including an obscene amount of natural sporting talent earning him a string of records in the game. His physical fitness and good looks attracted women to him and prompted plenty of speculation about his sexual athleticism.

Yet, as David Foot reveals in his sensitively written biography Wally Hammond, The Reasons Why (Robson Books, pounds 17.95), the figures and the feats of this cricketing legend on the field shed no light on the darker side of someone regarded by many of his contemporaries as a taciturn, uncommunicative figure, with little sense of humour, an obsession with privacy and, the worst of all English social crimes, a snob to boot. Personal relationships did not work out, nor did business ventures and Hammond died in comparative poverty in South Africa in 1965 - leaving behind him enough rumour, innuendo and whisperings to titillate the curious.

Foot examines the bizarre circumstances surrounding the young Hammond's illness which forced him to miss the 1926 season. Was it malaria or syphilis that he contracted in the Caribbean? Was he descended from a more exotic bloodline than his Anglo-Saxon parentage suggested? Were these the determining factors in the formation of one of the enigmas of English cricket?

Foot adores the probing and analysis, attempting to unravel the gordian knot of the psyche, trying to understand the motivation of a sportsman, looking for answer that he knows are probably going to elude him, but what a rivetting read all the same.

And there is not too much cricket. Hammond's private life has been carefully pieced together by Foot, himself a Somerset man so he had no real axe to grind, and the cricket has been placed gently on the back burner, simmering quietly, just a spoonful being applied by the author here and there, and only where relevant.

Foot has gone to great lengths in his research to back up his hypotheses on his subject, going so far as to quote from a medical paper on the subject of mercury as a treatment for syphilis, published in 1990, and its long- term side effects. A challenging and absorbing book, well worth the money.

As a contrast with the Hammond biography, the colourful Allan Lamb is anything but coy in his life story. Allan Lamb, My Autobiography (Collins Willow, pounds 15.99) is so highly coloured that in fact it led to the South African-born English Test batsman being forced out of the game.

By agreeing to publish the book while still a player, Lamb was in breach of Test and County Cricket Board regulations and so he retired from active service and followed the well-worn route of retired sports personalities into a new career in the electronic media.

Lamb goes into detail about the ball tampering affair during the 1992 series against Pakistan and the court case against Imran Khan; he also writes of the infamous Kerry Packer in the casino affair during the 1990- 91 tour of Australia - and he makes it clear that he does not tolerate curfews, having adopted the work hard, play hard philosophy.

He does do what Foot admirably avoids, relating the various keynote matches, innings, catches etc. But for sheer honesty and guts - he did after all know that it would finish his career by going ahead and publishing - this particular account takes a lot of beating.

It would be impossible to store every life story published, so the next best way has to be by acquiring one of the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionaries on world cricket ever published. Christopher Martin-Jenkins' World Cricketers (Oxford University Press, pounds 25.00) is a staggering tome, spanning cricket's Test playing A-Z - Australia to Zimbabwe.

The intention, claims the author, was "to produce readable, short biographies of every notable player or influential personality from the earliest days to present."

Martin-Jenkins, together with a knowledgeable team of writers, has certainly achieved that admirably. While appearing pricey, this represents real value for money and a worthy addition to any cricketing library.

While an autobiography is due out in the New Year, fans of the game's favourite umpire, Dickie Bird, can settle down with Brian Scovell's Dickie - A Tribute to Umpire Harold Bird (Partridge Press, pounds 12.99), a comprehensive collection of anecdotes and tributes culled from everyone who is anyone in the game and out of it: celebrities, politicians, peers. It amuses and whets the appetite for something more substantial about this most eccentric of characters.

Dickie is featured in Bob Willis's oddball, Cricket - Six of the Best (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 14.99). A series of categories in the game, with some thought-provoking opinions from the former England captain and fast bowler. Unusual, but well worth a read though.

A journalist lives by the creed: Today's newspaper is tomorrow's chip wrapper. Given that, attempts at collecting the best writing is almost sacrilege.

Perhaps it might introduce people to different newspapers, but the subjectivity of such a volume is generally enough to make the adjective "best" redundant. For all that, David Rayvern Allen's In The Covers -The Best Cricket Writing of the Year (Headline, pounds 15.99) is an excellent distillation all of the happenings in 1996.

While the expected doyens of the cricket press box are included, there are also pieces by some up-and-comers, including the Independent's Adam Szreter.

It would be foolish to discount the hardy annuals which appear every year. The superbly produced Benson & Hedges Cricket Year (15th edition, edited by David Lemmon, Bloomsbury, pounds 20.00) has the lot, from all over the world and in a very short time. You want to know what happened last season? Relive the memories of the NatWest Trophy final? Or find out where your man finished in the averages? This has the answers.

If B&H's masterwork is the New Testament, Wisden remains the Bible of the game. It is still some four months until next year's primrose yellow jacketed Almanac appears, but the 133rd Edition is still available at pounds 24.50, as is Playfair's invaluable vade mecum, the 1996 Cricket Annual, edited by the incomparable Bill Frindall - a bargain at pounds 4.99.