Between watching the World Series (well, watching adverts with the occasional glimpse of some baseball) and Gatting my way through Las Vegas buffets, I read two contrasting cricket books.
“During the course of a long and arduous career in the service of King and country I have had the honour in the name of freedom and natural justice to slaughter and maim men (and women) of countless creeds and races.”
So says the cricket-tragic Brigadier, Peter Tinniswood’s rather nastier version of PG Wodehouse’s golfing Oldest Member. Written in the 80s, there’s much of its gentle satire will go over the heads of readers under the age of fifty, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in accounts of “long-forgotten” tours to Darkest Africa and the South Pole and of Queen Victoria’s hitherto unknown cricketing prowess. I particularly enjoyed a set of obituaries which, notwithstanding their comic absurdities, could plausibly have come from any Wisden of the last few years.
In amongst the whimsy and flights of fancy, there’s a real affection for a professional game that was still very close to its recreational cousin, with the exceptions of faster bowling and more elegant cover drives. The second of my poolside companions, Nasser Hussain’s “Playing with Fire”, describes the period when these cousins parted company forever.
Leading the charge to modernity is England’s best cricket broadcaster, its most influential captain of the post-war period and a man seldom at ease with himself. Nasser, supported by ghostwriter-journalist Paul Newman, locates his life within two realms – the immigrant, but totally assimilated, Hussain family and the Essex and England cricket families. We learn of his brothers’ and sister’s academic and professional successes and of his perspective on a game in revolution. By the end of this book (2004), central contracts, training camps and clear lines of responsibility in English cricket has transformed the game and built the system that identified, coached and delivered the talent that won The Ashes a year later. But when Nasser was making his way just fifteen years earlier, English cricket is portrayed as something akin to a season-long public school outing with a bit of dashing about on the field to break up the jolly japes and dressing room banter and backbiting.
As we would expect from his broadcasting, Nasser does not shy away from an opinion or two, with Mike Gatting getting a good old skewering every fifty pages or so. However, there’s huge respect for Michael Atherton, Darren Gough and Graham Thorpe, and plenty of others on whom Nasser holds more mixed views – Graham Gooch, Ronnie Irani and Andrew Flintoff for three. There’s little apparent in the text to mark out Nasser’s undoubted aptitude for captaincy with the exception of his characteristically honest appraisal of his errors and his almost tender handling of Andrew Caddick.
But “Playing with Fire” is really two love letters to two father figures. England coach Duncan Fletcher may not have hit it off with Flintoff, but, remarkably, he did so with characters as different as Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain and delivered as successful a spell for English cricket as I expect to witness. Nasser looked up to him and would have done anything to please him – indeed, did so! And, of course the other object of his love is his actual father, Joe, the tough-loving family man who walked away from a comfortable life in Madras, dragging wife and kids behind him, in order to drive his kids relentlessly to make the most of their talents. The Hussain story is more often set in America or Australia and it’s no surprise that it took a coach and captain who loved England, but held perspectives that were not rooted in England, to shake the Brigadiers of Tinniswood’s imagination out of their comfort zones and lead English cricket to consistent victories. Now, where will England find a coach – captain combination of similar outsider / insider provenance to pull off the trick again? Oh yes… for Fletcher read Flower and for Hussain read Strauss.
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