Monday, March 12, 2012

Book review: More than a Game - John Major

by columnist Ben Roberts

I really do need to admit that although being a born and bred Australian I am spending more and more time putting my head above the neighbouring fence and enjoying the delights of sport as enjoyed by the English. This is quite the admission, and flies in the face of everything I learned from the likes of Dean Jones, Allan Border, and Steve Waugh. English cricket to them was defined by failure and therefore very much the lesser when compared to Australia's ruthless winning culture (even when losing), but I am no longer of the same opinion and not just because Australia has lost the past two Ashes series.

The real sticking point that for my mind that Australian cricket falls short of is its cultural impact. While we cannot deny that cricket remains a strong part of Australian culture, for the English over the past 250 years it is clear that cricket has has gone beyond merely being a part of and driven culture. Australian cricket has not shifted society as English cricket did. While Australians often pointed to the archaic distinction between amateurs and professionals (upper and lower classes) as being disgraceful, the reality is that such distinctions were well established in English society at large. While cricket did indeed choose to accept and incorporate them into it's play, it became a microcosm for the observation of social distinctions highlighting their hypocritical nature and ultimately doing away with them.

Without becoming a screaming Anglophile let us not forget that there are plenty of parts of Australian cricketing history that one may choose to let lie when all is said and done. Cricket historians may eventually afford the words 'mental disintegration' the same level of disgust and horror as has already been attributed 'bodyline'.

Cricket became for England a pastime upon which a nations leisure revolved, as John Major title's his book it is 'More Than a Game' with many famous cricketing names being non-players. How many sports or leisure activities honour journalists and administrators to the same degree as cricket does? Not to mention those who were patrons of the game. How many sports have entire wings of literature (fiction and non-fiction) devoted to them, not to mention certain religious understandings being exemplified as was 'Muscular Christianity' – although a nod must go to Rugby for its theological input as well.

Major brings all of this together in a tremendous work of historical review. His purpose is to describe what he believes are the lost centuries of cricket. Crickets actual beginnings likely will never be known but positive evidence for it existing in 17th century England exists. Major takes the reader on a journey to understand these earliest moments of the game he loves, and how the gradual shift in English society was mirrored by the growth that became an empires favourite pastime.

This is not a book for the casual cricket lover so be wary. It is as full of detail as any book I have ever read. Major profiles at length the characters and teams that made up the game in each moment through history. It would be hard pressed to accept this as a good read based on that description but honestly I could not put this book down and wished it would never end.

Cricket tradition is not what it is often made out to be in 21st century Australia. Modified versions of the game did not originate with 50 over cricket or receive an injection of charisma upon the 'revolution' that is T20. Afford yourself a peruse at the very least of Wikipedia and you will find men of the like of Billy Beldham entering into one on one contests of gladiatorial nature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, or the entrepreneurial William Clarke leading his 'All-England XI' around for invitational games often against the odds. You see cricket has always evolved, tradition did not originate with Chappell brothers or even Sir Donald Bradman, cricket history runs much, much deeper.

The flow of the work is exceptional by Major. For chapter upon chapter he builds a chronologically based picture of the games history. But just at the right moment when the reader needs a rest he pauses to reflect on specific persons or positions in the game of cricket. Although counter to the rhetoric of most latter day Australian players, cricket is not limited to those privileged enough to be blessed with the skill to play. Major honours with specific chapters the patrons and administrators, scorers and journalists who do not play but their involvement requires no less admiration. They like Major, loved it unconditionally even though they may not have been able to bowl with the fire of Fred Spofforth.

Of course Major is a former British Prime Minister, and a small litter of political gibing can be found in this books pages. But we will forgive him this as politics has been his life. (Major may still wake every night trying to explain to the long-gone British public that 'New Labour' is not what you think it was, before cuddling up to his soft Mrs Thatcher doll and going back to sleep).

English cricket is a cultural phenomenon, not just a sport. Cricketers all over the world today are treading well worn paths and carrying a beacon for a culture that has a long history. They are by far not the first, nor will be the last to enjoy this great game.

This is a re-post from our affiliate book review blog, Books with Balls.  Shoot across to read more about reading!

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