Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book review: Game for Anything - Gideon Haigh

If Bill Simmons is the everyman sportswriter full of pop culture, in-jokes and homer-isms, then Gideon Haigh is his antithesis. You read Simmons as he thinks aloud, a man down at the bar with his mates. However, he's just self-aware enough to know that because he monopolises the conversation he should fling jokes about to keep his audience engaged. There's obvious research, but done on the sly; he's no stat-geek, but muses on feel and zeitgeist.

Haigh, deliberately and with culture incomparable, compiles cricketing words that evokes a history professor's magnum opus. Immaculate research, mirrored by thoughtful prose. Simmons' raison d'etre is entertaining learning. For Haigh, it is the reverse. And they're both brilliant.

Cover image courtesy: tower.com
Haigh's compendious “Game for Anything” released in Australia his collected writings for publications such as Wisden Asia and the now-defunct periodicals The Bulletin and Wisden Cricket Monthly. It features several learned insights into periods of the game about which I, a studious and informed cricket fan, knew very little. Each essay is structured magnificently, being economical yet descriptive; each word is steeped in context. That he quotes an assortment of historical figures from Jardine Machiavelli to Mark Waugh exemplifies his remarkable reading range.

In fact the stand-out point of Haigh's work is just that – his research. Articles are based not around his palpable love of the game, it's correct spirit and statutes; his writing is revolves around a prescient “angle” and why it emerges as such a story from a multi-textured background.

There are elements of whimsy as well: he defines his favourite cricketer as the English batsman Chris Tavare, decries the rise of park cricket sledging and, most beautifully of all, develops delicate snapshots of cricket history. These short trips are, unlike the footage that comprises most of our memories, full-colour and high-definition – he makes Bradman more than ridiculous numbers and grainy footage of a fourth-ball duck.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about his text is how easily he makes just the right words fit together on paper. Despite obvious labour over books, newspapers, journals and microfiche, Haigh's words appear with economic precision – as if he has the most severe of editors. When writing for a mass audience using such a scholarly approach, Haigh is to be praised and respected for balancing intellect with ease of reading. Characters like Lawrence Rowe, Richard Wardill and characteristics such as gambling are all treated with the same laconic, precise respect. A memorable example was my favourite essay from Game for Anything, concerning the late-19th century Australian captain Harry Trott and his commitment to Kew Asylum.

If you learn about politics from a book by a political master, you learn about cricket from Haigh – far more than from any other writer today. His words lack Roebuck's flair but also his occasional florid tones. He analyses the game from a removed, scholarly position; writing not because he loves the game (although he does) but because he feels it has stories to tell. In the prologue, he encourages young writers to do likewise.  

It's so utterly characteristic of Haigh - a book of cricket essays where his opinions are so subtly obvious yet with only this one proclamation.  Highly recommended.

For a different perspective, the SMH also reviewed this work.

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