There are few things in life more pleasing than giving one’s friends a good kicking, but I’m afraid sometimes only an ovation will do.
There are few things in life more pleasing than giving one’s friends a good kicking, but I’m afraid sometimes only an ovation will do. And this is one of them. My old chum and colleague Amol Rajan has just come up with an enchanting new book about spin bowling, Twirlymen (Yellow Jersey), and an absolute snip it is too at fifteen quid.
It was my dad who first introduced me to the joys of spin. He bowled good off-breaks at minor county level for 40-odd years before my mother put her foot down. He learnt to bowl in the 1920s in the garden of my grandparents’ terraced house in Long Eaton. The grass strip measured exactly 22 yards, the length of a cricket pitch, but that was it: no room for a run-up. So dad constructed a bit of space almost side-on to the bowler’s end. That’s how it stayed all his life. If you were facing dad, and a lot of good people did, you didn’t look back at the umpire, you looked towards wide mid-off where a lean bald figure was about to start his diagonal run-up. I once faced an over from Bishan Bedi in the old Test ground in Delhi, and I can honestly say I didn’t have a clue what any ball was going to do.
What breathes through every page of Amol’s wonderful book is his love for the quirky world of the spinner. As he says, the key thing about twirlymen is their stamina, their intelligence and their eccentricity. They can find humour on the edge of a knife and they tend to celebrate the richness of life. Plus they’re a bit weird. But we should feel lucky: this has been a golden age of spin, with the likes of Warne, Murali, Kumble, Vettori, Swann and Mendis, despite the best efforts of administrators to make life hard for them.
As you would expect with a book about cricket, Twirlymen is packed with anecdotes that fizz like a Murali doosra. In his early days Richie Benaud suffered from such terribly cut spinning fingers he was almost forced into retirement. Then in 1956 in New Zealand he went to a chemist to pick up some medicine for an infection. As he stretched his right hand out to collect it, the chemist, one Ivan James, asked why his fingers were bleeding. Benaud explained and the chemist said he’d seen a lot of ex-servicemen with lacerations; why not try this lotion he had called Oily Calamine? Within days Benaud’s fingers were patched up. As Amol says, the extraordinary career of cricket’s Yoda might never have happened had he extended his undamaged left hand that day.
Or take another Aussie legend, Arthur Mailey, one of the great characters of the pre-Bradman era. What a life! He grew up in a Sydney slum, selling the Sydney Mail before becoming one of the greatest of all leggies. Then for four decades he was a brilliant journalist and cartoonist. In his final years he opened a butcher’s shop. Outside he hung a sign: ‘I used to bowl tripe, then I wrote it, now I sell it’.
Or Jim Laker: after he took his 19 wickets at Old Trafford in 1956, he drove home alone to London. On the way he stopped off at a pub in Lichfield. There, sipping his ale, he went unrecognised though everyone in the pub was talking about his feats, which they had heard earlier on the radio. Eventually he got home to his wife, who was Austrian and didn’t give a damn for the game. ‘Jim,’ she asked, ‘did you do something good today?’
If you want to find out what the spirit of cricket feels like, get hold of Amol’s tome. There was a fair dollop of just that spirit too, in a remark from Indian batsman Virat Kohli as Sachin Tendulkar was being borne round the ground by his team-mates after that superb World Cup final in Mumbai. ‘He’s carried the hopes of our nation for more than two decades — now it’s time we carried him on our shoulders.’ Wayne Rooney it ain’t.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.