Frankie Howerd, the great, if troubled, comedian, was once asked whether he enjoyed performing. ‘I enjoy having performed,’ he replied. Many top-level sportsmen would say something similar. The satisfaction often comes from having done, not always from doing. Performing offers great rewards, but it can also leave scars that heal slowly, and sometimes not at all.
Jonathan Trott was a good cricketer in a strong England team that beat Australia in three successive series between 2009 and 2013. Batting at No. 3, he made a century on his Test debut, and became a dependable, if minor-key player in the side that vanquished the Aussies Down Under two winters later.
Then, frightened by the view, he fell off that high wire. Returning to Australia in November 2013, he was immediately confronted by Mitchell Johnson, a left-arm bowler of ferocious pace, and lost his nerve and his place in the side. He tried to come back two years later in the West Indies, but was no longer the batsman he had been. The game had moved on. His Test career was a thing of the past.
Unguarded, which is essentially a memoir of that miserable Australian experience, does not really live up to its name. Trott reveals, at length, how humiliated he felt at being unmanned by his ordeal at the hands of an abnormally fast bowler, though the humiliation fell some way short of the crack-up that was originally offered as a reason for his withdrawal. But, as he writes ‘I don’t know’ no fewer than four times on one page, he continues to play his bat very close to his front pad. This is not a book that reveals a great deal that people did not already know.
Despite the best efforts of George Dobell, a sympathetic ghost, Trott emerges as one of those sportsmen who know little about the world beyond the boundary. At the age of eight, growing up in Cape Town, he told a teacher at net practice: ‘This is my one chance.’ Eight years later he saw a psychiatrist after breaking down. When he says of those adolescent days that cricket ‘had already become the way in which I defined myself’, you wonder that he survived all those years of self-doubt to prosper in the professional game. Here was an accident waiting to happen. His wife, Abi, as is often the way, comes over as a saint-in-waiting.
For Mark Nicholas, cricket was a game to be loved without qualification, and, as a good county player who has since excelled in broadcasting and journalism, he remains a cricket-besotted teenager. The affair has never been fully requited, because he did not play for England, but you get the impression that, after a childhood tragedy which may have set him back for good, he has enjoyed almost every minute of his life.
His affair began at eight and survived his father’s death two years later. Indeed it was given fresh life. The young Nicholas found solace in the game’s rituals, enacted in the back garden of his Roehampton home in the form of imaginary Test matches. At Bradfield, where he spent four summers in the first XI, he was supported by a friendly housemaster, and when he joined Hampshire he found another paternal figure in Colin Ingleby Mackenzie, an affable Etonian who had captained the county side to the championship in 1961, and who took a shine to a long-haired, tubby young man others held to be a shade precocious.
Nicholas is excellent on the early days, and on his passage to manhood alongside players he admired then, and venerates to this day. When he is instructed as a callow teenager to bowl in the nets at Barry Richards, the great South African batsman who played for Hampshire, he can hardly release the ball. Richards features prominently in A Beautiful Game, along with another childhood hero, Ted Dexter, and Richie Benaud, the Australian captain-turned-commentator, who is presented as a compound of St Thomas Aquinas and Albert Schweitzer.
There is a chapter devoted to Robin Smith, a superb batsman for Hampshire and England, who has fallen on hard times since he retired. There are also excellent chapters on the great players he played with and against, and although one gets the impression that he never met a chap he didn’t like, Nicholas generally avoids sentimentality. Besides, there are plenty of good people in cricket, and Nicholas is very good on the subject of friendship.
The book is too long — a lengthy chapter on the events of 2005, when England beat Australia in a series of Homeric proportions, is unnecessary. And there are too many obscenities. Some rude words are essential to convey the spirit of the players and the match situation, but many are merely gratuitous. English readers (this is a book aimed primarily at Australia, where Nicholas now spends much of the year) will not necessarily find the doings of Australian television very interesting.
An intelligent man, with a wide range of interests, Nicholas makes a spirited companion. He was almost selected for England in 1988, when they kept getting bashed by the West Indians, and as Hampshire captain he would like to have matched Ingleby’s achievement in winning the championship. But he has enjoyed a good life, and is happy for others to share his fortune. For him cricket has truly been a beautiful game.
As for Trott, who on paper appeared to have achieved so much more, cricket has been a millstone. Now, given every encouragement by the BBC and Sky, he too is trying to shape his future in television and radio. Has he really got nothing better to do with his life?
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