Pj Kavanagh

Nearly guiltless

Ashes to Ashes, by Marcus Berkmann

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Ashes to Ashes

Marcus Berkmann

Little, Brown, pp. 313, £

No one has ever successfully explained cricket-obsession, and Marcus Berkmann doesn’t even try. He just expresses it, stamping about like Basil Fawlty in exasperation at England’s nearly constant humiliation at the hands of the Australians. He even confesses to a disbeliever that ‘some of my best friends are Australians’, and puzzles at the way they seem to hate us, whereas we rather like them, an affection which they find patronising. ‘A chippiness they really should have got over by now… However you look at it, we just can’t win — which, by astounding coincidence, is what usually happens on the cricket field too.’

Berkmann also fumes at the many outrageous team selections (and omissions) that England has made over those 35 terrible years, which have infuriated many of his fellow-obsessives, among whom I class myself. For example, no one ever seemed to know how to deal with that Child of Joy and most beautiful batsman of his generation, David Gower. Joyless Gooch even left Gower out of a touring party. ‘Too old’, said Gooch, according to Berkmann. Gower was 35, Gooch was 39. Gower seems to have accepted it all with a shrug, doubtless graceful, but he didn’t invite Gooch to his wedding: ‘Not selected’, said Gower. ‘Too old.’

As for the non-selections of manager Ray Illingworth in 1997: ‘Graham Thorpe, Devon Malcolm and Angus Fraser have all failed to impress Illingworth at various stages, making one wonder, even now, exactly what did impress him, other than his reflection in the bathroom mirror.’

‘Bloody Waugh’, ‘bloody Ponting’, the ire continues, heartfelt and comic at the same time. Oh how we recognise it, we fellow-obsessives, mystifying our friends, slipping off on minor occasions like weddings and funerals for a brief communion with the transistor, greedy for the latest score, returning drawn-faced. We had been doing so well until Ponting or Waugh or Dean Jones had spoiled everything. Jones, Berkmann muses, must have been unpopular because he had no team nickname. So he gave one to himself — the Legend. He quickly disappeared from the limelight and the line-up, so even the Australians must draw the line at something.

Not at sledging, however — which is putting opponents off by insulting them. Mostly it’s mere abuse; Steve Waugh and his team were said to have raised sledging ‘to new heights’. Probably we now try it too, badly.

That is the only point in the book where I differ from Berkmann. He seems to suggest that in order to beat the Australians we should become more like them. I was at Lord’s on the first day of the first Test Match of the amazing 2005 series. In the first over our very fast bowler, Harmison, hit Langer on the elbow above the arm-guard: he needed medical attention. A few balls later Haydon was hit on the helmet, and dazed. Ponting (‘bloody Ponting’) was hit on the grill of his helmet so hard that his face was badly cut. ‘A decent amount of blood’ notes Berkmann with po-faced glee. The point is that not one of the England team asked how they were or took any notice, they just chatted among themselves. Was this being ‘Australian’? It was more like war; and anyway, Australia went on to win the match, a fact that Berkmann rather hurries over.

How lucky you are, who see the word ‘cricket’ at the top of this review and read no further; nor will you read this pained, painful and funny book. The Ashes battle is about to be joined again, and we, the doomed, look forward to it with hope (wan) and trepidation (justified). Cricket is not boring because it goes on so long; on the contrary, the sheer length of the matches means that almost anything can happen — even an England win. We, obsessives, just have to keep checking. Five matches of five days can mean 25 days of semi-distraction, trying to live in two worlds at the same time, annoying everybody and feeling ashamed of this. John Arlott characterised the pleasure of watching cricket as ‘nearly guiltless’, and how well we, the entrapped, like Berkmann, feel the force of Arlott’s subtle qualifier, ‘nearly’.