Book Review - Never a Gentlemen's Game by Malcolm Knox
Over the years I have worked my way through thousands of cricket books. Tour accounts, biographies, autobiographies, club histories – I’ve not read them all, but probably more than most.
On the basis of that track record, I’d say that the modern era is a very fine one for cricket writing and there are some excellent authors out there. Up there with the very best, on this evidence, is Malcolm Knox. Among many other things he is former cricket correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and this book is genuinely a masterpiece.
It isn’t new. Indeed, it came out before Christmas last year. I have had it for some time, courtesy of the publishers and wanted to do a review that did it justice, so I have read through this one twice. It does, after all, cover a period of the game’s development of considerable interest to me, but in all those years of reading, I haven’t seen one that made such an impact.
This is, in short, quite brilliant. It may not be to the taste of those who enjoy their cricket reading light and fluffy, like one of Mary Berry’s cakes, but if you’re looking for a read that will tell you what the game was like in the late nineteenth century and you’re happy to take your time, this is one for your Christmas list, beyond doubt.
The author paints a vivid picture of the major protagonists of an era far removed from the game for gentlemen as most picture it. Thus we see teams and individuals only prepared to tour when their at times exorbitant financial demands were met. The leading figure of the day, W.G. Grace, only agreed to tour Australia as an ‘amateur’ captain on guarantee of a fee of £3,000, plus free travel and expenses for his wife and two youngest children. Such a fee had the purchasing power of around £215,000 today and is but one illustration of the player’s keen idea of his worth, while his professional team mates took home less than a tenth of that figure and chuntered in the background.
There are tales of gambling on matches, while the characters of the period flit across the pages in captivating style. We read of players falling ill with smallpox, contracting a ‘social disease’, having fights, stealing from team mates and going out to play considerably the worse for wear. Of sides travelling with only twelve players for a tour lasting months, of a player selected as reserve wicket-keeper in error, never having done so in his life.One of the finest Australians, ‘The Demon’ Spofforth gave it all up at the height of his powers to emigrate to England and run his father-in-law’s company, turning out for Derbyshire when time permitted. Some declined to take time off their work to play.
It is breath-taking, spell-binding stuff, one in the eye for those who say that modern players don’t know how to behave like their predecessors. This extraordinary book confirms that nothing in the game is new. Crusades against throwing, tragic personal lives, riots on and off the field and a desire to make money on all sides makes this a must-read book.
Disputes were not settled over a gentlemanly glass of port. Jackets came off and they were often resolved by fists and long-time feuds. If you read this book you will never picture the formative period of the game’s history in the same way. It is quite simply outstanding.
Never a Gentlemen’s Game is written by Malcolm Knox and published by Hardie Grant books. It is available on Amazon priced £16 and from all good book shops