So When You Take The Limelight, You Can Guarantee

A review of “The Breaks Are Off” by Graeme Swann.

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Ah yes, nothing screams “topical” more than a book written in the glow of the 2010/11 Ashes success and a blogger reviewing it because he only just got around to reading it. I have no idea when I bought it, and no doubt when I did, I paid nowhere near full price. This is the hardback version. If you feel so inclined you can purchase this for 1p plus postage and packing on Amazon, so it’s not as if you are going to be out of pocket if you purchase it and hate it. A number of you may have read it already. So why the review?

Well, I once had a discussion with my editorial committee who said that we shouldn’t really bother with this sort of thing. But as Sean and Chris are away at the moment, I thought I’d do what I want! Secondly, and I almost hate myself for saying this, it isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read. Thirdly, with the power of hindsight, and the subsequent events, there’s some interesting stuff in there. When you consider this would have gone through the ECB powers-that-be to get to the press, some of it is remarkable. Fourthly, the book is recalled by many for his slagging off of Kevin Pietersen as captain – he really doesn’t do that too much (the effing bowl effing straight was as juicy as it got, and he pointedly doesn’t take sides in the Moores v KP debate, except to say the latter wasn’t a great tactical captain which I’m not sure even his most ardent fans could say there had been evidence of). Fifthly, I’m on a roll with content, so let’s go for it.

Swann has his own little nickname on here – Lovejoy – because there’s rarely been someone so cocksure in his own laddish hilarity than the erstwhile host of Soccer AM, subject of one of the all time great book reviews, and now, for reasons best known to the Beeb, employed (or was employed) on a cookery show. Graeme Swann might as well be his twin brother. This annoying trait runs through the book like a stick of rock. Constantly on the lash, getting trashed with mates, taking the mickey out of all and sundry, he’s great when he’s dishing out the gags. When crowds remind him of his “cat under the floorboards” excuse for drink driving they are “inane” and “I didn’t hear one amusing thing”. Frankly, if, as he said, crowds meowed at him as he came to field near them, I’d be laughing my socks off. Maybe japester Swann might one day get it. I have no idea how a bullying culture might have developed.

The book takes the usual route. Boring bits about childhood that no-one really wants to read (OK, some do, I don’t – it’s either awwww shucks I’m so lucky, or I was really talented and was only a matter of time before I was found out) and so many times I’m put off reading books like these because I have to plough through the tedium. Once Swann gets his breaks, he encounters a couple of road blocks. The first was his calling for England in the Fletcher / Hussain rebuilding series, where he confesses he didn’t take it the way he should have, and his comments on his ODI debut are very revealing:

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He’d been given a time-keeping warning during the test series, Gough had given him that punch (not a lot of insight on that incident) and Swann had just wanted to go home. The treadmill of international cricket, especially when you are not playing, must be very harsh. I think it speaks volumes of how the team ethic was in those days. Nasser was a captain imposing himself, there were a number of former captains in the team, and it was a tough place for younger, newer players. Again, the events from further down the line, when Swann was the senior player, seem remarkable given the troubles he’d had earlier on.

Swann really gives it to Kepler Wessels as a coach, which hasn’t been disproved by subsequent events. Wessels comes across as a weapons grade bully, confusing being tough with being a dick. Swann may not be the most reliable of witnesses, but it’s certainly the feelings I’ve heard from that time. Swann decided to move on to Notts and played reasonably well, got noticed by the selectors and made his second ODI debut on the tour of Sri Lanka where England somehow won the series 3-2. Test honours followed on the tour of India in 2008, or at least they were likely to be until the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai.

There’s an excellent part of the book where you feel Swann had major issues to contend with. Recently “partnered up” he was reluctant to return to India. A conversation with his dad, who comes across as a right no-nonsense sort of bloke, like Competitive Dad, basically said “this is your chance to be a test cricketer. I think you will be safe, but we will all be worried while you are away, but put yourself first. This is what you always wanted.” I think it’s one of the best parts of the book.

“What on earth were we doing even thinking about playing cricket when the hotel manager and his wife, a couple who had looked after us so well just days earlier, had been executed in the lobby of the Taj?”

It’s always easy for us to judge. But this is pretty powerful stuff.

Here’s one of the parts that I thought “how did you get this through the ECB censors?”

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and the quote:

“Because Giles Clarke had been so adamant about us staying put, and that there was no danger to us whatsoever, I had anticipated that we would be asked to go back from the moment they confirmed us on the flight home.”

And his reaction to being called a sporting hero by the Prime Minister:

“…if I am 100 percent honest, there was no show of solidarity from me. I went to receive my first England Test Cap when there was a threat it would never materialise otherwise.”

You have to give credit for the honesty.

There’s not a lot of sympathy for other players, Monty especially, for being elbowed aside, but then when we are talking about elbows, his discussions on how he was made to play on when his elbow played up in West Indies (god, that was an awful link). Play through the pain, damage it more, an injection or two, and we’ll repair it in your spare time. Oh, and we’ll tell a story about a well-meaning religious man who loved cricket, just for laughs (he was working at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota). It does give you a brief insight into how the sporting personality can work.

We have how great it was to win the 2009 Ashes. How great it was to take the final wicket. How Swann batted in only one way – the way he plays, and how difficult it was to block at Cardiff when it was needed. Swann goes on a moral crusade when it comes to the Pakistan tour of 2010 – there was always something about Butt he didn’t like and Amir should have definitely been banned for life and that if he came across him again he would give him some – which is fair enough. We always moan when players spout platitudes, and yet when they comment we say they should shut up. Argue the point, not the man, even if he is Lovejoy!

There’s a story about how the players finished their season against Pakistan and booked holidays. Swann was off to Las Vegas, as was Stuart Broad for Luke Wright’s stag do, until they were told to cancel for a four day boot camp in the German countryside. Swann tells you precisely what he thought about this old drivel, in two pages of barely concealed contempt.

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The “he” in this particular text is Andy Flower. However, on the next page Flower is said to mutter “What the hell am I doing here? Why did I agree to this?” Our Ashes prep had been put together by our security advisor, Reg Dickason, so maybe that’s why he’s above Lawrence Booth in the power list. If he’s strong enough to get the England lot to buy into this team-building nonsense, then he needs a higher ranking. The bloody team psychologist went on it – we know because Swann lets the reader know he’s a bad snorer – while the security guy plonked himself in a lovely hotel! It’s a wonderful insight into the garbage an international sportsman has to go through. Then it gets even more silly when they matched Jimmy Anderson with Chris Tremlett in a boxing match, and the man mountain injured Jimmy. I mean, if this is true, you can pretty well understand why the likes of KP, and Swann, found the regime humourless and oppressive. It’s an interesting four pages into the one-sized fits all world of modern sport.

The Ashes makes up the end of the book. Lots of good times, Perth brushed over a bit. But to me the interesting section is this, especially in hindsight and the handling of the individual subsequently:

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It makes you wonder. Love him or loathe him but Swann had the attitude for test cricket. Accentuate the positive, self-belief, relish the moment when it arrived. Once secure in the team, he was, along with Prior, the main mouth against the oppo. We don’t like it, but that attitude was very much part of that team. It also meant that it was not bound to last. But Finn, who was told too many times what he couldn’t do, told that England’s strategy of “bowling dry” was not something for him, and with the presence of Tremlett looming, worried about what he hadn’t done. What hadn’t gone right despite the figures. It’s quite revealing the difference between secure player who can’t understand how an insecure player perceives his own performance, and the insecure player feeling worried despite a result the secure player would sell his grandmother for. Really interesting (well, to me it was).

The book has digs at ODI series not meaning that much to the players, and there’s the reminder that the current regime is only following those of the past when he said that England were scheduled to play Ireland the day after the 2009 Ashes was scheduled to conclude (Strauss opted out of that game, but a lot of the main men went). Then there is the “what the hell are you doing here when there isn’t an Ashes series” 2010 matches v Australia in England. Swann lets it go:

“Everyone wants to play in England v Australia matches, although the one-day series we played against Ricky Ponting’s team in midsummer 2010 was naturally unloved. The five-match campaign was no more than a money-making campaign and nobody was fooled by it. As players we couldn’t escape the feeling that instead of a NatWest Series we could all have been enjoying a fortnight of rest and recuperation at the halfway point of another hectic year.”

I’m not rushing to find out what he might think of the current series.

Here’s another “how did this get through the ECB moment” after the Pakistan accusations over England throwing an ODI:

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It’s quite a decent read all told, if you can suspend the loathing he inspires on here. There’s enough to get your teeth into, and is worth the pick up for shirt buttons on the secondhand market. You do get the impression that if he was in ice cream he’d lick himself, but he’s not boring in the book. Give it a whirl.

For nonsense like this:

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Hope you liked this. Got a lot more where this came from. Some of the old Bob Willis books are treasures. Real treasures. More reviews in the down days before the Ashes – unless my editorial colleagues want to go on a boot camp somewhere and beat it out of me.

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Book Review – Put To The Test by Geoffrey Boycott

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On my very occasional visits to Hay-on-Wye (I’ve been there twice), I head out looking for older cricket books, and often they can be snagged for a pound, maybe two. I have picked up a number of the Boycott books from the late 70s, early 80s, where he wrote a tour diary about his fortunes, and often with blisteringly honest critiques of his team-mates. It’s the sort of book that could never be written now. It’s from a bygone age. But for all that, this Boycott book reads of a man in crisis and it is better for it. It seems real.

This particular book relates to the Ashes series of 1978/9, in the midst of the Packer Revolution, with an Australian team lacking its main stars. It is largely disregarded by the Australian cognoscenti on the grounds we were playing their 2nd XI, and thus the 3-0 hammering we received the following year (in a non-Ashes series) is more of a true reflection of the two sides at the time.

The book is couched within the first chapter when Geoffrey gets his excuses in early. He had been sacked as Yorkshire captain – oh don’t we miss those brutal fraternal wars in that quaint old county – and had the terrible sadness of his much beloved mother passing away. Geoffrey, as one of those highly paid gurus would no doubt have said, was not in a good place. So excuses may be a bit harsh, but I’m not going to call them reasons…

The book takes us through a tour that seems to be played on nothing but rubbish pitches. Look at the scores in the tests. Barely anyone has a good series with the bat. Rodney Hogg stands out with his bowling figures, but the teams are all over the place, and there are no draws. England find themselves in difficult positions in many of the games, but pull themselves out of them with a lot of luck and a lot of help from poor captaincy, dropped catches and bad play. Boycott himself has an awful tour with the bat, but even then Sir G is a front-runner for modern thinking, as the epilogue has a wonderful bit where he takes the positives.

Boycott pulls apart Yallop’s captaincy, while also getting the hump early in the tour that he wasn’t being listened to, but then being fulsome in praise of Brearley for asking him his views once that concern had been raised. Brearley does seem to apply remarkable common sense in most of his dealings, from what I can see. I think Geoff really liked Derek Randall, even though he really wasn’t his kind of player, and his 150 in the Sydney Test, when England had just lost the 3rd in Melbourne to lead 2-1, and had conceded a first innings lead of 142, was the deciding factor in the series. Then Randall’s contributions seemed to fade away.

There’s some interesting stuff throughout. England’s former run scoring record holder, Gooch, is still without a test hundred, and would go another two years before getting one. Brearley seems to get the solid start off to a tee more than Geoffrey, and this book is very noticeable by a lack of comments on that. There’s lots of praise in there for those who surpassed themselves, including Bob Taylor, who made a 97 in the 5th test that pretty much secured the game. But Boycs does show his frustrations with Botham’s batting and bowling, Gower getting out the same way, but he is borderline effusive on Brearley:

“I watched Brearley pretty closely…..and I consider he did a magnificent job on and off the field.”

This is also cricket from a byegone era, and it makes me feel old reading it, because this is the first overseas highlights I ever remember watching (I was 8). There is plenty running through the piece on bouncers, and the almost quaint “no bouncing list” that existed (yes, people were protected from having bouncers bowled at them if they were crap batsmen). It was more understandable given helmets were in their infancy in those days, but reading it makes me feel old.

Boycott has a pop at the umpires “they assumed an air of infallibility which their decisions did not always bear out” and at the Aussie crowds “The Hill at Sydney used to be amusing, sharp and cutting, but not unfriendly; now it is simply foul-mouthed and crude.” He wasn’t pleased with the pitches “The great Don Bradman himself once remarked that nobody expected Joe Davis to play snooker on a bumpy table” and Yallop’s captaincy also came under his microscope, with one exchange with Rodney Hogg an example of how the new captain struggled to assert authority. Boycott also rails against sledging and over-appealing, and the former debate still lingers on.

A really interesting read, and although just over 180 pages of text, none the worse for its relative brevity. Highly recommended if you can lay your hands on it. It is big boy/girl cricket writing. Honest, frank, informative, descriptive and free from cliche, management-speak, taking the positive speak (with one caveat) and dealing in nicknames. It’s a book that covers the debut of Allan Border (which all those who wish to dismiss this series Down Under should contemplate) and the force of nature that was Rodney Hogg. There are also familiar themes – the running between the wickets of Graeme Wood runs through this like a stick of rock – and the ODIs in this book look like the belong in Roman times compared to today’s high octane stuff.

A book like that today would be media managed out of existence. James Anderson once said that the ECB amended about 200 pages in his book (he may have been joking) and yet although I have it on my Kindle rack, I’ve not read (but also not heard anything controversial about it either). If you wonder why I am so nostalgic, books like this are the reason why. Honest accounts, dealt with in an adult manner. It’s actually quite refreshing.