Tuesday, May 08, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Silent Revolutions book review

Gideon Haigh
Aurum, £8.99

It is often said amongst cricket cognoscenti that the over bowled by Michael Holding at Geoffrey Boycott in the West Indies in 1981 was the finest and fastest any Test quick has delivered. Holding peppered Boycott with every ball in a fast bowler’s artillery, at great velocity, the Englishman scarcely able to place bat to ball. before the peerlessly graceful speed-merchant Whispering Death got his man with a ball that sent a stump cartwheeling 20 yards. Gladstone Holder, in The Nation, wrote of looking to the England players; “[Chris Old]… with his mouth wide open ... he ... had the look of a man who had seen a monster’.

This concordance of Gideon Haigh’s essays on cricket is the equivalent of that over, although without the focussed hostility. It has no target, no mark, yet has found one – this critic’s Achilles heels, those pierced by untrammelled stylistic brilliance and breadth of reading. C.L.R. James, John Arlott, to a lesser extent Neville Cardus (whose star is faltering with time, as he might have mused); these are all Haigh’s natural forebears and knew what they were about by making the subtext of their sublime writing the fact that to the enquiring mind cricket, played and watched and studied, has a capacity to provoke responses across an emotional and intellectual range few sports can match and therefore an ideal subject for the literary imagination.

Haigh is the Cardus of the post-Packer era, his fine skills evoking the phenomena of commercialised cricketing from Lillee to Pietersen with just as much pungency and lyricism as the older man’s evocation of the Golden Era. But history, and its dialectical legacies, are important to Haigh; his studies of Bradman and Miller inform his critiques of today’s game. Haigh’s prose is taut and unshowy, wearing its author’s formidable and offbeat intellect lightly, so when Twain or Metternich or Shostakovich or Australian car manufacturers crop up in his discourse one doesn’t disparage the author for display.

Haigh’s schtick is the subtle disguising of admirable technical resources and power. His Australian location – he was a fixture at the Melbourne Age - makes him in no way parochial; in fact it may have fed his insatiable appetite for elucidating the game’s historical inheritance of multi-dimensionality, its variety of colour and nuance, its scope and historical anomalies and enigmas (one of the pieces is thus titled). His essays, half-James, half-Barthes, all superbly his own, on topics from the lexicography of cricket bios to cricket bats to the underrated South African pace bowler Vincent Van Der Bijl have matter-of-fact intros and open up at military-medium pace, but slowly and with sure craft develop a staggering gamut of arguments with references to cricketing, artistic, military, social, business histories, plus much more besides, gingering up and seducing the reader. By this time, it’s too late; Haigh has mesmerised you.

He is highly regarded amongst cricketers, by all accounts a bunch growing duller. Yet here, there is barely a cliché to be seen; I am on a successive re-reading just to try and find one. In sportswriting, that betrays class.

Unlike Holding against Boycs, Haigh’s aim isn’t to knock your head off or take you out, but he will outsmart you; he makes you want to go and improve your own knowledge of this infuriating game. Holding bowled the ideal over; Haigh has written just about the ideal cricket book.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful review. May i add my two cents worth that this is perhaps the best ever review of a cricket book. the book was indded wonderful; (the word "laconic drawl" that he used to describe ian healy's bowled shane somehow sticks into my head for some reason...) but the book is simply amazing....wonderful writing and a neat review for a great book .........thanks for the post....