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Monday, June 04, 2007

Conservative cricketers and a worthy job for a former PM?

In The New Statesman former England captain turned journalist Mike Atherton reviews a book by cricket tragic and former British Prime Minister turned historian John Major. Mr Major is not the first prime minister to have written a history of cricket (Norman Manley of Jamaica preceded him). Atherton's praise for Major's book is so strong that there might be another, current, PM who could take heart from the two men who have shown that there may be an enjoyable and possibly lucrative life after politics.

Atherton says "
Most cricketers of my acquaintance in the 1980s and 1990s were conservative, with a small and large "c". " Was, and is, this true of Australian first class and test cricketers then, and of course now? I'll reserve my judgment.

Here is the review:

Major innings

More than a Game: the story of cricket’s early years

John Major
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 416pp, £25

ISBN 000718364X

Nothing is guaranteed to irk professional sportsmen more than the feeling that they are being used as political pawns. So when Tony Blair, despite never having shown any interest in cricket before, decided that some of the glory of England's 2005 Ashes victory might rub off on an administration mired in the Iraq war, the underwhelming response from England's cricketers was predictable. The subsequent drenching given to Downing Street's rose bushes was more than simply the result of a few too many celebratory drinks.

Cricketers felt on safer ground with John Major. Most cricketers of my acquaintance in the 1980s and 1990s were conservative, with a small and large "c". Perhaps this relationship between cricketers and the Conservative Party is inevitable given that both promote the power of the individual over the whole - although, in truth, what limited political conversation there was in the dressing room tended to focus on the level of taxation. Self-interest was paramount, and the Tories were the high priests of low taxation.

More than that, though, players knew that Major was a cricket man at heart. Cricket was there for him long before his rise to the top - his family's move to Brixton enabled him to watch regularly his Laker and Lock of long ago; cricket was there for him during his years of power - he attests to many cabinet meetings interrupted by the passing round of slips of paper laden with the latest scores; cricket was there for him as he left the stage - he sought solace at the Oval the day he was voted out of office; and cricket has been there for him ever since.

The greatest cricketers often write the least good books. The converse is also true, and might be said, too, of prime ministers - Major's political memoirs being regarded as among the best of the genre. Given his previous literary record, then, and his deep love of the game, there must have been high hopes for this book. It does not disappoint. It is a fine, scholarly work.

Major's passion for the game does not dupe him into looking at cricket's past through rose-hued spectacles, however. The hard, disinterested historian's eye is the prism through which this cricketing history is told. Corruption, cheating, gambling, sledging, drinking (in 1787, the treasurer of the famous Hambledon CC was asked to provide "six spitting troughs" and a "hogshead of the best port" for immediate consumption) and even death were cricket's companions long before Kerry Packer's revolution in the late 1970s brought rampant com- mercialism and worldwide professionalism to the game.

This is the story of cricket's early years, from its rough, peasant beginnings somewhere around the middle of the 16th century to the beginning of the First World War, when even cricket had to take a prolonged tea break. While cricket was played by all classes, it thrived under aristocratic patronage, and gradually the rules and regulations that appear so arcane to non-converts came into being. County cricket flourished with increased leisure time, improved transport and a nascent sporting press, so that by the turn of the 20th century, cricket had become part of the fabric of English life - the national summer game.

The title of the book is taken from Tom Brown's Schooldays. Towards the end of the novel, Tom, as captain of the first XI, says to a schoolmaster, "it's more than a game. It's an institution." Major rightly points out that this Victorian mythologising of the game - the book was written in 1857 - was "artificial" and "hypocritical", coming on the back of a period when gambling and match-fixing were out of control. Neither the game nor the people who play it have ever been pure.

But the Victorian cleansing clearly worked. Major might have gone on to say that, by 1921, Lord Harris was able to claim that cricket represented the value system of a whole nation. The phrase "it's not cricket", Harris said, was "in constant use on the platform, in the pulpit, in parliament and the press, to dub something as being not fair, not honourable and not noble. What a tribute for a game to have won!" For Major, and thousands of others, cricket is more than a game. It is cricket's greatest strength, and current administrators would do well to remember it.

Major achieves two things with his cricketing history (the first by a prime minister since Michael Manley's A History of West Indies Cricket). Putting to rest the embarrassment he apparently felt frequently in office about his lack of a university education, this book proves him to be a first-rate scholar and writer. Second, as the self-effacing anecdote on page 147 confirms (Major being the only person, according to Jim Swanton, to recognise a portrait in the Long Room at Lord's of Benjamin Aislabie), he shows himself to be one of the nation's foremost cricketing tragics. Andrew Flintoff would never have relieved himself in John Major's garden.

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