Hobbs, Trueman, Botham and Swann among a quality crop of cricket life stories

Books about cricket

Stumped for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here's our selection of cricket biographies published this year:  

Jack Hobbs: England's Greatest Cricketer, by Leo McKinstry (Yellow Jersey)

In a career spanning 30 years playing for Surrey and England, Sir Jack Hobbs scored 61,237 runs, more than any other cricketer.

His 197 centuries is also a record unsurpassed. He was heralded as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the 20th Century yet his place in the history of cricket always seems to be in the shadow of W.G. Grace, Don Bradman, Wally Hammond and Len Hutton. Why? Perhaps because Hobbs, born in poor circumstances in Cambridge at a time when the town had more than its share of grim and squalid streets, was brought up to be modest and humble and appreciative of his good fortune.

McKinstry, an excellent writer and the author of fine biographies of Geoffrey Boycott, Sir Alf Ramsey and the Charlton brothers, Jack and Bobby, has produced a thorough account of Hobbs’s life that captures the spirit of the age and will help re-establish his proper place in the cricketing pantheon.

Fred Trueman, by Chris Waters (Aurum Press)

Chris Waters, the latest to occupy the influential position as cricket correspondent of the Yorkshire Post, invested many hours in his first attempt to write the biographer of a player, determined to do justice to the Yorkshire and England fast bowler, whose record and character continue to loom large over the history of cricket in the county.  He should be congratulated; he has produced a work to match the stature of his subject.

He undertook the project with the blessing of Trueman’s surviving family members and yet does not allow himself to gloss over any of Fiery Fred’s rougher edges.  He offers praise where it is merited but highlights imperfections just as judiciously, from the poverty of his childhood that Trueman shrouded in myth to the complexities of personality that contributed to the controversial nature of his career on the field and his relationship with the establishment.

As a Trueman biographer, Waters had a couple of tough acts to follow in Don Mosey and John Arlott, both of whom knew their subject personally.  Waters met him only once yet has skilfully interpreted what he gleaned from his research and countless interviews to paint a picture of the man perhaps more convincingly than either of his illustrious predecessors.

Further reading:  Trueman biography reveals real story of 'the finest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath'

Tony Greig, by David Tossell (Pitch Publishing)

David Tossell’s stylishly-written and well-researched books have earned him a short-listing for the British Sports Book Awards on three occasions in three sports, which says something for his consistency and versatility.

He went close to being honoured for his biography of former Arsenal manager Bertie Mee in 2006 and, in 2010, for Nobody Beats Us, the story of the great Wales rugby team of the 1970s, and in 2008, for Grovel!, an examination of West Indies cricket and in particular the 1976 team that won the Test series in England by a 3-0 margin, blowing away the home side with the power of a pace attack led by Michael Holding and Andy Roberts.

Grovel! owed its title to the unwise boast by the England captain, Tony Greig, that a touring side he perceived as lacking backbone under pressure would be made to ‘grovel’.  The comment was not the only controversy in the career of the South African-born all-rounder, the biggest of which, of course, was his involvement with the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer in helping to set up the breakaway World Series Cricket by secretly recruiting players.

Tossell argues that the widespread condemnation that the Packer episode heaped on Greig led to an undervaluing of his contribution to cricket as a player and to an overlooking of a fascinating story, not the least part of which was his battle to succeed despite a history of epilepsy.  His even-handed re-assessment is another fine piece of work.

Further reading: Tossell in line for cricket book award

Arthur Milton: Last of the Double Internationals, by Mike Vockins (SportsBooks)

Arthur Milton’s modesty was such that when he took a job as a postman in Bristol after his career in sport came to an end he did not see it as a humbling experience but an uplifting one, something of which he could be just as proud as his appearance on the wing for the England football team or his six Test caps won as an astute opening batsman.

Unconvinced that he had a story worth telling, he declined all invitations to write his autobiography until 2006 -- the year before he died -- when he asked Mike Vockins, the former secretary of Worcestershire County Cricket Club and a long-time friend, to bring along a notebook and tape recorder and finally commit his story to print.

As the last player to represent his country at football and cricket, he did have a story to tell, and quite a few more, and Vockins, who for many years maintained parallel careers in cricket administration and the clergy, tells them very well, with affection and respect but no lack of thorough research.

Further reading:  Affectionate portrait of a man as happy delivering letters as posting runs for England

Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory, by Simon Wilde (Simon & Schuster)

After seeing three of his books, including biographies of Ranjitsinhji and Shane Warne, make the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, when Simon Wilde turned his attention to Ian Botham it was not difficult to imagine another contender emerging.  In the event, Ian Botham: The Power and the Glory did not even make the long list.

Yet it has won no shortage of critical acclaim.  Peter Wilby, reviewing in The Guardian, said that Wilde‘s ‘perfectly paced and exhaustively researched biography, recalls the magic of that astonishing summer (of 1981, when he almost single-handedly changed the course of an Ashes series) but doesn't neglect the darker side of Botham's career and character, revealing a more complex and nuanced personality than the gruff, self-confident exterior suggested.’  Dan Jones, in the Spectator, said that Wilde’s ‘judgment is sound and his storytelling pleasingly laconic’ and that by identifying Botham's attempt to make himself an early beneficiary from a nascent culture of celebrity, Wilde successfully placed him ‘at the heart of his times.”

Thorough, measured and characteristically well written by Sunday Times cricket correspondent Wilde, The Power and the Glory deserves its place among the cricket biographies of the year.

Graeme Swann: The Breaks are Off -- My Autobiography(Hodder & Stoughton)

In an era when sports press officers, particularly those who serve the interests of the national teams, seek almost unavoidably to make their charges as blandly non-controversial as possible, Graeme Swann stands out.

England’s hugely successful off-spin bowler, no doubt yearning for the days -- not so long past -- when even professional cricket had an inherent social flavour, would rather say what he thinks, play for laughs and refresh himself in whatever way takes his fancy. He is what passes now for a character.

The Breaks are Off makes that very plain, revealing Swann at his wise-cracking, straight-talking and enthusiastically imbibing best in a story that will amuse and delight his army of supporters, who currently number 312,000 among Twitter users alone.

As a biography, it does not reveal as much about the Swann beneath the surface as some readers would probably like, but that should not be taken as a criticism. Swann's romp through the peaks and troughs of his career is a thoroughly entertaining ride and his anecdotes are told with much skill by his ghostwriter, Richard Gibson, whose ability to translate jokey conversation into laugh-out-loud prose has already been demonstrated in David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd’s amusing ramble, the best-selling Start the Car.

Further reading: A bloody nose from Darren Gough marks Swann's debut as an England cricket tourist

More books by Leo McKinstry
More books by David Tossell
More books by Simon Wilde

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