The best cricket histories

Who am I?

A historian interested in the ‘cultural war’ over the legitimate form, function and meaning of sport, it is strange to look back and consider how ignorant I was of the class and cultural dynamics that shaped cricket in England until I began studying sport in my early thirties. Why, for instance, was English cricket ‘posh’ when compared to Australia? And why, within England, did the North and South have completely different cricket cultures and regional identities? These were questions I began to address in earnest and, a short twenty years later, I believe I finally have the answers. I could not have done it without these books. Enjoy! 


I wrote...

Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket

By Duncan Stone,

Book cover of Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket

What is my book about?

In 1963, the West Indian Marxist C. L. R. James (see below) posed a deceptively benign question: ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ A challenge to the public to re-consider the culture and meaning of cricket, my book suggests there is still a great deal to learn about the game and its development in England. 

 

This remains the case because the orthodox history of English cricket has been written from an elitist ‘top-down’ perspective. Therefore, in the spirit of E. P. Thompson, Different Class examines the game from the ‘bottom-up’. And, in doing so, it reveals more about the (un)changing nature of English society – and how it works – than any study of the so-called ‘first-class’ (professional) game ever could. 

The books I picked & why

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Beyond a Boundary

By C.L.R. James,

Book cover of Beyond a Boundary

Why this book?

Arguably the greatest sports book ever written, it would be impossible to exclude James’ classic study for many reasons. Firstly, assuming you discount the broader sweep of Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957), it was the first book to cite sport as an important realm of historical enquiry. 

James weaves personal biography and the development and organisation of cricket in the West Indies, to demonstrate how these reflected the colonialism and racial hierarchies that shaped life in the West Indies. Cricket is, therefore, inherently political: As James states himself, the game had "plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it. [And] when I did turn to politics I did not have too much to learn." An essential book for anyone with an interest in class, race, and society.


The Willow Wand: Some Cricket Myths Explored

By Derek Birley,

Book cover of The Willow Wand: Some Cricket Myths Explored

Why this book?

Although best known for his A Social History of English Cricket (1998), The Willow Wand is, for me, Birley’s best cricket book. I imagine I’d have enjoyed Birley’s company for he not only writes with great humour, he understood exclusivity was not the same thing as quality and he burst the elitist bubble that had long surrounded the game in England by dissecting the game’s most treasured and fervently protected myths and personalities with forensic precision. 

Be it imperialism, the game’s most revered chronicler Neville Cardus or, even, the game’s premier icon W. G. Grace, Birley leaves no stone unturned, and he even alludes to the distinct regional identities that define the game in the North and South of England, which formed the basis of my own book.


Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise

By Mike Marqusee,

Book cover of Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise

Why this book?

If James and Birley upset the game’s establishment, the impact of Marqusee’s Anyone But England was on an altogether different level. Like James, Marqusee was a Marxist. But where James pulled his punches and has, regrettably, been co-opted by English cricket’s establishment, there is very little danger of Marqusee ever suffering the same fate. One must only read his Wisden obituary to understand this. 

Suffice to say, Marqusee’s unflinching analysis exposed English cricket’s institutional hypocrisy, class discrimination, and racial prejudices long before the issues of elitism and racism became points of serious discussion in 2021. Considering this, it is a genuine tragedy that Marqusee and this book were not taken more seriously. Nevertheless, despite the passing decades, Anyone But England still packs a serious punch!


The Cricket War: The Story of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket

By Gideon Haigh,

Book cover of The Cricket War: The Story of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket

Why this book?

It’s a small world as they say. And the world of cricket is undoubtedly smaller as I know Gideon. This said, I would defy any serious appraisal of cricket’s historical literature to exclude one of his many excellent books on the game. 

I have, however, chosen his first which covers one of the most momentous events in the game’s global history: the creation of a new competition called World Series Cricket (WSC) by the Australian TV mogul Kerry Packer that, ultimately, led to the game’s renaissance. As much as the story, and the various characters involved, are superbly researched the story of WSC, as Haigh acknowledges himself, "could just as easily be a text on television economics, or marketing, or sociology, even anthropology." It remains, therefore, a very important book.


Cricket: A History of its Growth & Development throughout the World

By Rowland Bowen,

Book cover of Cricket: A History of its Growth & Development throughout the World

Why this book?

Although a book that bites off more than it may comfortably chew, Bowen’s masterpiece could not be ignored. As the first (and only) attempt to tell the history of cricket on a global scale, Bowen’s analysis may appear, considering subsequent research, a tad superficial in places. However, as a point of reference, it is a remarkable – unique even – book that has belatedly been recognised as a classic. 

Why the delay? Bowen, as the game’s first maverick historian, was not only adept at exposing the inferior scholarship that then passed for cricket history, he also took great pleasure in baiting the establishment and those who thought they were part of it. As such, it is upon his shoulders, rather than James perhaps, that fellow ‘revisionists’ Birley, Marqusee, and myself stand upon.


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