England’s 1,000th Test, contested with India last week, turned into a cracker. In the space of three days, the home side won – just – by a nerve-jangling 31 runs, confirming once again that Test cricket, the game’s most elevated form, remains the best.
Readers might suspect that Simon Wilde, author of this mammoth, 600-odd page England: The Biography, would concur. The world’s first organised team sport has attracted thousands of authors to its ample bosom, each unearthing a niche about which to write: be it the game’s nuances, rules, strategies, politics or controversies. Wilde successfully covers many similar strands, supplementing them with a mountain of statistics (rightly acknowledging input from the Association of Cricket Statisticians & Historians), although despite the author’s comprehensiveness, your correspondent found no definitive way to explain to an American, for instance, just how a game could be played over five days and end as a draw.
For those of us lucky enough to have been raised during a period when cricket was the summer sport, this is undoubtedly part of the game’s (mostly) universal appeal: one team’s fortunes can ebb and flow violently but all three outcomes can remain a possibility until the final ball is bowled.
Why would a draw keep us transfixed? In the book’s foreword, Ed Smith, current head of the national team’s selectors, says, “Cricket is uniquely bound up with English identity, in all its complexity and subtlety. The story of English cricket, to some extent, is also the story of England itself.”
To a degree, he is right. Although Wilde includes a statistic which lists England captains by the school they attended (Eton is top, with seven), the last of those was George Mann, more than 70 years ago. Does this suggest that the nation has become more meritocratic? Discuss. The meritocratic cause would be better served if more state schools played the game competitively.
Cricket may appear ‘boring’, but that’s invariable the view of people who have either never played or watched the game; Wilde offers us regular reminders of how compelling the sport can be, both on- and off the field of play.
This is not the sort of book you’ll sit down and read over a few days, but it’s a marvellous companion, probably for years. A little like cricket itself in fact.