Monday, 23 May 2016

Mystery Spinner: The Life and Death of an Extraordinary Cricketer by Gideon Haigh (Book review)

I've been reading and collecting cricket books for more than thirty years. My first was "Kiwis and Indians" a pictorial account of the 1983 season, the photos of Patrick Eager complemented by Alan Ross' pithy commentary. It's a big dog-eared now but I still know it word for word, picture for picture. It will always remain my favourite because it was there beside me as I was discovering the game - at the boundary's edge at my local club, on my favourite seat in the Ladies' stand at Old Trafford, in front of the television set on a Thursday morning in the height of summer and next to the radio smuggled into my bed on a winter's night.

When I was seven, cricket was simply wonderful - the best and only important thing in the world. But then I started to grow up and I realised that it was much more (and of course much less) than that. Even today I'm still discovering the depths of its richness, its complexity, its subtleness and its occasional brutality. Of course first hand experiences, playing and watching, have been the greatest influences but alongside throughout have been my books. Not all have been great, although many have been, but very few have failed to enhance in some way or other my love of this silly old game.

This is one of those books. If you haven't read it then hopefully it might persuade you to do so, if you have read it then maybe it'll inspire to re-read as I have just done. 




Hubris. It can be a mortal enemy. Like a parasite, it finds us at our weakest moment and silently, insiduously latches on. It bides its time, waits for us to lower our guard, and then it strikes.

And our weakest moment? When we dare to hope, we dare to aspire, we dare to dream. When we do so we leave reason to the wind and embark on a glorious, epic journey where there are no boundaries except the limits of our own imagination.

Jack Iverson knew all this better than most. From the moment he first flicked a cricket ball in earnest  he felt hubris' shadow at his back, stalking him, taunting him. "Go on Jack", it said, just you dare to believe.

But he never did. Despite his obvious talent, unique and precocious, he wouldn't, he couldn't. Not even when selected for the Australian Test team for the first time, alongside nine of Bradman's '48 'Invincibles' did he let his guard down. He never aspired beyond the current game, always convinced he was going to be "found out" once and for all. His threat to "give the game away" became a ritual in the face of the slightest set back. One can only imagine how long he would have survived in today's world. For there would be no sneaking away at the end of a day's play for a solitary bite to eat at a local greasy spoon, as he did on his Test debut.

And herein lay another of Jack's problems: he wasn't a cricketer at all. He was wasn't even a bowler really. The extraordinary flicking action produced by a superhumanly strong middle finger, was a result of years of practice with a ping pong ball. He had merely adapted a supreme talent to a new format. True he was both metronomic and deadly. Able to land a viciously spinning ball on a sixpence seemingly at will. Leave it there and one has in mind another Shane Warne. But infuriatingly for his captains and captivatingly for us, there was one thing missing, one crucial element that talent could never replace.

Virtually every cricketing source that Haigh interviewed confirms the same thing - poor Jack was entirely lacking for a 'cricketing brain'. He had no idea about field placings, no concept of bowling strategy and no eye for batsman's strengths or weaknesses.

It has always been a pet peev of mine, the lazy, catch-all use by cricket commentators of the word 'inexperience' to explain an error.  Whilst Test cricket may be well-named and undoubtedly asks more questions of a player than any other form of the game, it is still essentially the same one that they have been playing for over a decade in most cases.

Well, almost all Test cricketers. Jack Iverson had been playing regular cricket for approximately four years when he made his debut at the age of 35. In Jack's case and in his defence, he really didn't know better.

Ultimately hubris did get him but not in the Shakespearean way. Jack stood strong to the end, but his mind buckled under the weight of his own self-restraint. His star burnt brilliantly bright but more briefly than it should have. Self-doubt (coupled with a noble but perhaps exaggerated sense of familial responsibility) cost him a Test career that many felt had not peaked (had he toured England in 1953 many experts thought him likely to be unplayable on the soft, uncovered wickets); and it may ulitmately have contributed to his premature death.

Gideon Haigh guides us through this compelling but inspiring tragedy with guile, skill but most importantly with empathy and genuine compassion. Because for all his 'strong, silent type' persona Jack was a sensitive soul.

Of course the book is also beautifully written, forensically researched (as it needed to be because for Jack was a tough man to track down) and the story flows wonderfully. Even the title is perfect for a man who remained an enigma until the very end.

The only real quibble I have is the amount of time spent putting Jack's particular skill in its historical context. A whole, rather long chapter in the middle of the book is dedicated to bowling innovators through time. Some background is useful but the length seemed unnecessary and, if I am honest, led this reader to indulge in spot of page flicking. For one thing, there are many books which cover these details better and more comprehensively but secondly and, and perhaps this is something of a back handed compliment, it takes us away from Jack for far too long.

As if to illustrate the point, Haigh finally seeks refuge in that slimmest of libraries "cricketing fiction" in an attempt to find a figure and a story to match Jack's. Unsurprisingly he does not suceed. Mystery spinner indeed.

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