Some of the most stunning works of sport history in recent times have come not from historians but from the cabal of talented writers who have circled the offices of Manchester’s The Guardian and London’s The Times. The cultural turn has provided the canvas for Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant work, as well as Rob Smyth’s own The Spirit of Cricket and Danish Dynamite – a co-authored work on the idiosyncratic Danish National Men’s Football Team whose golden age concluded in a shocking EURO tournament win in 1992. Gentlemen And Sledgers falls a little short of these benchmarks.
The format of the book is 100 short chapters headed by a quote from either on the pitch, in the contemporary press, or rumoured to have been said out in the streets. This episodic structure is the main weakness of the book. Stories are tossed aside once their time is up, and there’s little consideration of how the events of one Ashes might impact another later one. It becomes so segmented that each incident described within seems localised, temporally fixed and consequently unimportant.
Even the enduring legacy of the Bodyline series, which gets solid treatment in five chapters of Smyth’s stylish prose and influenced relations between the two teams for years to come, is essentially discarded at the end of its chapters. Smyth doesn’t even deign to focus on what happened to the England Captain Douglas Jardine after its conclusion.
Smyth made his name as an esoteric and quick-witted ball-by-ball commentator on the Guardian website, and the best part of Gentlemen And Sledgers are the one-liners and retorts that were the mark of this work. However, on the whole, Gentlemen And Sledgers is more Twenty20 than Test Cricket, exciting when read in short, aggressive bursts, but without the narrative complexity to sustain interest for a whole five days.
Best bit: On W.G. Grace, page six: “Grace was used to doing unto the laws of the game as Uri Geller does unto spoons, and triumphing as a result, but on this occasion had urinated on the wrong nest.”
Worst bit: The feeling that you’re reading 100 straight Grantland articles and should get back to work.
Josh Chiat is a crabbish, defensive opening batsman. He has never hit a six.