E.W.Swanton, an undisputed doyen amongst the chroniclers of the pristine game of cricket, in this masterpiece, pays tribute to 75 of the most ebullient, enlightened and entertaining players, and 9 of the best chroniclers to have graced this game. This phalanx of English, Australian and Caribbean stars reads like a veritable who’s who of the cricketing world and each cricketer is to say the least a behemoth in his or in a solitary instance her own right.
Interestingly these tributes are part of the obituaries which the author famously published initially in “The Cricketer” and later, for a prolonged period of time in the “Daily Telegraph”. This dazzling pantheon of luminaries is compartmentalized into ten different categories though quite a few players in the list would seamlessly have fitted into more classes than one. Each player’s name is followed by the date of his birth, the name of the educational institution (wherever available and recorded), the teams represented, a brief career stat, all followed by the date on which the great happened to shed his mortal coil. Once the aforementioned preliminaries are taken care of, then follows the actual tribute, glowing in nature and glittering in intensity. However, the goose is not one bit overcooked and facts are laid out in a threadbare manner for whatever they are, and flattery is left for posterity.
Since most of the names featured in the list began their career in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, a reader of the likes of yours truly would not have had the pleasure of watching archival footage of the greats in action let alone being privy to their presence in flesh and blood. However the book is such a remarkable piece of art with the writing resonating with sheer magnificence and orderliness, that in the mind’s eye of the reader, a kaleidoscopic image is formed with the words almost transforming themselves into vivid images. It is as if these high priests of the game graciously consent to provide a fleeting albeit lasting demonstration of their enviable prowess for the benefit of the owner of the book. For example, though I have never been privileged enough to see the peerless Frank Woolley in action, I can clearly imagine the phenom rocking back onto his back foot and essaying a perfectly executed horizontal bat shot! Or even a slow gripper bowled by the wily Geoff Hirst that has the batsman rooted in his crease, with a bewildered, baffled and bamboozled look!
The power of this book is such that, it has the effect of bringing on to the lips a pleasing smile, and in more instances than one, an involuntary tear to the eye. Fascinating anecdotes and ingenious quips escaping the lips of many a cricketer also find relevant mention thereby embellishing the work of this genial author. For instance J.J.Warr’s famous remark on the flamboyant Dennis Compton taking 415 catches during the course of an illustrious career, “when he was looking” is an absolute gem. The book also contains within its covers many rare, surprising and barely known facets of trivia and astonishment. I almost had to stifle a gulp of awe upon reading the fact that Arthur Wellard smote 500 (yes you read that right) mighty sixes during his tenure at the crease either side of the War! The reader would also be aghast and pained to note that the tamer of many a hapless bowler, the man with three Oxford Blues to his credit and the world record holder for the long jump at one point in time, the matchless Charles Burgess Fry was a miserable failure in an attempt to tame the very shrew that he married, going by the name of Beatrice!
Tributes are also paid, and deservingly so to the great literary doyens who regaled many a million both by holding a pen and wielding a microphone. The peerless Sir Neville Cardus, the inimitable Sir John Arlott and the exuberant Brian Johnston are the subjects of accolades and encomiums. The category titled “The Roll Call” makes for extremely poignant reading as it deals with some fine cricketing lives nipped in the bud on account of the insidious and deplorable World War. The awe-inspiring Headley Verity and the formidable Ken Farnes represent a couple of examples. The great Headley Verity whose Herculean feat of grabbing 10 wickets whilst just conceding 10 runs has never been emulated till date, would easily have gone on to become even greater but for a gallantry displayed in the War which unfortunately proved fatal. Commanding the B Company outside Catania, which lost its position in the confusion and became surrounded, Verity was hit in the chest and had to be left behind as the company retreated. The last order that this brave heart gave to his Company was “Keep going”.
If at all there remains a cause to complain about either the structure of the content of this marvelous book, it is the fact that the hallowed gallery of Mr. Swanton is completely bereft of players from the sub-continent and also from New Zealand and South Africa. Perhaps an inclusion of some of the legends from the missing countries would have added a much admired sheen to this luminous collection!
If I were to be asked to choose a personal favourite amongst the plethora of tributes, I would unhesitatingly proceed to pick the very first one with which the book begins. An effusive praise for arguably the most wily, wise, and wondrous of misers to have ever bowled a cricket ball and in any version of the game – Sidney Francis Barnes. Scalping 189 Test wickets at a most unbelievable average of 16.43, S.F.Barnes was undoubtedly a unique specimen! It seems that when he bowled the magical Victor Trumper with a delivery that was bowled fast on to the leg stump, which moved late in the air to the off stump, and then cut off the pitch to take the leg stump out of the ground, the non-striker Charlie McCartney who was a witness to this veritable miracle described the ball as “one which a man might see when he was tight” However this epic by E.W.Swanton is one that is lovingly loose on the heart longingly lingers on in the mind and pays a lasting tribute to the people who have made this game such a beautiful sight to behold!
“Cricketers of our time” – A timeless classic!