My first column for 2013 is devoted to a conservative review of my friend and colleague sports writer Tony Becca's latest book, Cricket, lovely cricketers: The best of my time. Regrettably, a thorough review would require much more space than what the Observer allows me.
The book chronicles memorable feats of select cricketing immortals between 1953, when Becca saw his first Test match at Sabina Park, and 2011. Strangely, the writer does not make much of his role as a sports writer/editor for first the Daily News and subsequently The Gleaner, during this period, which allowed him to view most of the games and which, to my mind, would have added even more credibility to this very important publication. In fact, the brief back-cover note on the author refers to his role as a life member, trustee and former president of Melbourne Cricket Club with the last line simply stating that: "He currently writes for Jamaica's oldest newspaper."
Becca's passion for the game is evident throughout, and readers will find it riveting in large parts. There are specific sections on the best batsmen, all-rounders, wicketkeepers, fast bowlers, spin bowlers and fielders, and a conclusion in which he lists his selection of a 'world 11', also a bonus world 11 comprising those players he considers the most entertaining.
I recall a conversation with Becca in the 1990s when we shared views on Michael Manley's award-winning book on cricket. More correctly, Becca shared some of his opinions with me, as at the time I would sit silently and absorb his observations on cricket, as I never at any time considered myself even close to being a student of that game while he was, in my humble opinion, a professor.
We both agreed, however, that Manley's was a very good book. I felt then, as I do now, that it is one of the best, perhaps the most comprehensively written book on the sport. But then I never read as many books on cricket as Becca, who, based on my conclusion from what he said, felt that Manley's book stopped just short of being a life-time best-seller, supposedly in comparison with other best-sellers on the subject.
There can be no doubt for all of us who have grown up under the influence of The Gleaner that Becca definitely followed in the footsteps of some of the best authorities on the sport of cricket like Strebor Roberts and Raymond Sharpe, who also occupied the sports editor's seat at that venerable institution and whose opinion on the sport was always in demand during their sojourn there and even after, as is the case with Becca. Like Strebor Roberts, he has chosen to share some of his knowledge and experience with us for posterity by publishing a book, in his case at least two on the subject.
I chose to read Becca's book during the recent Christmas holiday which I spent with family members in Florida. Reading it was all the more enthralling because I was able to share some of the sections with my cricket-mad brother. That, of course, meant that I had to leave my copy with him, because it is the sort of book that no cricket lover ought not to have on his or her bookshelf.
Judging from my brother's reaction, for anyone — especially any West Indian cricket fan — reading such a book guarantees an intoxicating, orgasmic experience.
The problem is that for the average reader, or more specifically, those less familiar with the game, the experience is unlikely to be the same and may even be confusing in parts, which may have been avoided with some more careful editing. At times it seems that Becca was writing for his colleagues and associates who know as much about the game and the specific experiences as he. That is all right, I guess, if the writer and his publisher(s) chose to target a specific market.
Case in point is his analysis of Brian Lara's rating among batting immortals. "There are those who believed that, to an extent, he was suspect against genuine pace... and while there were times, such as against Australia with Glenn McGrath on a few occasions, when it did appear that he was. That belief was probably because he was so deadly, so murderous against spin bowling, and the best spin bowling at that."
Besides having to read the paragraph a few times to ensure that I fully comprehended this assessment, I was left wondering what was Lara's actual experience against those pace bowlers that would lead to such a conclusion about a real or imagined chink in his armour.
There are several similar accounts, such as his comments on Viv Richards' refusal to accept a contract to play cricket in South Africa. Considering that South Africa has been playing Test cricket for several years, it would perhaps clarify any confusion by simply including the word 'apartheid' South Africa. Indeed, the chapter positioning Richards among the 'greats' suffers from way too many baffling details that are bound to halt the transition of any reader, regardless of prior knowledge of the game.
"Viv Richards was a great fielder and a better than average off-spin bowler. Starting with an innings of 192 not out in Delhi in 1974 in his second Test, in his third Test innings and against spin bowlers like Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, and against Venkataraghavan, Richards went through four Test matches in Australia in 1975-76 producing nothing but low scores."
His description of the epic One-Day International between the West Indies and England at Old Trafford, Manchester in 1984 is yet another case in point. "They were 11 for two when Richards walked out to the crease, with only Eldene Baptiste reaching double figures — 26."
Indeed, Becca's obvious immense powerhouse of information on the game is not only evident throughout the book but so too the challenge of documenting most of what he recalls in a way that makes sense to readers.
In commenting on Richards' performance at home against India in 1976, Becca writes: "The last innings, the near 300 at the Oval, was a masterpiece — a performance that lasted for 472 minutes and 386 deliveries. It included 38 fours, and the total, 829 runs, the fourth highest by anyone from anywhere, was a record; the most, and still most runs scored by a West Indian in a series."
Then, too, in a lengthy paragraph about the great Frank Worrell in the fourth Test at Headingley, Australia, he describes an outcome which seems on the surface to be impossible.
"... after opening the batting and scoring 29 in the West Indies first innings of 142, after bowling the first delivery in England's first innings, he went on to take seven wickets for 70 runs off 38.2 overs as the West Indies dismissed England for 279 before falling for 231 and losing the match by an innings and five runs."
The credibility of the book is underlined by the writer's first-hand account throughout. It seems, however, that in his preoccupation with some of those realities there is more than a touch of incredulity such as when writing about his earliest Test match at Sabina Park. It is asking a lot of readers to believe that any 12-year-old lad, who by then clearly was regaled by tales about great batsmen and bowlers — some of whom would be performing in that game, among them Everton Weeks, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Len Hutton, Peter May, and debutant Gary Sobers — went to Sabina Park, not primarily to see those batting or bowling greats in action, but rather a wicketkeeper, Godfrey Evans, who was on the opposing team. Taking my friend Becca at his word, he must have been the most unique young cricket fan in the history of the game.
Becca appears reluctant throughout about affirming who, in his opinion, is the best batsman and/or bowler and fielder, even in making his final selection of a 'world 11' which is helped by his 'best entertaining' picks. In the process he makes liberal use of words like 'arguably', 'probably', 'maybe', and 'perhaps'; fair enough. Where he lost me, however, was in his confusing analysis of Gary Sobers' rating as the best all-rounder that the game has ever known.
"As an all-rounder, he was, arguably, the best of his time, probably the best of all time." Sobers?! 'Arguably the best all-rounder!?' Both my brother and I were floored by this conclusion. However, in a subsequent chapter in writing about Australian Keith Miller, happily he seems to have had a change of mind, but only after describing Miller as "...one of the best, if not the best, all-rounder the game had ever seen. In fact, regardless of what the statistics may say, he remains to me the second best all-rounder of all-time behind only the incomparable Gary Sobers."
Undoubtedly a fascinating book, especially for genuine cricket fans. However, with dedicated editing and more select photographs, a second edition, like Michael Manley's book, could perhaps still make it on the international best-sellers list.