On The Ashes by Gideon Haigh

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

Gideon Haigh could theoretically open the batting for Australian cricket writers and the bowling for the English cohort, he’s that good. He’s also a very versatile writer full stop. In this collection of writings about the cricket tests between Australia and England starting in 1882, he covers an eclectic range of players, the evolution of the game and the enduring appeal for the contest.

Since Haigh was born in England and grew up in Australia, he can be said to have a foot in each camp. However, rather than simply barrack for one side, he seems to lean favourably towards talent, persistence and sportsmanship where ever he sees it, especially in a tight contest. The choice of photos for the front cover (Pat Cummins and Ben Stokes) and the back (WG Grace and Don Bradman) give another indication of his impartiality.

Golfer Sam Snead said that he once thought of becoming a political cartoonist but that would require one new idea each day. But if he was a sportswriter, he wouldn’t need any new ideas daily. He was probably referring to those hacks who simply give you the score and who did what; in other words no interpretation, analysis or insights into the wider ramifications of what transpired. Areas that Haigh covers comprehensively.

One notable feature of Haigh’s writing is his superior vocabulary and nods to history. I found myself reaching for a reference book quite often.

Thus, Dennis Lillee is said to be speaking ex cathedra when he makes a rare pronouncement (221). When they (Greg Chappell’s considerable business interests) did not fructify, he remained in the game with a seeming ambivalence. (219). (Keith) Miller is associated immediately with the Second World War, the warrior who beat his sword into a bat rather than a ploughshare. (152). In 2005, Glenn McGrath was injured in the warm-up to a test. Word of the Grade 2 ligament strain travelled around England like the good news from Ghent to Aix. (299).

It’s not only his choice of vocabulary that is impressive, but also his craftily structured sentences. Referring to one player’s poor choice of shots that lead to his dismissal, Haigh begins the paragraph with a reference to the Kansas Board of Education. He concludes with the comment “no intelligent design here”.  It helps if you’re aware of the debates about teaching Biology from either an evolution stance or the alternative approach, in that conservative state.

Another of Haigh’s strengths is to be able, in a page or two, give a comprehension pen-picture of a sportsman’s abilities on and sometimes off the field. We often learn more about the person and where they’re coming from. Haigh also can highlight a minor but significant behaviour of a cricketer as an indicator of a character trait. Rod Marsh would remove the head of a beer at tea time so that Ray Robinson, a highly respected writer and a chronic ulcer sufferer, could enjoy it with the players at close of play. (225).

With the benefit of thirty plus years of experience Haigh can also attempt that trickiest of endeavours- comparing past and present greats. He refers to an old newspaper headline, Bradman Bats and Bats and Bats and says that (Shane) Warne at his peak could be the bowling equivalent.

I did think his writing on cricketers, who he has actually seen in action, was better than the second, third or fourth-handed accounts of previous eras. It must be harder to convey the impact of a Victor Trumper, from photos, anecdotes and newspaper accounts, than watching his grandson Ian Chappell take on a John Snow delivery.

Haigh makes an interesting observation about the upcoming Ashes series (in England): where home advantage is bordering on the unassailable (2). He points out that Australia hasn’t won a series in England since 2001 and England hasn’t won a test in Australia since 2013. Still in the long history of the Ashes, this might be seen one day merely as a phase.

Without a doubt, the main audience for this book will be cricket lovers and for them I’d highly recommend it. For a sports fan I’d recommend it and for the non-sporting reader, I’d suggest you borrow it from the library and dip into some good writing.

Gideon Haigh was born in 1965 in England. He grew up in Geelong and lives in Melbourne, where he stated his journalism career in 1984. He has written eighteen books on a variety of subjects; ranging from asbestos to architecture to crime to corporatism. On Warne (2012) won several prizes including the MCC Book of the Year Award and the British Sports Book Award Best Cricket Book of the Year award. He has also won the Jack Pollard prize for best Australian cricket book six times.

On the Ashes

by Gideon Haigh


Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978 176147 002 8

$34.99; 416pp

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