Saturday, May 19, 2007

On Gideon Haigh's All Out

When, at the WACA last December, Ricky Ponting's Australians overwhelmed Andrew Flintoff's Englishmen for the third time in three games, the most eagerly anticipated Ashes series in two decades had proved instead to be amongst the most one-sided ever. There seemed to be only two reasons for allowing a so obviously dead rubber to continue. One, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath announced they were hanging up their boots, which automatically gave the last two Tests a sepia-tinted, valedictory air. And two, Gideon Haigh had been working up a nice rhythm in his reports and dispatches from the games, and to interrupt him at the top of his game, as Mike Atherton once did Graeme Hick in an Ashes Test, would have been too cruel.

Of all modern cricket writers, Haigh is the most versatile and companionable. In our post-post-Cardusian times, when television brings every detail of the great game into our living-rooms and in the breaks gray-haired pundits tell noodle-strapped lovelies everything there is to know, it is still possible to watch a day's cricket and then profitably read Haigh on it the next morning. He has a great sense of the ebb and flow of the game, an eye for the quirks of character of those who play it, a lovely prose style that throws off sparks of both erudition and sunny good humour, and a cat, Trumper, who was unfortunately left behind when he went to cover the cricket. Most daily journalism has a short shelf life, but the reports and columns collected in All Out merely bring together between two covers and some sturdy binding pieces we were all collecting anyway.

Insofar as the 2006-07 battle for the "sacred soot" was a contest - and England did have their moments - Haigh shows how it was one, and how the visitors gradually lost their way. The decisive moment of the series was at Adelaide, when England, after having controlled the game for four days, faltered inexplicably on the final morning and conceded a victory that surprised even their all-conquering opponents. That left England two games down, and from there they went steadily downhill. Could it have gone differently? Haigh argues that the itinerary did England no favours: not only did they have little match practice by way of warm-ups, but also the first two Tests were back-to back, allowing them little time to regroup after defeat at Brisbane.

A highlight of the series, as of the 2005 Ashes, was the bowling of Shane Warne. In turn, Haigh's writing is never better than when on the subject of Warne. One of the reasons why All Out will prove to be an enduring book is that it enshrines the moods and moves of the greatest slow bowler cricket has seen, on his last few days on the big stage.

Haigh recalls the time he first saw Warne's art broken down on a super-slow-motion camera, "his fingers undulating like piano keys as they set the ball rotating". He evokes Warne's garrulous, abrasive presence: walking back to his mark between deliveries, Warne is always "searching for eye contact, eager for a chirp"; sledged by close-in fielders while batting, he chunters,"You're making me concentrate!" The only opponent who gets under his skin is his Hampshire teammate Kevin Pietersen; their simmering face-offs are contests that Warne "affects to enjoy, but which he could enjoy more".

During the series Warne bowled some marathon spells. Haigh writes:

Arthur Shrewsbury, legend has it, went out to open for Nottinghamshire in country cricket having ordered his seltzer for teatime, in full expectation that he would still be batting. When Warne takes the ball these days, it is with a similarly proprietorial air. He arrives, settles, surveys. He attacks, consolidates, harries, heckles and sometimes even dawdles. Some bowlers hasten through their overs, as though to sneak a dot ball or two from a batsman not quite fully tensed. Warne never hurries, averaging about 210-240 seconds per over, the leisurely walk back being part of that tightly-grooved action, the thinking time both for himself and the batsman. What did Warnie just bowl me? What will Warnie bowl me next?

One drawling surveillance of a batsman's inadequacies can be guaranteed in most overs; a field change, conveyed by minimal gesture and perfunctory nod to his captain, every other over. Regular importuning of the umpires, of course, is guaranteed.
Note the third and fourth sentences of that passage, which seem to suggest that as a man of action, Warne can only be described by a battery of verbs.
Just to see Warne hand his cap over to the umpire was to know that game was going to rise in pitch - just as there can never be another Bradman, says Haigh, there can never be another Warne. On these pages, more than anywhere else, Shane Warne will always remain not out.

Here are two bits from Haigh's book as they first appeared in the newspapers, one on a long spell bowled by Warne at Perth, and the other a survey of the careers of Warne and Glenn McGrath - "the best slow bowler of all, and the best seam bowler of his era". And some other exceptional Haigh pieces: "The Game Was Never The Same", on the Packer revolution; "Man and Superman", on Garry Sobers; "Standing the Test of Time", on the factors that make for a great Test match; and lastly, a piece on the super-dull 2007 World Cup.

And an old post, on the best Indian cricket writing.

A shorter version of this piece appears this month in Cricinfo magazine.


Anonymous said...

Everything Haigh is usually value added. Its not just descriptive sport anymore. Its analytical drama..

Always has been. Rare breed...

Anonymous said...


I have been looking all over for this book since I read about it on your blog. Without joy. Where can I pick it up?

- Bijoy

Chandrahas said...

Bijoy - Yes, you'll have some difficulty in finding it because it's published in Australia. I just checked some of the better Indian online bookshops and none of them appear to have it either.

The good thing is that most of the content is actually online, on the Cricinfo website (Haigh wrote an Ashes blog) and that of the Guardian.

In the last resort, you can always borrow it from me if you're ever in Bombay, on the condition that you return it before you leave the city.

Anonymous said...

That's very generous... but sadly, it won't help. I want to gift it to someone. Thanks, anyway.