Review: Mike Brearley's Primer in Sports Historiography

In 'On Cricket', the former English captain gives the reader different methods to approach cricket, its people and passions, and most importantly its social history.

Cricket writing and cricket histories tend to revolve around individual greatness and numbers. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this such as C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary and Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field, both fine pieces of work studying the sociological and historical position of cricket in larger discourses.

In its own way, Mike Brearley’s On Cricket also has that ‘extra’ quality that makes it no mere collection of anecdotes. In fact, the book works as an easy and elegant primer in sports historiography.

Brearley has previously written two books, The Art of Captaincy and On Form. In the first, Brearley, one of the most revered captains of the game, discusses the psychology and struggles behind captaining cricket teams. In the second book, he uses his experience as a trained psychoanalyst to contemplate what it means to be ‘in form’ when playing cricket, and for that matter what it means to be ‘in the zone’ while engaging in disciplines as different as playing music or working in finance.

With On Cricket, Brearley continues to display analytical skills found in these earlier works, while engaging with a diverse range of topics rather than one particular theme.

The book has 49 pieces across eight parts. These contain personal anecdotes, portraits of cricketers and cricket administrators, pieces on cricketing skills, on race and cricket, on corruption in the game, and reflections on sports and aesthetics. Together they give the reader different methods to approach cricket, its people and passions, and most importantly its social history.

The book helps the reader understand strands of history which contribute to make cricket an institution way beyond the 22 yards. In the process, it reveals the breadth of Brearley’s own mind. And yet, it is not just the diversity of topics that makes On Cricket an unusual work of cricket writing.  It is the weaving of a narrative through the diverse contexts that makes the book a work of historiography. Brearley is a weaver with compassion, humour and humility.

Take, for instance, Brearely’s discussion of the infamous ‘D’Oliviera affair’. The South African-born, mixed-race batting all-rounder Basil D’Oliviera had moved to England due to the Apartheid regime in his home country.

In 1968, despite scoring a hundred in his last match and a decent performance with both bat and ball against West Indies and Australia in the preceding years, D’Oliviera was first dropped and later included as an ‘injury replacement’ for a squad which was to tour South Africa. South Africa’s apartheid regime objected to the coloured player’s inclusion, calling it a political move. Eventually the tour was cancelled and the whole affair played a major part in a sports boycott of South Africa, which only ended in the 1990s.

On the whole, Brearley says that the boycott played a part in bringing an end to the apartheid regime: “I think in fact this turned out to be the case.” His account is engrossing and memorable, as he brings alive the ramifications of the affair through the personal sketches of David Sheppard and Douglas Insole, among others.

Sheppard, England cricketer turned priest was one of the Marylebone Cricket Club (or MCC) members who protested against D’Olivera’s exclusion and the club’s handling of the whole affair. Insole was one of the selectors that initially excluded and then later included D’Oliviera in the team for South Africa.

Mike Brearley. Credit:

Brearley lovingly recounts his interactions with the kind and gentle Sheppard, who would look at the positive side of things no matter how dire the times. He also recollects an instance where Sheppard, as captain of his county team, got his bowlers to bowl a negative line to save a match, probably to show that this ‘gentle’-man had a ‘giant’ side, a shrewd attitude towards the game.

This highlights the fact that those who protested D’Oliviera’s exclusion were not prompted by some naive kindness. It shows them to be thinking characters, who understood the import of events where a higher ethical standard was in order.  This also emphasises the compelling necessity that must have been felt by them to take that stand.

Insole was severely criticised by many for the decision to exclude D’Oliviera, and he maintained throughout that the non-selection was purely based on merit (or the lack of it). It would have been easy for Brearley to simply join this critical mass, so to speak, and leave it at that, given that he believed there was something fishy with the situation. As he says, “the decision was a fudge, with motives more simply than cricketing ones entering the outcome”.

Yet, he also writes of the great personal tragedies that confronted Insole during his life, and the fact that he singlehandedly bore the brunt of the outrage against D’Oliviera’s exclusion. Brearley notes how Insole never spoke about the matter much and “put a sense of duty and confidentiality ahead of self-justification”. Despite identifying the selector with the ‘wrong’ side on the issue, he finds ethical elements in his conduct.

Through such balanced portraits, Brearley is able to position the ‘D’Oliviera Affair’ and the boycott in cricket’s history, not merely as a victory of morality but as a play of morals and of bureaucratic and human psychologies, each doing its bit, with the hope that the final outcome will turn out well.

This ability to think deeper about morally dubious incidents is also found in his piece on the spot-fixing scandal of 2010 involving the three Pakistani cricketers who planned to bowl no-balls during certain points in a Test match. Brearley expresses regret more than condemnation for the young Mohammad Amir, whose career lost crucial years because he was cursed with a captain (Salman Butt) and senior player (Mohammad Asif) who were both as culpable as the bookies in pushing him towards concentrating on goals other than victory for his team.

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Similarly, Brearley is kind and rational towards the three Australian cricketers, Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, who were banned for nine months to a year for tampering with the condition of the ball in 2018. While acknowledging their wrongdoing, he questions the severity of the punishments as manifested in the length of their bans. He probes why someone may cheat in sport, making the issue one of introspection for all rather than retribution for the three guilty cricketers. It makes one think of how the game’s history could become useful as history, rather than simply a record of the past or a ready reckoner.

Mike Brearley
On Cricket
Hachette India, 2018

Among the other pieces in the book is a delightful little encounter with Sir Vivian Richards. Richards, in a conversation with Brearley, was speaking passionately about the need for the older generation, including the two of them, to guide the current cricketers on how to play the game properly and with good technique during this era of slap-and-dash cricket. The conversation is engaging, but one is even more struck by the writer’s awe and delight that this star considers him, a modest cricketer at best, a worthy equal in such an exchange. Here, it is a cricket fan writing rather than a three-time Ashes winning English captain.

Brearley says he was intimidated by Richard’s strong build, good looks and cricketing stature. There is a rawness to this confession. Despite the abundance of laudatory literature on the Brearley’s captaincy skills, his playing statistics are average. It is a poignant moment when you realise that he too must have had record-book-worthy desires which went unfulfilled.

More crucially though, it made me wonder about temperament in cricket. How do you play (and plan) against an opponent while also being wonder-struck by their abilities? Such apprehension must be felt by numerous youngsters playing against the game’s legends. In making you aware of it, and doing so from a personal point-of-view, I think Brearley suggests that the next time we see a talented kid who doesn’t ‘make it’, we should remember that it may not be the skill that is lacking but the ability to not let the surroundings get the better of you. It must be hard to do this for an active sportsman, if Mike Brearley with all his cricketing nous is not immune to it, even in his post playing-career!

Finally, I would like to draw attention to his conversation on aesthetics and sports with the art critic David Sylvester back in 2001, which is reprinted in the book. Brearley enters into philosophical territory and speculates about beauty and its relationship to efficacy. He illustrates this point by comparing timing and placement. A brilliantly timed cover-drive may be hit straight to cover and fetch no runs. A similarly timed drive placed either side of the fielder may fetch four runs. Brearley argues that as far as timing goes, both shots provide the batsman the same satisfaction, the end result of runs notwithstanding. The placement ensures that the labour of good timing does not lead to a disappointing result.

I wonder if this nuance between timing and placement is useful in analysing different players struggling for form. Has the soundness of the connection to the ball deserted the player, or is it simply that the batsman can’t penetrate the field? Again, the reader is left with something to ponder.

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I called the book a primer in sports historiography. This is because it opens up these complexities when it comes to analysing any game. It teaches you not to pass simple judgement on people participating in any aspect of the game, the way we judge a game’s result: won or lost. And that all of them play a role in how we understand the game in time.

In this light, consider the opening of the book itself. Describing a match in which Brearley batted with the great Geoffrey Boycott during the early days of both their careers, he writes, “[W]e were both young hopefuls, though as things panned out, my hopes were less firmly grounded than his”. A line full of humour and history, that brings a smile to your face as you begin to turn the pages.

Today, it is this “less firmly grounded” man who has produced this masterly collection of writings. Do we discount his words purely because he scored fewer runs that Boycott? Or do we acknowledge that it is Brearley’s exact position as a well-regarded captain, a modest player and an elegant writer that introduces us to a different attitude to cricketing enquiries? On Cricket is a book that cannot be praised enough for the sheer possibilities of thought that it places before you.

Anushrut Ramakrishnan Agrwaal is an MLitt student in film studies at the University of St Andrews. He follows cricket keenly, and is an avid reader of writing on the game.