‘Words and cricket,’ wrote Beryl Bainbridge, ‘seem to go together.’ Why should this be? The Ashes series starting next week might not be the most eagerly anticipated of recent times, due mainly to the Aussies having developed a taste for self-destruction rivalling that of Frank Spencer. But still the words come. Broadsheets and blogs alike are bubbling with pieces about the urn. There are new books too, such as Simon Hughes’s Cricket’s Greatest Rivalry: A History of the Ashes in 10 Matches. It’s just as entertaining and informative as the ex-Middlesex bowler’s previous books, displaying his customary eye for the memorable detail. Picking the Edgbaston Test from the 2005 series, he recalls that the ball with which Shane Warne bowled Andrew Strauss in the second innings couldn’t be replicated by Hawkeye – the computer thought that that much turn was impossible.
With just a few days to go before commencement of the 2013 hostilities (an apt word, given David Warner), I meet Simon at Lord’s to discuss why cricket should be so far ahead of other sports in producing great books. A few thousand of them sit on the shelves around us in the ground’s library, a smallish room in the building behind the pavilion which also houses the museum. Some of the reasons are obvious, such as the fact that cricket is much more complex than other games, giving you more to write about. But Simon’s also keen to highlight a particular reason for the sport’s drama. ‘When you get out in cricket it’s like a death. That’s something unique to the game. You don’t play any further part in that innings. Baseball is similar, I suppose, but even there you get three strikes before you’re out. The different ways a batsman handles what is, in effect, being killed, while everyone around him is triumphant and ecstatic … it’s great material. You can write reams about this stuff.’
This reminds me of John Cleese noting the language comedians use about their performances: ‘I killed them … I died on my arse’. Simon in turn remembers Sam Mendes. ‘Football, he said, was like film – ninety minutes of fast-moving entertainment, which is exciting but doesn’t always leave you with a great deal at the end. Cricket is more like theatre – you need to invest more time to understand the themes, but it gives you greater reward at the end.’ I agree, which is actually why I differ slightly from Simon and always choose Old Trafford rather than Edgbaston as my favourite match of the 2005 series. The fact that after five days of drama England couldn’t quite take Australia’s last wicket, so leaving the game drawn, was beautifully perverse. It’s the sort of illogicality that bemuses Americans (not sometimes the most difficult task, but still.) ‘Five days and you still don’t get a result?’ say the Seppos. All the more entertaining for that, I reply. Tantric cricket.
Many cricket writers are ex-players, a much higher proportion than in other sports. Genius in his way that Wayne Rooney is, it’s hard to imagine him penning respected tomes when he hangs up the Nikes. (Autobiographical duties have been farmed out to Hunter Davies, of course.) Does Simon think on-the-field experience is necessary for a cricket writer? ‘Certainly it’s a very technically complicated game, so it helps to have done it at a serious level if you’re trying to explain it to people. But not just the actual mechanics of it. I think having had a career that was up and down helps me identify with, and write and commentate about, players who are going through a bad patch, rather than just the ones for whom everything’s going right. That’s why Ian Botham isn’t a very good commentator – he doesn’t understand people getting it wrong.’ Simon’s aware that not having played for England sets him a challenge in the media stakes. ‘This applies also to, say, Mark Nicholas. The struggle is to convince people that you as a non-England player are worth listening to. Sure, if someone’s taken a load of Test wickets it gives them a certain credibility, but can they explain the game well? Sometimes they can’t. I have to work harder to earn an audience’s respect.’ For what it’s worth I’m one person who needs no persuading that an England pedigree doesn’t guarantee listenability. The day that Geoff Boycott finally hangs up the microphone will be one of boundless celebration in my household. It’s a curious coincidence, but my instinctive reaction to hearing his voice is one involving a cricket bat.
How did Simon find the transition from wearing the whites to writing the words? ‘One huge difference is that there’s no benchmark in writing about what’s good and what’s bad. It’s all a matter of opinion. We used to have the Middlesex averages posted on the pavilion wall once a month – there it was in black and white, you’d either had a good month or a bad month. But as a journalist and a writer there was none of that. It was tough getting used to not knowing how good you are, because there’s nothing to measure it against.’ Except for literary prizes, that is. Simon won the 1997 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award for his autobiography A Lot of Hard Yakka. ‘That was probably the most satisfying moment of my professional life, either as a player or a writer. It was all my own work.’ As were the match reports he used to compile at school, some of which he would read out in assembly. What mentions did he give to his own performances? ‘If it was a report to be read out, I’d be quietly self-deprecating. If it was just for my own entertainment, I’d be incredibly conceited.’
Simon’s first assignment as a journalist for the Independent was a county match at Chesterfield. ‘It was still in the days when you dictated your story down the telephone. As I was doing it there was another journalist sitting next to me, who I’d known from my playing days, and always got on quite well with. At one point I used the word “staccato”. He said, “you can’t use that word about someone’s career”. I said “why not?” “Because it’s a musical term. I bet you don’t even know what it means.” I said, “listen mate, I did piano to grade seven and played the church organ for five years. I can use it.”’
Like almost everyone else Simon finds it hard to see the Aussies making a fight of the Ashes this year. This sort of unanimity makes me nervous, especially when I remember some of England’s batting in their most recent Test series against New Zealand. But even if there is the odd collapse, it’ll only add to the drama. And at the end of the day, Brian, we want cricket to be the winner. We want a game not of two halves but of infinite variety. And millions of words.