Lyri­cal spin on a lovely in­nings

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cather­ine McGre­gor

“Cricket,” Mark Ni­cholas as­sures us, “is the most artis­tic of all games, and to me the most beau­ti­ful — hence the ti­tle of this book.” One need not share his pal­pa­ble pas­sion for the game to con­clude this is in­deed a beau­ti­ful book. It is the mem­oir of a com­plex and fas­ci­nat­ing man much more in­ter­est­ing and nu­anced than the sport­ing celebrity with whom most of us are fa­mil­iar.

Tele­vi­sion thrives on il­lu­sion. Star qual­ity, which Ni­cholas pos­sesses in abun­dance, re­lies on im­age and the per­cep­tion of in­fal­li­bil­ity. Yet this is an hon­est, at times raw book about a man who, de­spite the ur­bane fa­cade, has known chal­lenge, dis­ap­point­ment, suf­fer­ing and fail­ure. And as this review went to print, Ni­cholas was in hospi­tal, taken there af­ter col­laps­ing while broad­cast­ing in Mel­bourne.

The global cricket com­mu­nity will wish him a speedy re­cov­ery. He has al­ready given much joy and in­sight as a player and broad­caster, and he has so much more yet to give. No one wrote more mov­ingly about the ap­pre­hen­sions that swept through the Aus­tralian cricket fam­ily when Phillip Hughes was fa­tally in­jured.

His is one of the most recog­nis­able voices of the Aus­tralian sum­mer, ri­valling those of Jim Maxwell of ABC ra­dio and the late Richie Be­naud, as sooth­ing, per­va­sive ac­com­pa­ni­ments to the rit­u­als of the sea­son, cen­tral to which is the in­ter­na­tional cricket sched­ule.

To many Aus­tralians, Ni­cholas may eas­ily — and in­ac­cu­rately — be dis­missed as the posh Pom who never played a Test but adds fi­nesse and in­sight to the dress­ing room ban­ter of the Nine Network com­men­tary team. Al­though born in Lon­don and well ed­u­cated at a de­cent pub­lic school, Ni­cholas is hardly aris­toc­racy.

Ni­cholas comes from an up­per-mid­dle-class fam­ily but he was not weaned on a sil­ver spoon. At 11 he lost his fa­ther, who was just 41. Hav­ing lived through a sim­i­lar trauma I know that its im­pact is in­cal­cu­la­ble and can re­ver­ber­ate well into later life.

While quite prag­matic, Ni­cholas is hon­est about the ef­fect of this event. One senses it im­bued him with para­dox­i­cal drives to suc­ceed and earn the es­teem of an ab­sent fa­ther, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously erod­ing his con­fi­dence in his early years at board­ing school.

Few elite sports­men ad­mit to fear and fal­li­bil­ity, but Ni­cholas never evades this, whether as a lad grap­pling with scary dreams, a player fac­ing some of the most in­tim­i­dat­ing bowlers the game has pro­duced, or in ad­mit­ting he could have been more ma­ture in judg­ment and gra­cious of dis­po­si­tion dur­ing his long ten­ure as cap­tain of Hamp­shire. Mind you he must have been a de­cent leader and player. We learn, al­most as an af­ter­thought, that he was con­sid­ered to lead Eng­land in a Test match, only to have Mickey Stewart cast the de­cid­ing vote against him. The panel pre­ferred Chris Cow­drey. So close yet so far.

Ni­cholas is frank about his tri­umphs and fail­ures as a player. His re­flec­tions on the van­i­ties, fol­lies and joys of the pro­fes­sional cir­cuit could sus­tain a stand-alone vol­ume and he deals with it bet­ter than any­one else I have read on the sub­ject. How­ever, he earned the re­spect of the West In­dian fire­brand Mal­colm Mar­shall, whom he ranks next to Den­nis Lillee as the great­est quick of all time. The chap­ter on fast bowl­ing is com­pelling read­ing and bears all the hall­marks of Ni­cholas’s voice.

It is au­thor­i­ta­tive, de­rived from di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence as a top-or­der bats­man and cap­tain bur­nished by a first-rate cricket in­tel­lect. As an aside, his re­la­tion­ship with Mar­shall and Gor­don Greenidge could be the sub­ject of an ex­tended es­say on cap­taincy and the han­dling of strong-willed prodi­gies by a player less blessed with sheer nat­u­ral tal­ent than his charges.

Such was the es­teem in which he was held by the se­nior West In­di­ans that he was in­vited to de­liver a eu­logy at Mar­shall’s fu­neral. He re­placed the in­con­solable Vi­vian Richards. In the po­lit­i­cal and racial at­mos­phere of the time, that hon­our speaks about Ni­cholas as a man and a leader. He still re­gards it as one of the great­est priv­i­leges the game has ex­tended to him.

Ni­cholas loves cricket. One only has to read this book to ap­pre­ci­ate that he could eas­ily have suc­ceeded in any num­ber of other fields. He is a first-rate an­a­lyst and writer who could have eas­ily cov­ered other sports, or em­u­lated Ed Smith as an es­say­ist on pol­i­tics and cul­ture.

But the game nur­tured the wounded young lad who had lost the dad who in­tro­duced him to it. Yes, it is a beau­ti­ful game. It has in­spired love from a gifted writer who pos­sesses not only an un­canny eye for the game but for hu­man­ity in gen­eral. The rich cast of char­ac­ters — from Peter O’Toole and Kerry Packer to lesser en­ti­ties such as Peter Sains­bury and Colin In­gle­byMacken­zie — trans­ports this work be­yond the cricket genre. More than a beau­ti­ful game it is a lyri­cal ac­count of a fas­ci­nat­ing life. Ni­cholas has shared much more in print than would be ap­pro­pri­ate in his more fa­mous guise be­hind the mi­cro­phone. But we are much richer for his hon­est, self-dep­re­cat­ing con­tri­bu­tion. and broad­caster. is a cricket player, writer

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