Lyrical spin on a lovely innings
“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