Stephen Chalke’s pedigree as a cricket writer is second to none. Four of his previous offerings have won Cricket Book of the Year awards. He has written largely about times past, lost worlds such as three day county cricket in the 1950s and 1960s. He clearly has enormous affection for the players who stood out in that era. They were special partly because of what they achieved, but also because of the kind of people they were – strong characters such as Tom Cartwright, Bob Appleyard, Ken Taylor and “Bomber” Wells.
Taking on the whole history of the County Championship is, however, a job of a different scale altogether. Will we be presented with a large tome, with all the facts and figures buried in a mass of dry text? Or maybe the task will be beyond the author and he will abandon the statistics and settle for a light-hearted, quirky stroll through the last 125 years and the fascinating characters that have populated the game. The holy grail would be a magical combination of idiosyncratic charm and comprehensive, accurate and reliable facts. Surely even Mr Chalke could not achieve this? Or could he?
Praise be; the answer is that Stephen Chalke really does seem to have pulled off the miracle. Summer’s Crown: The Story of Cricket’s County Championship is stuffed to the gills with anecdotes and stories galore about the characters and incidents that have abounded throughout the 125 years since the County Championship started in 1890. And it is also crammed with more facts and statistics than you could shake a stump at.
The bedrock of the book’s success is the way it is organised. After an introduction, there is a brief history of each county that includes Championship placings for each season, a list of grounds used and those players scoring most runs, taking most wickets and making most appearances.
In the next section of the book, each decade from 1890 onwards is covered, with the key statistics for every year and also for the whole decade. This enables us to discover, for example, the leading two top division counties for the decade from 2000 to 2009 in terms of matches won and realise that neither of them actually won the title. Who were they? See below. And in the 1990s, who scored more runs than Mike Gatting, Kim Barnett and Mark Ramprakash? Well, Mr Chalke knows – see below again.
Finally, we have an appendix in which there is more information about, for example, the various points-scoring systems used to decide the County Championship. There have been over thirty different systems since 1890. Maybe the authorities will get it right one day. We can also see that, not surprisingly, Yorkshire have won a higher percentage of their matches than everyone else – 42.9% compared with Glamorgan who trail at the bottom of the list on 20%.
The advantage of this structure is that, within it, the mundane facts can sit side by side with the unusual stories. Statistics, for example, on the numbers of players to appear in the Championship (6821) and how many of them only played once (803) are followed by the story of a particular Surrey player, one of only three English-born cricketers to have averaged over 100 in the Championship. He played three matches and, with his brother, was part of a music hall song, dance and cross-talk comedy act that not only starred on the English stage but also in the 1930s crossed the Atlantic where the pair of them made a fortune. His grandson played for Derbyshire. Who was he? See below.
As you will have gathered, if you like cricket quiz questions, you can create them from information on almost every page. Opening the book at random, I came up with, for example, ‘who was the cricketer who never took a wicket for his county but achieved a hat-trick for England?’ Again, see below!
Where Stephen Chalke is absolutely in his element is in the section within each decade entitled Stories of the (decade). Here, he can give full rein to his love of the unusual, the unexpected and the humorous. Typical is the tale of “Bomber” Wells conspiring with batsman Roly Jenkins to bowl a whole over during the twelve chimes of the Worcester Cathedral clock. His captain, Sir Derrick Bailey, was furious and dropped him for two games. “But it was worth it,” reported Bomber.
The stories continue into this millennium. We can read about Tony Frost, the Warwickshire groundsman recalled to the team and topping the national batting averages. And then there is Brendan Nash, brought up in subtropical Brisbane, playing Test cricket for West Indies but having to retire because he was overheated in, of all places, Cheltenham.
In the midst of all these words are plenty of high quality photographs. Some are conventional head-and-shoulders portraits that seem to have been carefully chosen to draw out the character in the faces. Other pictures tell their own story. We can see the Oval as it was in 1945, with barbed wire and fence posts creating (never used) prisoner-of-war cages. The photograph of the last day of cricket at Priory Meadow, Hastings shows that where Hitler failed to destroy our cricket grounds, property developers have often succeeded.
If this is to be a balanced review, I should list the negatives. Well, if you have no passion for county cricket, have zero sense of humour and no interest in either English social history or the diverse quirks of human nature, this is definitely not the book for you. But then, if that’s the case, how on earth did you find your way to this review on this website?
What we have, then, is a book that can be wholeheartedly recommended to readers of Deep Extra Cover. If you are old enough to have lived through some of the history that Stephen Chalke describes, you will enjoy reliving the cricketing decades of your youth. If you are younger and love county cricket as it is today, you can discover how we got to where we are. And we can all realise that, in the County Championship we have something to be valued, cherished and preserved.
The counties who won most matches in the first decade of this millennium were Lancashire and Kent.
The player who scored most Championship runs in the 1990s was Tim Robinson.
The Surrey batsman who averaged over 100 and was also a music hall star was Joe O’Gorman. His grandson is Tim O’Gorman.
The cricketer who never took a wicket for his county but scored a hat-trick for England was, of course, Geoff Hurst!
Summer’s Crown: The Story of Cricket’s County Championship by Stephen Chalke is published by Fairfield Books, price £20