No-one could accuse author Tim Brooks of lacking ambition. In the space of 320 pages or so of A Corner of Every Foreign Field, he not only outlines the whole history of cricket around the world from its earliest unorganised and undocumented beginnings right up to the present. He also offers a candid critique of the efforts (or sometime lack of them) of administrators to spread the game more widely. And then he maps out a vision for the future.
The book should be essential reading for those who, like me (and Tim), believe cricket to be the best sport ever invented. It answers so many questions. Why did cricket fail to take hold in the United States? What is stopping growth in China? What did the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) do to grow the game for all those years when it was the ruling body of cricket? And what has the International Cricket Council (ICC) done to spread cricket across the world in more recent times?
Tim Brooks is well qualified to come up with the answers. In addition to writing and commentating on the game, he has produced cricket development strategies for Germany, Norway, Greece, Sierra Leone and Mexico.
It would be good to be able to say that, at the end of the book, I felt a warm glow of optimism regarding the global growth of the game. Instead, two thoughts predominated.
Firstly, in keeping with the international spirit of the book, let us quote Napoleon Bonaparte who said: “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” Substitute “cricket administration” for “politics” and you are tuned in to much of what is described, especially in the latter stages of the book.
Secondly, cricket seems to be the opposite of the Covid19 pandemic. Whereas the virus, if left to its own devices, will spread uncontrollably, it seems that cricket needs constant, careful and sympathetic nurturing wherever it is played, in order for it to thrive.
Would that the situations were reversed!
The book is written in a flowing, authoritative style. Tim Brooks has no problems in saying what he thinks, without hedging it around with too much “possibly this” or “maybe that”.
The early history of the game has attracted many who, for want of definite information, have developed their own theories of cricket’s development. So Tim may have stepped on a few toes. But almost certainly, the picture he paints is pretty close to the reality of what happened.
Even better, his descriptions are never boring, not least because he can link the past with the present. Commenting that the earliest recorded playing of cricket was in Surrey’s county town, he adds: “next time you are in Guildford watching a chanceless century by Ollie Pope, smile at the thought that your journey there was actually a pilgrimage to the cradle of the game.”
Even if you are minded to skip a few pages, you can get a whole century distilled into a few lines. What happened to cricket in the nineteenth century? “From almost dying out during the Napoleonic Wars, cricket had prospered … gradually introducing the reforms and acquiring the attributes that are familiar today. Through entrepreneurship and capitalising on the opportunities of the modern age, it had steamed throughout England, establishing itself as a popular sport.”
Along the way, the author scatters diverse anecdotes and curious facts like cherries in a Black Forest gateau.
Around the start of the 20th century, an English county was so keen to recruit Bart King, the finest ever American bowler, that they tried to tempt him with the offer of a match (marital, not cricketing) with a wealthy widow.
And did you know that Henry VIII had specially made football boots?
Or, while we are on a footballing theme, that A.C. Milan started life as a cricket club?
Also who was the captain of the Indian cricket team who allegedly fathered 88 children? As a clue, it’s not Virat Kohli.
I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the fun you’ll have by discovering more of these gems for yourself.
The last third of the book covers what has happened in the thirty years since the MCC finally released their grip on the jurisdiction of the game. They are frequently the villains of the period up to 1990, because of a focus on the narrow interests of their members at the expense of promoting growth and development.
Since then, the ICC have stepped effortlessly into their shoes with their own brand of short-sighted and narrow-minded leadership. At the heart of the sad story are Indian businessman and administrator N.Srinivasan and his “braying lieutenant” Englishman Giles Clarke, who between them “set about recasting the world game to serve their own ends.”
Where does that leave us now?
Tim Brooks describes the enigma of cricket in 2020: “In one sense it is a huge global enterprise with ambitious plans. In another it is a small passionate community prone to fretting about what the future may hold.”
And so where do we go from here?
The author is clear on what the aims should be – that cricket should become a truly global sport with sustainable roots in countries across the world. Glass ceilings and barriers should be removed so that, for example, the USA could play a one day international (ODI) against China, or Germany against Iran, without the bigger cricketing countries worrying that this dilutes the concept of what an ODI should be.
And cricket needs to be in the Olympics, not just for increased exposure but also because of the funding that would become available.
It would also help if the ICC moved to basing their funding model on need, rather than on the view taken by Mr Srinivasan and others, so that those who need funding the least should get the most.
Will any of this happen?
Well, the Woolf report a decade ago said many of the same things and it was firmly struck back over the author’s head into the long grass beyond the boundary by the ICC. But the final suggestion in this admirable book is that we all need to do what we can. Tim Brooks says about the game that we love: “We all hold its future in our hands.”
Maybe transforming cricket into a truly global game is a bit of a daunting prospect for most of us. But, as the saying goes, it is better to light one small candle than to rail against the dark. So reading this book and then spreading the messages in it might not be a bad starting point.
A Corner of Every Foreign Field: Cricket’s Journey from English Game to Global Sport by Tim Brooks is published by Pitch Publishing, price £12.99.