Thursday, 27 November 2008

Geoff Boycott, The Best XI

It's getting to that time of year again when families start buying books for their cricket loving members. Books of facts, books of anecdotes, bad autobiographies. They're all out there. There is actually a good autobiography of Marcus Trescothick out at the moment which has just won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. I, though, have elected to read through this 'pick your best teams so people can argue about them' book by the world's grumpiest Yorkshireman.

So is it any good? Well, in some respects it holds the reader's interest. Boycott has the credentials as a player and commentator to make reasonable selections for most of the Test playing countries (except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, which we'll come back to). He also has the sheer bloodymindedness to pick who he wants, regardless of opinion. Even I, who agree wholeheartedly with his choice of S.F.Barnes in his all time England eleven, would never have thought to go further back and pick George Lohmann.

Ultimately, however, the actual choices aren't important here. As even Boycott points out, ask two cricket fans (or indeed fans of any sport) to name a best ever team, and you'll get two completely different ones. Where this book has to stand or fall, therefore, is on the strength of the writing, the accuracy of the facts and the quality of the arguments advanced.

Which is where things go rather wrong, really. Boycott, despite spells writing for national newspapers on the sport, is no more than a functional writer, whose attempts to play up to his 'opinionated Yorkshireman' image invariably come off terse and dull. There is certainly none of the elegance of construction or language to be found in the writing of Gideon Haigh, or even ex-England captains Mike Brearly and Michael Atherton.

Secondly, for a man who tries to approach the topic factually, and back his claims up with statistics, he makes at least one glaringly obvious factual error. In the section mulling over potential bowlers for his best Indian XI, Boycott mentions Mohammed Asif. That's Mohammed Asif, who has opened the bowling not for India, but for Pakistan.

And then there's his protracted attack on Muralitharin's bowling action, parroting the occasionally heard view that the ICC introduced the idea of a 15 degree tolerance of arm straightening only in response to Murali's problems with being called for throwing. In fact, although Muralitharin was caught up in it, the adjustment came only after biomechanical evidence was brought out proving that almost every bowler straightened their arm to some imperceptible degree, and that many of those thought to have perfect actions straightened their arms just as much. Boycott dismisses this evidence with an approach that boils down to him simply asserting that the findings are a nonsense on the basis of no apparent evidence at all. This is particularly galling in that he is quite happy to pick convicted drugs cheat Shane Warne for his Australian side without once mentioning the fact.

Almost as bad is his refusal to even contemplate picking Bangladeshi or Zimbabwean best XIs. I happen to agree that neither is currently strong enough to compete at Test level. Nevertheless, would mentions for some of their finer players have been so very much to ask? There was a period when (former zimbabwean wicketkeeper and current England batting coach) Andy Flower was the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world. Perhaps Boycott could have picked out some sort of 'best of the rest' combined team if he didn't think there were enough decent players in each country. It might even have given him a chance to recognise someone like former Kenyan captain Steve Tikolo, who managed to be virtually a one man Kenyan team a couple of world cups ago, rather than simply dismissing these cricketing nations to save himself some effort.

In all then, as much as this is the sort of book that people tend to buy cricketing friends, I really think they shouldn't with this one.

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