Beyond A Boundary is routinely called the Best Cricket Book Ever. In fact, it has even been called the Best Sports Book Ever – perhaps by people who haven’t read many. It is certainly the best cricket book written by a Trinidadian Marxist born in 1901, although this may narrow the field too much for the purist. CLR James published it in 1963 after the best part of a lifetime playing, watching, writing on, and thinking about, the game and it is a broad look at cricket’s history, ethics and aesthetics, taking in Greek drama and the English public school system, racial politics and art criticism. There is also a bit about actual players. Anyway, the point is it’s an acknowledged classic. By contrast, Duncan Hamilton’s A Last English Summer looked to me like a sort of fag-end cash-in: a travelogue of a trip round England during the summer of 2009 watching all levels of cricket is the sort of thing that might be cobbled together when you had run out of proper ideas. I should not have worried. It is superb and Hamilton clearly has no interest in lowering the standards set with his brilliant memoir of Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, and his moving biography of Bodyline’s hero/villain Harold Larwood. The title does him no favours, though – what is so final about this particular summer is never explained. CLR James starts his book with a question which has since become famous: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’* He knows a lot and isn’t afraid to tell you: certainly, few cricket writers can have included mention of John Berger’s writing as part of a discourse on Clyde Walcott’s back-foot cover drive – or the moral purpose of reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, for that matter – and James also attempts to put cricket in its colonial context. The latter is fair enough for a man who wrote The Case For West Indian Self-Government. His chapter on WG Grace’s place in the game suggests that the brilliant old rogue ‘brought and made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian Age’. He is very sure about this. But then James doesn’t suffer much from self-doubt. Hamilton is well-read too but makes his points more gently. A lot of poets appear in A Last English Summer. At one moment he gets into a bit of a tizzy about the amount of alcohol that is consumed at Test matches and his characteristic, fluent prose deserts him. But this is atypical and therefore worth mentioning. A match between village cricketers Hambledon and Hook & Newnham Basics is an absolute belter, and his description of it is thrilling. At the Ramsbottom versus Accrington game he talks glowingly about the fabulous Learie Constantine, who was, incidentally, a good friend of James. I think James might have quite liked Twenty20 cricket, in much the same way that his heroes Grace, Trumper, Ranjitsinhji and Constantine would have done. He would certainly have enjoyed the emphasis on attacking batting. Hamilton is not so sure: but even he is transfixed by the staggering fielding of Angelo Mathews in a Twenty20 match at Trent Bridge: ‘There’s a silence, as if we’ve seen the first public demonstration of human levitation.’ Despite his self-importance, James is often very acute: ‘Sputnik can be seen as no more than a missile made and projected through tools by the developed hand,’ he says in his otherwise sticky chapter on cricket and art. Although there is no evidence that Stanley Kubrick devoured Beyond A Boundary , the film director was known to read widely and five years later was to put onto the screen an image which is an exact facsimile of James’ thought: the ape throwing into the air a killing bone which becomes, via the wonder of the most famous cinematic jump-cut in history, a spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps it’s a coincidence. But I’d seen that clip numerous times without ever thinking of it as much more than a neat vehicle to illustrate the passing of time. Despite such insight, A Last English Summer is, pound for pound, the easier and more obviously enjoyable read. But both books remind you why you love the game. It’s all to do with the pleasure it brings.
* Never bother asking cricketers CLR James’ big question. The answers are invariably disappointing.