‘The aim of English Test cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia.’
So said Jim Laker, the great English off-spinner and leaver-off of end consonants (in commentaries, batting was always battin’ to Jim, bowling was bowlin’, and so on). This accurate quote opens chapter four of Marcus Berkmann’s Ashes to Ashes. The book’s subtitle – ’35 Years of Humiliation (and About 20 Minutes of Ecstasy) Watching England v Australia’) – more or less does my job for me. Berkmann is a good, light writer about cricket. I think he’s just as good on other things, having penned insightful short pieces – or at least insightful short passages – in The Spectator on the emotional impact of the Pixar film Up and the slow-burning brilliance of Talk Talk’s peerless 1988 album Spirit of Eden*. But while his cricket books Rain Men and Zimmer Men, about his travails as a really-quite-poor amateur cricketer, both have their moments, they are wildly over-praised. The truth is that Berkmann runs out of steam a bit in the long form. Part of the problem is sustaining the comedy: however, his Ashes project gives him a structure – there’s no need for him to resort to dreary lists as he does elsewhere (e.g. ‘Bowler 1: The Perennially Angry Fast Bowler; Bowler 2: The Short-Arse’ and so on). Instead he ticks off the key points of each Ashes series since he started watching in 1972, defeat by defeat (as was often the case). It is a fan’s eye view, often truly angry, since it is at times painful to recall just how dismal English cricket was for most of the 1990s. Cognitive dissonance has much to commend it: I still paid to sit through those days. Berkmann enjoys insulting Glenn McGrath, chiefly variations on: ‘When would the fucker retire?’ He also likes footnotes – notably one that lists cricketers who share birthdays with unlikely people. His favourite? Eddie Hemmings and Ivana Trump. Quite a pairing.
* By some distance the most disappointing album I had ever heard, after eagerly buying it when it was released. I see now that it is the pillar on which much of the most interesting subsequent popular music has rested. But what do you know when you’re 20? Anyway, I digress.