Ashes To Ashes by Peter Roebuck / Clean Sweep by Peter West

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It’s September. Mists and mellow fruitfulness are beckoning. So here, to tide us over, are two Peters – Roebuck and West – on cricket: specifically, on the England team’s visit to Australia in 1986-87. England won everything, despite Martin Johnson of The Independent famously writing that there were only three things wrong with them: they couldn’t bat, couldn’t bowl and couldn’t field. Roebuck was then captain of Somerset CCC, on the cusp of finishing his professional playing days and near the point of becoming a full-time writer. West, stand-in Daily Telegraph cricket correspondent and long-time, avuncular presenter of BBC TV’s cricket coverage, is on his first tour at the age of 66. Just before Ashes To Ashes starts, Roebuck had been one of the main supporters of the bitterly divisive (and successful) campaign to remove West Indian greats Viv Richards and Joel Garner from Somerset on the grounds that they were past their best. Their friend Ian Botham (then on England Ashes duty) would also leave the club in protest. Not much in the way of goodwill to all men. In this book Roebuck is scrupulously honest about Botham, who is consequently well served. (‘He is, beyond doubt, a cricketing genius – that is the problem really, a genius that found itself in the body of an ordinary, troublesome lad from unremarkable Yeovil.’) Roebuck’s lightly sketched-in pen portraits of other personalities he encounters on and off the field also illuminate like shafts of autumn sunlight, sometimes by simply looking sideways at his subjects. Australian prime minister Bob Hawke ‘has greying hair, brown and slightly gnarled skin and sharp features, like something out of Wind In The Willows’. And here is Roebuck on the uber-Old Etonian commentator Henry Blofeld: ‘Whether or not he any longer recognises that he is laying it on with a trowel is a matter for considerable speculation amongst his colleagues…With his cravat and his somewhat experienced expression he is like a cheerful Mister Kurtz.’ (Idle thought: Apocalypse Now would have had a subtly altered tone if Marlon Brando had ever been persuaded to say: ‘My dear old thing’ at any point). It is not difficult to write about the beauty of David Gower’s talent but Roebuck does it particularly well: ‘Watching Gower bat is one of life’s pleasures, like sipping a gin and tonic as the sun slips over the horizon…Few batsmen in the history of the game have been given the ability to delight through movement.’ He is very good on cant, nicely deconstructing the way the press’s manufactured outrage blows a minor indiscretion by captain Mike Gatting (oversleeping) into something which demands hanging. Roebuck eventually made his home in Australia, even adopting a slightly strangled Australian brogue. It is hard to imagine Peter West doing the same: his accent remained warm, authoritative and above all English. Clean Sweep covers the same ground as Roebuck’s book, but is peppered with more domestic concerns. ‘I have produced an exhaustive list of jobs still to be done in the garden and packed far more clothes than I suspect I shall ever need.’ While he sounds a little like Moley (or, since this is, as West says, ‘an unexpected journey’, perhaps Bilbo Baggins), don’t ever come between West and a drinkie. ‘For the third time running, when flying by Ansett, the supplies of wine evaporate when the drinks trolley is half way down the aisle in Economy class.’ That would, it must be said, be a tad vexing. He feels the distance from home, and when it comes to communications the 1980s really was another country. ‘Still no letters from my wife,’ he reports, ‘but there are postal problems in the Gloucestershire area.’ (NB younger readers: ‘letters’ are sort of hard copy emails, often written by hand, taking weeks rather than seconds to arrive overseas). He hears too much from some people: rather entertainingly, West’s account is punctuated by his frustrations at the rudeness of the Telegraph sports desk. ‘I wonder how E.W. Swanton in his prime would have reacted to this,’ he asks his diary plaintively. At one point, channelling the spirit of Swanton, he has a spectacular hissy fit and writes a stinging letter to the sports editor. Which wisely he does not send. He just continues grumbling a lot. ‘Another impersonal message ‘ere I depart to bed. “Inform sports desk of rest days in all Tests.” Can’t he even say “please”?’

 

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