Transcript: Couch Talk with Jarrod Kimber

Couch Talk 180 (Play)

Guest:  Jarrod Kimber, “Test Cricket: An Unauthorised Biography

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Welcome to the show, Jarrod.

Jarrod Kimber (JK): Thank you very much. 

SJ: Your new book, your 4th on, “Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography” is out. Congratulations. How and why did this project come about and what was the idea behind in thinking there would be takers for it?

JK: There are two different stories – mine and the publisher’s. When we were making “Death of a Gentleman”, I did research to see how much of the Test history should we include in the film. In fact, I even wrote a little animation explaining cricket’s history. Through that time, I learnt a lot. Phil Brown was doing these events – during 2013 Ashes, where he was showing classic cricket photos and telling the stories behind them. I said to Phil that if he did that for an hour, and I came for an hour and explained Test history, it could be a good show. 

I don’t think most cricket fans really know its history. They certainly don’t know the ways the game has evolved, and certainly they do not know how it was like when George Lohmann was playing, let alone when Jack Hobbs was playing, and in some cases, when Javed Miandad was playing, so it’s quite interesting. 

I actually went to Bloomsbury Publishing, and pitched it to them. They said yes, and for bunch of reasons that aren’t interesting, it didn’t end up work between them and me, and I just shelved the idea. Later, Hardie-Grant came to me and said, “We really like your blog. We want you to write a book on Test cricket”. I think what they wanted – they never really quite explained clearly – was a 60,000 word toilet book. Say one with things like David Boon’s beers and Holding-Willeys, these sorts of things. And I delivered them 130,000 words on the history of Test cricket. 

SJ: So completely opposite to what they wanted?

JK: Pretty much in every way not what they wanted. To be fair, in the first meeting, the first thing they said was, “This isn’t really the book we asked for, is it?” and I was about to go on the defensive, and they said, “That’s okay, it’s a far better book than we asked for. We are very happy.” They were very good, they gave me a few more months to really try and map it out. I really wanted to make it in to “Test cricket’s story” and not “story of Test cricketers”. I tried to make Test cricket in to a character without being a cliche like “And Test cricket wept”, or “Test cricket couldn’t believe it was being played on matting wicket”. I didn’t want to write anything like that. I did want it to feel like Test cricket is the main character of the book, and it’s journey. The publishers supported me on that. In some ways, I spent more time mapping out the book than writing it. 

SJ: You begin and end the book with the passing of Phil Hughes, and its connection to Test cricket. And the book also has 63 chapters, perhaps a reference to 63 notout? Do explain the symmetry of that and its relation to Test cricket…

JK: I actually put in 8 chapters. I was writing for an audience that already understands me but they were a bit afraid that people need it bit spelled out. Your listeners are probably not the kind of readers they were worried about, but more the casual fans. So that’s why they made it in to 63 chapters. I don’t think it has to do with the Phil Hughes thing, but who knows, they might have done that!

The reason I did the Phil Hughes thing was because  the way I write is sort of film-ic way of thinking things. I don’t know much about narrative and story structure from a Novel point of view but I understand it from a TV and film background. 

I suppose Test cricket the sport is the hero of my story. With Phil Hughes, perhaps for the first time ever on a global sense, cricket was actually the villain. It wasn’t the people playing it, politics, drugs, fraud or terrorism. It actually was the game itself shocked us all. A lot of the people had to rethink the way they were going about the game. Obviously, helmets are changing. ECB are trying to force helmets for everyone. We will get better and better protective equipment. So I decided to start and end with cricket shocking us for the first time after all these years of us misusing cricket.  At the end of the book – Spoiler Alert! – cricket continues on. 

The Adelaide Test, for me, was such a brilliant way to finish the book, it was such a beautiful moment in cricket in so many different ways, and it was as if it was healing moment for cricket. The publishers wanted to go a bit more modern than that and their original comment was that they didn’t think the Hughes thing would last in people’s memories. I said, “Trust me, that’s not going to be a problem. Everyone is going to remember how it happened, why it happened. This will stand the test of time.” 

When I was in Adelaide, it felt like cricket actually had healed itself whereas generally, cricket is trying to heal the external problems. 

SJ: And the fact you have gone in some detail talking about the bouncer healing us, the commentators talking about the first bouncer from Varun Aaron, and the first time somebody gets hit – Virat Kohli from Mitchell Johnson. At that time it felt like “Now we can move on.” Cricket had its mourning period and it was time to move on. That is captured really well. 

JK: I remember at the time I wrote about the Mitchell Johnson bouncer that hit Kohli, not every one got it straight away. James Brayshaw is the perfect example. He was barking like a dog while commentating on that ball. He completely forgot about the moment it was happening in. And then you could almost hear him swallow his own voice. I remember the noise in the ground being weird as well. It wasn’t the normal noise when a bouncer hits a batsman. It wasn’t the normal brutish noise. It wasn’t the “Oh, I hope he’s okay” noise either. There was something else going on. You could see Mitchell Johnson wasn’t the same Mitchell Johnson. I could’ve easily finished the book with that!

A book on Mitchell Johnson would be amazing and a very interesting place to finish that book would be he walking back to the mark after his bouncer that hit Kohli, as he was never really quite the same after Phil Hughes died. But for most people, we were the same afterwards. We did get over it but we needed that first bouncer. We needed to know Sean Abbott could bowl a bouncer as well. That’s why it was such an amazing Test match, and an  important moment in Test history. There were some really good batting performances in that match – Kohli, Warner, Clarke, and Nathan Lyon bowled well too. But all those things were more amazing because of what was happening. I don’t know what it was like watching it on TV but in the ground, it’s certainly one Test match I’m never gonna forget the feel of. That’s why I thought that was such a good moment to finish the book on. 

Originally I was going to end the book on another thing I also really liked. It is the chapter before the last now, which is Sri Lanka beating England in England. It actually brings back the whole story around. As you will know from reading the book, there was a lot especially in the early days about the Gentlemen and the Amateurs. Rangoon Herath taking the catch to take out Jimmy Anderson, who I’d say at least from the English point of view is probably the first “truly” professional cricketer – He’s been a professional pretty much since the age of 18 – and has had all the advantages of being a professional athlete, and he doesn’t last against Sri Lanka. I’d go as far as to say Sri Lanka are one of the real last amateur cricket teams.Them and the West Indies – they don’t really play their cricketers properly, well, they don’t always pay their cricketers! They don’t have an analyst. I think it was on that 2014 tour, they were using some of the press to look  up Statsguru!. The difference between that and England is very big and very interesting that we still have the haves and have-nots. Even with that, Sri Lanka could overcome. That’s why I wanted to end with one of those two stories. 

SJ: I think you have made the right choice. 

Your writing style – this is your 4th book.  From Cricket with Balls, to now you are writing long form features for Cricinfo. The book also reads like a collection of features on various historical markers, scandals, development. Did you feel that way too? You said you started with 8 chapters but split it in to 63 chapters… Do you think what you’ve evolved as in the last 4-5 years as writer is reflected in the book?

JK: Yeah. My writing style has evolved a lot more. I tried to write it a lot more as a novel than as all these different essays. That was done more from the editing process. When you are in a creative process, there are a lot of arguments, and I won a lot of them, but this was one I couldn’t win. I would have preferred it in the novel form. But if you read it in one go, it still reads that way hopefully. But I’d have preferred if there were a whole chapter for the time between World War I and World War II because there were things I was trying to say in that chapter don’t need to be in individual pieces. Yeah, it certainly is in the form of what I write in the modern Cricinfo style. I did try in the first draft – as I said they wanted this toilet funny book – in the sort of Cricke with Balls style. I don’t think Hardie-Grant knew I was writing for Cricinfo. They literally hired me off CwB and I delivered them Cricinfo. 

I could have made it more CwB but the actual history of sport is so brilliant, dense and interesting that I found it hard to – not make fun of things because I have – but not give the information correctly. If you saw the first draft, I’m pretty sure the first two chapters are very CwB-like and it sort of morphs in to a middle ground and in the end, it is very like my late work with Cricinfo. I guess that’s why they saw it and said, “You might have to write this again.” I think they were right on that. I think it is a combination of everything I do I suppose. 

You are the first person that has read it outside of the people who worked on it. I wonder whether you could tell the period where I started seeing footage compared to the period where I didn’t have the footage for. 

SJ: Yes.

JK: I think it was the Hobbs moment. It’s from then on I could almost look up any cricketer I want in the world, watch and talk about them, which is so much better and brilliant.

SJ: But that sort of thing only helps certain kind of writer, isn’t it? You can’t give some XYZ, “here are all the videos on a particular player or from a particular period, now go write on it”. I don’t think it works that way. Perhaps due to your film background, you see things in a different way than somebody that comes from a writing background? 

JK: Yeah, probably. Even for period for which I didn’t have footage, I was trying to recreate it. The Fred Spofforth’s spell, where he basically created the Ashes, I read probably 15 different pieces on that, where as if it were a modern thing, I would’ve watched one YouTube video. Reading those 15 pieces also allowed me to the same sort of thing. I don’t know how to explain it without sounding like a wanker but it’s almost like I take it all apart in my head and then recreate it with bits that interest me, if that makes sense.

SJ: You are trying to cover 200+ years of the sport, there is a lot more happening in the last 30-40 years with so many more countries and developments like Kerry Packer, ODI cricket, World Cup and IPL etc, but you still have to give due deference to stuff that happened 200 years ago when someone’s sister had to bowl overarm because she was wearing a hooped skirt. How do you peg those historical markers, while trying to stay true to the story without missing out on the details?

JK: Most importantly, I don’t believe the hooped skirt story. 

SJ: If you tell lie enough times, it becomes the truth. 

JK: I think the real heroes for overarm bowling were probably the kids on the streets of England – girls and boys. 

When I first wrote the book, I remember having a chat with Gideon Haigh and saying to him, “I’m so far behind on this book. I only have 60,000 words to write. I have already written 30,000 and I’m only up to Jack Hobbs!” He said, “How’s that possible? When did you start?” I said, “I started at the beginning of cricket”. He said, “You sold them a book on the history of Test cricket. Start there.” That’s what I should have done but I just thought that overarm bowling was such an important thing. It also allows to talk about the first time pads were used, and the first time “professional cricket” actually became professional cricket, which is quite interesting. 

I suppose, since I knew I was going to fly well over my 60,000 words count, I stopped worrying about cutting things out. I reckon, up until World War I, I am pretty sure I cut out 20-25000 words, and some stuff that I found really interesting but not as interesting as Younis Khan’s life. It wasn’t as interesting as the rebel tours. What I did from that point is, this is probably more editing than writing, I started to look at things as “Is this propelling the story of Test cricket?” 

George Giffen, an amazing all-rounder from South Australia, probably the first great all-rounder in cricket. He was a bloke that was a captain and bowled about 100 overs. Pretty much half the overs of his side, a really interesting and he is not even in the book. I cut him out because he didn’t really propel the story of cricket. 

The early story of Test cricket is so easy to tell around W.G.Grace and Spofforth. Grace did really build the sport and the batting, and Spofforth was the one who really first mastered overarm bowling and swing bowling.  Those two are important just for those things, and you know how important for the history of the Ashes. Once I nailed that, I knew that everything from that point in the book, [it followed from there]. Ranji, Bart King, George Lohmann, Victor Trumper etc. If someone moved the game forward or changed the game, or was a hero for his nation, or was the first great player from their nation, if someone was the reason their nation was taken seriously etc, they made the book. 

Herbert Sutcliffe average 60 in Test cricket – he probably has 2 paragraphs in the book. There are a lot like that. Really good cricketers I would like to write about more. 

Then you have someone like Bruce Mitchell. No one has really ever heard of him, and Aubrey Faulkner – two important cricketers for what they gave South Africa in a time when South Africa needed sportsmen as much as cricketers. Really important people and they are in the book, because they propel the story forward.

Anyone who has followed me would know what a big fan of Inzamam-ul-Haq I am. I don’t know how much he is in the book.

SJ: Not much.

JK: There is a little bit around the 1992 World Cup.  There is certainly nothing about his Test batting which I am a massive fan of. 

SJ: There is mention of 2006 Test at the Oval, the one that was forfeited. 

JK: Yeah, a little bit. 

Mohammed Yousuf – I am not sure he is in the book at all!

SJ: No. He is not.

JK: There are some really big name cricketers who completely missed out making the cut. Shaun Pollock probably has a small mention because he is part of the Graeme Smith’s story. Kallis is virtually not in the book. I’m just picking out random names… There are names right across the history of cricket that are not massively in the book because they don’t help tell the story of Test cricket in the way Aubrey Faulkner does. In the way George Headley does. He is such a more important cricketer than Herbert Sutcliffe despite the fact they both averaged in the 60’s. 

SJ: And of course, the three W’s…

JK: Yeah, even there, I basically focussed probably on the worst cricketer of the three, on Frank Worrell. But he is obviously the most important of the three. Here is another. If not for the 1961 tied test, I wouldn’t have written about Wes Hall, and I would love to write an entire book on him, an amazing player. You could put him in the Top 5 players of all time. That’s how I edited the book.

SJ: Lastly, you have done research on Test cricket for a while now. You have written on it, talked about it and you are covering cricket on a regular basis. When you look at cricket, the power has been in denying people the opportunity to play the sport –  whether it’s the women, or the Aboriginal players or the Black players, or different class of players. Then by a stroke of luck or through their will, people like Learie Constantine get a chance to play. Does it make you hopeful for the future or you feel depressed?

JK: Hopefully, what my book proves is that and this is something I tried to push heavily through the book, Cricket has managed to overcome the worst of humanity we can send its way.  Other than actually a nuclear strike between India and Pakistan, we pretty much tried everything else in cricket to stop it, to fuck it up, to make it bad. Everything from Robert Mugabe claiming cricket to be a gentleman’s sport while he was starving his own people, all the way back the amateurs and professionals were treated differently in England… Cricket has managed to overcome so much!

Women’s cricket is a brilliant story in it. I still think the greatest story in Test cricket is the Sri Lankan story. The sport has been played in SL for so long and the clubs in SL are almost as old as the clubs in England. When teams would travel between England and Australia, they would always stop in Sri Lanka and they would always get a good game. There were some really good cricketers that played in Sri Lanka that weren’t any where near playing Tests. When I say anywhere near, I mean, 50-60 sometimes even 100 years ahead of their time. The cricket clubs were segregated there based on religion and race. Everything bad we could do in cricket, we did to Sri Lanka. We kept them out of cricket for as long as possible and finally they make it.  And within 13 years, they were the best team in cricket. The fact they keep overcoming and the they have such a small country with a small economy, and they are still able to win World T20, they are still one of the best teams around, and they are still able to beat England in England in a Test series… I think Sri Lanka cricket have proved to us, as much as Women’s cricket has, that cricket will survive no matter what. It just needs a chance. We only need to look at the leaps and bounds of women’s cricket from the 80’s through to today to see that. 

Think of how small cricket was in Ireland. For 100 years, cricket was so small in Ireland, it barely existed. Part of it was cricket’s fault and part of it was how Ireland was, the hatred towards English etc. There was this tiny flicker of cricket that never went away because the sport is just too good. You’ve got a couple of families really from within Ireland – the Joyces and the O’Briens – basically carried the new generation, and they met with a few ex-pats like Warren Deutrom and Trent Johnston who just love cricket. And it all comes together, and suddenly, we have probably or just possibly the 11th Test nation. No matter what people have done to cricket, no matter how people have run and abused the sport… In the book, I don’t really shy way from going through all the different ways we have screwed human beings over via cricket. I’ve tried to show every one I could… every major one anyway. Despite all that, Basil D’Oliviera played for England! Eddie Gilbert is another one. Even Krom Hendricks, the South African bowler — we almost know nothing about him, we don’t know whether he was particularly any good but because of him, we know that someone that was overlooked because of their color. The same way Basil D’Oliviera was. The same way that Learie Constantine changed the way the sport was played certainly in England. He gave it some freedom. He helped change more than one nation. These people had to overcome so much. 

Rachel Heyhoe-Flint is such an amazing figure… She is the W.G.Grace of the women’s game but Grace wouldn’t been out on the streets handing out pamphlets or writing 75-word pieces for a tabloid just so that the game got written about. These people kept overcoming everything we tried to do through cricket. 

There have been a lot of bad people in cricket. I’m not just talking about Srinivasan or the like. There have been horrendous people well before Giles Clarke and Srinivasan ever showed up on the scene. 

SJ: Now, the book is available in Australia as a hard copy. Where can others in US, UK, India and everywhere else get it?

JK: Everywhere else it is only available on Kindle at the moment. I don’t know whether it’s gonna move to other digital reading platforms, I don’t really understand it. It is going to be, on April 1, available in UK and America via Amazon, and UK bookstores. 

Here’s a funny story where the publishers don’t come out of brilliantly but I’ll tell it anyway.

When it was originally going to be the silly, toilet book, one of the first things they asked for was bunch of titles. I remember talking to Gideon and he said, “What kind of book you think they want?” I said “I’m not sure it’s going to be a great book, they asked for the titles first.” I gave them a few, and one of the first ones was “Test Cricket: An Unauthorised Biography” because that was my original thought. They said that all of my titles were stupid. Then I sent off the book and when I went to the first meeting with them, they said, “Have you seen Test Cricket, the unathorised biography?” and I thought “Awesome!”. And so, I wrote the book with that in mind, and in the end, they said to me, “we are not sure about Unauthorised Biography… we’re gonna call it “Test cricket: The Story behind the United Nations who love their cricket.” I said I don’t understand what that means. Is this some weird book? They said they were a bit afraid that with “Test Cricket: An Unauthorised Biography”, only people in England and Australia would buy the book. I said “Isn’t calling it Test cricket, we are saying it is about the whole world?” I fought for that one a little bit, and ended up with that. 

SJ: On that note Jarrod, thank you so much and all the very best for the book.

JK: Thank you very much.