Book Review: Thanks to Cricket, by J.M Kilburn

I came across this book in a book-shop at a stately home in Norfolk. You know the type, heaps and heaps of books piled one on top of the other, priced between 50p and £1.50 to help with the conservation work. I only had £1 on me, and around 25 books to choose from. In the end, I selected this piece of work.

J.M Kilburn reported on cricket for 40 years for the Yorkshire Post, so this book is as much a historical recount of the game itself as it is a detailed look at Kilburn's life. Covering the period between the 1920s to the 1960s, it's a fascinating look at the key changes in the game, through the eyes of someone that lived them.

"In my view one-day cricket, particularly in a 40-over restriction will never satisfy players and spectators who have known the more extended and more logical forms of the game... There is no more hope for a cricket future based on one-day frolics than there would be for literature limited to nursery rhymes or limericks. In my view persistence in one-day county cricket, except as an occasional interlude such as the Gillespie Cup, or an end-of-season festival offering, can bring only eventual distress to the first-class conception"

There is a nostalgic romance to this book, as he details how cricket was the dominant force in English sport for a time, knocking association football off the back pages with regularity. How the amateur game turned to the professional game and how the sport was poorer for it.

We have fond memories of tours down under, with Kilburn having attended a net session of the great Donald Bradman's just when people thought he was losing his touch.

At times the book can be extremely dense, but it's also one of those books that reminds you why you fell in love with cricket in the first place. It describes life as a cricket-writer in the early 20th century, pre and post typewriters.

There is a story of one journalist writing his account of a days play and handing it to a young runner who was to take it into town to get transmitted back for publication. Only for the boy to return 5 minutes later asking the journalist to re-write the account as the wind had blown it out of his hand and it was currently travelling down the river at some speed. The modern-day equivalent is perhaps working without an auto-save with your computer crashing just as you're about to hit publish.

Kilburn takes you on a whirlwind tour of some of the greats of the game, including Hobbs, George Gunn, Jim Laker, Don Bradman and many more. Running through England's triumphs and failures, with an elegance and passion that seeps out of every single page.

"Hutton drove, cut, glanced and hooked under a magical urge. Whatever stroke he played was timed to perfection"

The author's love of the first-class game was plain to see and his reluctance to embrace the one-day format is evident throughout the latter stages of the Book, as you can see by the first quote at the top of this article. I can only imagine what Kilburn would have made of 20/20 cricket, T10 cricket and the new Hundred format.

The book traverses the rocky terrain of the first-class cricket fall in this country and the decisions made to try and resurrect plummeting audience figures.

"The evidence of growing indifference was to be found in falling attendances. Cricket took alarm. Scarely a season passed without some revision of regulations, designed to spur playing activity and recapture public approval. Pitches were covered and uncovered, follow-on was abandoned and restored, compulsory first-inning declarations were instituted and discarded, field settings limitations were imposed, bonus point systems were devised"

The debate that writers, fans and administration staff were having in the 1960s is still very much going on today. The question of how to reverse the fortunes of first-class cricket is a puzzle that remains unsolved for around 60 years now, I'd argue we're no closer to solving it today. When he writes of 20,000 fans attending the 1st day of a Yorkshire test, you can't help but wonder what that would have been like and if we'll ever see anything like it again.

One of the most revealing aspects of the book comes from Kilburn's attitude to cricket journalism. He goes to great lengths to inform the audience of what he constitutes good and bad traits. Including his distaste at the prevalence of tabloid journalism, with writers looking to report on what players got up to off the field, rather than what they did on it. Something that's become far more frequent in the age of quick news and social media.

He also touched on a point that bothered me every time I watch any sporting event that's followed by an interview with the star player or the captain of the team. Rather than explain it myself, here is Kilburn's take:

"I am inclined to resent the estimate of my intelligence implied in such questions as 'Is this your best performance?' to a bowler who's figures of the day were either wickets for two runs, or 'Do you practise your diving?' to a wicketkeeper after some spectacular catches...The interview without something worth saying is indefensible.."

I thoroughly enjoyed 'Thanks to Cricket' by J.M Kilburn. In an age where everyone and their kit-men are releasing biographies that all sound largely the same, it was refreshing to take a step back into the history of cricket in this country, through the eyes of someone who lived it.

We'll finish this review by going back to Kilburn for a comment that is true today as it was back in the 1960's and it's very fitting as we launch into a new era for English cricket this summer:

"I am firmly convinced that the survival of first-class cricket depends essentially on first-class cricket itself. if it cannot stand on its own feet as a wanted form of the game, as an acceptable public entertainment as a feature of sport in current society, then it must pass into temporary obscurity if not oblivion"

If you'd like to pick up the book, you can do so for just £5.49 from World of Books.


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