A dying game. Why would a cricketer commit suicide? Robert Winder reads the lives of three great former players and is bewildered by their self-absorption and petty obsessions

Mystery Spinner: the story of Jack Iverson

Gideon Haigh <em>Aurum Press, 376pp, £18.99 </em>


You would hardly know it, but this summer's cricket season has been limping along for over two months now. Somewhere in the porridge of squally showers and glum, where-will-it-all-end talk about match-fixing, a couple of Test matches and a cup final have been and gone, and we can be forgiven if we missed them. Cricket has shrunk in the English imagination, so it might not be the best time for a fine trio of books to come along. It's a shame, because taken together they brilliantly describe the neurotic tangle of character and circumstance that cricket so eagerly sponsors.

Three books; three great cricketers. And the only thing that connects them is that each touched the treacherous peaks of excellence. Geoffrey Boycott inflated his mundane talent into a record-breaking one with insatiable dedication, and saw cricket as a long haul, a lonely marathon. Viv Richards, carrying his swagger into the world's hottest contests, saw it as gladiatorial combat. And Jack Iverson, a freakish non-cricketer who zoomed like a shooting star into the great Australian team of 1950, and just as swiftly zoomed out of it again, saw it as a harmless bit of fun, a magic trick that didn't bear too much repetition.

His is the most moving - and best-written - of these three stories. Gideon Haigh pursues his extraordinary subject with a breadth of awareness rare in the sports-biog trade: he actually treats the game as a part of life, not life as a part (annoying, in the main) of the game. Most modern fans won't even have heard of Jack Iverson. He was an utterly unremarkable player at school: straight second XI material. But in his long, boring war years, and then at home on his farm, he spun a ping-pong ball as a nervous tic. At the age of 31, he had a bash at turning a cricket ball using the same bent-fingered technique, and found that it worked. Within a year, he was playing for Australia against England. He took six wickets for 27 runs (including the great one: Hutton's) and won the match. Afterwards, he spoke moodily about giving up; before long, having wandered into the sunlit uplands of his sport, he wandered out again, and retired to run his father's property business.

In outline, it is almost like a Disney story: the cute farmhand who suddenly finds himself pitching for the World Series (with only his faithful pooch for company) before deciding to go and help Pa run the shop, after all. But Haigh's resourceful intelligence probes away at a less happy tale, as Iverson's life ends in depression and suicide. He loved the game, but feared the stage. Having proved that his strange invention actually worked, the candle flickered and went out.

In Leo McKinstry's racy account, Boycott would probably have dismissed Iverson as a southern wimp with no bollocks. In McKinstry's True Story, "Boycs" comes across as a case study in boorishness - crude, self- centred, self-righteous and almost clinically unimaginative. McKinstry is alert to the contrast in his subject's character: his epic determination and his equally epic greed. Boycott emerges as a lonely monster, sobbing in frustration.

McKinstry does not skimp on the reasons why he was not loved. He stirred up strife and made enemies wherever he went. As he compiled century after century for his "beloved" Yorkshire, the club sank into rancour and rage. He had a perverse knack of running out his team-mates - a bad habit he occasionally justified by insisting that he was a superior player. The examples are legion, and make you wince. Once, in South Africa, he called his captain, Ted Dexter, for a quick single, then wordlessly changed his mind and dived back to his crease. A shaken Dexter returned to the pavilion, white-faced, and said: "I really don't believe what has just happened to me." When David Gower joined the England side, he made the mistake of turning down one of Boycott's improbable calls for a run. A few moments later, he tapped the ball into a gap for an easy single, only to be sent firmly back. At the end of the over, he asked Boycott what was going on. "If you're not running mine," said the sulky maestro, "I'm not running yours."

In almost all the walks of his life, he appears to have been both astoundingly rude and genuinely astonished that anyone should take umbrage. When a gang of young boys asked for his autograph one day, he said slyly that he'd agree if they washed his car. They nodded. So they were surprised, after the game, when he stepped into his freshly scrubbed motor, told them to get lost, and drove off. In this and a hundred other anecdotes, Boycott emerges as the sheerest sort of child. It is all "I want! I want! Watch me! Watch me!" It would be mean to say he is insensitive to the needs of others; in truth, he seems utterly oblivious to them.

McKinstry narrates all this with sometimes disbelieving relish, which makes it good fun to read. But he tries hard (less successfully, in my view) to point up a few of Boycott's redeeming virtues. He even goes some way towards exonerating him for his role in the injuries to his former girlfriend, Margaret Moore, in the south of France. Boycott has been convicted of battery under French law; but McKinstry makes a persuasive case for Boycott's innocence, which is inconvenient for the many thousands of cricket-lovers (such as me, for one) who would love it to be true.

A third "major" cricket book has just been published, but the less said about Sir Vivian: the definitive autobiography, the better. The bombastic subtitle - with its entirely bogus contrast with the imaginary "unofficial" autobiographies - sets a tone that the rest of the book strives to sustain. Perhaps one shouldn't grumble: it is no worse than any of the other money-for-old-rope, serialised-in-the-Times sporting lives with which the bookshops are overstocked; and, to be fair (as we sportsmen say), it is not quite as awful as the bestselling memoirs of Dickie Bird. But it will infuriate anyone who admires Richards himself, one of the grandest and most charismatic players of modern times. It's the literary equivalent of a signed bat. As a window into the mind of a significant sportsman, it is all but useless. Richards and his ghost content themselves with endless comically shallow observations, such as the following thoughtful apercu about the role of Hinduism in Indian society: "From the moment you are born, you can be told that you are doomed for life, and that strikes me as unfair." That's telling 'em, Viv.

The book is also, for some reason, oddly at pains to stress the author's toughness. Commenting on the row between the England manager Ray Illingworth and his (black) fast bowler Devon Malcolm, Richards snaps: "It was a disgrace . . . Devon is a big enough guy and he should have put Illingworth in his place, had him on a coat-hanger. No one would have talked to me like that. They would have had to defend themselves with their fists." There are many such dumb flourishes.

Iverson wouldn't have known what to say. "Every time I walked on to a field," he once told an interviewer, "I would think: 'My God, how silly can a man get?'" It's a charming remark, but it is possible that Iverson's diffidence was also his undoing. Games are hard taskmasters - plumb their trivial mysteries too deeply, and they can drive you mad. Cricket has been especially prolific of suicides. Reading these three new life stories, it isn't hard to see why.

Robert Winder's reviews appear monthly in the NS. He is the author of Hell for Leather: a modern cricket journey (Orion, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs