Men of the match

We’ll Get ’Em in Sequins: Manliness, Yorkshire Cricket and the Century that Changed Everything, by Max Davidson, Wisden Sports Writing, RRP£18.99, 226 pages

Cleverly putting social history into the sugar-coating of an apparent sports book, Davidson takes seven successive Yorkshire cricketers and shows how they reflect changing notions of manliness. Yorkshire is a good choice for this. Its dressing room was always a cockpit (if I may) of manliness, the ethos of the county – “to London what Sparta had been to Athens” – being reflected in a hard, unyielding style of play.

On August 13 1902, the first of Davidson’s subjects, George Hirst, was batting for England in the final stages of a Test match against Australia at the Oval. He and Wilfred Rhodes were the last pair at the crease and they needed 15 runs to win. “We’ll get ’em in singles,” Hirst supposedly said to Rhodes. For all the niggardliness implied, Hirst was a product of the sunny Edwardian era, and satisfied most of the male virtues then being codified by this nation of empire builders. He was well-balanced, as befits the only all-rounder in the book: “tough, vigorous and combative, without being malicious”, and a model of “quiet integrity”. “Dear Willie,” he wrote to one young fan, “You asked for my autograph. Here are two – one for yourself and one for a swap.” His face appeared on tins of Yorkshire Toffee, (“Unrivalled... Always Reliable”).

Turning to an interwar pair, Herbert Sutcliffe (batsman) and Hedley Verity (bowler), Davidson sets them in the context of a generation whose manly reticence might have owed much to being emotionally crippled by the first world war. In both cases it was still “more important to fit in than to stand out” but there were stirrings of a modern assertiveness. Sutcliffe was “surely one of the first Yorkshire players to use a deodorant”, and his lavishly brilliantined hairstyle was suspiciously similar to that of Rudolph Valentino. Verity, who would be killed in action in the second world war, had a grammar school-bred ambition and actually went jogging.

Verity was such a paragon (as he would have to be with that name) that his father sick-makingly remarked, “I have bred a better man than I.” So it is a relief to come to Fred Trueman, who marks the point when modesty as a manly virtue went “out of the window”, as did deference and tact. Fred was a liability on tour, and I could have done with a couple more stories of his non-diplomacy. Is it really true that, during a banquet in India, he turned to one turbaned dignitary and said, “Pass the salt Gunga Din”?

Davidson makes a good case for Fred being one of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s. He argues with equal ingenuity that Geoff Boycott was an embodiment of 1960s libertarianism. This most costive of batsmen, who caused endless disruption at the club with his combativeness, which he would describe as “plain speaking”, appears on the surface to be either a crusty figure... or a nerd, what with his wire glasses, receding hair and cohabitation until the age of 40 with his mother. As Davidson points out, if your son had a picture of Geoff Boycott on his wall, “you would worry for him”. But he is also “a screaming New Ager”, and into astrology. Geoff is a Libra, as he has apparently explained over a cocktail (which he prefers to a pint) to a great many attractive women the world over.

We come to the 1990s and Darren Gough, a practitioner of the most “uncompromisingly virile” of the cricketing arts – fast bowling. But Davidson places him in an era of narcissism: “What did concern me most when I was growing up were my ears,” Gough wrote in his autobiography: “they were rather pointed.” It was also a time of machismo undermined, whether in Thatcher’s cabinets or films such as The Full Monty and Billy Elliot. So Gough entered and won Strictly Come Dancing, sharing the stage “with the rabble of gay prima donnas, weeping women, superannuated comedians...”

We end with Michael Vaughan, a graceful batsman, yes, but a sushi-eating serial-tweeter, spouter of psychobabble and determined “communicator” whose motto is: “You’ve got to be nice.” A Blairite, in short, as Davidson demonstrates with the elegance, insight and humour that characterise this entire book.

Andrew Martin’s latest novel, ‘The Baghdad Railway Club’, is published in June by Faber

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