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The joys of escaping the English winter to watch cricket

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Few gave England a chance heading into this Ashes series but anyone quick enough to get their hands on Beyond the Boundaries before the first Test in Brisbane would have been confident in predicting disaster. “Whenever England have played a game in Queensland before the Brisbane Test, they have not fared too badly at the Gabba,” Scyld Berry observes. “When they have[…] turned up in Queensland three days before the Test, they have been wiped out.”

England’s red-ball specialists arrived several weeks before this time, but inclement weather caused by La Niña and 14 days of quarantine for the players and coaching staff involved in the T20 World Cup meant an absence of meaningful practice. Historic struggles at the Gabba have been “a matter of acclimatisation, or the failure to do so,” Berry writes. “Everyone needs a week to adjust to Queensland.”

Beyond the Boundaries, Berry writes, attempts to “serve as a taste of those Test-playing countries where England toured before the curtain of Covid-19 came down”. It is a cricket book, but perhaps more accurately a social history told through the prism of cricket, exploring the cultural and socioeconomic context through which idiosyncrasies and trends develop.

Berry travelled on England’s winter tours from 1977, when at 23 he covered a series in Pakistan for the Observer and was entrusted with bowling in the nets and even umpiring in a tour game between England and Lahore Gymkhana. Needless to say, the landscape for journalists had changed significantly by the time he toured for the final time, to South Africa in early 2020.

He has since stepped back from his role as cricket correspondent at the Telegraph, instead becoming their chief cricket writer and spending the winters at home with his family. He has watched more England Tests than anyone else – nearly 500, he says – and intends to add to that number.

He acknowledges that many would love to be in his position, but counters: “Not on Christmas Day, you don’t; not when you have to cover the press conference at 9.30am by an England captain who is already 3-0 down in the series and looks as though he has spent the night agonising over whether he should resign after the fourth Test or the fifth.” This year he will spend Christmas at home but the scene will be familiar to Joe Root.

Berry makes no attempt to mask or hide his admiration for certain players. He marvels at the natural aggression of Tamim Iqbal – “Bangladesh’s first top-class cricketer” – and Virender Sehwag, and commends the diplomacy and warmth of Kumar Sangakkara, Kane Williamson and the late Sir Everton Weekes.

Perhaps the most insightful aspect of Beyond the Boundaries is its sociological and human analysis: Why did Graeme Hick not succeed as a Test batter? Why has Nevis produced six West Indies players when St Kitts, its larger neighbour, has produced none? And why is cricketing talent in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka so skewed towards the capital cities of Dhaka and Colombo?

His analysis of English cricket’s lack of diversity is cutting. In 2009, as editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, he launched the Wisden City Cup, a talent-identification competition. Five years later he recommended a left-arm spinner to Middlesex after he had impressed in the City Cup, only for the player to be turned away after two sessions: he could not speak English and had struggled to communicate with a coach.

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“No, Aminul Islam could not speak English,” Berry writes, “but he could make a cricket ball talk; and a few years later, everyone was asking why there were no left-arm spinners in England except Jack Leach, and scant if any diversity.” He is scathing too about the treatment of black players in South Africa, not least Lonwabo Tsotsobe: “once No. 1 in the ODI rankings for bowlers, never one of the lads”.

I believe that cricket writers should try to do two things over the course of a given season to retain a fair perspective: pay for a ticket to a match and sit in the stands, rather than in a press box free of charge; and play at least one game, to remind you how cruel cricket is.

Berry does the latter, asking whenever we meet how my left-arm spin is coming out, and he still bowls legbreaks for Hinton Charterhouse CC in Somerset, for whom he is the all-time leading wicket-taker. His enthusiasm is evident when he recounts bowling in media games on tour – less so a “hot, sweaty nightmare” on Mumbai’s maidans.

In his introduction Berry recounts asking rhetorically when applying to become a cricket correspondent 45 years ago: “What better way to earn a living than being paid to avoid the English winter and visit warm countries, containing about a quarter of our planet’s population, and to watch cricket, on expenses?” The joy of Beyond the Boundaries is that he is yet to find an answer.

Beyond the Boundaries: Travels on England Cricket Tours
by Scyld Berry
Fairfield Books
246 pages, £19

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