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Posts Tagged ‘Engel’

This will likely be my last post on this blog. The cycle of research, writing and reception is at an end, and it is time to start thinking about something other than South African rebel tours for at least small portions of the day.

With regret, I am going to end on an antagonistic note. There is little glory or dignity in this at the best of times; less still when the antagonism is aimed at two much-admired figures in English cricket. But false accusations have been put on the record against myself and my colleague Tristan Holme, and this is the only opportunity to refute them.

To our great pleasure, The Rebel Tours has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Where there has been negative reaction, this has mostly been fair-minded and reasonable. In particular, the lack of first-hand rebel testimony is the book’s biggest weakness and this is a source of regret. It is obvious what impact such improvement would have had on a book that in any case received widespread critical praise including numerous four-star reviews.

Of course, even where I disagree with criticism there can be no argument if it is subjective. This comes with the territory of writing a book.

But in two cases the criticism was objectively wrong; unjustifiable and professionally insulting. For my own peace of mind I want to refute these pieces on the record.

Two authors made the same indefensible judgement – that rebel players were not invited to talk, or that we did not try hard to get them to do so.

For the Wisden Cricketer Matthew Engel ridiculed me for not “picking up the phone”, citing Ali Bacher as a crucial interviewee whom we had failed to contact.

This is a bizarre error. Ali Bacher was asked – and declined – more than once to be interviewed for The Rebel Tours. He was one of only two key South African figures to do so (two-and-a-half if you count Kepler Wessels).

For the Wisden annual Robin Martin-Jenkins acknowledges the Springbok input but concludes that we can’t have tried very hard to match this with input from the rebels.

That totally misunderstands how reluctant South Africans of a certain age are to discuss their fame during the apartheid era. Despite living in an environment hyper-sensitive to apartheid history, a Who’s Who of cricket in the republic contributed. That is a testament to bloody hard work.

It also tells you something about the rebels’ aversion to discussing the topic. The rebel tourists are mostly the only people left who think the tours a good idea but, as when they signed the contracts, they are generally unable or unwilling to engage with the arguments against.

There are two logical explanations for these two reviewers making the same misjudgement.

Explanation 1: Matthew Engel – an outstanding sports journalist by any measure – and/or Robin Martin-Jenkins – son of a legendary cricket writer and an experienced one himself – made ignorant armchair assumptions without any attempt to check the facts.

Perhaps their own familiarity with cricket stars of the era is at the root of this complacency. Both probably find it difficult to imagine not having easy access to those at the top, particularly in England. In such cases the club usually sticks together. If, say, Engel is in the same pilates class as Bacher while RMJ has a weekly game of canasta with Mike Haysman, Hartley Alleyne and Mahes Goonatilleke, then it may be natural to assume that these guys will talk easily to anyone, even those outside the establishment circle.

Explanation 2: Engel and/or Martin-Jenkins did half of the work necessary to write their reviews and asked a few old mates who were involved in the rebel tours.

And these upstanding members of world cricket assured the Wisden lads that they’d had no opportunity whatever to contribute to a book on the topic. Who would you believe? A famous and powerful old acquaintance, albeit with a record for duplicity and greed, or an independent journalist of whom you’ve frankly never heard?

Of course, the second of these is the more interesting but it is more trouble than it is worth to find out. My only point here is to record that we understood perfectly the professional necessity to gather rebel input and worked endlessly to get it. If a former rebel tourist denies having been asked to contribute to the book, statistically he is probably lying.

By quick guestimate over half of the surviving 70-odd rebels either declined in person or through an official representative (such as the ECB press office for Mike Gatting and David Graveney, who repeatedly turned down requests before eventually ignoring them altogether). Many more failed to respond to approaches I am confident reached their ears.

In the book’s acknowledgements I thank those who agreed to talk while chiding those who didn’t, citing the (100% genuine) response of one rebel: ‘What’s in it for me?’

My reasoning for keeping it brief and light was to avoid framing the book in a hostile or self-pitying tone. But I regret now not providing a detailed breakdown of approaches made and rebuffed. More than once rebels not only refused to be interviewed but asked that their refusal not be made public; a kind of informal super-injunction. Such evasiveness was commonplace. Perhaps I should even have made the rebels’ cowardice a part of the narrative.

It is debatable whether this tactic would have improved the book, since it can hardly lack authority if every effort has been expended inviting contributions and the resulting analysis is careful and rigorous. But it would at least have stopped complacent reviewers from ill-informed criticism. I do not know how hard Matthew Engel and Robin Martin-Jenkins tried to verify their false assumptions but it cannot have been very – neither I nor the publisher heard from them before reading their reviews.

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Engel’s marks

On Christmas Day my brother and I fell into conversation about great cricket writers.

Raised in a house reading Christopher Martin-Jenkins (Telegraph/Times), Jack Bannister (Birmingham Post) and Vic Marks (Observer), the antepost favourites were clear. But I made a spirited case for Matthew Engel, who had really impressed during Rebel Tours research.

He provided the best coverage of any journalist during the Dirty Dozen tour for the Guardian and later dragged Wisden back from the brink of colonial madness on the South African question. Stephen Moss has described Engel as the greatest editor in the almanack’s modern history and he’d get no argument here.

Then today I read the first negative review of The Rebel Tours. Published in the Wisden Cricketer, it is not only critical but laceratingly so. And it is written by Matthew Engel. Oh well.

The review is 55% ‘what I did on my holidays’ self-indulgence and 15% legitimate if mean-spirited criticism.

But it is the remainder that really irks: a conceited, condescending dismissal that the book fails because I have not approached key interviewees.

As the acknowledgements make clear, I asked dozens of people to co-operate and was rebuffed. Hopefully the irony is not lost on Engel that he could have avoided embarrassing himself with these falsehoods by, er, picking up the phone.

My biggest regret on the book is not getting more first-person testimony but that is in the nature of researching an episode that most would rather forget.

Might leading figures have been more likely to talk to a familiar face? Quite possibly. But would interviews based on familiarity yield independent content? Moreover if every cricket book has to be written by an esteemed former Wisden editor to pass muster, that is going to put a lot of pressure on Engel’s free time.

I took – and continue to take – the reluctance of rebel tour figures as another reason to write the book rather than not. If you want an air-brushed first-person account with an all-star contributor list, Ali: The Autobiography of Ali Bacher was published in 2004.

PS (18 Feb ‘10) TLS reviewer Stuart George and I elaborate on some of this here.

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