Steven Chalke
Stephen Chalke speaks after accepting the Book of the Year Award during the Cricket Writers Club Lunch, 2015. Photo Courtesy: Arunabha Sengupta

Summer’s Crown, Stephen Chalke’s entertaining history of the County Championship, won the Cricket Writers Club Book of the Year Award for 2015. It should, however, be just another day at the office for the author by now. Chalke’s first book, Runs in the Memory – County Cricket in the 1950s (1997), was endorsed by Frank Keating as the Sports Book of the Year. Later, his biography of Geoffrey Howard (2001) won the Cricket Society Book of the Year Award. No Coward Soul (2003), the superb life-story of Bob Appleyard, was awarded the Wisden Book of the Year, as was The Flame Still Burns, his 2007 book on Tom Cartwright. A year later, in 2008, The Way It Was won the National Sporting Club Cricket Book of the Year. Arunabha Sengupta caught up with the author during the annual Cricket Writers Club Lunch and Award ceremony in London.

CricketCountry (CC): So, is it really true that all the cricket writing was triggered by one bad bowling season for your wandering cricket side at the age of 45?

Stephen Chalke (Laughs): It is true. I had a bad year in 1993. I had a back problem for the first time in my life, and a neck problem as well. I was out for a few weeks.I looked at my figures — I am one of these sad people who write down their batting scores and bowling figures at the end of each game. I thought that it was telling me that I had reached the end of the road.

But I was working in adult education at that time, and the great mantra in that field is that you are never too old to learn. I used to tell the students who came in at all ages,“You can still learn, you can still improve.”I thought, “Why don’t I apply it to my cricket?” And I went off in search of a coach.

We had just moved to Bath. I can’t recall how it came about, but I got recommended this chap Ken Biddulph, who had played for Somerset in the 1950s and the early 1960s. He had just retired from the local school,Wycliffe,as the cricket professional.

I rang him up and he asked what I had in mind. I said I could get off early on Friday afternoons, and could I come up and see him for half an hour and work on my bowling action? He said, “Half an hour? You can’t do anything in half an hour. Let’s make it an hour.” I said that was fine, and he rang back a day or two later and said he had booked the Stratford Park Leisure Centre in the Stroud on Friday afternoon for an hour and a half. We hadn’t discussed the money or anything like that. It was just going to be the two of us, with me bowling in the nets after a long week’s work. I was starting to think: “Oh my God, where is this going?”

I got there at four o’clock, and he was standing at the entrance, very smart, silver-grey hair, in his Somerset blazer. He said, “Stephen, good news, there’s nobody after us till six o’clock.” We then had two hours in the net after which I was completely exhausted. We went up to the balcony, the nets were pulled back and five-a-side football started being played. And it was then I realised that for Ken that had been the warm-up session. His main joy of the evening was to regale me for the next two hours with the story of his life as a Somerset cricketer.

He was telling the stories — of playing with Fred Trueman and Roy Marshall and Bill Alley, and all these were people I had watched as a boy. And suddenly I was being transferred across the boundary into the middle of their games of the 1950s, and these players of my childhood were coming alive for me.

After a few weeks, he brought some other people and it turned into a group net. The sessions afterwards did not always run into two hours, but it always ran for at least an hour or more, and there were always fresh stories. For three years I did that and I had an idea to see if I could write something based on his stories. I had a brainwave that I could recreate the best game of cricket he had played and weave in some of the stories he told, and I did that. I looked up the game, times and all that, and told the story of it. I thought it went pretty well.

Next, I thought I could go around the country and do that with other people as well. I asked him who he could recommend and he recommended players all around England. So I did a whole book (Runs in the Memory)on county cricket in the 1950s through the memories of people who played at that time. It was revisiting the lost memories of my childhood.

CC: That is an interesting time to write about.

SC: Indeed, it’s an interesting time to look back to. It’s slightly pre-television. The newspapers didn’t interview players that much. I remember interviewing one of the players who played 14 years for Essex and said the newspapers hadn’t ever interviewed him. You can’t play 14 seasons now without being interviewed.

For Summer’s Crown, I wanted to interview the last person to make his debut in 2014. It was Aneurin Donald,17yearsold, who played the last game for Glamorgan in 2014. I spoke to Hugh Morris, the chief executive at Cardiff, and he gave me his contact details and said he had received his media training! So, you are talking of a 17-year-old boy who has played one game of county cricket who has had his media training, and I there was talking to a man who had played for Essex for 14 years and he said he had never been really been interviewed. That’s the change of this world.

Since 1996, when I started my book, I have been tapping into the memories of cricketers of that era, and even before in some cases, and it’s been a wonderfully rich harvest.

CC: You write about the 50s and 60s, but not about the Mays, Cowdreys and Dexters, or Truemans. It is rather about Bomber Wells and Tom Cartwright. Which of course, has its own charm. What made you choose these subjects?

SC: I think I made the decision with the first book that the really interesting people were not the household names. People like Fred Trueman and Trevor Bailey had spent their whole life on the media telling their stories; it was the next level of people who were really interesting. Not only did they have interesting stories, they lived normal lives and got on with their lives. I found some fascinating characters among that group of people who perhaps played a bit for England but were essentially good county players. It has been my speciality really.

CC: Only Bob Appleyard was perhaps a relatively big name.

SC: Appleyard wasn’t a big name at the time I did the book. People had forgotten him, completely. It was a terrific responsibility to do the book, because he had such a powerful human story to tell — getting it right, not sensationalising it and doing it truthfully to his experience. That was quite a tough experience.

On the surface, he wasn’t the sort of person I would have expected to get along very well with. Quite a tough character, very demanding. But, I hit it off with him really well. He was a perfectionist, and I think I am one as well, and I think if you work on a book about somebody, and if they care about every word of it, that’s a better experience than writing a book about someone who doesn’t bother to read the manuscript.

Some years ago, Steve Harmison did an interview for Cricketer. He had just brought a book out and the interviewer asked him about his homesickness which was in the book. And Harmison got a little bit irritated with the interviewer and denied it. When the interviewer pointed out that it was in the book, at that point,he said, “Is it? I haven’t read that yet”. I would not want to write a book for someone like that.

CC: You have been described as an archaeologist of memories. You dig the stories out of memories of cricketers. It is a wonderful exercise, but there are obvious difficulties with memories prone to playing tricks. I have seen you verifying with the contemporary records and scorecards. Is that how you deal with the risks of faulty memories?

SC: Memories are difficult things to deal with. People mix things up intheir memories and it can be quite crucial. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that much, you get the spirit of what they are saying. But there are other times when people significantly misremember things and you’ve got to try and sort that out. The worst people are the ones who have done a lot of after-dinner speaking. They are used to embellishing their stories and turning them into something hilarious. And after a while they come to believe in the version that they are used to tell. You go back and tell them you were not playing in that match, and they respond, “Oh yes I was.”

You do get caught out sometimes. But if someone tells a story that I can see can’t be right, I won’t go ahead with it. You know that certain people are very accurate when you are working with them. I did a book with Tom Cartwright. If ever I had a query about something he had told me, I used to ring him up and say,“This game at Edgbaston, so and so wasn’t playing.” He would immediately think about it and say, “Yes, I have got it wrong. Come to think of it, it was actually so and so.” It didn’t happen very often. I rang him up once and said, “I can’t find this game at Yeovil you are talking about.” And he said, “No, it definitely was at Yeovil. I can see myself leaning against the caravan talking to so and so”. And I looked again, and I did find it.

But then there are others. Dickie Bird sold over a million copies of his book. If he had done it with me, he wouldn’t have sold a quarter of that, because I would have taken off the stories which I could see were not true. And it would have spoiled the book in a lot of ways.

But you need to keep a fine balance between being entertaining and being accurate. When writing history, you’ve got to get it somewhere near the truth. If it is serving some historical function, I wouldn’t go to Dickie and ask him what had happened.

CC: In that case, what would have happened if you had done a book with Neville Cardus?

SC: (Laughs) I can’t answer that. I think Neville Cardus was a beautiful writer. He was such a good writer you would be ashamed to spoil theprose. I think quality of writing is terribly important. Cardus made people love cricket, didn’t he? At times one can be too dry and factual. There was romance in the way he saw things.

But of course there is another side to it… I did a book with Geoffrey Howard (At the Heart of English Cricket). He managed some England tours in the 1950s. He was also the secretary at Old Trafford in the 1950s. He told the story of being on a train journey, sharing the compartment with a chap who was the leader of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. And the chap asked, “What do you think of Neville Cardus the writer?” As you know, Cardus’ two great loves were cricket and classical music, he wrote about both for Manchester Guardian. Geoffrey said, “He’s a very good writer, but unfortunately he doesn’t know anything about cricket.” And the chap said, “Oh, I thought it was music he didn’t know anything about.”

But he made people fall in love with the game. There is a role for all that type of writing. And Dickie Bird’s book did a lot of good in the world. Lots of people bought it, lots of them read it, loved it. There is no harm in that. But you need to keep a fine balance between being entertaining and being accurate. When writing history, you’ve got to get it somewhere near the truth. If it is serving some historical function, I wouldn’t go to Dickie and ask him what had happened.

CC: But someone like Bob Appleyard was extremely accurate.

SC: It was completely different with Bob Appleyard — he had gone into business, he hadn’t spent his life telling people stories of his cricket career. He remembered it quite well. He wanted it right.

I remember more than anything that he talked about a game in Sheffield where Bertie Buse, a medium-pace swing bowler for Somerset, bowled Yorkshire out for 80 or 90. Bob said he had never seen the ball swing so much over his playing career as it did during that afternoon. He said it didn’t swing from the arm, but during the last yard. I wrote up this chapter and quoted him saying that.

Bob would sit down and read the chapter with a friend of his (Ron Deaton). Ron would ring me up and go through the corrections. He got to this bit and said, Bob wants to change ‘in the last yard’ to ‘in the last two yards.’ I said that I didn’t think it was the exact measurement. And Ron said, “You’ve no idea, we spent twenty minutes on the floor with a tape measure.” That was Bob Appleyard. I can’t imagine Dickie Bird worrying about that.

But you know, Dickie Bird had an audience for his book. He has done an enormous amount for cricket, he is a lovely bloke and he knows the history of the game to an extent.

Bob was a different type of character, an intelligent, serious sort of chap. He was the ideal subject for me, really. He gave his all to the book, had a good story to tell. Tom Cartwright was the same.

Bomber was different. He was more in the category of somebody who would talk non-stop, one thing after another, hour after hour, month after month. I started wondering what I was going to do with all the stuff. Then I came up with the idea of setting it all in a game, where he was sitting there telling stories. Once you put him in that position, you didn’t have to worry about whether they are right or wrong, exaggerated or not. They are just his stories. And he was a very funny man, and could see the funny side of everything.

CC: You took an extra cassette along when you met him the first time?

SC (Laughs):I got there at ten, but he was still going strong at five in the afternoon. He was something special. If you talk to any cricketer of that era and mention Bomber Wells, he will break into a smile.

Sometimes, we tend to look at 1950s as a time when everybody put on a suit and tie to work in London, everyone drove a black car. There was not a lot of self-expression in terms of what people wore and how people lived. It was a rationed world, a grey world, and a lot of conformity. Then the 1960s came, and there was an explosion of individuality, and everyone was doing his own thing. That’s the sort of popular perception.

But if I look at Bomber Wells playing cricket in the 1950s, he could not possibly exist in the modern cricket game. No one would tolerate anybody going on like that. Yet, in the 1950s, there was a much greater range in the way people went about their cricket. There was not a lot of coaching at this level. Everyone learnt their own game. They went about it in their own different sorts of ways, as individual characters.Today the coach would get hold of him, make him lose weight, make him bat properly, make him something in the field, cut out the antics, and, you know, it does lose a bit of character like that.

That interested me, because that was counterintuitive from someone who was in his teens in the 1960s. I tended to think of the 60s as a time when people broke away from over conformism. Yet, when I wrote my portrait of cricket in the 50s, I thought it was in some respects a less conformist world.  I really imbued the spirit of the 50s when writing it. The 1960s book (As It Was) was more of a sequel.

CC: With Geoff Howard you moved into the field of life-stories.

SC: Yes, the book with Geoffrey Howard was a change. It was sitting down with one person, with his life story.

He was born before the First World War and had gone to his first cricket match in 1919. That was taking me to worlds that I hadn’t thought about before. There was something emotional about doing the centrepiece of the book, about the 1954-55 tour of Australia when he was the manager. They were his boys. He had all these youngsters Colin Cowdrey, Peter May, Brian Statham… We were sitting there in 2001, writing this book, and he was talking of his boys, and half of them were dead. He had survived them all.

While we were doing this book, his wife had just died and had kept all the letters he had written home. So we had this box he discovered with all the letters he had written daily while on the three tours, and they were a goldmine because they were written in the language of the time; they were not him looking back and reconstructing the events 50 years on. They were words he had used at that time. That added a whole extra dimension to the book. I remember my wife came up to one session of interview I had with him. He was 92, he was struggling. My wife was amazed at what I could piece together based on what he had told me in the session. By the time I was done with the session, he would go to sleep —so tired he was after trying to pull all these memories.

He had a wonderful turn of phrase in a formal sort of way. Because he had been in the corridor of power and was prepared to be indiscreet, he gave you quite a feeling of the world of amateurs of that time and cricket administration and how they saw things. Even while writing this new book about the County Championships, I found myself referring back in my head about what he had told me about those times.

I would love it if there were people alive who could tell me about the 1920s and 1930s. It is so important to tap into these memories while they were there.

CC: It is important to get these memories while they are there. I have heard you mention this.

SC: On the front of that book on Geoffrey Howard I printed a little quote fromAlan Bennett, and he says, “Anyone of any distinction at all should, on reaching a certain age, be taken away for a weekend at the at the state’s expense, formally interviewed and stripped off all their memories.” I thought it was a lovely quote.

That is really what I am doing in a way.

I did a whole series of interviews on film with Yorkshire legends. Brian Close has died now. You do the film interview with him, watch it and say that it has come out quite well. And then he dies and you watch it again, and it acquires a whole different meaning. He is not there to say it anymore and you have got it on tape.

That’s really the gist of what I do. I love cricket, I love the light it throws on the social history of this country. That fascinates me as much as anything. I think it is a wonderful medium to learn about way of life in England.

I think cricket lends itself terribly well to be written about. A game is a story in itself, with its twists and turns, and the different characters that come to the fore at different stages. I think the dramatic structure of a cricket match, its long hours and sudden moments of action, the way its individuals stand or sit around doing nothing great and suddenly it all hinges on them … it’s a wonderful game to write about.

I don’t think enough people have written books about a single match. I mean you have done it now, you’ve written a book about a match (Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes) and the cricket in it is terrific. You have captured the ebb and flow of the last day, and it lends itself to a strong narrative.

People often write about the career of a cricketer, but the career isn’t actually the unit of cricket. The unit of cricket is the game. The game is the key thing and how these players interact with each other within the game.

I did a book with Ken Taylor who played cricket for Yorkshire and England, and football in the old first division. He would run out at Anfield and he would open batting at Lord’s in a Test. He was perfectly clear that cricket was a far harder game than football because of the sudden pressure it puts on you. In football you are running around all the time, you make a mistake, make up for it, pass the ball around, you are all in it together all the time. In cricket, whenever you are doing anything there is an intense mental pressure on you to achieve.

I think the best cricketers like Shane Warne and Ian Botham and people like that, they get to a level where they are playing it as a game again. But the people halfway up, they are struggling with it, they are trying to achieve, they take it terribly seriously, they are trying to improve, they feel the pressure. But Shane Warne, he played the game as he would have as a ten year old. It was just a game to him.That is how it should be.

CC: When you wrote your first book Runs in the Memory, the publishers were not that encouraging in their response.

SC: I wrote to all of them, but they all wrote back saying it was a lovely book and idea, but not commercial enough. And they might have been right. All the books I have written, I have ended up publishing myself as Fairfield Books. I have enjoyed it. It is great fun creating the books, laying them up as you want and doing them in your own way. But in fairness, they aren’t bestsellers.

I am working from home. I have no office and no staff. I am prepared to do long hours of humping boxes around and packing parcels. I can make a book work financially on a lower sale figure than a big publisher can.

CC: You have also published excellent books by some others.

SC:It came about by a bit of an accident. David Foot was talking about a book he was writing, up at the Cheltenham Cricket Week. I asked him if he had a publisher, he said he hadn’t and I said I could publish it. We only argued about one thing — and ferociously — about money. The conversation went something like this. I said to him, “Look, I’m going to pay you £2 per book” and he said, “Nononono, you are not going to pay me that much, that’s far too much.”

I have worked with John Barclay on three books, with Mark Wagh on his book, and a few others. As I said, I can make a book work financially on a lower sale figure than a big publisher can. I can do a book like Mark Wagh the Nottinghamshire batsman who did a diary of the season. I can do a book like John Barclay did on his life. Or the one Anthony Gibson did by compiling the writing of his father Alan Gibson. None of them are books that a big publisher would see as commercially viable. But I can print them, sell two or two and a half thousand of them. And that’s a good result for me. I am not looking to get rich and they are good books. They are quality books for a niche market rather than best sellers.

I think there is a role for the next level down from the big publishing houses, and there are some good books at that level. Those three I mentioned were very good books. I have published some of David Foot’s works, and he is not going to be a bestseller. But he writes beautifully and I can sell enough to make the book work. If you know the world of cricket, you can find your readers. I wouldn’t publish a novel because the audience for a novel is here there and everywhere, but if I publish the biography of Tom Cartwright, I know what counties he played for, I know the cricket magazines there are and I know where I can sell the first 1000 or 1500 copies. I know if I try to overreach myself and try to produce bestsellers I’ll fall on my face. That’s not what I am doing.

CC: But you did write a novel — Now I’m 62.

SC (Laughs):I did. It was a marginally fictionalised account of one whole cricket year. I enjoyed doing that and it did reasonably well. I got a very mixed response. Some people thought it was absolutely wonderful, and some didn’t write it at all. I like to do something different every so often. As a writer you don’t want to get into a rut. Once or twice I have done a book too many on a certain type of subject. You got to move on and take a fresh challenge.

CC: And you learnt after the book was written that your father had actually played his last game at 61 — rather than what you had based the subject on.

SC:61, he was. And the previous season had actually a better season to write about. I kept playing for another three seasons, one season too many.

CC: Are Runs in the Memory and Now I’m 62 your favourite books?

SC: The other book I really do like is A Long Half Hour. It was a bit of a personal book. A very miniature one, which said a lot of the things I wanted to say. It was very well digested too, because it was coming back to subjects I had written about previously, and all of them had died. It was me looking back at them and saying everything I wanted to say after knowing them rather than when I first dealt with them. I reprinted that. I didn’t like that one going out of print. It’s not a bestseller; it’s a book that works at its own level.

If you really look at what I like to do, I like writing books on cricket history, publishing others — creating quality books about cricket history — which are not really growth areas. I am not backing big winners for the future doing these. But I like doing it, and there are people who appreciate this. I have got a mailing list I write to, and I have got to know a lot of these people. They ring up and tell you experiences they have had. Some of them have played cricket to a serious level.

The main thing for me is that through cricket writing you meet some fantastic people, of real character and calibre. In their own field they have been successful and are quite inspiring to work with. It’s a funny little world which I have created for myself and had I had a better season in 1993, it would never have happened.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)