In his poem, Gerontion, TS Eliot writes “History has many cunning passages” and the truth of that can be seen if we apply it to the history of writing on cricket. Especially when we consider the history of cricket biography.
Many of the greats have been extensively covered in this particular field. Shelves of books discuss Sir Donald Bradman alone and one wonders if there can be anything left to say on him and all the others who light up cricket’s past. No wonder then that biographers have begun to enter these “cunning passages” so as to search further afield for subject matter and in doing so, I would suggest, are leading us to a deeper understanding of what the history of cricket was. Ronald Cardwell’s book on Harry Graham seems, to me, to be a perfect example of this.
Harry Graham, for some periods in his career, was also a great. His footwork at the crease appears to have distinguished him from the other players around him. As his nickname, the little dasher, suggests he was fast – both in the use of his feet and the speed with which he accrued runs. The speed he got to the ball meant that he had time to spray it to different parts of the field and fielders found it hard to judge just where the ball would go. There was, then, an excitement about him, a sense of possibility whenever he arrived at the crease. Of course, such an approach could mean disappointment at times but a quick twenty from Graham could be breathtaking and stay in the memory for a lifetime.
His talent was soon recognised by the Australian selectors and he toured England (twice), America, and New Zealand with the Australian team. Playing for Australia at the SCG against England in February 1895, Graham scored an exhilarating 105 in 145 minutes. That, after Australia were 51-6. The report of the match in Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game suggested that “there has been probably no finer innings played on a wicket which was difficult”. After that, as Cardwell illustrates, Graham’s downward spiral began.
It’s quite possible that by the end of the century he was becoming more and more clinically depressed and there are suggestions that he was relying on alcohol to get him through some periods of his life. All this, for the time being, must remain conjecture. There’s no doubt his cricketing skills became less effective, although he was still capable of scoring a fast forty in the old exciting way.
In 1903 he moved to Dunedin becoming coach at Otago Boys’ High School and leading them to some success. He played for Otago, represented New Zealand against the 1905 Australian tourists at Christchurch, and played for the Albion Cricket Club. His last recorded game of cricket was 8th February 1907. By the end of July 1907, Graham had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Dunedin and he died there in February 1911. To all intents and purposes he was alone with only the odd visitor to see him.
The book is admirably researched and there are illustrations throughout the text which reflect both his cricketing career and his period of treatment. The author has consulted archives in both Australia and New Zealand and has created a most valuable paper trail for interested readers and future scholars, alike.
What gaps there in the story are caused, one senses, by Graham’s own secretiveness – or, at least, his lack of interaction with those around him. Two appendices by a Professor of Psychiatry and a Clinical Psychologist look at Graham’s case with modern eyes and both appendices make gripping reading. There is a statistical appendix of Graham’s career, copious footnotes, and a most useful index. Like all books produced by the Cricketing Publishing Co, this one is beautifully put together.
Graham’s friend and mentor Tom Horan, writing as Felix in The Australasian in October 1892, wrote of Graham “I think he likes the bright days best for cricket, and that his spirits droop when the days are dull”. It seems depression was always there but, for some years, it could not conquer this young man who produced some of the most exciting batting of his age. After a particularly memorable innings of Graham’s, Horan would later write “I would walk any ten miles to see batting like that of the little dasher.” Books like this make us realise that greatness can be transient and it can come at a huge price. It is important reading for us all and is a well needed corrective to some of the blandness that can permeate cricket writing.