Cricket Book Review: The Big Ship (by Gideon Haigh)

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Image: Warwick Armstrong, middle row in the middle,

Ben Robert reviews Gideon Haigh’s biography on Warwick Armstrong, one of the most curious cricketers ever.

To begin with a proviso, this is not a book for the leisurely Sunday afternoon read, nor is it one for the casual enthusiast in matters cricket. Haigh has produced a fine piece of historical documentation on one of the most complex characters in cricket history, Warwick Armstrong.

Armstrong was a man who could be described as being as imposing as W.G. Grace, as ruthless as Douglas Jardine, and as enigmatic as Keith Miller. Haigh accurately combines such individual analysis of Armstrong’s character with broader analysis of the world and time in which he lived which was equally as complex. Armstrong’s career straddled not only the creation of Australia as a nation, but also The Great War, each in their own way influencing Australia’s national psyche.

This was an Australia trying to be the same yet different from their British origins and a people unsure of how to live with sectarian differences, primarily Protestant and Catholic (Armstrong a product of a mixed marriage). The cricket field, and halls of the games administration, providing an adequate microcosm for such tension to play out. Haigh therefore went beyond the simple boundaries of cricketing literature in researching this work, and the inclusion of such information further enhances the reader’s experience.

The man and player in Armstrong stood out in this era, and not just because of his enormous physical dimensions. Blessed with an immense talent, only shaded by his will to win, Armstrong became a cricketing Everest for opposition to climb. It was his will to win in all things that led him to play conservatively when the crowd wanted otherwise, and to argue vigorously without restraint off the field also.

Even quarrels with administration that Armstrong was not directly involved in, still had the feel of his presence – seemingly he was ‘of’ them always. He also cannot be said to be have been necessarily consistent in his dealings or statements; English cricketing authorities were quick to point out that his criticism of Jardine’s ‘Bodyline’ in 1932-33 was inconsistent with his own captaincy of Australian quicks Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald 12 years prior and his own use of leg theory as a bowler.

These brief notes only scratch the surface of the character that was ‘The Big Ship’, Warwick Armstrong. I can highly recommend this book to read for lovers of cricket history. We often look at black and white photographs and can feel the history and story behind them, though we don’t always know the details. What Haigh has done is to successfully extrapolate this feeling we have that we may know the character and stories in detail.

Ben contributes regularly to the following two Blogs:
Balanced Sports – The thinking fans sport opinion and analysis site.
Books with Balls – Reviewing the literature of a number of genres but definitely no Danielle Steele.

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