Stuart Broad tucks into a book on Harold Larwood

Three-book veteran Stuart Broad tucks into a title about a legendary Notts predecessor

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Feature

Ghost stories

The cricketer autobiography has come a fair way over the years, but they still need someone to write them - and in most cases, it isn't the player themselves

Jon Hotten |

Even now the sight of it brings a Proustian rush. The full-colour cover with its title in three decks of acid-yellow type: The Barry Richards Story, those magical words followed by - as if anyone would require further incentive to purchase - "with a foreword by Colin Cowdrey".

Most writers will tell you about their favourite books, about how at the age of 12 they were sailing through Ulysses or digging David Foster Wallace or producing reverent imitations of Murakami for their English homework. I never believe them. My favourite book when I was 12 was The Barry Richards Story. I read it so often, I remember passages from it, and my favourite picture from the plate section - of Barry offering Gordon Greenidge a strip of chewing gum while they were standing in the slips - had me fervently imagining that one day I'd be standing there next to the great man myself. Quite often I'd reach the end of the appendix ("BA Richards Career Analysis by Victor H. Isaacs & Peter A. Sichel") and turn immediately back to chapter one ("Reflections of an Exile") to start again.

My Richards obsession had taken full hold when, in 1977, the summer before the book's publication, he had played a benefit match at my club, Fleet CC, and scored an indelible (or more likely for him, instantly forgotten) 60-odd, an innings that seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, but that lives still in the memory, sweet and bitter, transient and sad.

In all of the times that I read the book as a kid, it never occurred to me that Richards might not have actually written it. Or perhaps not actually read it. (Although I sensed he probably hadn't read it as often as I had, and that was okay. He was Barry Richards. I just wanted to be.) After all, there it was in black and white on the title page: "The Barry Richards Story by Barry Richards." It was only many years later, pulling it out of the box in which it had remained throughout the three-year period I'd spent living in Australia, that I saw and absorbed the note on the following page: "I should like to thank Martin Tyler for his help in writing this book and the enthusiasm he brought to the task - B.A.R."

Most writers will tell you about their favourite books, about how at 12 they were sailing through Ulysses. I never believe them

"I should like to thank…"

That mannered phrase is an indicator of time and tide. The Barry Richards Story is a traditional autobiography from the era of traditional autobiography, a story told in what we would recognise as the language of autobiography, a kind of standard authorial voice; modest, measured, never too revealing, never too damning. I would read many more cricketers' autobiographies that used the same tone, almost as if their careers demanded to be viewed through that filter.

The big autobiographies of this English winter are very different to The Barry Richards Story. First, there's the matter of size. In 1978, books took up less space. Pull any '60s or '70s paperback from the shelves of a second-hand shop and you'll be confronted by a tight, tiny typeface crammed onto the page, the book itself easily able to slide into a jacket pocket. The Barry Richards Story, published by Faber and Faber, is a hardback of not much more than paperback size, and retailed for a princely £3.99. Jonathan Trott's Unguarded and Ben Stokes' Firestarter are behemoths by comparison, twice the heft and four times the price. Their covers are not action pictures but carefully commissioned studio portraits. It is as hard to imagine Stokes' book being called The Ben Stokes Story as it is Richards' being named after a Prodigy song.

Unguarded and Firestarter are particular types of autobiography: sub-strains, genre spin-offs. Trott's is a kind of confessional, a state-of-mind book that talks with candour about the anxiety that brought his international career to an end. Stokes' is a newer phenomenon still, an autobiography by someone whose career has barely started. Its title, its cover image leave little doubt that it is aimed at the young - or at least the younger - Stokes fan. It is the cricketer as rock star.

Each demands a particular tone. Trott has worked with George Dobell, ESPNcricinfo's senior correspondent, who has proven to be one of cricket's most empathetic writers, in tune with the age. Like Trott he is a Warwickshire man, and his writing career has more or less spanned Trott's England one. Stokes was entrusted to Richard Gibson, perhaps the most widely read cricket author in the country. His name may not adorn the covers, but if you have read David Lloyd's bestselling The World According to Bumble or Last in the Tin Bath, Graeme Swann's The Breaks Are Off, James Anderson's Jimmy: My Story, or Joe Root's Bringing the Ashes Home, then you have read Gibson. For publishers investing considerable sums in such books, the right ghost is more than a comforting presence; it's a key commercial decision.

It's all in the voice: northern legends David Lloyd and Geoff Boycott are distinctive in their books as in real life

It's all in the voice: northern legends David Lloyd and Geoff Boycott are distinctive in their books as in real life © Getty Images

Matt Phillips was the editorial director of Yellow Jersey, the giant Random House group's literary sports imprint, before moving to Blink Publishing to head a new sports division. He understands the perils of the marketplace. "For me, for any sports autobiography, I am looking for a big name with an interesting story that's well told," he says. "A failure on any of those terms will probably mean that the book will not be a commercial success."

The big name is not expected to understand the requirements and niceties of the publisher that has just cut their agent a sizeable cheque. They may even be wondering why a fair few percentage points of that cheque (typically between 10% and 30%) is finding its way into the pocket of the pale and uninteresting sap who spends their days behind a Dictaphone or at a keyboard. A publisher will be quick to impress the importance of the ghost once a deal is done.

"A good ghost needs to be a good listener, quick to bond with people and gain their trust, brave enough to ask difficult questions but open enough to receive difficult answers," says Phillips. "They need to be rigorous, punctual, and have a good sense of the story - where the drama is, how to get interesting nuggets from people who may be unused to questioning what they do.

In all of the times that I read the book as a kid, it never occurred to me that Barry Richards might not have actually written his autobiography

"Stylistically, I like it when the ghost captures the voice of the star - but I think that the tone of a book should be much more considered, intimate and polished than a standard interview. For some projects it's good to have a writer with no ego, happy to drop into the background, and on others it's best when the writer is more central and apparent."

Gibson was thinking of quitting his job as a cricket writer for the Press Association when David Lloyd asked him if he'd be interested in collaborating on a book. He leapt into the unknown.

"It was as simple as, 'Let's put a back cover and a front cover on it and see where we go,'" Gibson remembers. "Make it as madcap as he is. But then you realise that having something with no structure needs some sort of control..."

The World According to Bumble begins with a list of Lloyd's "50 Favourite Things" (favourite album: Imperial Wax Solvent by The Fall) before a very funny opening chapter about all of the people he's been mistaken for (Tony Blair, Alan Titchmarsh, one of the Proclaimers, Duncan Fletcher, "Paul Arlott", Darrell Hair, Bruce Yardley, Mike Brearley, Tony Greig, and - admittedly during a phone interview - Clive Lloyd).

The ghost who walks: Hotten takes a stroll with his subject, Jones

The ghost who walks: Hotten takes a stroll with his subject, Jones Andrew Miller / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"We gave HarperCollins half of the book," says Gibson, "and they said, 'We really like what you're doing. We've just signed up Graeme Swann, would you be interested in working with him?'"

Such was England's and Swann's popularity as they won the Ashes in Australia and became the top-ranked Test team, the deal was gazumped by another publisher, Hodder and Stoughton. "It got quite messy," says Gibson, "but Swann said he wanted me to stay on the project, so it went ahead."

Gibson's second career was launched.

"Jimmy Anderson phoned me and said, 'I know you're ghosting Swanny, but I thought you'd be the one to do my book.' We'd always been pals, so I said, 'Yeah, of course.' I knew Joe Root vaguely. I'd toured the world with England for ten years, and I live in Leeds, so he knew who I was. Same thing with Stokes. I got to know him through Anderson and Root really."

Gibson has spent much of the last five years as a ghost to these cricketers, teasing out their stories over the kitchen table or in spare hours at games or training. Each book contains probably a day's worth of talking - as in 24 hours (and imagine how much someone can say if they speak for 24 hours; that's a lot of words and a lot of transcribing).

So what is the secret?

When I sat down to write I felt that odd sensation of inhabiting someone else's life and trying to express it not in my voice but in theirs

"The number one is to establish the voice. This is why I say to them: 'You have to tell me everything, because these words have to be 100% yours.' They cannot be mine. The voice comes out naturally if you are faithful to those sessions. The first thing you have to do as the ghost is [to remove] the self, the ego. There cannot be anything of you."

Voice is easier to establish when the subject has a deeply familiar one, like Lloyd, or Geoffrey Boycott. Nick Hoult ghosts Boycott's Daily Telegraph column and did his most recent autobiography, The Corridor Of Certainty.

"If you cannot capture Geoffrey's voice then you should not be a ghost." Hoult says. "He is a total professional who respects the journalistic skills a ghost can bring but ultimately knows it is his responsibility to produce the copy."

The Corridor Of Certainty also told the story of one of the most harrowing periods of Boycott's life, when he almost died from throat cancer.

A ripping good yarn: Jim Laker reads his book <i>Over to Me</i>, in 1960

A ripping good yarn: Jim Laker reads his book Over to Me, in 1960 © Getty Images

"He was very clear that he wanted to go into great personal detail about his cancer treatment and had prepared extensive notes before each session," says Hoult. "For those chapters his wife Rachael was heavily involved. Geoffrey did not remember all the details because he was so sick at the time. Rachael added a lot of information about the treatments he had, his battle with the doctors to give him dairy-free liquidised food, and the evening when he was nearly killed by an accidental morphine overdose. I think at times it was difficult for both of them to go over what was obviously a very painful period in their lives."

The ghost must walk such lines with delicacy.

Sports publishing has become more confessional. It has followed a trend begun by reality TV stars, who have been proven to possess the kind of commercial catnip to seemingly publish an autobiography a year, scantily filled with matey tittle-tattle and tearful retelling of the latest pregnancy or divorce. Hence Stuart Broad, at 30, has published three (including one immortally titled My World in Cricket) and Root and Stokes were in print at 24 and 25 respectively. Gibson agrees there are differences with mid-career books, and with players who have had a lifetime of media training in order to say nothing controversial.

"The first two sittings with Joe and Ben were, I wouldn't say worthless, but they were exercises to establish the trust, to realise that you're not being interviewed, you're chatting as mates," says Gibson. "It's an interesting question. They wouldn't necessarily want to do a book at the point at which they're asked, but if they're asked 'Would you like X-thousand pounds to do a book?' they're pretty unlikely to say no.

Each book contains probably a day's worth of talking - as in 24 hours (and imagine how much someone can say if they speak for 24 hours)

"But once engaged in a project, I say to them to give me everything. Every question I ask, you tell me the answer honestly. If that answer does not sit comfortably with you at a later date, then it doesn't remain in the book, but I can't add things in. I can only take things out. At the end of their career they've got a lot less to risk. After all they're talking about people that they play with and players that they are going to play against in the future. They have to be selective in what they say."

At the heart of every successful piece of ghosting is the writer-subject relationship. Back in 2000, Saad Shafqat wasn't a writer at all - he was a neurologist. He was also a devoted fan of Javed Miandad and wanted to read his autobiography. The only problem was, Miandad hadn't published one, so Shafqat decided to do something about it. After qualifying in the US he moved to Karachi, where a remarkable relationship began remarkably: "I began hunting for Javed's telephone number. Luckily a family contact had known him in Sharjah, and this gentleman came through. I remember dialling the number with my heart pounding and throat dry. The conversation did not go well. I hadn't published anything and he had never heard of me. He dismissed the idea outright."

The path cleared only when Shafqat's wife suggested writing a sample chapter and approaching Miandad's wife with it.

No ghosts here: Steve Waugh famously didn't need any assistance to write his many tour diaries

No ghosts here: Steve Waugh famously didn't need any assistance to write his many tour diaries © Getty Images

"Javed has married into one of Pakistan's wealthiest families; he was living in Lahore at the time, at an address that is a local landmark. I flew to Lahore and rang the bell at 1 Canal Bank Road. Javed was touring New Zealand as the national coach but Tahira Miandad was home. She was kind enough to call me in and we had a convivial chat. She kept the chapter and told me she will be in touch. 'Leave it to me,' I remember her saying.

"A few weeks after that, I got a call from Javed. He was visiting his mother in Karachi and asked if we could meet. I dropped everything and rushed over, buying a cake along the way. When he came to the doorway, I handed him the cake and complimented him on his unforgettable 114 at Georgetown - something I had dreamed of doing for years. Javed took the cake and gave me a strange look. 'Come inside,' he said. And with that the project began. As it progressed, our friendship developed. He became very amiable towards me and started calling me his little brother."

Yet telling the story of a figure so central to his country's sporting history brought a responsibility that perhaps a more seasoned writer may have blanched at.

"Javed has been a polarising figure, within Pakistan as well as outside, and this book was going to be the first proper articulation of his side of things. I was very conscious that his authentic voice must come through," says Shafqat.

"I say to them to give me everything. Every question I ask, you tell me the answer honestly. If that answer does not sit comfortably with you at a later date, then it doesn't remain in the book, but I can't add things in. I can only take things out" Richard Gibson, ghost extraordinaire, on his methods

"I would pose the questions to him, and to an extent directed the interviews, but beyond that I was careful not to introduce any spin of my own. I certainly left nothing out. Javed's is a quintessentially Pakistani story, and as a Pakistan fan I wanted to do justice to it."

I can clearly remember where I was when I became a ghost. I was standing in the frozen-foods aisle in Morrisons. The phone went and it was my friend Charlie Campbell, a literary agent. "What do you reckon about Simon Jones?" he said. I knew he'd taken Simon on as a client and from somewhere - and who knows where these things come from - an almost fully formed idea dropped into my head. "We could do it as five chapters about the five Ashes Tests in 2005, and then put five other chapters in between them about the rest of his life…"

A week or so later, I was pitching the idea to Simon. It wasn't entirely one way. The decision on how to tell his story and who to was his, but I knew the approach I was planning would need him to be able to remember and express exactly what it was like to be in the middle of the intensity of a Test match, to be able to put across the small details that no one who wasn't playing would ever know about. He described the first morning of the first Test, what it was like to walk through the Long Room, how Rudi Koertzen had told him off for not appealing when he got Damien Martyn out with his first ball; small details about how it felt and sounded that only he could have known and articulated. I knew then that the idea would work.

I wrote a proposal and Charlie got us a deal (with Matt Phillips, then at Yellow Jersey) and we had just over two months to get the book done so that it could be published in the summer of 2015, ten years on from that glorious series. Simon and I met once a week for ten weeks, for between two and four hours each time. He had a friend at the Celtic Manor golf course near Cardiff, so we got to spend each session in the Ryder Cup clubhouse, in front of the fire. Before the first session I asked Simon to watch the DVD of the series, but when he turned up he said it was in his dad's loft and he couldn't get hold of it. Instead he had a commemorative book, mainly of photos, that he'd been looking at. When I tried to berate him about being underprepared, he smiled the little smile I'd get used to, and I saw a glimpse of the tough single-mindedness of the international sportsman.

Kevin Pietersen flogs his tome at a promo event in London

Kevin Pietersen flogs his tome at a promo event in London © Getty Images

I needn't have worried. Once we began talking, the memories flooded through him. He had wanted to be utterly honest about the realities of a cricket career wrecked by injury, and he was - remembering the financial worries and his desperation in signing a pay-as-you-play contract even as his knee swelled and wouldn't stop swelling.

When I sat down to write, like Gibson and Hoult and Shafqat, I felt that odd sensation of inhabiting someone else's life and trying to express it not in my voice but in theirs. There is a greater responsibility than in just writing your own stuff - I knew that Simon would most likely tell his story only once, and I knew how much it meant to him. Ultimately, ghosting is about that responsibility too, whether it is to Lloyd's love of the Fall, or Boycott's illness, or Miandad's meaning to Pakistan cricket fans.

"The only time I've ever been peed off with a review," says Gibson, "was when a chap in the Cricketer said I didn't capture Joe Root's voice - that's the only time I've been stung by a review. It's the major criticism that could be levelled at you."

There is a famous joke about David Beckham and his three (so far) autobiographies, that he's written more books than he's read. It is slightly cruel, but there comes a day when the ghost must present the subject with their book, either chapter by chapter or as a finished manuscript. That is the real moment of truth. Even for people who are used to being written about - and sometimes damned - in the press, it can be a shock to see it all down there in black and white.

When I sat down to write, I felt that odd sensation of inhabiting someone else's life and trying to express it not in my voice but in theirs. There is a greater responsibility than in just writing your own stuff

Hoult knew exactly how Boycott would be. "He was meticulous over his copy," he says. "I would write up the chapters and send them to him for correction. We would go through two or three versions before we sent it off to the publisher. Boycs is a brilliant sub who picks up typos."

Miandad was the complete opposite. "I asked him [to read it] a few times, but he couldn't be bothered," says Shafqat. "To be honest, I don't mind. He isn't much of a reader, and I could see he just wouldn't have the patience. He said he trusted me and had left it all to me. I suggested we should at least have his wife or another family member go through it, in the interest of accuracy, if nothing else. He called on his sister-in-law and she was the one who read it all."

Books come and go. In this new media age, they must be bigger and brasher and fight for some shoulder room in a 24-hour culture. They can never again be as diffident as The Barry Richards Story. But books offer a more permanent experience too. The ones you love stay with you, often in physical form, but sometimes as ghosts. I suppose what every ghost hopes is that their book connects with someone somewhere, and stays with them.

For that, of course, I should like to thank Martin Tyler.

Jon Hotten ghosted Simon Jones' The Test, which won Wisden Almanack's Book of the Year award in 2016. He's also the author of The Meaning of Cricket

 

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  • POSTED BY Alfers on | December 7, 2016, 16:34 GMT

    @KHEMRAJTHAKUR - The book John Hotten wrote for Simon Jones won the Wisden Cricket Book of the Year award so is probably a good option. Of the books I've read which are specifically about that series, Gideon Haigh's is the best.

  • POSTED BY Jose...P on | December 7, 2016, 15:58 GMT

    Ghost writing has become so common not only among cricketers, and sportsmen but also among 'heroes' from many fields, including industrialists, politicians and even bureaucrats. To such an extent, that even if one writes one's own story, many readers won't believe, that is the case. The only exceptions are th ones written by journos about themselves.

  • POSTED BY KhemRajThakur on | December 7, 2016, 10:54 GMT

    @EdwinD What about those who hadn't watched those matches on TV?

  • POSTED BY EdwinD on | December 7, 2016, 10:35 GMT

    One of most disappointing reads recently was Mark Nicholas' 'A Beautiful game'. There was an entire section on the 2005 Ashes, and I felt no value that could be added to what I had seen on TV - understandable given that MN was not playing in the series, and so had a supporter's perspective, as everyone bar the 12 English players had.

  • POSTED BY Alfers on | December 7, 2016, 8:35 GMT

    The player's unique viewpoint of a match I probably saw on TV is precisely what I'm looking for in these books. So many of them fail to deliver and seem engaged in an unedifying race to the bottom - who can provide the most sensational revelations on this or that petty dressing room dispute. Pietersen's book set a particularly dismal tone and there have been many subsequent imitations. Sadly that is what sells but it seems bizarre to me. Anyone can write about playground arguments and settle past scores by revealing juvenile nicknames. Only Pietersen can tell you what it's like to take on Brett Lee, score your first test hundred and walk off knowing that England have won the Ashes for the first time in 26 years.