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David Frith | Cricket Web

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David Frith | Cricket Web

These days, fearing the debilitating effect of the march of Anno Domini, I have taken to doing a great deal of walking. As I have got fitter the walks have got longer, and afford much time for reflection and, from time to time, my thoughts can get a little ‘off beat’.

Last week a question that exercised my mind, as I wandered into the office, was how many books are in the largest cricket library that does not contain a single book authored by David Frith? There are a few odd folk who only collect for reasons that do not include the pleasure of reading but, discounting those obsessive few, i canniest the number being any higher than 20. The reason for this is the simple one that Frith, however narrow the subject matter of some his books might be, has written a number of the most popular titles that have been published on the game.

Frith turned 85 in March, and if pushed will claim he has no plans to write another book. I have not given up hope though. A number of writers have produced quality books from beyond that age, and Frith still keeps his hand in by contributing reviews and the occasional article to a variety of publications, so I prefer to think he is just marking time until someone comes up with a project that appeals to him sufficiently to fire him up again.

The contribution Frith has made to cricket literature has been immense. There have been the greater part of forty books altogether to go with countless pieces for more ephemeral publications, particularly The Cricketer and Wisden Cricket Monthly. For lengthy periods of time both magazines were under Frith’s editorial control, and indeed his was the guiding hand when the latter first hit the newsstands in 1978.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult life in the world of cricket Frith’s has been an interesting one. His, shall we say robust, personality has helped and his story fully justified the publication of an autobiography, Caught England Bowled Australia, in 1994, and a second such volume, Paddington Boy as recently as last year. The author himself was somewhat put out when I suggested in my review of the Paddington Boy that it was really a case of Caught England Bowled Australia coupled with a single powerful new chapter.

On reflection I can see that Frith’s irritation was understandable. That he went through his first book line by line and made additions, amendments or clarifications where necessary I fully accept. I should perhaps have made that clearer and apologise to Frith for not doing so at the time. At the same time I hope he accepts from other comments and my take on the book as a whole that the message that I intended to convey was that anyone reading Paddington Boy need not, unless needed for a complete set of Friths, seek out a copy of its predecessor.

The first book that Frith authored does not, in fact, bear his name on the cover. Published in 1969 the only clue to Frith’s involvement in John Edrich’s autobiography, Runs in the Family, are the words as told to David Frith on the title page. At least Frith’s involvement was acknowledged. Those looking for the identity of the ghost writer of a celebrity autobiography of just a few years previously would generally be left with no clue at all. 

Runs in the Family is one of the better books of its type, but mid career autobiographies are seldom amongst the most critically acclaimed of books. Edrich was certainly one of England’s star players at the time, but the real highlights of his career, regaining the Ashes in Australia in 1970/71, losing them again in 1974/75 and his experience of the West Indian pace battery of 1976 all lay ahead of him.

The absence of a full biography of Edrich is one of the most surprising omissions in the literature of the game, the more so because of Frith’s willingness to write it. That no publisher has been prepared to back the venture is a source of some surprise and no little disappointment to me, but I have not yet given up hope that one will be persuaded that such a book is a good idea, and that when they do Frith will still be willing to do the honours.

A year later, in 1970, Frith’s next book arrived. My Dear Victorious Stod was a biography of Drewy Stoddard and is the first of two Frith biographies that demonstrate, that for him, no project is ever finished. The book’s first appearance was as a privately published limited edition of 400 copies. Seven years later, in 1977, the book found a mainstream publisher and appeared again, with a new introduction from John Arlott and a myriad of footnotes annotating the original text with information that had subsequently come into Frith’s possession. Finally, almost 40 years later, Stoddy: England’s Finest Sportsman appeared, the weight of additional material this time necessitating a complete rewrite.

Much the same dogged determination to never close the book on a fascinating character came with Archie Jackson in 1974. The pattern here is similar. The first edition of the book, a limited edition of 1,000 copies, was published by The Cricketer in 1974. Once again a mainstream publisher then picked up on the book, and in 1987 it appeared again, rewritten and with a delightful sub-title, The Keats of Cricket. Still Frith could not leave Archie alone however and the book appeared a third time, this time with a different sub-title, Cricket’s Tragic Genius, in 2020. 

1975 saw the publication of one of the two Frith books that must be in just about every collection of cricket books ever assembled. The Fast Men, sub-titled A 200 Year Cavalcade of Speed Bowlers is and always has been a wonderful introduction to the most breathtaking aspect of the game. Six years later a second edition appeared and it was updated twice more, the fourth edition appearing in 1984.

Moving on 1977 was a busy year for Frith. Firstly he assisted two lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile books to publication. The first, Cricket Gallery, was a collection of pen portraits that had appeared in The Cricketer and which Frith edited. The second was a book, co-authored with Norman Harris and entitled Great Moments in Cricket. You won’t the book listed under Frith’s name however as for scarcely believable reasons, explained in his autobiography, his contribution was recorded under a nom de plume, Andrew Thomas. 

But 1977 was also the year that the book that I would expect Frith would regard as his greatest success was launched. I have, over my adult life, met three individuals who have, on being told how I choose to pursue the bulk of my leisure time, proudly informed me that they owned a single cricket book. In each case it has been England versus Australia: A Pictorial History of the Test Matches since 1877. It was also (the fifth edition) one of the very first cricket books that I acquired, and is no doubt therefore at least in part responsible for what has followed. The book eventually ran to a twelfth and, so far, final edition in 2007.

The aim was to get the monumental history (even the first edition contained 1,000 illustrations) ready in time for the Centenary Test in March and, that aim accomplished, Frith then spent a large part of the English summer following Greg Chappell’s Australians around England. At the close of  that most fractious of summers, during which the news of the World Series Cricket schism was first announced, Frith produced his first tour book, The Ashes ’77 which was, nominally at least, co-written by Chappell.

There was a change of era for Frith’s 1978 book as he produced what remains the best book on the subject of The Golden Age of Cricket 1890-1914. The charm of the book is contained in the many, many illustrations which form the basis of it. Another great talent of Frith’s was in selecting those who who contribute forewords to his books, in this case novelist JB Priestley, a cricket lover and a man with direct memories of the time.

Two more books from Frith appeared on the nation’s bookshelves in 1979 and are, I have to confess, two that I do not own copies of. As a completist that is something I will have to remedy, and as it is I can only give them a mention. They were the third edition of The Illustrated History of Test Cricket, co-written with Martin Tyler, and Ashes ’79, an account of Mike Brearley’s 5-1 victory in 1978/79 against Australia’s third eleven.

1980 saw Frith return to the story of a current player, and his biography of Jeff Thomson. Thommo is not a long book, Frith never being a man to waste words, but it did a great deal to convince Englishmen, this writer amongst them, that far from being the devil incarnate Thommo was, in fact, a thoroughly likeable bloke who just happened to be capable of delivering a cricket ball as quickly as anyone ever had.

There was a slowing of the Frith output as the 1980s moved forward, another of those I don’t have, co-written with Ralph Dellor and Doug Ibbotson and titled Rothmans Presents 100 Years England v Australia being the only book to appear between Thommo and, in 1984, The Slow Men. Perhaps unsurprisingly the inevitable follow up to The Fast Men seems not to have been quite so widely purchased, but to this day, like its predecessor, it is as good a summary of its subject as there is.

The following year, 1985, Frith returned to the Golden Age with a very different kind of offering. The primary purpose of Cricket’s Golden Summer was to showcase the paintings of artist Gerry Wright. Wright had studied the old monochrome images of the players of the period and recreated the images of the players in brilliant colour against a backdrop of the great gardens of English country houses. The reproductions of Wright’s paintings were much enhanced by the commentary Frith wrote to accompany them.

The next Frith project was an ambitious one, the monumental Pageant of Cricket that was to appear in 1987. The book is a wide ranging history of the game, but not a narrative one. It  comprises more than 2,000 images, selected from more than 50,000 that Frith had access to. The book is now more than thirty years old, so in that sense ’out of date’, but its appeal is timeless and anyone who has the opportunity to do so should pick up a copy.

There were no other major works from Frith in the 1980s, but in 1988 he did put together a brochure to celebrate cricket in Guildford over the previous fifty years. It was a subject he revisited in 2013 when a more ambitious book, Guildford’s Cricket History was published by Guildford Cricket Club.

Cricket has produced an unusually high number of suicides, and a study of those was next for Frith in 1990. By His Own Hand was a ground breaking book, well received and, ironically in light of his taking his own life 21 years later, a perceptive foreword from Peter Roebuck introduced it. Once more the subject was one that Frith could not let go and a decade later in 2001 a revised and much expanded version of the book was published, Silence of the Heart, with a foreword this time from Mike Brearley.

Personally, if I had to choose just one Frith book as the best I would opt for 1994’s Stoddy’s Mission. The depth of his researches on the England captain doubtless being partly responsible Frith produced a wonderful account of a series in which England took a 2-0 lead , were pegged back to 2-2 and under the cosh in the decider before a famous partnership between Albert Ward and Jack Brown saw them home. 

A number of writers have, in recent years, attempted to recreate 19th century tours in book form. It is a tricky task with no moving pictures, no survivors and only the generally rather stilted contemporary accounts to work with. Despite those limitations Frith’s is a vibrant account and certainly one which leaves his reader with the impression that he was actually there, watching every delivery of that historic series.

After Stoddy’s Mission Frith wrote his autobiography and edited a book of Ashes records before, in The Trailblazers, going back even further in time to the first ever tour of Australia by an English team, that led by HH Stephenson in 1861/62. It is not quite as impressive a book as its predecessor, the cricket played inevitably lacking the drama of Stoddart’s tour, but it is nonetheless an interesting book and an impressive piece of research.

The first Frith book of the 21st century was, we decided ten years ago, our Book of the Decade. Bodyline Autopsy, written by a man who had met many of the protagonists and knew some of them well, is by far the best of a number of fine books written that been written about a tour that continues to intrigue almost a century after it too place.

For his next project, that saw the light of day a year after Autopsy in 2003, Frith remained in the 1930s, but took on a very different sort of task. He had, at auction, been successful in a bid to secure the wartime diary of Ross Gregory, a gifted young batsman who made an impressive debut in the 1936/37 Ashes series before, in 1942, becoming the only Australian Test cricketer to lose his life in action in World War Two. Having thoroughly researched Gregory’s life and the circumstances of his death Frith edited the diary into The Ross Gregory Story, a remarkable book.

In 2005, for the first time since the 1970s, Frith found himself a commission to write a book on that summer’s Ashes. The bad news was that his Battle for the Ashes 2005, fine account that it is, had a huge amount of competition as the number of books published on an Ashes series made double figures for the first time in half a century. The flip side was that he got a grandstand view of that historic series. It was inevitable that the return series in 2006/07 would not achieve the standards set by its predecessor although few expected it to be as grim as it was. But at least Frith’s follow up on that series got him back to Australia for a while, and his record of that disappointingly one sided contest was to be his final tour account.

Undoubtedly wisely Frith was also working on another book in 2006/7 and that one also appeared in 2007. A bibliophile’s dream the book is a collaboration with Gideon Haigh, another Anglo-Australian every bit as eminent as Frith. Despite that the collaboration is very difficult to find in the UK no publisher here, presumably, thinking that the result of Cricket Australia opening up its archives to the pair would not sell outside Australia. Whatever the reasoning Inside Story is a fascinating book and well worth making the effort to find.

It was 2009 before Frith appear in print again, and this time with a book that dwarfed even Pageant of Cricket. Frith’s record of his own ‘museum’, The David Frith Archive, runs to 1,073 pages and contains a detailed account, and not just a simple listing, of every item in his monumental collection, one which covers every aspect of cricketing memorabilia. In itself it is certainly the most difficult Frith title to acquire, the signed and numbered edition of just 75 copies selling out long before Boundary Books published it.

Given Frith’s substantial body of work in publications other than print books the only surprise was that it took until 2010 for an anthology of his work to appear. Frith on Cricket was an extensive selection chosen by the man himself and its contents range in time from an essay penned as a schoolboy in 1952 to one on the subject of the 2009 Ashes.

In 2012 that august body of men and women who are the Cricket Memorabilia Society decided to produce a book about their members and their collections. Undoubtedly better qualified than anyone else to undertake the task Frith was happy to take it on and Cricket’s Collectors is the result. The book is, naturally, a limited edition and the 150 copies sold out immediately on publication and, unlike many limited editions, as copies have turned up at auction from time to time the book has steadily increased in value.

Frith’s Encounters, published in 2014, is not an anthology, nor is it an autobiography, but it includes elements of both and is the perfect example of where being in the autumn of his years makes a writer particularly interesting. The book is a look back through Frith’s long life and looks at the fascinating characters he has met, many of whom departed this mortal coil many years ago. In the 21st century first hand memories of the likes of Sydney Barnes and Wilfred Rhodes, stars of the ‘Golden Age’, are absolutely priceless.

The next, and so far last completely new book from Frith was published in 2019. In much the same way as The Ross Gregory Story the inspiration for the project was an old diary, and the result was Touring With Bradman: Alec Hurwood’s 1930 Tour Diary, a high quality production from Australian publisher The Cricket Press Pty Ltd. The book appears in a limited edition of 130 copies, the first 30 of which are specially bound and signed not only by Frith but also by Hurwood’s three children.

As will have been noted some Frith titles, the first editions of the Stoddart and Jackson biographies, The David Frith Archive, Cricket’s Collectors and the Hurwood diary have been published only as limited editions. In addition to that however a number of his other books have also appeared in numbered specially bound limited editions. There are 62 such copies of The Trailblazers, 50 of The Ross Gregory Story and 30 of Frith’s Encounters. Stoddy’s Mission, Bodyline Autopsy and the third edition of the Stoddart ran to 100 copies each, and there were 200 of Pageant of Cricket, those being signed by Sir Donald Bradman in addition to Frith. A limited number of copies of Guildford’s Cricket History were also printed as hardbacks signed by the Bicknell brothers, Rikki Clarke and Ashley Giles.

And so endeth my post on the subject of David Frith but, in the manner of the great man himself, I hope this is only a first edition and that I will have to revisit it in the future. After all whilst Frith may be 85 I am confident I can name three current writers who are his senior, a comment I hope he will take as a challenge.  

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