The Willow Wand's aim is to explore some of the many myths of cricket. However, for the most part it is somewhat difficult to identify truly what myth is at any one point that being investigated. One must have an in-depth knowledge of cricket and indeed English cricket to truly take in what most of Birley has to say. Despite the significant amount of historical research put into this work, it does not provide a systematic presentation of cricketing history.
But this is not meant to be a negative opinion, just a reduction in the expectations with which I approached this work. What you do get from The Willow Wand is a mosaic of characters and time from throughout the long and rich history of the sport.
The book drives constantly that cricket is a medium in which persons sought to prove distinguishable features. Gentlemen from Players (Amateurs from Professionals), Wealth from Poverty, light skin from dark – none ever proved to be successful and in hindsight all actions of the sort proving petty and hypocritical. Such is the ridiculous extent of sociology that cricket has been pushed and pulled. Birley took time to sum up his beliefs in the final chapter titled 'Fun and Games' whereupon as you might expect from the title he concludes that one cannot see cricket through any other lens.
Refreshingly honest about the figures of the past, Birley does not airbrush over the faults of the game and its traditions. He questions long held views of the cricketing figures of the past such as Lord's Harris & Hawke as well as P.F. (Plum) Warner; opinion on the latter he makes reference to in his updated edition as drawing criticism from some parts upon the books initial print run in 1979.
Of particular enjoyment personally were his descriptions of West Indian crickets background, a topic not often broached, as well as his discussion on whether cricket and art can be stated as being one and the same. For the modern cricket enthusiast stung by the increased commercialism and descent into the abyss of gambling-driven corruption it may hurt to read that the prominent driver of many of the earliest recorded matches was commercialism and gambling. Matches were often fixed not for monetary gain but as an act of patronage to the amateur dignitary!
Being a cricketing nerd, I enjoyed the book as I became immersed in the nostalgia and dreamed of being involved during golden times in cricket history. But it is only a book for those like myself who bring a certain level of background knowledge to it and can enjoy it to the full. Others will become confused and frustrated as it constantly switches back and forth between stories, eras and personalities. The high English used by Birley remains difficult for the modern reader (criticism at this point can be leveled in both directions) - Birley is clearly a man of an age where cricketers of the right ilk never had names, only initials. Somewhere between tennis balls and footballs.
Cover Image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk