It’s been close to 20 years since I wrote a book review, and dry essays about Shakespearean dramas written for insular school masters don’t qualify me to critique a novel built around our great game. I’ve read more cricketing (auto) biographies than one man should, so why not a work of fiction – Stuart Larner’s Guile and Spin is infinitely more readable, and believable, than most of them and doesn’t require the contrived controversy that mars current cricket books.
Managing a dilapidated council sports and recreation centre while continuing to coach tennis as a side venture, Jeremy Freeman fills the role of the reluctant hero. Having not played cricket since his schooldays, Jeremy has little more than a passing interest in our great game and but for the influence of an attractive female cricketer, Claire Spedman, the story would likely have died before it started.
Jeremy’s boss, Sir Richard Gregory, a knight without honour or valour, heads up a sports consultancy company which acts as a legitimate front for a group that travel the country syphoning grossly inflated fees from sporting projects under the ruse of consultancy.
In an effort to secure government funding made available after England won a World T20 tournament (many who read this will be hoping that history repeats in Sri Lanka – I’d simply take the assured victory in the novel), Sir Richard teams with Claire and Fardeep Singh; a professional on the fringes of the Indian national side, to coax Jeremy into a role as unlikely as Kevin Pietersen heading the Players’ Association.
With the appeal of a well-paid corporate job as a reward for success and an escape from the under resourced world of council sporting affairs, Jeremy is ripe for the picking, and Claire the perfect bait.
The unlikely cricketing tale of the rebirth of the defunct Moxham Cricket Club provides an entertaining backdrop to the growth of the story’s characters. Jeremy assembles a rag tag bunch of unlikely heroes – a mix of unappreciated yet talented kids, men closing in on retirement trying to relive their glory days, alongside a few cricket club staples. The collection of individuals resembles many small town sides – it was one of the things that I adored about English club/league cricket – it’s a game for all ages – a game for life.
Even in our supposedly enlightened times, women cricketers are seldom given the due they deserve - that Larner makes Claire integral to the plot adds immensely to the story and peaked my interest. Claire is seen as a token female cricketer, not given the dues she deserves. Many of the lads assume she’s not sure which end of the bat to hold – not only can she play the game but she knows how to manipulate Jeremy to do the bidding of the consultancy.
Claire loved another, the son of a rival for funding from another club, but love is blind – 20/20 vision disappears when love and lust is involved, and Jeremy’s character would not have been out of place fumbling his way with a white cane in hand.
A series of Cup matches in the local knockout competition is a fantastic back drop for the story – each a microcosm of matches that go on every weekend. Larner’s description of the thrilling battles drew me in – it took me back to many of the Sunday matches I played in the UK, as it will for anyone who has donned the whites or sat in a spectator’s deck chair in on an English summer’s day. Though the project money has been secured, the competition final has more twists than a Sunil Narine doosra and provided a fitting finale to a delightful story.
Guile and Spin is written in the first person from Jeremy’s viewpoint – it makes the story more human; more believable. For me, that’s the essence of this novel. Larner has captured the true soul of cricket - he has a strong understanding of our great game and his knowledge comes through in the minor details that if absent would sink the cricketing back story.
Larner has penned a novel that is more than a story of cricket, love and greed. It touches on the infiltration of sports psychology and superstition in cricket – two powerful forces whose boundaries are often blurred. But above that he has shown, in characters we can all relate to, both the best and worst of people – often within the same character. There is an obvious hero and heroine in Jeremy and Claire respectively but the true victor is cricket – its history, its players, its rivalries, and its enjoyment.
Not one of the deeper books I’ve read, it is one of those novels made to accompany a day’s cricket, or to pick up on a cold evening when cricket withdrawal sets in. Many with roots in the amateur game will recognise team mates, adversaries and administrators in many of the novel’s central characters – their traits are ever present in the cricketing lives of weekend warriors.
Like any good novel, Guile and Spin had the requisite sting in the tale that surprised and delighted – it was a fitting finale to a confident page turner.
About the author
Guile and Spin is Stuart Larner’s second novel, with a non-fiction book due out in the next 12 months. He has had a lifelong love affair with writing, principally in psychology, poetry and cricket. A self-taught writer, Larner has surrounded himself with fellow writers, both local and via the internet. A psychologist who spent more than thirty years with the NHS, Larner has come a long way from a school boy whose writing was rejected, without explanation, for his school magazine.
Purchase a copy of Stuart Larner’s Guile and Spin off Amazon on Kindle. It’s a great read that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in cricket.
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