Engaging story of one man and his summer of English cricket

A SOMEWHAT easier task than choosing an all-time world XI is selecting the best cricket book of 2010, which towers above its rivals as the great Sir Donald Bradman would tower above his fellow batsmen.

A Last English Summer, written by former Yorkshire Post deputy editor Duncan Hamilton, is a nostalgic trawl through the 2009 season in which the author takes in matches from village green to Test arena.

Twice winner of the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award for his superlative biography of former Nottinghamshire and England fast bowler Harold Larwood, and for his gripping memoir of covering Nottingham Forest under legendary manager Brian Clough, Hamilton is an unashamed romantic who loves the subtle rhythms of the County Championship as much as he loathes the affected gimmickry of Twenty20.

His latest tour de force – which also graced the William Hill shortlist – was inspired by JB Priestley's English Journey, which captured the England of the inter-war period, and also by Geoffrey Moorhouse's The Best Loved Game, an account of watching cricket during the summer of 1978.

Hamilton has chosen 18 games – ranging from Ramsbottom versus Accrington in the Lancashire League to England versus Australia in the third Test at Edgbaston – and crafted a chapter around each.

But this is no blow-by-blow account of the matches themselves.

Although the games are skilfully and succinctly covered, they are merely a vehicle for Hamilton's main aim: to provide a snapshot of cricket during a summer in which the Championship came under increasing pressure from the inexorable juggernaut of Twenty20, to reflect the sport's deeply-rooted cultural significance and, above all, to celebrate a game clearly woven into the fabric of his soul.

It is an often personal journey that starts with a moving account of how his grandfather – a hard-working North-East miner – stoked his love of cricket by taking him to watch Nottinghamshire play at Trent Bridge.

A veteran of the Great War, Hamilton's grandfather was almost completely deaf, while the young Hamilton suffered from a pronounced stammer.

"So we were locked together," writes Hamilton – "the young boy who couldn't speak, the old man who couldn't hear."

Hamilton often thinks back to his grandfather during A Last English Summer – "wherever I went, he came too" – and to the days when the Championship was pre-eminent.

"It has an irresistible, sentimental pull for me," he declares. "Like classical music, it has dull or ponderous movements, but pleasure comes from its pre-established order.

"The connoisseur derives interest from the minor variations and craftily subtle confrontations that exist within it: a clever change in the field, the almost imperceptible variations in pace or angle or flight, the doughty defence against the difficult ball. Its evolutionary aspects are intriguing."

But Hamilton confesses: "I am always torn. I want to yell about the charm of the Championship, but, like the devoted rambler who talks of beautiful country walks and scenery, and then frets about turning footpaths into litter-strewn dust through overuse, I selfishly don't want to change the tone or atmosphere of the Championship either."

Hamilton, pictured right, is at his happiest at Scarborough which, accordingly, inspires some of his finest writing.

Of Scarborough itself he observes: "There is a place where the sea directly meets the saw-toothed-shaped cliffs and a swell of foam, as if frosting the waves, repeatedly strikes the high, worn rock.

"Along the coast are whitewashed buildings with red-tiled roofs that cling to the resort's two bays and the mauled outline of the Norman castle, which, caught in silhouette at twilight, looks as though it belongs in an adventure story for boys from the 1950s.

"Squawking gulls, scavenging and silver-shone against the glint of the sun, wheel and dip around it and from a distance resemble rising flecks of ash from a fire.

"Wilfred Owen saw exactly this scene when he came to Scarborough in 1917 and wrote some of his war poetry from a turreted room in one of the sea-front hotels."

As that extract shows, Hamilton's writing is suffused with more colour than a paint-box.

His descriptive talent, which places him in the highest echelon of contemporary writers, positively leaps from every page.

Of the pavilion at Cheltenham College he writes: "The faade, which isn't spoilt or scarred by the temporary tiers of seating in front of it, resembles a late-Victorian railway station.

"I half expect a train to chug past it and a guard with mutton-chop whiskers to blow a shrill whistle."

Of the beanpole West Indian spinner Sulieman Benn he observes: "At 6 feet 7 inches tall, Sulieman Benn stands in the field as conspicuously as a steeple in a Fenland landscape."

At Worcester: "Heat haze shimmers in the sultry air, distorting the horizon like a fairground mirror."

Hamilton's pilgrimage ends at Canterbury – where else? – and the spiritual home of Woolley and Cowdrey, Blythe and Freeman.

Despite bemoaning many aspects of the modern game, Hamilton concludes that cricket "has survived so much and can survive much more still" – a comforting thought.

Sadly, Moorhouse passed away just before Hamilton had time to show him the fruits of his summer's endeavours.

"I had thought about him a lot during the summer and particularly recalled a phrase he used about his own work: 'Most of it is travel writing or travel writing in disguise.' I had so wanted him to think that A Last English Summer was travel writing in disguise too."

Hamilton's book isn't so much travel writing, perhaps, as an addition to the uppermost shelf of contemporary literature.

A Last English Summer, Duncan Hamilton, Quercus, 20.