Illustration: John Spooner.

Illustration: John Spooner.

ON WARNE
By Gideon Haigh
Hamish Hamilton, $35

BRADMAN’S WAR
By Malcolm Knox
Viking, $39.99

NEVER A GENTLEMAN'S GAME
By Malcolm Knox
Hardie Grant, $39.95

<p></p>

DON Bradman and Shane Warne are, arguably, the two greatest cricketers of all time. It is appropriate, therefore, that two of the best cricket writers in the business, Gideon Haigh and Malcolm Knox, have released studies of them. Bradman was demonstrably twice as good as anyone else who picked up a bat. Warne, to quote Haigh, was ''... for two decades, the best at something that there has ever been''. Both were emblematic of the country, culture and time that made them: Bradman, all superhuman deeds and gravitas, the hero the Depression had to have; Warne, the soap-star cricketing genius who took the superficial to new and uncharted surfaces.

Or so it seems. Haigh's book is not a biography: Warne is examined almost as if he were a text to be read on different levels. The result is a compelling study of what happened when the game and the player converged, a highly focused examination of Warne's art and what is was like to witness a magician in full flight before we all forget that behind that apparent surface there really was the depth and substance of unparalleled sporting achievement. You knew it was special when it was happening, like being there when Please Please Me was released.

In many ways, Haigh's portrait is a study of the exhilaration and the burden of being born with a gift: a portrait, drawn from many angles, of an otherwise ordinary bloke lifted into the extraordinary; whose very ordinariness, crucial to his celebrity, is both a strength and weakness, the very thing that both endears him to his public and undoes him, like a sort of Gatsby in the latter-day Jazz Age of Twitter, bling and text, striding across the outfield of his domain, displaying mastery of his world one minute and tripped up by a silly comment the next.

<p></p>

And crucial to this is the effortless way in which Haigh enters the spirit of his subject, describing the image that Warne presented on his Test debut as being like that ''of a friend who turns up to help your club on a Saturday, who used to play but hasn't for ages, who didn't have anything on and thought it might be fun to have a run-around, albeit he'd had a few the night before and maybe you could put him somewhere quiet''.

It is a brilliant cameo portrait distilling the essence of Warne's appeal: that this was easy, and anybody could do it. That he was just anybody, when, of course, he was never anything of the sort. There are five chapters, each dealing with specific aspects of Warne's career. Throughout, the voice is perfect, the writing a consummate mixture of cricketing knowledge, astute observation, genuine flair, an unerring capacity to hit upon just the right simile, and ironic, dare I say it, poetic reflectiveness. There are lines here that Larkin would have happily owned.

If Warne was the accidental hero whom cricket found (and almost didn't), Bradman was the calculating hero who sought it out.

<p></p>

The 1948 ''Invincibles'' are more than often portrayed as the greatest team of all time, who not only conquered the English opposition (the only side to go through a whole series undefeated) but also the English public. The English, pale and undernourished from the ordeal of a long war, clamoured to see Bradman for the last time and were captivated by the New World freshness of the team itself. Fan letters poured in; royalty entertained them. All was rosy, or was it? Knox's study, while naturally acknowledging the sheer depth of talent in that team, focuses on the ruthlessness of its conquest and, above all, the ruthlessness of its captain, Bradman - the grudging respect the English players had for him as well as the ill will that often surfaced both from players and public.

Bradman, in his last years, was more or less deified by the nation. Knox casts the Bowral-born god in an entirely different light. If the 1948 tour is an iconic one, then this is a study that comes directly from the iconoclastic school of cricket writing, if such a school exists.

There was, Knox says, a period directly after the war (especially in the Victory Tests when Australia was captained by Lindsay Hassett) in which cricket was played in a generous and friendly spirit and which could have witnessed the birth of a different kind of cricket. But it was short-lived, and it was Bradman's side, with its relentless, win-at-all-costs approach, that snuffed it out.

Knox distinguishes between combatants and non-combatants in the war, arguing that the combatants were far more able to put the game in perspective, a point of view best caught by Keith Miller who, when asked about the pressure of the game, famously replied that real pressure was ''having a Messerschmidt up your arse''.

Bradman, invalided out of the army in 1943 and seeing no active service, presumably had no such frame of reference. He was utterly intent on winning the series undefeated. Knox emphasises, among other things, Bradman's exploitation of the new 55-over rule (allowing maximum use of Ray Lindwall and Miller), his perceived hypocrisy in condoning liberal use of bumpers after his protests over Bodyline, using connections allegedly to influence English team selection, and the ruthless approach to county games.

Knox concedes that these are controversies that ''have two sides'' but adds, ''there was an over-arching pattern here, with ramifications far beyond the individual issues.

''It goes to the way cricket could have been played after the war, and how Bradman stopped that from happening, redirecting it on a route that it has followed ever since.''

Whether you agree with the argument or not (and it's possible that whoever led that 1948 side would have played just as hard, especially with once-in-generation fast bowlers such as Lindwall and Miller), this is an important study of the game at a crucial moment, as well as a closely argued deconstruction of the icon who presided over that moment - the writing poised and evocative, especially in conveying a gritty sense of postwar England; of cricket, as it were, among the ruins, of the damage, sadness and optimism amid the austerity.

Never a Gentleman's Game is an eloquently evoked reinterpretation of the colourful early years of England/Australia cricket and the birth of the Ashes: days of amateurs, shamateurs and professionals, heated disputes over the gate takings, gambling, allegations of match-fixing, accusations of throwing, ''sharp practice'' and cheating - as well as physical fights. Sound familiar? Far from being the gentleman's game so famously idealised by Henry Newbolt in Vitai Lampada, it was always a rough-and-ready enterprise, its edges smoothed by mythology and transformed by time into the gentleman's pursuit it never was.

But from it all, the rivalry that became Ashes cricket (in spite of the urn being pretty much forgotten for well on 20 years) emerged.

And, among other things, this is a vividly realised, entertaining and highly informed portrait of its emergence.

Steven Carroll won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008 for The Time We Have Taken.