Inga Simpson’s Willowman is a love letter to the game of cricket. And while you possibly do not have to know anything about cricket to enjoy this book, it is unlikely that anyone unfamiliar with the game will be able to connect with it in the same way. The story of a traditional cricket bat maker and a young cricket prodigy charts the rise and fall of the Australian cricket team in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the traditional 5 day game was seemingly under threat from the invention of the much shorter (3 hour) T20 version.
When the book opens Allan Reader is preparing to make a cricket bat for a young up and coming Queensland player called Todd Harrow. Reader makes bats from willow trees that he grows in Australia in a method passed down from his grandfather. The book is meticulous in taking readers through the fascinating process by which this tree becomes the tool of a great sportsman. At the same time, the book charts the rise of Todd Harrow through the junior Queensland grades and into the State team. On the sidelines is Todd’s sister Liv, talented in her own right but without the same opportunities at the time. With Reader’s “magical” bat in hand, Harrow goes on to play successfully for the Australian team and when he passes the bat on to his sister to use a sponsor’s bat, things start to go wrong for him and the team.
While Harrow’s rise to prominence is interesting, the narrative becomes more fascinating when he starts having to deal with setbacks. He breaks his hand in a game, later receives a dangerous concussion and has to really think about his priorities when all he has ever had to live for was playing cricket for his country. At the other end of the spectrum, Allan Reader is dedicated but struggling until his daughter moves back in after a bad break up and helps him with his business. These characters, and those around them, sometimes feel more like archetypes – vehicles for telling a bigger story about the game itself.
Simpson, through Reader and Harrow, follows the Australian team in series against England, Sri Lanka, India and South Africa. She charts the rise of the popular short form of the game and the rise of the Australian women’s cricket team. While she name checks Australian cricketing greats like Allan Border and Damien Martyn, Simpson invents a whole new Australian team for Harrow to join. It may be possible to try and match players in this team against actual players at the time but for any reason. For those who remember this time and the famous Australian players who shone in those series, this gives the whole endeavour a bit of a fantastical feel.
And this is, in the end, a book about cricket. Games are lovingly described with scoring shots and dismissals in bold (SIX! OUT!) with the narrative generating plenty of tension for those who understand the game. But more than the games themselves the grounds both in Australia and overseas, the players, the fans and even the traditional Australian commentators are rendered in passionate detail. So you may not have to be a cricket fan to enjoy this but those that are likely to get more out of Willowman.