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The historian George Trevelyan wrote that, if only the French lords had followed the example of their English counterparts by playing cricket with their servants, they could have avoided the French revolution. That may sound like English whimsy but the way village cricket developed – the squire playing with his workers and all of them taking part in the social side of the game, the drinks in the pub before and afterwards, the tea with cucumber sandwiches during the game – created a bracing egalitarianism that the ancient regime of France could well have done with.

The historical merits of Trevelyan’s remarks may be debated but they emphasise how central cricket has been to English life.

Why should cricket have been given this honour? Cricket is a subtle game. In form and appearance it can be gentle, even idyllic, yet violence is always there. A fast bowler hurling the ball at 90mph could kill a man – and very nearly has – a hard-hitting batsman’s use of power is all too apparent to the fielder who is in the path of the ball. The argument between the two can be extremely violent. Yet it is institutionalised anger. Firmly within certain prescribed rules.

In other respects, too, cricket has reflected the nature of British society. It was – is – a finely structured game. The batsmen are the natural leaders, the bowlers the toiling middle classes, the fielders very much plebeian. Each has his own appointed place, each his own specific task with the game very firmly based on the idea of how ordered societies are run.

For many years, the game distinguished between gentlemen and professional players. Although the distinction has now gone, old-timers still hark back to that supposedly golden age. The professional played for money. His competence was unquestioned – he was often conceded to be more adept at the game than the amateur – but the amateur represented higher virtues that were said to have made Britain great. He played not for money but for the love he had for the game, the pleasures he derived, the enjoyment he gave.

Not surprisingly from George Orwell onwards, the game has been used to define a certain kind of England, a desirable entity that ought to be preserved. George Orwell once described the typical English village green cricket match as an occasion where a blacksmith playing in braces is called away mid-innings and, as the light begins to fade, a ball hit for four kills a rabbit on the boundary.

John Major, when seeking to refloat his sinking Prime Ministership in the 90s, invoked the image of the village cricket idyll.

Over the centuries cricket has generated much writing.

The game rightly boasts the best sports writing in England – fine creative writing, not just humdrum sports journalism. It has occupied a place in the English literary imagination for three centuries. Many English literary figures played the game: Lamb, Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt; others, including Anthony Trollope, occasionally wrote about cricket.

Yet, despite this, the truly amazing thing about cricket is not that it has featured in so many novels, poems, even plays, but that so little of cricket writing is part of mainstream English literature. So Harold Pinter loved cricket, he felt had he taken up the game earlier, he might have made a career of it. One of his plays even has a reference to an Ashes series between England and Australia but the reference is a curiosity to be debated by Pinter devotees. Remove it and it makes no difference to the appreciation of the play or Pinter’s craft. Neville Cardus, whose writings on cricket for the then Manchester Guardian invented the genre, doubled up as the paper’s music critic – cricket during the summer, music in the winter. But as a perceptive critic pointed out, while he often brought in musical analogies to describe cricket, he never introduced cricketing analogies when writing about music.

Here the contrast with America and baseball is striking. There is nothing in English cricket literature that matches The Natural, Bernard Malamud’s great novel about baseball. Malamud is hardly alone; many American novelists like Philip Roth feature America’s great summer pastime prominently. Nor has there ever been an English film to compare with Field of Dreams, where constructing a baseball diamond is a means of exploring how the tarnished American dream can be rescued.

Baseball is not the only sport that has attracted American literary figures. Damon Runyon made baseball, American football and boxing central to his fiction. Normal Mailer’s writing on boxing and his description of Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest boxer in the history of the sport, as he fought George Foreman is a seminal piece of literary writing – Mailer at his majestic best.

America, unlike this country, has never had an “arties versus hearties” division, never assumed that just because you are interested in sport you cannot possibly be interested in anything other than sport. Scott Fitzgerald did chastise Ring Lardner for wasting his time sitting beside the baseball diamond writing on the game when he should have been honing his life experiences. But, in general, American writers have easily crossed the divide between sport and non-sport, from Lardner down to modern day writers. The late David Hallberstam’s non-fiction work ranged from a classic examination of the Kennedy and Johnson administration to baseball and Michael Jordan.

Yet consider J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. He loved cricket. Cricket, he wrote, was a gift of the gods. He had his own cricket team, Allahakbarries, the name coming from the Arabic Allahakbar meaning Heaven help us, a reference to the fact that Barrie was not a good cricketer and the team did not play the game well.

The list of literary giants who played for Barrie is impressive: Jerome K. Jerome, AWE Mason, EV Lucas, Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle’s brother-in-law E. W. Hornung, Owen Seaman (a future editor of Punch, then a great magazine), H.G. Wells and P.G. Wodehouse.

But, apart from Doyle who was a good cricketer, as Barrie observed, the more successful the author the worse his cricket, and this was even truer of one of the teams the Allahakbarries played, the Artists. As one of the members of the Artists put it, “What? Spoil my painter’s hand for a dirty leather ball?”

Barrie, for all his love of the game, never made it central to his writing. This was also true of A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh.

Wodehouse, unlike Barrie, was another good player, admired for his mediumpaced bowling. He followed the game religiously even after he went to live in America.

His novels on Psmith featured knowledgeable descriptions of cricket. Indeed Psmith in the City, the second in the series, begins with a cricket match at the country house where a bank manager commits the unpardonable sin of walking across the side screen just as another character is about to make his century. And there were sufficient references to the game in his writing to justify an anthology, Wodehouse at the Wicket, but cricket was not central to his fiction.

The one novelist who could have blazed a different path was Charles Dickens.

Early on in The Pickwick Papers, which started as a series in a magazine in 1836, there is an account of a cricket match. Dickens had Mr. Pickwick visiting the “corporate town” of Muggleton, a progressive town which was against slavery (it had submitted 1,420 petitions against “negro slavery abroad”). Mr. Pickwick watches as Mr. Jingle provides a running commentary on the game: “Capital game—smart sport—fine exercise—very.”

Dickens uses the village cricket setting to draw a powerful comic portrayal of life, local dignitaries consuming anchovy sandwiches and devilled kidneys as they watch All-Muggleton easily beat Dingley Dell, who are not very good at the game. Although Dickens has the bowler shouting “play” to start the match (this would be the umpire’s task) he has great fun with the fielders: “Several players were stationed to “look out” in different parts of the field, and each fixed himself into the proper attitude by placing one hand on each knee, and stooping very much as if he were ‘making a back’ for some beginner at leap-frog. All the regular players do this sort of thing; – indeed it is generally supposed that it is quite impossible to look out properly in any other position.” Dickens knew his cricket, valued it and, two years before his death, wrote to his son about how Gad’s Hill cricket club should be organised and his son Harry should make sure that “gentlemen” and “working men” were to be treated equally and both should have a vote, but that gentlemen should pay twice the subscription. This, as Dickens’s biographer Peter Ackroyd puts it, was his conception of “a harmonious arrangement of all classes” and has shades of George Trevelyan’s views on cricket and its power to bring people together.

However the game never again featured in his novels. The Pickwick Papers was his first novel and the reference to cricket came during the early serialisation as the game was being popularised in this country. It reflects Dickens as a shrewd social observer.

Cricket had featured in English literature before Dickens. The earliest surviving literary work on cricket dates back to 1706, a ninety-five line Latin poem by William Goldwin. In 1744 came James Love’s Cricket: An Heroic Poem, Love being the pen name of actor and writer James Dance. This describing a match between England and Kent was written in the epic style: “Hail, Cricket! Glorious, manly, British game!/ First of all Sports!

Be first alike in Fame!”

It was some twenty years after Dickens wrote about cricket in The Pickwick Papers that there emerged a rare writer who did make cricket central to his theme and used it to propound a philosophy for life. This was Thomas Hughes, an admirer of Thomas Arnold who created the modern public school and had made sport and cricket central to the education of public school boys. Arnold’s school, Rugby, was a mixture of evangelical moralism and romantic idealism seeking to produce Christian gentlemen. Arnold could write a history of the Roman Empire in a tone of such astonishing piety that it could all but obscure the violence and disorder that was part of its being – he was trying to counteract the cynicism of Gibbon – and during the opium wars with China he wrung his hands in despair about ‘the dreadful guilt we [Britain] are incurring’. Though sport was not properly organised during Arnold’s time at Rugby, by the late 19th century the value of team games, particularly cricket, as a means of developing character, had firmly taken root – and it drew its philosophic sustenance from Arnold’s desire to produce an English gentleman who was Christian, manly and enlightened, and one morally superior to any other being.

Arnold’s influence was so pervasive that it was soon to be said without exaggeration that ‘if a composite history of all the public schools is ever written it will be, in reality, the history of England, since the British Empire has been in the main built up by the founders of the school and the pupils who gained knowledge and had their characters moulded in those institutions’. These sentiments were immortalised in Thomas Hughes’s celebrated novel, based on Arnold’s Rugby, Tom Brown’s School Days.

In it Tom described cricket to one of the masters as ‘an institution’. Arthur, whom Tom has rescued from excessive scholastic work – considered damaging in public schools – says ‘it is the birthright of British boys, old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men’. The master hardly needs any prompting. ‘The discipline and reliance on one another which it teaches are so valuable. It ought to be such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn’t play that he may win but that his side may.’ We are entering the world of muscular Christianity, the Henry Newbolt man where physical effort and intellectual satisfaction strike a ready equation.

In 1897 Newbolt wrote Vitai Lampada where he saw cricket as a metaphor for life as Britain engaged in desert warfare during one of its many colonial campaigns, this time in North Africa. For Newbolt cricket could be used to rally people when all seemed lost:

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play, and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat.
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke
The gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks –
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Interestingly, the 20th century was to provide a sequel to Hughes’s novel. Tom is relentlessly victimised by his sneering tormentor Flashman but in George MacDonald Fraser’s sequels he becomes a cricketer and something of a caddish hero. In his novel Flashman’s Lady, Fraser describes how Harry Flashman became the first cricketer to record a “hat-trick”, playing in a cricket match at Lord’s. Fraser sets the match in 1842; leading cricketers of the age are playing and Flashman gets three of them out: Felix, Fuller Pilch, and Alfred Mynn; Felix through skill, Pilch through luck, and Mynn by ‘knavery’. Written in 1977 this fictional recreation of 19th century cricket reflected the romantic nostalgia for village cricket common in the 20th century.

E. W. Hornung, in his stories written in the 1890s, made A. J. Raffles a fine cricketer who used the game to pontificate about his chosen profession of burglary. Raffles says to his sidekick Bunny Manders: “Cricket … like everything else, is good enough sport until you discover a better… What’s the satisfaction of taking a man’s wicket when you want his spoons? Still, if you can bowl a bit your low cunning won’t get rusty, and always looking for the weak spot’s just the kind of mental exercise one wants. Yes, perhaps there’s some affinity between the two things after all. But I’d chuck up cricket to-morrow, Bunny, if it wasn’t for the glorious protection it affords a person of my proclivities.”

The Edwardian era and the era before the Second World War during the 1920s and 1930s saw much good cricket writing. In the 1920s Hugh de Selincourt wrote two novels with cricket as their subject, the 1924 The Cricket Match having survived better than its 1933 successor, The Game of the Season. In 1928, Siegfried Sassoon published Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, the first volume of his George Sherston trilogy. It is essentially a fictional love letter to Sassoon’s vanished Edwardian childhood. The chapter “The Flower Show Match” is a lyrical description of cricket on the village green, evoking a dreamy English countryside.

It was the 30s that were to produce the most celebrated of cricket’s fictional books:

A. G. Macdonell’s 1933 classic England, Their England. Here a village cricket match forms the centrepiece of the book.

That same year saw Dorothy Sayers publish yet another Lord Wimsey book, Murder Must Advertise, where there is not only an extensive description of the game but it is a crucial element in solving the murder: Sayer made Wimsey a cricket blue at Oxford. And cricket featured in other Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

In many ways, the best cricket writing in the second half of the 20th century was to be featured not so much in fiction but in autobiographies. The novelist Simon Raven’s memoir Shadows on the Grass, mixing cricket with sex anecdotes both hilarious and scabrous about some of the celebrities of the day, is a classic of the genre.

The 1980s were also to see cricket continue to pop up in novels. In Life, the Universe and Everything, the third book in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker series, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect travel through the space-time continuum to Lord’s, where they find that the band of robber-robots from the planet Krikkit have stolen the Ashes trophy.

Adams also explains that cricket is actually the product of a sort of “interspecies collective unconscious memory”, shamelessly trivialised into a sport by humans.

But we have had to wait until almost the end of the first decade of the 21st century to see a baseball-style celebration of cricket and perhaps appropriately it has come through an Irish writer inventing a Dutchman who discovers cricket with the help of a Trinidadian in New York.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill concerns the life of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch stockbroker living in New York. Following the September 11 attacks he starts playing at the Staten Island Cricket Club. Broek had arrived in 1998, moving from London to New York with his wife Rachael and young son Jake, intending to stay for a year or two. But his wife leaves him, moving back to London, and Hans turns to cricket, his childhood game, playing with another lot of immigrants. This includes Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian entrepreneur. Hans and Chuck become friends and they go on trips around New York.

Hans spends almost a decade in New York and as far as his personal life is concerned it ends happily; he is reunited with Rachael and returns to London. But then he discovers that Chuck died in suspicious circumstances after he left.

Netherland, published in May 2008, received great praise and, being featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, was chosen as one of the “10 Best Books of 2008” by the paper’s editors.

James Wood, writing in the New Yorker, called it “one of the most remarkable postcolonial books I have ever read” and said it had been “consistently misread as a 9/11 novel, which stints what is most remarkable about it: that it is a postcolonial re-writing of The Great Gatsby.”

It remains to be seen whether Netherland will set a new strand of cricket fiction, where the game will be central to the story and not just incidental as it has so often been.

      

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