March 23, 2008

The loony leagues

Of cricket at the lower levels, where you're only a true lover of the game when you're a legend in your own mind

Beneath the sylvan exterior of village cricket, madness lies © Getty Images

I went from being a promising cricketer to a has-been without a major career in the intervening period. It was a route many took. As a has-been, I played league cricket in two cities with a group of overgrown enthusiasts who had the reverse of amnesia - they could remember things that never happened. For example, taking incredible catches at slip, or scoring a century.

We strutted out to bat like our heroes, with our collars raised. We knew all the stories, all the jokes - and that convinced us we had all the strokes, knew all the tricks, and that on a clear day we could make the ball reverse swing. And that we could do it on a belly full of beer, which was the staple lunch.

Surprisingly, in both phases - the promising and the has-been - we did identical things. We picked national teams with a shrewdness and a lack of bias that was impressive. We knew so much theory it was a wonder we were able to let go of the ball while bowling. As batsmen we were so conscious of where our left shoulder, right foot, even the parting of our hair ought to be, that our regular dismissals for single-digit scores were put down to astrological reasons.

Our heads were filled with statistics. In later years our bank codes were built around 6996, 8032, 413 and other well-known figures from the game. We thought we were unique in all this - including the manner in which we followed the fortunes of the national team.

The true cricket lover is a fantasist, a legend in his own mind. One such, Marcus Berkmann, has captured some of this flavour in his delightful Rain Men. Cricket forces its players into such contortions of body and mind that it amazes me there aren't more books on the humour of the game. Rain Men is not, as one review has suggested, the Fever Pitch of cricket. Fever Pitch (by Nick Hornby) is a tribute to fandom by an Arsenal supporter, but it lacks the lunacy of Rain Men. Or perhaps it is easier for me to identify with a cricket obsessive.

Cricket forces its players into such contortions of body and mind that it amazes me there aren't more books on the humour of the game. Rain Men is not, as one review has suggested, the Fever Pitch of cricket. Fever Pitch lacks the lunacy of Rain Men

One of my regrets as a PG Wodehouse fan is that the Master chose to move to the US, and baseball and golf, despite being a cricket fan. He has written some evocative pieces on cricket (brought together in the book Wodehouse At The Wicket edited by Murray Hedgcock), but nothing commensurate with his interest in the game. This was a sound business decision, calculated not to alienate his American audience, for Wodehouse continued to follow the game. Legend has it that he gave up his bank job after taking off to The Oval to watch "Jessop's Match" (Gilbert Jessop made 104 out off 139 before Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst took England to a one-wicket win in 1902), and being forced to return to work before the fireworks started.

In Swami and Friends, RK Narayan has written engagingly on the game, capturing the anxieties of the young minds playing it in the local community. But Rain Men (subtitle: The Madness of Cricket) is different because it meshes obsession, resignation, and the batting average that reads like a shoe size. And it speaks uncomfortable truths, especially about the village game, so beloved of myth-makers.

"Village cricket is a brutal sport in which the strong thrive and the weak are quickly pummelled into submission," says Berkmann. "Never in hundreds of village cricket matches have I seen a floppy-eared bunny rabbit scamper anywhere, unless it's under the wheels of a passing lorry. Robin redbreasts search in vain for branches of 200-year oaks from which to tweet, as Farmer Giles has had them all cut down. The last burly blacksmith died in 1967. The new parson spends Saturday afternoons with his friend Clive."

Berkmann's team, Captain Scott XI (named after the polar explorer who is the symbol of the second best) plays as only such teams can. "Without anything incidental like trophies or prestige to aim at, most 'friendly' sides have long since opted for internal strife," he says, and adds, "To be treated with the respect you aren't due is the dream of every talentless sportsman." Many of my old club-mates will vouch for that.

Rain Men
by Marcus Berkmann

Little, Brown, 1996

Wodehouse at the Wicket
by PG Wodehouse

Hutchinson, 1997

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine