August 18, 2008

Can bat, can bowl, can't write

All too few top-level players have the writing skills to match. So why are they increasingly making inroads into the cricket media?

The crossover artist: Atherton is among the few exceptions that prove the rule when it comes to top-level players making the switch to writing © Getty Images

Upon hearing of the bugs squashed on the wallpaper of the hotel opposite his, young kitchen hand George Orwell did not beseech the bugs to write his book for him. Down and Out in Paris and London is no less grisly or educational a read for the lack of bugs' insights. Yet in cricket we see the bugs everywhere, furnishing us with their bug's-eye perspectives, and not just any old bugs but former top-level bugs, and not merely on top of the wallpaper but underneath it too, scrabbling between every available crack and crater, for fear that without them the walls may tumble.

The latest Wisden Cricketers' Almanack is editor Scyld Berry's first. He begins by issuing his readers a challenge: pick an XI out of this year's contributors. It is no idle dare. Berry has 15 former or present Test players on his writing roster. Matthew Engel, Berry's long-serving predecessor, never had more than five. In Tim de Lisle's locum editor's stint of 2003, which is sometimes imagined to have been less a matter of holding the Wisden fort than of shrewdly dismantling the thing log by log, only one old Test trundler was commissioned. Under the not-so-distant editorships of Graeme Wright and John Woodcock there were often none.

"I have tried to make it more of a cricketers' almanack," says Berry, as if this were unquestionably a good thing, as if any cricketer could write so nimbly as Mike Brearley does of the maddening deception that hinges on the angle of Bishan Bedi's cocked wrist, as if any cricketer could sum up the anguish of captaining against Brian Lara the way Mike Atherton can. "You might worry about Adam Gilchrist, say, butchering an attack and smashing a bowler to smithereens," notes Atherton, "but Lara made captains, and bowlers, look silly. If you knew you were going to die, you'd prefer a single bludgeoning blow to the head, or a quick bullet to the brain, rather than death by a thousand ever-so-precise cuts."

Not any top-level cricketer can dash that off, of course, because they're cricket players not champion writers, and few men in history have been both. Of this, Wisden duly reminds us when top-level players other than Atherton and Brearley get writing.

"Getting rid of Pietersen cheaply was a real plus," is a statement of the flipping obvious worthy of striking out no matter how top-level the former player from whose pen it sprung. To mention, in what is intended as an affectionate portrait of a recent retiree, how much the retiree averaged in the first and second innings, how much in the first and second innings combined, how much against India and Sri Lanka and New Zealand, how much at the beginning and end of series, how much in the second and third and fourth Tests too, is to substitute statistics for thinking, former top-level player or not. And to report that a coach was showered with praise, dragged his country's cricket out of the doldrums, then led his men on an Everest-like trek only to fall on his sword, is to make one despair of what George Orwell used to call those moments "when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them".

What makes the former top-level player a fine writer is the ability to give non-top-level players some idea of certain situations out in the middle. This does not sound difficult. But nor does writing, first one word, then another, and so on until you're done, perhaps taking a minute at the end to rearrange them into some kind of pleasing order. Who can tell why more former top-level players haven't been able to do it in any kind of happy way. To enquire why is like asking why more prize-winning literary works haven't been the creation of the people in casinos who give you the little polystyrene cups full of coins that you stick into the flashing slot machines.

In cricket we see the bugs everywhere, furnishing us with their bug's-eye perspectives, and not just any old bugs but former top-level bugs, and not merely on top of the wallpaper but underneath it too, scrabbling between every available crack and crater, for fear that without them the walls may tumble

Here's one reason why writing might actually be harder for the former top-level player than for the man or woman doling out the polystyrene cups. To succeed in top-level cricket, I can only begin to imagine, is to ride over the doubts that surely everyone has. Uncertainty means weakness, and weakness brings failure, and too much failure leads to the top-level cricketer getting scrap-heaped. Whereas to write is to know more greys than certainties. Writing can entail long hours of sifting through a hundred possible truths before finally running with the one that you think or hope comes closest. These qualities demanded of the writer usually make him a devoted but hopeless cricketer.

Most writers who choose cricket as their beat tend to play the game at some abysmal park level, where they can ruminate sullenly about the game's intricacies after their own inevitably premature get-out shot, and this gives them the idea that they can deduce something of what goes on in top-level cricket. It is perhaps telling that both Atherton's and Brearley's contributions to Berry's Wisden have a self-mocking charm. Atherton remembers getting rid of first slip one day when Lara was on 291, watching Lara nick the very next delivery through that very same gap, and wondering if he'd done it accidentally or on purpose. Brearley recalls chiding England's batsmen for being mesmerised by Bedi and not using their feet, only to himself get out to Bedi at the next available opportunity - stumped!

Go to any well-stocked library. Only six out of 76 writers to make the cut in Baseball: A Literary Anthology are former top-level players. Three out of 42 is the former top-level players' share in The Picador Book of Golf. The Fireside Book of Tennis contains an end section on technique but scarcely a former top-level players' byline to be seen over the preceding 900 pages. In cricket, alas, fireside is not nearly close enough; pitchside is the place to be. The Longest Game, a cricket-writing collection, includes 19 entries penned by former top-level players (or their ghosts). The Greatest Game, a companion volume on Australian Rules Football, includes four. Wisden's new broom starts to look dusty.

Go outside the library. Look around you. In Australia, the door to the Channel 9 commentary box is marked "Former Top-Level Players Only". In England, former top-level credentials are a prerequisite for the chief cricket correspondent's gig on all four of the big, quality weekday papers. For Wisden to now sail the same way after a century and a half feels just a little bit apocalyptic, like the last lick of paint on the walls of an exclusive club, a widening of the gulf between cricket's audience and performers, a narrowing of the separation of powers, a final handing over of custodianship of the game to former top-level players. Is it time to get worried?

It was a particularly crafty top-level player who once tried to cut down a particularly skilful one by ordering bouncers at his neck and close-in fielders around his toes. Top-level players gained psychological edges over other top-level players by quipping that they'd slept with their wives and fathered their two-headed offspring. Cliques of top-level players made those who read books, or liked to dance, or didn't drink beer, or showed their emotions, feel unwelcome. Top-level players from all over couldn't decide whether or not to tour a country whose cricket administration had been wrecked by a ruinous African kleptocracy, so went anyway. Today's top-level players say they'd choose fast money over Test cricket.

To be a top-level player must be quite something, for as long as that lasts. But once it's over, hitting hard or bowling fast begin to matter less than watching closely, thinking broadly, reading widely, writing freshly, caring deeply.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne