December 10, 2012

Coetzee's cricket connections

The great South African author has had a fair bit to do with the game

It's not uncommon for a cricket fan to also be a keen reader. The sport itself is so storified and so well written about that it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the literature of it.

Beyond Cardus and CLR James, as a South African, a writer who always interested me was JM Coetzee, even though he is not a cricket writer. One of South Africa's finest artists, his best work is possibly the novel Disgrace, an uncomfortable slice of local life in which he explores some of the country's most important issues - racism, sexism, and the quest for redemption - in such a compelling way that the book is often recommended as the great South African novel.

If you don't know much about him, don't despair. No one does. Coetzee has admitted to being scared off by crowds and prying eyes, and his desire to live life privately is well known and respected. A professor at the University of Cape Town who was once trying to find out more about Coetzee ended up rummaging through his rubbish bin because that was as close as he could get.

Coetzee moved to Adelaide in 2002 and became an Australian citizen four years later. In uncharacteristic fashion, he was sworn in in a public tent at the Adelaide Writers' Festival.

When his biography was released in South Africa a few months ago, a little more about him came to light. Most notably, for me, that Coetzee was a cricketer.

That he was interested in cricket was always suspected. In his fictionalised memoir, Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life, Coetzee mentions cricket 39 times and places it on a pedestal on each occasion.

He describes an imaginary cricket game the lead character plays, with a beach bat and tennis ball. The boy aims to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible, and each time it falls, he records it as a wicket. He prefers this to "proper cricket," which results in too many missed shots, too many lost balls and too much time spent fielding.

One of the central themes of the book is the attachment of the protagonist to his mother - which does not extend to his father. While he tries to teach his mother to bowl and wants to include her in the activity, he eventually deems it "too shameful" for a mother to be playing cricket with her son. Meanwhile his father's position in the town's 2nd XI is a source of embarrassment because it is a team "no one bothers to watch".

When he plays his first schools match, he goes out to bat thinking cricket the most real thing he has ever experienced. When the family moves to the big city - Cape Town - his passion for cricket remains, but so does his fear of facing fast bowlers. "Afraid of being struck, afraid of the pain", he prefers to engage in another fantasy game on the stoep (verandah) by himself.

It would have been easy then, perhaps, to imagine that Coetzee did not actually play the game seriously and just idolised it from afar. But he did play. Unlike Samuel Beckett, who played two first-class matches for the University of Dublin and has a profile page on this website, Coetzee did not play cricket in any official form, but only at club level - a fact that was revealed by Archie Henderson, sports editor of one of South Africa's two major newspaper groups, Times Media, who once bowled to Coetzee at the University of Cape Town's ground.

"He had the assured manner of a batsman who knew where his off stump was, and his style was classical: high left elbow, close to the pads and almost always in the V"
Archie Henderson on JM Coetzee

"It was before he became famous, but we knew JM was a significant figure, although not quite why," Henderson wrote in a column. "He had the assured manner of a batsman who knew where his off stump was, and his style was classical: high left elbow, close to the pads and almost always in the V. I never had a chance of getting him out. Someone must have because I recall him returning to the middle to umpire. His dismissal could only have been due to a lack of concentration. There was no other way through that defence."

Another University of Cape Town professor, John Young, wrote an essay on Coetzee and cricket references years ago. In it, he recalled that Coetzee "did not just bat and bowl for the University of Cape Town staff team, he phoned around to fill the team and transported the kit in his bakkie [utility vehicle]." He also bowled offspin, the same style as the father in Boyhood.

When the Mail and Guardian newspaper ran Young's story, they published a photograph of the team with it and circled Coetzee. But they identified the wrong man, unwittingly honouring Coetzee's desire for anonymity.

A more recent addition to the list of Coetzee's cricket connections came when he wrote a chapter, about South Africa's 1952 tour, for Australia: Story of a Cricket Country, edited by Christian Ryan. In that piece Coetzee recalled his youth spent "huddled over the radio in the early mornings while the rest of the household was asleep", to listen to cricket commentary from Down Under.

He also wrote about a particular aspect of the game: fielding.

"I am just old enough to remember an era when it was quite normal, quite acceptable, to field a team in which there were one or two players who had butterfingers and needed to be hidden at fine leg or third man, or in which senior players with creaky joints would be earmarked for the slips; when it was more or less accepted that while younger men might dive to stop a ball or race to cut off a boundary, such spectacular exertions were not really expected of established players."

After many chats with those in the know, I came to Australia hoping to meet the elusive Coetzee but knowing it would probably not happen. I was right.

In an email to his agent on my intention to talk to Coetzee about cricket and writing and maybe even a mix of the two, I got a polite two-line reply. "I'm afraid JM Coetzee is away at the moment so unfortunately must decline your request. He thanks you for having thought of him, however."

Maybe next time.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent