October 2, 2013

Where are the great cricket films?

Boxing, baseball, motor-racing and other sports have produced classics that films based on our game cannot hold a candle to

Last week I watched two new films about sport, 42 about baseball and Rush about Formula One. So why has there never been a good movie about professional cricket? Come on, let's be honest. The odd decent TV series, maybe. Endless revisiting of the Bodyline series, certainly. It is true that charming films (such as Lagaan) have used amateur cricket as a recurrent motif. But a proper, grown-up film about top-flight cricket that also appeals to non-cricket fans? I wish I was wrong, but I can't think of one, either fictional or a documentary.

Other sports manage it. Baseball has produced dozens of films, from The Natural and Bull Durham to Moneyball and 42 (more about that in a moment). Boxing boasts Raging Bull and the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings. Motor-racing mined documentary gold with the magisterial Senna, and has now inspired the sparkling Rush, a recreation of the Formula One rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The Damned United brought to life football's dugout and changing room. American football allowed Al Pacino to give one of the greatest of all team-talks in Any Given Sunday. Television went one better with Friday Night Lights, a remarkable five-season series based on a sheltered town in Texas obsessed with its high-school football team. I finished the final season wondering why no one has achieved - or attempted - anything so ambitious or complete about cricket.

In a recent ESPNcricinfo blog, Jonathan Wilson asked a similar question about the lack of fine cricket novels. Cricket provides the social backdrop for several good novels, notably JL Carr's A Season in Sinji and Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. But few novelists have dared to tackle the nitty gritty of professional cricket.

As my father is a novelist who loves cricket, and happens to be sitting next to me, I asked him what makes writing fiction about cricket so difficult. "I've often wondered if there's something unique about first-class cricket that eludes both film-makers and novelists. It's easy enough on the village green, but as soon as I strayed onto the first-class pitch, I came up against two recurrent problems. First, though it sounds trivial, the fictional names somehow undermined the characters' credibility. Secondly, even within the freedom of a novel, cricket action is very hard to dramatise convincingly. It's hard to capture the pace and the tempo of cricket."

Dramatising the action is even harder on film. Actors invariably can't bat, they can't bowl, and directors, for some bizarre reason, tell them to appeal to the umpire when someone is clean-bowled or hits it straight to cover point. And that's without trying to capture the latest shemozzle of the DRS.

The difficulty of filming realistic cricket matches explains the impulse to set dramatisations deep in the historical past: once the protagonists are poncing around in Edwardian striped caps, the fact that they can't play cricket is somehow less central. In the absence of verisimilitude, cricket writers take refuge in caricature. But cricket's familiar nostalgic sepia tint deprives us of the contemporary social realism that makes Friday Night Lights so immediate and powerful.

Watching Rush last week suggested another problem facing cricket films. Motor-racing, like boxing, invites the pleasing simplicity of a two-handed duel: two men fighting, almost to the death. When the central characters have richly contrasting personalities - as was the case with the hedonistic Hunt and the calculating Lauda - all the elements of dramatic tension are automatically built into the structure of the story.

Dramatising the action is hard on film. Actors invariably can't bat, they can't bowl, and directors, for some bizarre reason, tell them to appeal to the umpire when someone is clean-bowled or hits it straight to cover point

One reason why Bodyline has been so tempting for film-makers is that the haughty colonial arrogance of Douglas Jardine creates a perfect counterpoint for Bradman's gutsy Aussie resilience. Much more often, however, cricket's greatest rivalries are more abstracted. We think of Tendulkar and Lara vying to be the greatest batsman in the world. Or Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee pushing each other to be the best allrounder in the world. In fact, some of the greatest rivalries have been played out within the same team - think of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Rush comes down to the last race of the 1976 season, with two champions pushing each other to the limit. That's harder to recreate in cricket.

42 made me wonder if there isn't a subtler problem with portraying cricket in film. It describes the life of Jackie Robinson, who, by signing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, became the first black man to play in the major leagues. Until then baseball operated a system of total racial segregation. In 1946 there were 400 players in the major leagues, every one of them white. In 1947 that number dropped to 399. The one was Jackie Robinson.

In many ways it is an unremarkable retelling of an absolutely remarkable story - The New Yorker justly described it as a "square film". But somehow that didn't matter, because the grandeur and importance of the true story itself could fill the gaps left by the film-making. Perhaps that's the whole point. The history of baseball, America's "national pastime", is also the story of 20th-century America. And what a story it is: the emergence of a former colony into the world's greatest power, struggling with its own demons as it does so. Cricket doesn't have such obviously heroic faultlines to explore.

Until now, perhaps. In the whole history of international cricket, from 18th-century English lawns to T20 franchises today, I cannot think of a more remarkable story than the rise of Indian cricket. "Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British," as Ashis Nandy put it. And it is. Indian cricket possesses every ingredient of great drama. India's success on the pitch perfectly mirrors its ascent as a world power, with the inevitable tensions that follow along every axis - of race, region and religion. Above all, Indian cricket almost certainly inspires more love and emotion than any other national sport in the world.

What more could an aspiring Oscar-winner want for material?

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here