Dyed in sepia
Correctly or otherwise, cricket aficionados believe the object of their affection has a literary tradition unmatched by lesser sports.
Most anthologies of cricket writing - including the easily recommended All in a Day's Cricket - celebrate a culture that is passing us by, if it hasn't gone already. The story of cricket, as this literary tradition captures it, mirrors the evolution of modern England: the village game; a period when the County Championship was still allowed the indulgence of a summer uninterrupted by limited-overs tournaments, T20 excesses and the competing compulsions of the leisure economy; the gradual spread of cricket to the Empire; and above all, the majesty of Test match cricket.
So much of that is in the past tense. Test cricket, even the most devout are forced to admit, is losing the battle to shorter forms of the game. It will still exist, as the champagne among table wines, but will lose frequency. That aside, the synonymity that cricket has had with England for two centuries no longer holds true. It is only in the minds and illusions of cricket fans that the willow game continues to be central to the identity of contemporary England.
Even in cricket's second home, Australia, the tussle between the energies of the Big Bash League and the classical game is proving problematic and will change many long-held verities. In the West Indies, basketball and the New World lure the young more than cricket. Cricket's new empires are in the Indian subcontinent, but they offer a sensibility and a sporting culture that are different from what cricket has known.
None of this is revelatory, but it still makes a point. As the manner in which cricket is played, organised, followed and consumed (that ugly word!) changes, so will the manner in which it is celebrated and written about, so will the social contexts within which its chroniclers and biographers operate.
It would be easy to term All in a Day's Cricket a nostalgic look at cricket and an indulgent backward glance at previous centuries - with or without the pun - but it also completes a cosmic circle. Cricket, its worshippers firmly believe, is a religion, a cult and a way of life. Its lessons and messages are perennial and keep coming back in some form or the other. The essays Brian Levison puts together in this delightful collection tend to reinforce that sense of karma and reincarnation.
Those who fret and worry about the impact of politics on cricket might be reassured to know that the storming of the Bastille interrupted an early attempt at cricket evangelism. As "A Girdle Round the Earth", an extract from FS Ashley-Cooper's Cricket Highways and Byways (1927) recounts: "It was only the outbreak of the French Revolution which prevented the Surrey team, on the suggestion of the Duke of Dorset, then our Ambassador in Paris, going over to show the game in the Bois de Boulogne. The eleven, in fact, had journeyed as far as Dover [...] when, most unexpectedly, it was met by the Duke, who was flying before the coming storm."
Despite the cliché of "it's not cricket", corruption and sharp practice are not of recent origin. As Jack Pollard writes in a short but witty excerpt from his 1971 book Bumpers, Boseys and Brickbats, winning the toss, with its obvious advantages, has not always been a matter of chance: "[In 1953] Lindsay Hassett distinguished himself by winning the toss in all five tests, which touched off some intriguing stories about the pennies used, how Hassett called, and linked his luck with Army training in wartime two-up matches."
In another essay, Pollard writes expansively of the Reverend Lord Frederick Beauclerk, the fourth son of the Duke of St Albans, a descendant of Charles II and Nell Gwyn. In the early 19th century, Lord Frederick was "a great gambler on single wicket matches in which side bets often reached vast sums and the morality of the game was continually suspect".
While Lord Frederick's open bribery of scorers and players was described by a contemporary as "cheating and nothing more or less", the business of walking has been one of ethical ambiguity. In "W.G. - Too Clever to Cheat?" Derek Birley (The Willow Wand, 1979) explores the idea that the best of them, Grace and Richie Benaud, and even the Don himself, were not averse to confusing the umpire and not walking.
Yet cricket is much more than its grey zones. It is nothing if not romanticism and heroism, dash and derring-do, inspiration and idiosyncrasy. These are served up in ample measure, often with wit. Ian Botham writes of his match-winning innings in the 1974 Benson and Hedges Cup quarter-final, when he took Somerset to a one-wicket victory over Hampshire despite having four teeth broken by a vicious Andy Roberts bouncer:
"I strolled into my local, the Gardener's Arms, later that evening, expecting at least a pint on the house and a bit of mild hero-worship, I got a cold shoulder instead. 'The usual, please,' I said as I approached the bar.
I would have had a warmer welcome from an iceberg. 'And just what is your usual?' the landlord said.
'You know what it is,' I said. 'The same as it's been for the last year and a half.'
He gave me another frosty glance, then picked up the evening paper and dropped it on the bar in front of me. The headline read: 17-Year Old Somerset Youth Plays a Blinder. Then, as now, the legal drinking age in Britain was eighteen."
There's deeper emotion too. Christopher Martin-Jenkins writes with poignancy of listening to BBC commentators of the 1950s, in "a musty room on the second floor of my prep school", as Watson and Bailey rescue England at Lord's against Australia (in 1953): "It was the greatest salvage operation since Dunkirk."
Graeme Fowler writes a lovely piece, dated 1984, about missing his wife while on his third tour in three years of marriage.
Mike Brearley (The Art of Captaincy, 1985) explains why the 12th man comes running into the middle with new batting gloves, the oldest trick deployed by the batting side to exchange messages or just waste time: "In South Africa in 1965 I was acting as twelfth man while England batted in a Test at Johannesburg. Bob Barber and I happened to be in the middle of a chess game. When he called me on to the field during his innings, ostensibly for some dry gloves, his purpose was to inform me that his next move was Queen's pawn to QB4."
The examples and anecdotes can go on, but that would only take away the fun. Read the book if you love cricket or if you love life - or if, like so many of us out there, you believe the two expressions are interchangeable.
All in a Day's Cricket: An Anthology of Outstanding Cricket Writing
By Brian Levison
442 pages, £20
Ashok Malik is a writer based in Delhi