August 27, 2014

Why baseball trumps cricket at the movies

Baseball movies are more ambitious and unabashedly American - always a draw at the box office

Having spent a possibly unhealthy chunk of my life striving to shed fresh light on the darker corners of the D'Oliveira Affair, it was a delight, as the decade began, to learn of an impending movie tackling that endlessly thorny subject and its troubled hero. Better yet, the chap in charge was Stephen Frears, a director with a strong and admirably diverse CV spanning privilege (The Queen), homosexuality (Prick Up Your Ears), the sale of human organs (Dirty Pretty Things) and the cruelty of Catholicism (Philomena). Anticipation was rapt. I even emailed the producer proffering my services.

Nearly four years on and… not a sausage. The producer declined to reply; the project, apparently, is no more. Piling insult on injury, Frears' next release focuses on another noxious sporting affair, Sunday Times journalist David Walsh's pursuit of the truth about cycling's Satan, L**** A********. Why Frears lost enthusiasm is a mystery, but it is hard to cite a more depressing example of cricket's lack of allure for film-makers.

This week, by contrast, brings us Million-Dollar Arm, the latest baseball box-office smash to hit a British multiplex. A dramatisation of an improbable-but-true story, the plot centres on an eponymous Indian TV talent show for cricketers with a yen for pitching, devised by a crafty American; the winner, Rinku Singh, secured a minor-league contract in Pittsburgh but climbed no further.

So the song remains stubbornly the same: while the United States' national pastime has inspired hundreds of movies, cricket, primarily because Hollywood has resisted it so robustly, has been poorly represented on the big screen. The same goes for the world's most popular ball game; for the Tinseltown take on Nick Hornby's book Fever Pitch, Arsenal FC morphed into the Boston Red Sox.

The problem sport poses movie-makers is threefold: 1) replicating skills in a credible manner is almost always doomed to failure; 2) sporting fact almost always beats fiction (hence the myriad biopics and recreations); 3) from Jack Warner to Harvey Weinstein, national preferences matter. To a degree, this explains why boxing, that most visceral of spectator sports, has always been the most popular attraction by far. Who cares if the punches are lamely executed or the footwork is frigid? Chilling sound effects, grisly close-ups and copious ketchup work wonders.

Ocean-leaping cricket movies? Despite the promising material supplied by this most racially divided and class-ridden of games, just one springs to mind, Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan - and we had to wait until 2001 for that. Cannily subtitled "Once Upon A Time In India", this goose-bumping blast of Bollywood at its boldest, set in 1893, revolves around a match between the horrid British Army and a team of plucky villagers. Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, it even made Time magazine's all-time Top 25 sports movies chart. Such is its resonance, producer Aamir Khan released a making-of documentary, Chale Chalo in 2003. Helpfully, during the action sequences, a character explains the rudimentary rules.

It says much that Australia's best-known contributions to this comparatively slim canon, the widely scorned Bodyline (featuring, among other laughable distortions, a 6ft Don Bradman) and the vastly more convincing Howzat! Kerry Packer's Cricket War, were both shot for TV. Not that British rivals are exactly queuing up.

Unenhanced by roles for Len Hutton, Denis Compton and Jim Laker (playing themselves), 1954's banal The Final Test, the lone major studio release, set the bar pitifully and perhaps fatally low. For me, the only movie to capture the essence of the game's charms is P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang (1982), Jack Rosenthal's delightful made-for-TV tale of first love in the London suburbs of the late 1940s. John Arlott's commentary-cum-narrative, rendered in the man's own inimitable burr, invests it with magic as well as authenticity.

Boxing, that most visceral of spectator sports, has always been the most popular attraction in film by far. Who cares if the punches are lamely executed or the footwork is frigid? Chilling sound effects, grisly close-ups and copious ketchup work wonders

Honourable mentions go to Wondrous Oblivion (2003), a moving saga of inter-racial tension set in suburban south London two decades later, backdropped by a West Indies tour, and to Playing Away (1987), a gently edgy comedy about a contemporary match pitting a Suffolk village XI against an Anglo-Caribbean combo from Brixton. Recent documentaries such as Fire in Babylon and From the Ashes cast the poverty of fictional ideas into stark relief.

Sentimental as they often are, baseball movies are more ambitious, reflecting not just sport but the US itself. Or rather, how that enormous expanse of disparate states likes to see itself. That's why they attract A-listers such as Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford. The most memorable explore perennial themes: fathers and sons (Field of Dreams), human vulnerability (Eight Men Out, Cobb), racism (The Soul of the Game), the ups and downs of the American Dream (The Rookie, Sugar). Tellingly, five of those films dwell on baseball lore, while the exception, Field of Dreams, relies, contextually, on American's sport's most shameful chapter, the 1919 World Series fix, chronicled so stirringly in Eight Men Out.

Still, the highest-ranking baseball movie in that Time list, Bull Durham (1988) at No. 4, bucks this trend by being fictional, uproariously funny and, bravest of all, a celebration of failure. Crucially, writer/director Ron Shelton knows his onions. Like his philosophical minor-league hero, Crash Davis (Costner), he too had reached for the stars and fallen just short; having been, as he once told me, "a phone call away" from the major leagues, he was as attuned to the sour as the sweet.

Baseball's appeal? "It's the only game without a time limit," reasoned Shelton, who has also made terrific films about basketball, boxing and golf but clearly has a blind spot when it comes to tennis. "Therefore, in a kind of blind, American, optimistic way, you always have a chance to win. There's something fabulously, stupidly American about it."

It may not supply many good excuses to overdose on popcorn in a darkened room, but perhaps it's not a wholly bad thing that cricket defies such narrow geographical associations. Mind you, it'll take some doing to beat the screen's most resonant reference to our precious game: the final words of Another Country, originally a play, where Etonian-turned-Communist spy Guy Bennett, asked what he misses about England, replies "the cricket".

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014