October 6, 2014

Can cricket produce a great novel?

Or do the sporting daydreams of childhood seep into attempts at rendering the game in fiction and trivialise it?

Can we do better than PG Wodehouse's tale of a bank employee scoring a century at Lord's? © Associated Press

More mighty than the bat, the pen,
And mightier still as we grow old,
And hence I needs must scribble when
I'd fain be bowling - or be bowled.
- From "Alleviation", 1898, EV Lucas

In his foreword to The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon, Sebastian Faulks notes that "cricketers tend to be vain, anecdotal, passionate, knowledgeable, neurotic and given to fantasy. So do writers. The game is made for the profession."

In 2013 I travelled to India with the Authors Cricket Club, a wandering team of cricket-obsessed scribes. The culmination of our five-match tour was a game against Rajasthan Royals, an XI including IPL stars and former international bowler Sreesanth, and until a last-minute withdrawal from the starting line-up, the speed-gun-breaking paceman Shaun Tait.

With hopeless optimism, fuelled by a boyhood reading Roy of the Rovers and scoring Test match board games on my kitchen table while watching the explosive talents of Ian Botham and Viv Richards turn lost causes into heroic wins, I stepped to the wicket in Jaipur. I'd already pictured my hat-trick, the dazzling five-for and a whirlwind fifty. Then the first ball I sent down, a swinging delivery on a length just outside off stump, was lifted over the cover boundary with effortless grace. Our paltry 100 from 20 overs was knocked off in sixes and fours, and the rather dismayed and confused locals trudged home early, no doubt muttering that the posters advertising our game, featuring shots of professional cricketers superimposed besides desk-bound writers, promised a more sporting contest.

In Cricket, Literature and Culture, Anthony Bateman explains that during the 19th century the sport "demanded a body of canonical texts just as the Christian Church venerated its scriptures in order to justify its ongoing existence". Historian Benny Green makes an equally grand statement that "it is almost as if the game itself would not exist at all until written about". From William Goldwin's 95-line Latin poem, the earliest surviving literary work on cricket, dating back to 1706, to a plethora of Ashes-related tomes published last summer, cricket and literature have enjoyed a long and unbroken marriage.

Despite this loving relationship - surely cricket is the only sport to have "a bibliography of cricket bibliographies" - and luminary authors such as JM Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harold Pinter, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth, James Joyce, Tom Stoppard, George Orwell and PG Wodehouse (when Orwell met Wodehouse met Paris, "they just talked cricket," noted Malcolm Muggeridge) all confessed lovers of the game, the great cricket novel is arguably yet to be written.

To flesh a character with substance, to propel a reader to the scene, whether it be the baize of a sunlit outfield at Lord's or the pastel hues of a village green, the writer must live and breathe the actions of their protagonist. And here, perhaps, we trivialise the maturity and seriousness of the novel with the sporting daydreams of childhood. When we read the startling truth of Bradman's 99.94 average, Jim Laker's 10 for 53, we have the sanctity of the scorer's pen to confirm the act.

If the author conjures up a stat-defying ton (the 30-ball fireworks of a Chris Gayle century), or a flurry of sixes to avoid a follow-on (Kapil Dev banishing the portly Eddie Hemmings from Lord's four hits in a row), or even more dramatic still, a Test match performance of swashbuckling bravura that overturns victory odds of 500-1 - yes, that game at Headingley in 1981 - the reader might well accuse the writer of fantasy. A problem with the novelist's double-hundred, the last-ball smite to win the game, is that the cricketing author, and by this I mean the scribe who would trade their sedentary craft for the life of a Test match hero, is investing his failed ambition into the fictive glory.

Two of the best known successful cricket stories are overt fantasies created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and PG Wodehouse. In Doyle's "Spedegue's Dropper", former county cricketer Walter Scougall is ambling through the New Forest when he comes across two oak trees spanned by a cord 50 feet above the ground between a set of stumps. From behind a holly bush Scougall observes a thin young man in spectacles who "lobbed up ball after ball either right on to the bails or into the wicket-keeper's hands".

Not for one moment is the reader expected to believe that a spectacled teacher bowling donkey drops is going to be called up for England and win the Ashes. Or, as in Wodehouse's Psmith in the City, that a bored clerk will walk through the Long Room and score a century at Lord's.

Or do we? And when I use "we" I mean that daydreaming cricketer. The boy in a maths lesson staring blankly from the window and imagining a stadium of fans wildly celebrating as he hits a fearsome West Indies pace attack out of the ground.

So back to Fantasyland, and appropriately, the USA. In an article for London Magazine, Mihir Bose argues, "There is nothing in English cricket literature that matches The Natural, Bernard Malamud's great novel about baseball." In a country that collectively aspires to a dream, the sporting novel is more keenly received by readers and reviewers than on this side of the Atlantic. Recent publications, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding - about baseball, unfortunately, not a master class from Jonty Rhodes - and Jaimy Gordon's horse-racing winner, Lord of Misrule, drew praise and plaudits for their sporting prose.

The magisterial opening sequence to Don DeLillo's Underworld follows the trajectory of a home run struck in the 1951 World Series between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. DeLillo expands the narrative from an iconic baseball game into a wide-ranging treaty on Cold War politics, the atomic bomb, modern art, and infidelity. As the fans stream from the stadium we follow them home, with DeLillo tracking the match ball as a literary device to tell the stories of those who come to own the fabled sphere.

Here, as Anthony Quinn highlights when discussing Half of the Human Race, his fictionalised romance between a suffragette and a cricketer before and during World War I, "Sport in novels is seldom just sport. It's a way of talking about something else."

Although the breadth of Underworld veers from the Vietnam war to the run-down Bronx, DeLillo is happy to linger on the finer points of baseball - as are a host of other American writers when fictionalising their chosen game.

For a moment, let us imagine that DeLillo is a cricket-loving Englishman. Could he have begun his magnum opus at a packed Lord's? Instead of Frank Sinatra and J Edgar Hoover consorting at the World Series, he could have peopled his chapter with prime minsters and rock stars. A baffled Groucho Marx once visited the home of cricket in 1954, asking if the slumbering crowd before the Tavern was "where they put the dead bodies". A contemporary writer could call upon John Major, Mick Jagger, or even a Hollywood actor or two - Daniel Radcliffe, Damian Lewis and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens have all been interlopers among the striped blazers.

Surely cricket, with its stratifications of class, a history of institutionalised racism, grubby deals with bookies, and dressing-room spats between egos inflated by IPL riches and internet fame would be ripe material for a novel on the state of Britain.

How many readers could follow characters obsessed with the scuffed varnish on a five-and-a-half ounce ball, or empathise with, no matter how well-written, the dogged last stand to save a series replete with agricultural descriptions of fifth-day turning wicket?

I don't see why a work of fiction packed with the minutiae of a game that revels in its detail shouldn't be a page-turning success - and neither did Ted Dexter, who once penned a forgotten thriller called Test Kill. But I am biased, a boy who held a bat in his hand before he could walk. How many readers could follow characters obsessed with the scuffed varnish on a five-and-a-half ounce ball, or empathise with, no matter how well-written, the dogged last stand to save a series replete with agricultural descriptions of a fifth-day turning wicket?

A glowing review posted on Amazon for Half of the Human Race grumbles that despite its brilliance it contains "a bit too much information about cricket for my liking". Similar complaints have been made about Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, the Obama-praised tale about a cricket-playing financial analyst, Hans van den Broek. Writing for the Millions, Elizabeth Minkel observes that O'Neill uses van den Broek, the sole white man in a club of commonwealth immigrants, to draw "some fairly unsubtle but potent metaphors about cricket and those who play it in America".

Netherland is a novel including leather and willow, but not a tale about the game. However, Sri Lankan authors Romesh Gunesekera and Shehan Karunatilaka have both written works of fiction focused on cricket - and not just cricket, given what may be perceived as the real drama of the narrative is the action that occurs off the field rather than on.

In the opening lines of The Match, Gunesekera suggests a bat for a 16th birthday present, a gift timed with the imminent tour of Sri Lanka to England and a ceasefire in the civil war. Before Karunatilaka has even begun Chinaman, his tale of spin bowler Pradeep Mathew, we have the voice of Geoff Boycott in the epigraph lecturing on the overuse of the word "great", and saying how we denigrate its meaning by using it on "normal things that happen in every game" when "it should only be used for the real legends".

It is a brave novel that opens with a quote from Sir Geoffrey, but this is a book that ignores the cricketless and rewards the enthusiast. Karunatilaka is wise and humoured enough to joke when he lists a star-studded line-up of his protagonist's victims, including Border, Gower, Khan and Miandad, that a mystified reader may seek a refund.

The complexity of cricket, the subtleties and game-changing mini dramas that make the sport as baffling to an outsider as it is intriguing to the loving fan, render it a specialist subject for mainstream fiction. This could explain the wider success of other sports in British novels. Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and David Peace's wizardly ventriloquism of Brian Clough in The Damn United are popular classics, and are not only books about issues beyond the playing field but also about their sport. Risking the ire of football fans, I would contend that football is the hit single and cricket the symphony, the nuanced score with subtle arrangements and depth of meaning. An art form that takes knowledge to fully appreciate.

This doesn't explain the dearth of fiction on rugby, a sport, along with football, where the spectator need not be a learned fan to enjoy the game. David Storey's This Sporting Life, his 1960 novel detailing the mud-and-blood travails of rugby league star Arthur Machin - played on screen with a bristling physicality by Richard Harris - is a rare example. Its success is due as much to the forensic examination of a failing relationship as to its fleeting and colourful passages on the pitch - full of visceral and brutal authenticity, for this is a book written by an author who played professionally for Leeds.

Considering Storey's success, on and off the field, perhaps we need the former county pro to pick up the pen and fictionalise a cricketing life. Storey wrote about league with bracing intensity because he'd been there. When the cricket-loving novelist is waxing lyrical about cover-driving at Lord's or facing the wrath of a sizzling paceman on a concrete track in the Caribbean, he's inventing. Not only are we lacking authenticity - despite a talented author's imaginative powers - but we're back to that frustrated club player-turned writer with grand plans on his village green.

"In truth," contends Quinn, "cricket is its own drama, with its own characters and settings, its subplots and grand narrative sweep." Although a work of non-fiction, Jonathan Agnew's diary of his 1988 season with Leicestershire, 8 Days a Week, with its highs and lows, from last-ball victories in the John Player League to his snub by the England selectors and quarrels with team-mates - including his memorable tiff with Philip DeFreitas, concerning a salt shaker and a kitbag unceremoniously dumped over the Grace Road balcony - has more than enough drama to qualify as a novel.

Those entranced by a Test match may well agree with the assertion that cricket does not need fictionalising. One could argue that the sport's novelisation is unnecessary while we still have the thrilling, beguiling, and occasionally tedious long form of the game. Coincidentally, five days is a good amount of time to read a worthy novel. A compelling international, played out between teams with talent and character, starred in by protagonists with bat and ball, with walk-on roles for coaches, umpires, groundsmen, the raucous crowd and the drunken streaker, all poetically narrated by commentators and journalists while set against the backdrop of changing weather and scrolling news, is as close to a novel as any single sporting event can be.

In my second novel - I dared not include cricket in my debut - The Hummingbird and the Bear, I very briefly use cricket as a bond-forming moment between my protagonist and his prospective father-in-law: "One evening, after I'd clipped a fifty to claw back a match he thought we'd lost, we were driving back to their quiet house, both fuzzed with a couple of pints of cider."

In the original draft this sentence was a paragraph, with lyrical shot descriptions and unnecessary details of the opposition bowling - including, of course, how fast and unplayable it was. I had let the bat get hold of pen, rather than the pen the bat. By trying to relay an innings I had actually played - well, more a composite of several scores - I was showing off. The fact had invaded the fictive dream, and the wistful cricketer possessed the artist.

Aged 40, I'm still running in and bowling awayswingers. I can still hit sixes (when the boundary rope is brought in) and take wickets (when those slip catches are held). Perhaps when my playing career is nostalgia and I must scribble when I'd fain be bowling - or be bowled - that cricket novel will pad up and walk to the crease, with the reader striding in with a shiny new ball to decide its fate.

This article was first published in the MCC Magazine. Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award. @nicholas_hogg

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  • Cricinfouser on October 7, 2014, 19:59 GMT

    I wrote my university dissertation on Chinaman and The Match, and I would argue that the former is not only a great novel but also the fictional heir to CLR James's Beyond a Boundary.

  • LeonB60 on October 6, 2014, 21:43 GMT

    Don't think it would ever be classed as a 'great novel' but there is a quaint book called "The Village Cricket Match" by John Parker which is quite good. Very much the English village rivalry that is seen on Midsummer Murders etc. It doesn't try to be great literature but I enjoyed it more than "Test Kill". As for films - my favourite cricket film is "Wondrous Oblivion" where the Players cigarette cricket cards (Sobers, Compton etc) come to life in a young boy's imagination. A bit like "Love Thy Neighbour" but without Eddie!

  • Nutcutlet on October 6, 2014, 7:20 GMT

    How true. The great novel that centres on a game of cricket has yet to be written. Considering the literary heavyweights that have confessed a passion for the game (many listed above), the absence of the cricket novel would appear to be an inexplicable aberration. I don't think so - for two blindingly obvious reasons. First, there has always been a convocation of outstanding writers about our game. Every generation throws up additions to thisl tribe, each of whom brings an abiding passion for the game from his distinctive social and geographical background - so cricket, of all ball sports, leaves the rest trailing in its wake when it comes to crafting its record into literature. Secondly, the would-be writer of our great novel begins by standing at the foot of the Everest that is the great writing about cricket that already exists. All he can hope to achieve is a 'novel-take' on a story that's already been told and can probably find its genesis in Wisden - our embarras de richesses.

  • smudgeon on October 6, 2014, 7:16 GMT

    I was just sitting here thinking about how I can't think of a single book I have read (apart from a couple of books aimed at children) where cricket was a focus, let alone even mentioned. Then I remembered one of my favourite books, one I love even aside from it's portrayal of cricket as (literally) a method for universal conquest: "Life, the Universe, and Everything". One of the final chapters describes Arthur having an opportunity to live out a dream and bowl a ball at Lords. The story isn't all about cricket, but it is central to the plot. I guess you might have to love cricket to truly appreciate it, but I think people who aren't fans - or indeed, people who loathe cricket - should still be able to enjoy it, even get a giggle.

  • dummy4fb on October 6, 2014, 4:12 GMT

    Or an Oscar worthy movie for that matter? Mr. Hogg I have an idea for one, please contact me :p

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