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Why actors are drawn to cricket

Katharine Hepburn bats on the sets of The Lion in Winter, 1968 Getty Images

X-Men mutant Wolverine has an accelerated healing process, retractable claws, and extra-sensory gifts of sight, smell, and hearing. Yet his most spectacular power is being able to hit Shane Warne back over his head. Well, this unique talent belongs to Hugh Jackman, one of the many actors who love to swing a bat when not learning their lines.

So what is it about cricket that draws thespians to the game in droves?

Writer Alan Ross described watching a cricket match as "a storehouse of thought, of thought occasioned by the game itself, by the beauty, wit or intelligence of one's companion: or simply a private unravelling of problems, personal, political, moral." Which is perhaps why it attracts the acting type. "We too are people who essentially dream and loaf for a living," admits Mike Simkins, actor, and author of Fatty Batter, his comic account of captaining a team of thespians. "We too have long hours in which to contemplate the uncertainties, worries, and illusions of life." The sporadic nature of a career on stage and screen is ideal. "Cricket is a glorious way to soak up the sun between interviews, a chance to pick up tips from fellow actors about auditions. I reckon half the crowd at a Middlesex match are out of work thespians."

Mike's team, The Harry Baldwin Occasionals, a side I sometimes moonlight for - my work as a TV extra and computer-game zombie in Japan just about qualify me as a thespian - are one of the many actor-cricketer teams based around London, including The Stage, The Bloody Lads, The Ivy Club, The Thespian Thunderers, and perhaps the most famous, the Gaieties, founded in the 1930s by variety performer Lupino Lane, and later captained by Harold Pinter, playwright and Nobel prize winner.

Reminiscing about his days with the Gaieties, Pinter, an avid yet average cricketer - unfairly tagged according to his friend and team-mate director Harry Burton, who says Pinter could hit mighty sixes off the back foot - recalled a match in which he was out for a duck and dropped two catches, and asked himself, "Why I am doing this?" His forthright answer was, "Because I've always loved cricket." Even after he'd driven "all the way to Dover to bugger up the bloody game".

The actor-cricketer isn't confined to a commutable distance from London's Theatreland. Conceived in 2011, India's Celebrity Cricket League has brought together some of the biggest names in film and cricket, with actors reportedly suspending shoots to prioritise taking the field. However, the most star-studded cricket team of all must be the California-based Hollywood Cricket Club, created by the doyen of actor-cricketers, Charles Aubrey Smith. In a dazzling screen and sporting career, Smith captained Sussex, played against WG Grace, led an England side in Australia, captained the first ever Test against South Africa, "all while working as an actor", enthuses Simkins. Smith then went to America and landed glittering roles alongside Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor. And, just as importantly, founded the Hollywood Cricket Club in 1932 - the same year that he scored 24 against Don Bradman's visiting Australians.

Smith also expected his fellow English actors to turn out for the Hollywood side when beckoned, the kind of career clause that Simkins might appreciate. "One of my most seminal breaks was a chance to work with Alan Ayckbourn. I mentioned at my audition that I was a solid and dependable opening bat - Alan ran a theatre team for which he kept wicket - and was later assured, largely through the fact that I ended up playing every Sunday, that this was why I got the part." Simkins was once foolish enough to adjudicate his employer run out. "Ayckbourn muttered, 'You're cut from my next play", as he stomped past me back to the changing room."

Actor Pete Sandys-Clarke, captain of the Thespian Thunderers, philosophises on the cricketing individual isolated in the team. "Whether batting, bowling, or taking a catch under the anxious gaze of the other players, the individual must stand alone. It's not so far removed from acting, where you're part of a company but still very responsible for your own individual performance."

Controlling the tension of a live rendition can be likened to taking guard, or stepping up to bowl. Sandys-Clarke wonders if getting the yips is like dying on stage. "The more you struggle for your line, or to pitch one on the track, the harder it is to find, and the more those around you start examining their boots in the hope you don't catch their eye."

These on-stage nerves, hidden by the skilled thespian in their natural realm, can be revealed at the wicket. A few years ago I was running in to bowl against A-lister Damian Lewis. Rumours were he was a quality bat but out of practice. And true enough, he was twitchy at the crease, lacked timing and poise, and looked nothing like the slick professional when dodging bullets as Captain Winters in Band of Brothers, or spinning a web of lies as the duplicitous Brody in Homeland. After a few scratchy shots he dragged a half-volley on from outside off stump. I should note that a couple of years later he hit a quick-fire fifty at Lord's, but that first flawed encounter showed the nerves of a mortal in pads, rather than a film star with the luxury of a retake.

"Part of the thrill of performing, or playing, is knowing how close you are to abject humiliation and disaster at every moment," says Sandys-Clarke. "And actors and cricketers are both narcissistic."

Authors captain Charlie Campbell has on-field experience alongside both writers and actors, and in his new book, Herding Cats: The Art of Amateur Cricket Captaincy, he recalls a match where he was warned that the over rate would be slow because of the likelihood of lost balls. "But really this was because their opening bowler was a resting actor, full of theatrics, with an excessively long run up and a follow through that took him down to the other end of the pitch. He was as interested in arranging his hair as he was the field."

Cricket is a performance, and like acting, says Sandys-Clarke, "it's a game in which timing is key." Simkins contends cricket is the nearest that sport comes to an art form. "It unfolds over hours, sometimes days, with myriad twists and nuances of drama, long periods of boredom and inertia, and then suddenly edge of the seat tension and excitement. Like a play."

Cricket, especially my beloved amateur game, is founded on daydreams and delusion, the ability to dispel reality for a few hours. No surprise it attracts so many writers and actors.