A tale more often of quantity than quality, 2000

A century of cricket writing

Stephen Moss

Neville Cardus' writing embodies the contradiction at the heart of cricket: its preoccupation with both changelessness and decay © Wisden Cricket Monthly

It is a pity that Samuel Beckett, first-class cricketer and lifelong fan, never wrote about the game. Waiting for Goddard would have greatly enhanced cricket's literature. Shame too about James Joyce, a useful bat according to his brother, but whose only contribution was a coded list in Finnegans Wake ( "...as he studd and stoddard and trotted and trumpered, to see had lordherry's blackham's red bobby abbels...").

Harold Pinter has written well on the game ("Hutton was never dull. His bat was part of his nervous system. His play was sculptured. His forward defensive stroke was a complete statement."). But, for the most part, the truly great writers have not graced cricket.

It is often said that cricket has a great literature, but the contention is arguable. Certainly, it has a large literature; in his essay on cricket writing in the 100th Wisden, John Arlott noted that there were some 8000 titles, far more than on any other game. In the 37 years since then, the ephemera of the late 20th century may well have ensured that the figure has doubled.

Arlott argued that this number emphasised "the unique quality of cricket in stimulating art, imagination and study." He was, rightly, less sanguine about the results. Throughout the 20th century, the arch-enemies of cricket writing have been wistfulness, artifice and silliness. There were too many books, too few real subjects: shelf-fuls of dim biographies, tedious tour books, unrevealing memoirs, jokey reminiscences.

Publishers for too long took their market for granted, assumed that book buyers' loyalty to the game was limitless, that they would buy any old tosh. In recent years, their opportunistic optimism has proved ill founded: chickens have come home to roost, golden geese have been laid off, only Dickie Bird (and Ian Botham) seem to have survived the slaughter.

A trawl through the cricket section of the London bookshop Sportspages is dispiritingly predictable. When the store opened in 1987, cricket took up more space than any other sport. Football has now leapfrogged into a big lead and the quality of the books that remain is not encouraging. One word sums up the output: nostalgia. With the exception of a few thin how-to guides, the shelves at Sportspages are an invitation to wallow.

Cricket literature is largely characterised by reverence for the game - its traditions, character and ethos - and has been dominated by Englishmen, often using cricket to memorialise a better, truer past. Since the 1830s, cricket writers have hymned a golden age, usually a generation or two before the period in which they were writing.

This genre was in full command a century ago. Take the example of Sydney Goodman, eulogising the village game in an anthology called The Light Side of Cricket, published in 1898: "Under the blue sky, field after field stretches far away to the wooded hills, while from hedge and copse alike comes the music of birds and streams, and the mingled fragrance of summer flowers. This primeval grace and rural poetry of the game is in great measure lost in routine-like dullness in vast and crowded amphitheatres surrounded by ugly pavilions, smoky houses and evil-smelling gasometers. Cricket on the village green ... is more like the cricket in the days of those heroes of renown, Alfred Mynn and Caesar, Felix and Fuller Pilch, and round it still lingers that halo of glory which many minds love to associate with far-off and forgotten time."

This end-of-century anthology sums up an approach to cricket that we have never quite shaken off: dewy-eyed reminiscence, limp fiction, condescending reports of cricket at the edge of empire, lamentable poetry, the unfaltering belief that cricket is the best of England. Take the final contribution, by AN Other: "What do I think of cricket? Why, I think it's the noblest of sport - bar none - of all those noble sports which have done so much to make Englishmen the fine stalwart fellows they are, and Old England the grand country she is." I keep looking for irony in this piece, and find none, while the report of an Ethiopian cricket match can simply not be quoted, so offensive is it to modern ears. A different age and different sensibilities, of course, yet with an enduring legacy for our attitude to the game.

The 1890s were still in thrall to W. G., who dominates in poetry (Grace's praise demands my song, / Grace the swift and Grace the strong, / Fairest flower of Cricket's stem / Gloucester's shield and England's gem - E. B. V. Christian) and prose. The prose writing does show a growing interest in comparing and contextualising players, using that very 1890s weapon: averages. The era was notable for the proliferation of statistical works.

Thus, a hundred years ago, most of the elements of 20th-century cricket writing were in place: the pastoralism; the belief in the rootedness and essential Englishness of the game; the obsession with figures; the co-opting of famous players in commercial enterprises, as with Ranji's Jubilee Book of Cricket (1897); and the defence of past against present - this even in the most gilded of golden ages.

The memorable practitioners did not emerge until the 1920s, yet they were refining the themes of their less illustrious predecessors, rather than attempting to rewrite the script. The orthodoxy established in 1900 was later given literary form by a generation which saw the years before the First World War as Arcadia: they had a lyrical, elegiac view of a game inseparable from the fields and villages of England. That was its strength - and its great limitation.

There is a contradiction at the heart of cricket: it is a game with great continuity but also a sense of closure; it is both immanent and evanescent, preoccupied at once with changelessness and decay. Take Sir Neville Cardus. In Cricket All the Year he wrote: "Cricket has no past and no present. The seasons mingle in one another as with no other game." Yet in Cricket, he bids farewell to a season with such regret that you can see the sinking sun, feel the chill of the approaching autumn: "One late August afternoon, I said goodbye to a cricket season on a field which lay silent in the evening sunshine; the match, the last of the year, was over and the players gone. I stayed for a while in the falling light and saw birds run over the grass as the mists began to spread. That day we had watched Woolley in all his glory, batting his way through a hundred felicitous runs... It was all over and gone now, as I stood on the little field alone in the glow of the declining day."

The model should perhaps not be the elegance and erudition of Cardus or Alan Ross but the astringency of RC Robertson-Glasgow, the cultural breadth of CLR James, the honesty and simplicity of style of Arlott, the perceptive qualities of David Foot, the coolness of Mike Brearley

All this romanticism is easily parodied, as Peter Sellers and Peter Munro Smith demonstrated in The Boundary Book: "Broiling afternoon... deck-chairs under the spreading... the muted coo of pigeons in the immemorial... cucumber sandwiches... distant tinkle of ice in lemonade jug... satisfying clunk of pad against willow... warp and woof of very fabric... shadow of church spire imperceptibly... white figures moving like ghosts in ancient... where else but in England would you..."

The - for want of a better phrase - tweedy English view has dominated the literary representation of cricket in the past: romantic, lyrical, infused with a sense of love and loss. It has produced works of passion, elegance and beauty; yet at the beginning of a new century the tradition appears played out. The convoluted, self-conscious style of the Cardus school is unwieldy for modern readers; we want our prose in black and white, not purple. Its anglocentricity is absurd for a game where the balance of power now lies on the Indian subcontinent and in Australia. The commemoration of the past is dangerous for a sport which must quickly find a role for the future. Cricket writing, like cricket as a whole, must remake itself.

In doing so, the model should perhaps not be the elegance and erudition of Cardus or Alan Ross but the astringency of R. C. Robertson-Glasgow, the cultural breadth of C. L. R. James, the honesty and simplicity of style of Arlott, the perceptive qualities of David Foot, the coolness of Mike Brearley, the bloody-mindedness of Simon Hughes. Wit, vision, a close reading of the game, a sense of its languor and lunacies, rather than unremitting reverence, should henceforth dictate the play, dominate the field.

Michael Davie and Simon Davie's excellent anthology, The Faber Book of Cricket, did unearth one piece of cricket prose by an unquestionably great writer, Evelyn Waugh, though he was only 20 when he wrote it. It was published in the Oxford student magazine Cherwell and recounts a disastrous day when his cricket-mad brother Alec drafted him into a college side to play a village team in Hertfordshire. It is everything that the traditional, lyrical view of village cricket is not. "When I returned home, I reasoned thus with myself," wrote Waugh. "Today I have wearied myself utterly; I have seen nothing and no one of any interest; I have suffered discomfort of every sense and in every limb; I have suffered acute pain in my great toe; I have walked several miles; I have stood about for several hours; I have drunken several pints of indifferently good beer; I have spent nearly two pounds... But my brother maintained that it had been a great day. Village cricket, he said, was always like that."

The rosy-eyed romantics should declare and let the revisionists in to bat. Subvert the stereotypes of cricketing parsons and public schools, hymn the joys of global cricket, let writing play its part in re-energising the game for a new age, a generation less devoted to a dreamy past. The pen may yet prove mightier than the sward.

Stephen Moss is a writer on the Guardian. He was the paper's literary editor from 1995 to 1998

© John Wisden & Co