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The (literal) art of cricket

CLR James was right when he said cricket holds a claim to being regarded as an art form

Andrew Hughes
Andrew Hughes
What do you see when you think VVS?  •  Getty Images

What do you see when you think VVS?  •  Getty Images

"Cricket is an art, not a poor relation, but a full member of the community."
This bold assertion is made in Beyond a Boundary, CLR James' seminal cricket work. He wasn't indulging in flowery prose. He was advancing a clear, intellectually rigorous case for regarding cricket not just as the finest of all sports but as an art, and in following his argument, we are forced to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about cricket and why we watch it.
James believed that cricket is a dramatic spectacle, to be considered alongside theatre, ballet and opera. Although all sports have this quality of drama, the personal contest between batsman and bowler, which is the very essence of cricket, sets it apart:
"Cricket reproduces the central action which characterises all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own; two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group."
He asserted that cricket's structure also embodies one of the fundamental aspects of theatre, in that each delivery is both a self-contained event and part of a series, building to a conclusion, like the scenes of a play. This isn't the case in sports such as football, where much of the action can be incidental to the outcome. Baseball has a similar structure to cricket, but cricket is superior from an artistic perspective, since the batsman has a wider selection of shots at his disposal than the baseball batter, and hence a greater range of expression.
James went further and argued that cricket is a visual art. The painter or sculptor often attempts to capture the essence of human movement, and while a single delivery is over too quickly to be appreciated as a work of art, in cricket the ritual of bowler delivering the ball and batsman playing a shot is repeated hundreds of times, building up an impression of stylised human movement on the imagination:
Your subconscious mind appreciates cricket as a visual form, a tactile phenomenon, an art, even though your rational mind may not fully have accepted it
"These motions are not caught and permanently fixed for us to make repeated visits to them. They are repeated often enough to become a permanent possession of the spectator which he can renew at will."
When you watch AB de Villiers play the pull shot, you are not just watching and registering his style, you are also comparing the shot to the thousands of others you have seen, in the gallery of your imagination; comparing, rating and enjoying.
If James is correct, when you go to a cricket match, you are not just a spectator, cheering for a certain team, but a connoisseur of a particular art form, whether you're watching a Test or an IPL game (although in the case of T20 the experience is less like a leisurely stroll around an art gallery and more like catching a fleeting glimpse of a series of paintings at a busy railway station).
If cricket is art, then there are also implications for cricket writing. Perhaps cricket journalists, as well as performing their traditional role of information providers, could be more frequently called on to aim higher, relating to the reader the significance of the action, not just in terms of scores and results but by setting the style of the players in the context of those that have gone before. If the cricket writer were allowed to evoke in the reader's imagination the experience of watching a certain passage of play or of enjoying a particular player displaying his or her craft, they would be doing justice to the art of cricket, as Neville Cardus does in this passage describing Wilfred Rhodes bowling at Sydney in 1903:
He overthrew some of the most celebrated batsmen that ever lived, on a cast-iron turf, by subtlety in the air. Flight - the curving line, now higher, now lower, tempting, inimical; every ball like every other ball, yet somehow unlike; each over in collusion with the rest, part of a plot; every ball a decoy, a spy sent out to get the lie of the land; some balls simple, some complex, some easy, some difficult; and one of them - ah, which? - the master ball.
But the fan need not wait for the writer. You are already your own art critic. Read the name VVS Laxman. What is the first thing that comes to mind? I'm willing to bet it wasn't anything to do with batting averages or national pride but rather an image of him playing a sublime leg glance or perhaps beaming widely as he raises his bat in celebration.
How about a batsman with a more prosaic method? Think of Alastair Cook. When you read his name, do you immediately think of a highly effective opener who has scored thousands of runs for England, or do you see his chiselled features in the sunlight, fixed in a rictus of concentration as he crouches to receive the next delivery?
How often have you polished an apple as though it were a cricket ball, or found yourself rehearsing a cover drive with an invisible bat, or taken guard with a rolled-up newspaper? As Oscar Wilde put it, life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Your subconscious mind appreciates cricket as a visual form, a tactile phenomenon, an art, even though your rational mind may not fully have accepted it.
Art is long, life is short. Cricketers come and go, teams rise and fall, tournaments are arranged and forgotten, but the cricket fan retains in their memory all of the spectacle, the drama, and the rich tapestry of visual impressions that they have built up in their lifetime. This is the true value of cricket. Going to a Test match or an IPL game is no less a cultural experience than attending an art gallery or the theatre. It is sport, pastime, and for some, it is business. But as well as these things, it is undoubtedly art.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. @hughandrews73