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Jonathan Wilson

Why does cricket not lend itself to the novel?

It could be because literary description of sport is almost impossible because of our over-familiarity with the language of reporting

Jonathan Wilson
Jonathan Wilson
Often there is so much actual drama in sport that a fictionalised version almost inevitably seems trite  •  Getty Images

Often there is so much actual drama in sport that a fictionalised version almost inevitably seems trite  •  Getty Images

On Saturday I was on a panel at the inaugural Words & Wickets festival at Wormsley (a genuinely brilliant day out that allowed you, in the space of five minutes, to see a first Folio of Shakespeare, a first edition of Thomas More's Utopia and the actor Damian Lewis being bowled by the novelist Nicholas Hogg; if it is repeated next year, as it hopefully will be, it's definitely worth making the trip - although if I'm on at 12.30 again, you should probably skip that to join the burger queue early).
There were several panel events throughout the day, all generally considering the interaction of cricket and literature. Ours - I was on with Tom Holland, Sandy Balfour and Robert Winder - was supposed to be a discussion of our favourite cricket books but, as is the way of such things, talk veered off down various tangents, perhaps the most interesting of which was why cricket (or sport in general) so rarely makes a productive subject for a novel.
It's a theme that has niggled away at me since - particularly watching the rain fall over the pretty ground at Fernhurst yesterday, leaving me stranded with a batting average of 63 for the summer (2.27 higher, I note with some satisfaction, than the Test average of Herbert Sutcliffe, who was briefly married to a great aunt of mine; yes, it's inflated by a number of not-outs, but it's hardly my fault if they can't get rid of me).
I'm obviously not the only one struck by the theme (of the cricketing novel, not my batting average): Gary Naylor wrote a blog yesterday - suggesting that the nature of cricket, its length, means that our recall of games is in itself largely fictionalised. There's something appealing about the theory - and the habit of filling in the gaps between scoreboard high points clearly does go on. In The Anatomy of England, I revisited ten key England football matches (I've done the same for a book on Liverpool to be published this November). What was startling about revisiting those games, returning, as it were, ad fontes, was how inadequate the shorthand recollection of them now is.
Take, as an example, England's 1972 European Championship quarter-final defeat to West Germany, now regarded as the moment at which the World Cup-winning team of 1966 finally fell apart, brutalised by an opponent playing much faster, more technical, more modern football. That is true up to a point, but actually the game fell into three phases.
In the first half hour, West Germany played extraordinary football, passing and moving in inevitable waves: Franz Beckenbauer described it as an otherworldly experience, the best football he was ever part of, when everything they attempted came off. By the time their rhythm began to falter, West Germany led only 1-0. England fought back and for the next 45-50 minutes, were the better side. They equalised after 77 minutes but then decided to chase the game before a second leg in Berlin and conceded twice in the break to lose 3-1. The nuance is forgotten, sublimated to the narrative of a rising West Germany and a declining England.
Memory shapes what happened to that arc: the newspapers the following morning - back-page headlines in a sense the reductio ad absurdum of the quest for a simple narrative - generally agreed (rightly, as it turned out, at least in terms of English performances in major tournaments) that winter was coming: the game was generally described as England's greatest humiliation since the 6-3 defeat to Hungary in 1953 - which was true up to a point, but only up to a point.
Subsequent history made it seem truer than it perhaps was, but this was a defeat of a different nature to that Hungary game, in which England had been exposed as inferior at every level and had been extremely lucky to lose by only three, as they proved the following year by being hammered 7-1 in Budapest.
But how do you represent that flow of a game, the incremental, barely perceptible shifts of momentum? Cricket, through its length, presents an even harder task. It's difficult enough in a non-fictional sense, never mind trying to imagine a whole game or series of games in such detail. In a sense any piece of writing is about cutting out the dot-balls, using the wickets and the boundaries of life to create a narrative, but how do you do that while retaining a sense of the mood? It's the problem even cricket highlights packages have. Just how do you represent that attritional but vital half hour before tea when only ten runs were scored but the batsmen survived? Or how do you show the six tight overs that preceded and induced the loose slash to backward point?
In Red or Dead, his novel on the life of the former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, David Peace almost eschews match description altogether, preferring to operate in bald lists of results and scores (many have hated this; personally, I found that once you stopped resisting, the effect was hypnotic and strangely poignant).
The problem if you do show a series of dot-balls is that the viewer / reader knows what's coming: five balls being left outside off stump is a sure precursor of an inswinger that wins the lbw, much like when live golf coverage cuts to a player ten shots off the lead standing over a 50-foot putt: you know they wouldn't show it unless it had snaked in and so the sense of surprise that gives the moment impact if witnessed live and without expectation is lost. But what's the alternative? To start broadcasting missed putts by players nowhere near the top of the leaderboard, or to show dull maidens that have no wider significance, just to build up the suspense?
It's lovely to think of what Samuel Beckett might have been able to achieve with a session of 35 for 0 on the final day of a game ravaged by rain so a draw was inevitable but the vast majority of us need some kind of drama
And this, perhaps, is the crux of the issue: most sport is boring and inconsequential. Its boringness and inconsequentiality we tolerate, indeed respect, because there's always the possibility it is leading somewhere. The dead ends are a vital part of giving meaning to the paths that do lead somewhere: without that possibility (probability?) of inconsequentiality, the consequentiality is diminished. In a novel there is a demand for meaning. It's lovely to think of what Samuel Beckett might have been able to achieve with a session of 35 for 0 on the final day of a game ravaged by rain so a draw was inevitable but the vast majority of us need some kind of drama (and, actually, once you've reflected on the essential meaninglessness of life, where do you go from there?).
The problem then is that, interspersed among the tedium, there is so much actual drama in sport that a fictionalised version almost inevitably seems trite. Even in Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, which seems to get as deep into the mind of a sportsman as any novel has, the climactic baseball match feels contrived.
Where sport has succeeded in novels is when it is essentially a backdrop, as the Yankees-Dodgers game is, for instance, in the opening chapter of Don DeLillo's Underworld. DeLillo also used American football as a metaphor for the cold war in End Zone, or there are the tennis academy scenes in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.
Tim Krabbe's The Rider works because it's about the struggle of cycling, of existence, and because it's not really about winning or losing; its main character is not even trying to win the race, just to drive himself hard enough to finish.
And that's where cricket, with its length, has an advantage: it's much easier to plot a novel over five days - even Ted Dexter did it in the wonderfully awful Testkill - than, say, the 90-minute span of a football match. You can dip in and out: somebody makes a phone call, or meets their lover, or kills a fast bowler, and returns to find the openers still together having added a dogged 38 in a little over an hour. In both Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman, two excellent novels, cricket is central, perhaps even vital, as a means of investigating immigration and post-colonialism, and yet neither really attempts much in the way of describing a match.
It may be that literary description of sport is almost impossible, so familiar has the language of reporting become. There are, after all, 380 Premier League football matches and 288 County Championship matches a season. Assuming roughly ten reports are written each day of championship games, that's almost 12,000 reports on championship games each year. For Premier League football, you're probably talking 50,000. And that's without counting European games, FA Cup matches and internationals, Test matches and T20s and ODIs. Is it possible to find a fresh way of describing the relatively limited range of action in those games without writing something so outré as to sound ridiculous? It may be that that the art of match reporting is the deft use of demi-cliché; translating that into literature in a way that remains comprehensible and isn't off-puttingly opaque seems an extraordinary task.
And perhaps there's something we just have to accept as inherent in the forms. Sport is unpredictably dramatic; conventional novels have a structure that demands the moment of drama at a certain point. And if you know it's coming in sport then it simply isn't dramatic anymore.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here