First, a disclaimer: I have met Jon Hotten on a couple of occasions, on the second of which I took the field with him last year for the Authors XI. Jon - and, as we're former team-mates, I'll refer to him in this review by his Christian name - may not have altogether fond memories of that late summer day. He had the misfortune to split the webbing of his hand in the field, and was obliged to drop down the order from his accustomed No. 4 to No. 10.
These were not the ideal conditions for my forming a judgement of his prowess: he made a brave, uncomfortable 2 in about eight balls. And yet, and yet: even in that short time, I could see his slim body making the shapes a cricketer's makes. How could I tell? As any cricketer of any experience will know, you just can. I offer that not so much in praise of Jon, as because it seems to me what Jon has brought to cricket writing in the last eight years: those things that because you play or have played cricket you can just tell.
I first became aware of his writing soon after the debut of his blog the Old Batsman, in November 2008. I think I may have been steered there by Jarrod Kimber, another member of a gifted generation of cricket bloggers, avant Twitter, to whose works I grew decidedly partial, as they seemed to be doing much the freshest and zestiest cricket writing around. As an old batsman myself, I rejoiced in Jon's WG Grace's avatar, and his tone of seriousness without earnestness.
Traditionally the recreational cricket voice has been that of the larkish duffer. The better quality player in the lower reaches of the game - the guy who makes hundreds, takes five-fors, discriminates between bats and generally looks the part - has not been well represented. Maybe he has been felt to spoil the fun. But in some respects that kind of player is more exquisitely positioned: at some time he probably wanted to go further, but for whatever reason did not. Continuing to play, then, perhaps with a certain chagrin at thwarted ambition, although maybe also with relief at diminished expectation, is to stand at a very particular relation to the game, and also to be involved in a form of self-inquiry.
Jon's particular knack with the Old Batsman has been for expressing abiding, rich and sometimes romantic ideas in a succinct and allusive form, in the same way as a perfect cover drive can express an entire innings, or even a whole career. I'm not sure that anyone, even the splendid Jarrod, has been able to accomplish so much so variously so economically in the blogpost form: shorter than a column, longer than a tweet, persuading and hinting, teasing and delighting, so that each short work became like the opening sally of a witty but generous conversationalist. Every thought was considered, every word watched. Jon was an amateur cricket writer - he was an accomplished journalist in other fields - who regularly and artfully outshone the pros.
Jon's particular knack with his blog has been for expressing abiding, rich and sometimes romantic ideas in a succinct and allusive form, in the same way as a perfect cover drive can express an entire innings, or even a whole career
Gradually, and perhaps inevitably, he has turned pro, with delirious success in his raw retelling of the story of Simon Jones in The Final Test (2015). But having followed him so assiduously does not, perhaps, make me the ideal reader of Jon's The Meaning of Cricket; or How to Waste Your Life on an Inconsequential Sport. Because my initial sensation on reading it was disappointment, not because of any particular shortcomings but because I had read so much of it before. On the basis of the title, I had looked forward eagerly. Meaning of cricket? What better topic for the OB? But steadily it dawned that almost the entirety of the text was reproduced or repurposed from the blog, plus some contributions to the Nightwatchman and ESPNcricinfo, something not formally acknowledged until page 221.
What matter, you may ask? After all, in this Jon joins a literary strand of cricket: Cardus was always repackaging his newspaper writings; heaven knows I've done the same. Yet these have been clearly marked as such, and I can't help thinking that a certain circumspection is due in these circumstances. Pieces have contexts from which it is exceedingly difficult to divide them. At times, too, Jon's repurposing has either not gone far enough, or should not have been attempted: the chapter "Fast Cars Look Fast", for example, elides two pieces, about facing Merlyn, the spin bowling machine, and about T20 batsmanship, only very loosely related, which a bridging quote cannot disguise.
For as long as I continued hoping for an inquiry along the lines of the title, I also found myself quibbling, or wondering why certain questions had eluded such a clever author. The opening chapter, owing a duly advertised debt to Tim O'Grady's On Golf, involves an elucidation of batting's kinaesthetic challenges. Which is all fine, except that it flinches from something deeper. Why have we always tended to write about cricket from the batsman's perspective? Why is it always his/her challenges that are considered so unique, so definitional? The ball is not propelled by impersonal forces - it involves another striving, conscious ego. So in this sense, the adoption of an idea from a golf book is a rather unnatural borrowing, or at least it limits cricket to two dimensions - interesting enough, but partial, and a little mechanistic.
Then - my feelings this time a kind of unconscious remonstration with the subtitle - there looms the question of cricket's '"inconsequentiality". For when Jon comes to writing about his blog's avatar, WG, he airily elevates him to a plane with Shakespeare, Joyce, Einstein and Bobby Fischer; Brahms, Tolstoy and Mozart are namechecked too. Was I detecting here a somewhat strained plea for cricket's consequentiality? Maybe every consequential writer who makes a show of deferring to cricket's triviality obscures a sneaking yearning for a recognition of cricket's importance. It would be an excellent subject for Jon - here he missed an opportunity to make it his own.
Anyway, that ceases my chiding, and I hope it is clear that I am holding my erstwhile team-mate to a high standard, if a standard he has led me to expect of him. For, especially if you have not been a follower of the Old Batsman, The Meaning of Cricket is lively with insight and anecdote, replete with finely turned phrases.
The best of it, I think, is in the persona that first drew me to Jon's writing: that of the knowledgeable and fascinated practitioner engaged by the methods and mentalities of others. I relished rereading Jon's account of facing Steve Malone in the nets at Hampshire ("The net I had just left seemed like another country, a distant memory from a happier time"), his feelings watching Mike Atherton hook ("It was as if that stroke was the little deal he'd done with himself for all of that denial; a seam of silver in the rock"), and his observations of Mark Ramprakash's physicality ("I looked at his hands, which were extraordinary, spade-shaped and heavy, his fingers and the pads of his thumbs thick and muscled from the thousands of hours of gripping and ungripping a bat handle"). There is all summer, and all warmly reconsidered childhood, in a passage such as this:
In the 1970s, English cricketers did not look like gods. They did not look like athletes. Some of them didn't even look like cricketers. Bob Woolmer could have stepped from an illustration of a schoolboy in a 1950s comic: pudgy hands, chubby cheeks, a slight paunch, but with a general air of well-fed vigour. The England captain Tony Greig's nearest physical equivalent was John Cleese; when Greig approached the crease to bowl, he wasn't so much running as unfolding like a seaside deckchair. David Steele, who batted at number three, wore thick glasses and had grey hair. Derek Underwood, a freakish spinner who bowled at almost medium-pace, had the look of a distracted Oxford don; a severe forehead with a few combed-over strands and a gentle, flat-footed run.
On amateur cricket Jon is alternately hilarious and poignant, but it's when he's in his almost-a-pro-yet-somehow-not-quite vein that he truly breaks out. He considers cricket's capacity for revealing us to ourselves in admitting his self-created glass ceiling: "In my heart I knew that the game filled me with fear. I secretly dreaded every step up, because before I took it I could live in the fantasy of not knowing. I was pretty sure that Barry Richards didn't feel that way." He evokes cricket's masochistic allure as crisply as anyone ever has: "A career in cricket is in part about the accrual of scar tissue, the thousand and one small cuts of disappointment and defeat that weigh on the psyche and extract their price." Wonder if he was thinking of that split webbing just then….
Here, then, notwithstanding my earlier qualifications, is a writer to follow, possessed of a keen eye and beating heart. Maybe down the track he'll write the definitive book on the meaning of cricket - he's more than capable of it. It's simply a pity he'll already have used the title.