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A Perfect Match

A new anthology of cricket writings shows how each spectator’s reading of the game gives cricket its special place.

Written by Mini Kapoor |
December 15, 2013 5:55:43 am

As cricket as it is increasingly broadcast comes to resemble a computer game,don’t you sometimes find yourself trying to get a measure of the remove the popularly followed sport is at from ordinarily played matches? It’s a widely shared fantasy,to insinuate yourself into a match among notables. In fact,when it’s been acted upon,it’s produced some fun travel writing — for instance,Harry Thompson’s often hilarious account,Penguins Stopped Play,of roaming all the continents and taking drubbings in different dialects on the chin.

A new book comes together from an altogether more contrived plan,to assemble a team of mostly England-based writers inspired by the original Authors Cricket Club of a century ago,in which Arthur Conan Doyle and PG Wodehouse opened the batting. But the result,a slim collection with each writer given a chapter to take his or her thoughts on the game to a chosen focus,is quite a treasure. The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon is a reminder that cricket’s special place is accounted for by how much each spectator brings to her reading of the game.

Predictably,the book brims with references to CLR James,such is the Trinidadian’s influence on the manner in which generations thereafter would organise the history of the cricket. And historian Matthew Parker jumps straight into cricket’s big question: “Is cricket’s blatantly imperial history a source of shame,or of celebration?” Cricket,of course,became a part of empire’s alibi to pass off colonial oppression as a civilising mission. “Cricket and its values of sportsmanship told white Englishmen something nice about themselves — that they had the moral authority to rule over other races and could be trusted to do so in a decent manner.” (Think of the fair-minded umpires in Lagaan,and ask yourself why that bit of colonial myth did not detain you.) But during his growing up in Barbados,its history of exploitation only just being airbrushed by the picture postcard images of a tourist paradise,he was better placed than most to also absorb an understanding of the liberating role of cricket in giving the former subjects self-belief to refute the racialist assumptions of empire.

Kamila Shamsie,whose novels have telling references to cricket,is the only woman in The Authors XI. And as someone who’s loved the game and followed it without having played it,her essay looks at both what it’s like to be a woman cricketer,and how one makes the transition from watching to playing. She refers to Jhulan Goswami,by some reckoning India’s best woman cricketer,explaining her motivation: “They used to tell me,‘You’re a girl,and girls can’t play cricket.’ But the more they teased me,the more determined I was to play cricket.” She refers to Shazia Khan,former captain of Pakistan’s squad,being asked by Imran Khan why she bothered to form a women’s team when “they will never be as good as the men’s”. And then Shamsie finds that it does not take a heroic quest to fix the gender equation to run into some barriers to inclusion: at Lillywhites,London’s most popular sports goods shop,they don’t have cricket attire for women,and refer her to the boys’ section. But then,even after the ICC has begun to properly support the women’s game,there is still no standard on what shall be the proper reference,“batsman” (batswoman seems to find little acceptance) or “batter”.

Ed Smith,an author who’s actually played Test cricket,has an insightful inquiry into our persistent demand that a sportsperson spill all her thoughts and arguments after play,so much so that it’s become part of the modern athlete’s performance summary. So,he writes: “Here’s a heretical thought. The future of sport will be defined more by the ability to find your true voice than by the business of perfecting your body. When all bodies are optimised,then the playing field is level once again — and the difference will inevitably lie elsewhere.”

Other contributors look at,among other things,how “broadcasting has shaped the mental landscape of the game” (Jon Hotten) and how to ask that politics and cricket be kept separate is to betray cluelessness about sport (Amol Rajan). But then,we should not need to be told of that in a season when India are touring South Africa,with memorial services for Nelson Mandela a reminder of the greater common good to which sport and its competitions can be put.

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