Friday, June 1, 2007

The Heat of the Contest Reheated

By Stuart Sharp

Cricket has tended to produce a stronger body of writing than most other British sports. It’s not on a par with some American sports perhaps, but there’s still a substantial body of writing out there. There are a few theories on why that is the case. Some people put it down to the age of the sport, some to an intellectual air artificially cultivated around it. A few think it’s just a coincidence. Personally, I think it’s down to rain.

If you have a sport that stops every time the heavens open, a sport that takes a while to complete at the best of times, then everyone from players to journalists are left looking for something to do. Sooner or later, one of them will start a book, if only to stave off insanity.

Whatever the reason, a fair number of books on the game of cricket have been written. I have copies of more of them than I ever intended buying. Looking through them, it’s easy to see that a lot of them fall into clear categories.

A quick comparison suggests those categories are pretty consistent across a lot of sports, even if I’m only going to discuss them in a cricketing context. Hopefully, even if you don’t follow this particular sport yourself, the types of books involved will be fairly familiar. Besides, surely the mark of a good sports book is that it can stand up as a piece of writing even if the reader would never willingly watch the sport in question.

Let’s get the ghostwritten autobiographies out of the way first. The endless, ENDLESS ghostwritten autobiographies. We all know why they exist. They are there because well meaning relatives are doing their best to think of presents for birthdays, Christmases, and other occasions. They know enough to know that you like a given sport, and that Tiger Woods is a golfer, Shane Warne a cricketer, and so on. Logic dictates that if they buy books with their names on, they’ll have bought a present you’ll enjoy. This is one of those cases where logic and common sense aren’t entirely the same thing.

The problem is that most of the ghostwritten sporting biographies aren’t really that good. In theory, they combine the candor of an autobiography with the professional writing of a biography. In practice, you get a book chained by the “star’s” desire to show themselves in a good light, yet also devoid of the personal voice of the autobiography.

Much of the time, we’re all better off with a simple biography, particularly for cricket. Many modern players are a bit too careful about what they let slip for really interesting autobiography, and a lot of the most interesting names of the past suffer from the minor difficulty of being dead. While I could make some sort of pun about ghost writing, I’d rather just point out that it tends to make autobiography a bit difficult.

Of the cricketing biographies around, one of the best is Gideon Haigh’s Mystery Spinner, about relatively obscure Australian player, Jack Iverson. The story of someone who in his mid-thirties went from hardly playing the sport at all, to being one of the best in the world, and then back to obscurity all in the space of a few years is strong enough that you don’t really need to like or understand the sport for it to be worth reading. As I suggested above, that has to be the best measure of success.

A few histories of the sport don’t take the form of biography. It’s a more specialized field, and a less popular one, because cricket has always been more interested in the mythology of great players than the social context in which it was played. Derek Birley’s Social History of English Cricket is one of the better examples of those that do exist.

Most readers will probably be less interested in old instructional books, master classes with greats of the game who are now long dead. They’re worth a note here though, if only to mention the friends I have who swear by them. Rather than go within a mile of the current ECB coaching manual, a friend of mine learnt his cricket out of a book called MCC Masterclass, featuring hints from cricketers of the nineteen-seventies and eighties. Something must have worked, because he quickly became a mainstay of the team we both played for at the time.

I suppose I’m even worse, since I’ve been known to leaf through Headly Verity’s book Bowling Em Out, which he wrote in the mid nineteen thirties, when looking for inspiration.

I suspect that might be the point. The modern coaching manuals almost certainly come from a sounder biomechanical basis, but somehow they’re not as inspiring as something that’s come from the experiences of one of your sporting heroes. Just as importantly, you know that what’s being described has already worked for someone.

To give us the experiences of more modern sporting heroes, we have the sporting diary. Former Australian captain Steve Waugh seemed to churn one out every other season, swearing that the discipline of the writing was good for his game. Current Middlesex captain Ed Smith expressed similar sentiments in his book On and Off the Field, his diary of the 2003 season.

But in some ways, the most interesting cricketing diaries are those written by players lower down the ladder. Simon Hughes, who never made it into an England team, nevertheless produced a good account of county cricket in A Lot of Hard Yakka, and followed it with Morning Everyone, his account of life as a writer and commentator on the game.

My personal favorites are the not very serious diaries sometimes produced by players in the club game. Books like Marcus Berkmann’s Rain Men are designed to be funny, and manage it easily, but they occasionally make me wonder whether the writers had hidden cameras trained on a couple of the teams I’ve played for. Given the theme of “heat”, I suppose I should also mention Harry Thompson’s book Penguins Stopped Play at this point.

Moving past the diaries we get to the ephemera, the apparently random collections that suggest that either the writing was so good it simply had to be preserved, or that someone woke up a week from a deadline and realized they had to throw a book together. Normally it’s the latter.

So we get the A-Z guides to the sport that only really became workable once Shane Warne came up with his “zooter”, the collections of sporting obituaries that don’t have the space to tell us much of anything about the people concerned, and the collections of articles that have already appeared in other places.

It’s the last of these that are probably worth reading. The main difficulty lies, as with sports writing everywhere, in avoiding the vitriol that makes good news copy but less effective books. While there are certainly collections from the big names of cricket writing, like Neville Cardus and Jim Swanton, for more modern writing my personal vote goes to Gideon Haigh’s collection Game for Anything.

I’ve deliberately left my last two categories for the end, because they are probably the most under populated categories of cricket books. Literature and cricket have only mixed sporadically, even if we note that apparently J.M. Barrie was a very useful slow bowler when he wasn’t writing.

It says a lot about that paucity that the best example I can think of is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, “Spedague’s Dropper,” rather than anything longer. There’s always the realm of cricket poetry, but most of it is so saccharine no one would want to read it.

The other area for which there isn’t much to be found is books that look outside the confines of the sport to others. Since that’s just the sort of comparison I’ve avoided making throughout this article, I suppose I can’t complain, but it’s such an obvious gap that it’s strange more people haven’t filled it. Again, only a single example springs readily to mind, Playing Hard Ball, by Ed Smith, which compares cricket and baseball.

So, after a brief trawl through cricket’s literature, what have we learned? Maybe it’s that sports writing falls into categories that are pretty universal, and that some themes cross the boundaries of particular sports. Maybe it’s that there are still some cricket books worth reading even if you have no interest in the sport. Hopefully, it’s something more than the fact that I’m a little obsessed by cricket, because I would have admitted that anyway.

Personally, I’ve learned what I’m going to be doing the next time a match I’m in gets rained off.

I’m going to be writing.

1 comment:

Fence said...

"the collections of articles that have already appeared in other places."

This is part of what makes the internet so great. You find an article you like online and you clipmark it, or send it to or what ever social tool you use and then one day you suddenly have a collection all your own :)

I don't know much about cricket, although I did pick up a tiny amount after we(Ireland) did so well (for us) at the World Cup.