Whispering Death: The Life and Times of Michael Holding by Michael Holding with Tony Cozier

I enjoy watching cricket, so when looking for books from the West Indies for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that a few cricketers must have written books. But I had previously resisted that temptation; because it seemed like an unimaginative choice and, let’s face it, because sporting memoirs tend to be pretty dull.

But in a moment of weakness I ordered Michael Holding’s autobiography from 1993. Holding is one of my favourite cricket broadcasters these days: he seems like a thoroughly nice man, he talks well about cricket, and his rumbling Jamaican accent is one of the great voices in broadcasting. And Tony Cozier, who is a great radio commentator, is a good person to have as a ghostwriter.

Sadly, this book is indeed fairly dull. It’s not a bad book — in fact it’s probably better than average for a sportsman’s memoir — but it’s not one of the rare examples that transcends the genre. There are all kinds of ways one of these books could stand out: it could be funny, or psychologically insightful, or gossipy and indiscreet. But instead this is just a solid, professional bit of writing. Perhaps some of the opinions expressed were controversial at the time, by the mild standards of sporting controversy; but it’s no Ball Four.

In the last chapter, he mentions in an offhand comments that he has three children by three different women, only one of whom had been his wife; and you suddenly get a sense of all the things he hasn’t been telling you. Not that I particularly need to know about his love life, but it’s part of a broader professional discretion. And ‘discreet’ is not the most exciting quality in a memoir.

Michael Holding is from Jamaica, but Whispering Death is my book for Barbados, where Tony Cozier is from. Mainly because there are lots of good choices for books from Jamaica and not so many from Barbados.

Anyone But England by Mike Marqusee

Subtitle: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket. Mike Marqusee is American, although he has lived in the UK since 1971.

I guess it shouldn’t be taken for granted that an outsider will have a clearer view of cricket than someone brought up with it; it would hardly be surprising if an American who became a cricket fan was seduced by the tradition and history of it, the whole nostalgic, self-serving image cricket tends to have of itself. Paul Getty being the classic example.

But Marqusee is a left-winger who first started watching cricket during the West Indies tour of England in 1976, a series when the race and class tensions surrounding cricket were made more explicit than usual.

And so he is clearly angered, rather than attracted, by the gentility and clubbability and the bacon‑and‑egg ties. In fact, given that all that stuff is such a huge part of English cricket culture, it’s amazing that he became such a clearly devoted fan of the sport.

The result is a very pointed examination of the sins and hypocrisies of English cricket. They picked this brilliant quote for the front cover, from Test Match Special commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins:

‘A very intelligent book, very cleverly written, with a lot that provokes thought. But I am uneasy about the way he has a go at just about everything that cricketers hold sacred’

I mean, what right-thinking person wouldn’t want to pick it up after reading that?

So it’s comparable to Derek Birley’s excellent A Social History of English Cricket in the way it provides a counterbalance to the game’s self-image; but with the focus mainly on the modern game and with rather more needle to it.

It makes uncomfortable reading at times for an English cricket fan. All those incidents which at the time seem like minor sideshows to the game itself: when you read about them all at once one after another, it starts to look pretty ugly.

I’m not sure that English cricket administrators and journalists are uniquely bad, mind you; I daresay if you subjected Australia or the West Indies or India to the same kind of inquisitorial examination, they would have their own different failings and embarrassments. But that’s a pretty weak defence.

I was reading the third edition, from 2004; one measure of my enjoyment is that when I finished I was left thinking, hmm, I wonder what Marqusee would have said about the things that have happened since: like England’s 2005 Ashes win. Or the IPL. Or Allen Stanford. So yeah, I recommend this book.

Egypt, the cricket, and dead tree news

The current situation in Egypt has been the second thing recently that has made newspapers feel like a ludicrously old-fashioned technology.

The first, more trivially, was the cricket. England were playing in Australia, and because of the time difference, each day’s play was starting just before midnight and running until 7.30am — optimally designed to mess with the papers’ printing schedules. So I would stay up late and watch an hour or so of the match, go to bed, wake up in the morning in time to hear the very end of that day’s play and a bit of discussion from the commentators, and wander downstairs to look at the newspaper, which would have reports on the play which had ended the previous morning. So it was effectively a full 24 hours out of date. And although I understand why it was a day behind, it still felt ludicrous: like picking up the paper on a Monday and finding reports about the football from the previous weekend instead of the one which just finished.

In the case of Egypt, of course, it’s not the time difference, just a highly unstable situation. I have been following it with a great deal of interest and mixed emotions throughout the day, following the live blogging and TV coverage from the Guardian, the BBC and Al-Jazeera online. And when I wake up in the morning, the idea that I would turn to the newspaper for news just seems ridiculous; I go straight to the computer to check what’s happening.

This isn’t something new, of course; newspapers haven’t been the place to go for fast-breaking news stories since the invention of the wireless, and their position has been steadily eroded by television, then 24 hour news channels and eventually the internet. But it seems so stark now; I read the paper every day, but I’m more likely to get breaking news from Twitter.

That’s despite the fact that I actually like newspapers. I like having something lying around the house which I can pick up and browse through while I eat a sandwich. I read the columnists, I might do the crossword, I check the TV listings, maybe look at the film reviews. I will even read the news coverage, I just don’t do it expecting to be surprised.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of iPad* newspapers, even though it is clearly the obvious technical solution. I like paper newspapers. You can scribble notes on them, use them with sticky fingers, spill things on them, and split them into sections so that more then one person can read them at once. They don’t weigh much, and you can discard them when you’ve finished with them. But they don’t fulfil the same role they used to.  One way or another, they’re going to have to adapt to that. If they want to be at the cutting edge of hard news journalism, they have to be electronic. If they want to survive as paper objects… well, that’s the difficult sentence to finish. And if they want to keep making money? That’s anyone’s guess.

One thing I would say is: I’m not pessimistic about the future of news-gathering. Just the future of newspapers. There is a line of argument that, if newspapers can’t find a way to make money in the digital age, it will be a disaster, because we need journalism and someone has to pay the journalists.

Now, despite the frequently revolting behaviour of the British press (i.e. 1 2 3), I do strongly agree that we need journalism.  I have been glued to the coverage from Egypt and I admire the people who are willing to go out into the chaos to bring back that news. Newspapers are part of that; and I don’t claim to know what would step up to replace them if they all went bust tomorrow.

So this is a statement of faith, to some extent. But I just don’t believe that a technology which makes the distribution of information easier than ever before in human history is going to have the net result of reducing the amount of information available to us.

* or, you know, whatever non-Apple device eventually emerges as serious competition.

» image: Ricky Ponting, captain of Australia, looks pensive as he considers the situation in Egypt.

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That’s ‘cricket’ in Welsh, since the first Ashes test is being held in Cardiff. Assuming the rain holds off long enough for them to play, that is: it’s certainly not very promising in London, but of course it hardly ever rains in Wales.

Come on, England.

Yay for Twenty20 cricket.

I’ve really been enjoying the Twenty20 World Cup, and the more I see of twenty-over cricket and the more it matures as a game, the the more I think it’s a brilliant invention.

Someone has finally invented a form of the game where every ball is interesting. Before it started, the assumption was that T20 would be all about sixes; but it’s equally true that it’s all about dot balls. I mean really, a form of cricket where a dot ball is an exciting event: it’s a fucking miracle.

And I love the fact that it legitimises six-hitting. Even Test-cricket purists love to see big sixes. But really, in Test cricket, it’s a self-indulgent shot; the shot of a show-off. You can argue, perhaps, that it’s a valuable weapon in the psychological battle between bowler and batsman; and there are a few situations, like hastening a declaration or when a batsman is running out of partners, where it makes more sense; but the honest truth is that usually the extra two runs are just not worth the risk.*

In 20 over cricket, though, where run rates are so important, it is an entirely reasonable calculated risk. Even in Twenty20 there’s a risk of overvaluing sixes; it’s noticeable that the most successful batsman of the tournament, Tillekeratne Dilshan, is not a big six-hitter, and has racked up most of his runs as fours. But it is certainly a legitimate shot, and as a supporter you can just enjoy the spectacle, without that queasy sense that it’s all about to go pear-shaped.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the different pleasures of Test cricket. Admittedly, it can be the most tedious game in the world. But at its best, the slowness of Test cricket is its great strength. It’s the gradual ratcheting up of tension, the shifting balance of bat and ball, the psychological endurance needed for a long innings. At its best it doesn’t just produce exciting moments, it produces engrossing passages of play that develop over an hour or an afternoon — which is why it never works that well as highlights. It’s seeing the batsman playing and missing over and over, the ball whistling past off stump, that creates the atmosphere for the release of tension when the batsmen hits a beautiful straight drive for four — or the bowler sends the off stump cartwheeling.

But if we are going to have a short form of the game, then let’s get rid of the fifty over game, which is neither one thing or the other, and so often drifts towards a result which is entirely predictable with twenty overs to go.

And incidentally, if there were ever two countries who were in need of a bit of light relief to distract them from the more dismal realities of their domestic politics, it would be Pakistan and Sri Lanka. So let’s hope for a great final.

* Kevin Pietersen has played the same number of tests, 52, as Don Bradman; Bradman scored six sixes, KP has scored 48. Bradman converted 70% of his 50s into centuries and 29% into double or triple centuries. KP has converted 53% of his 50s into 100s, which is actually pretty good, but only scored one double hundred. Admittedly, comparing anyone to Bradman is a bit harsh. But still.

» The photo, Brooding sky @ the cricket, is © Mark Elkins and used under a CC by-nc licence. I suppose it’s a bit odd to illustrate the post with a shot of the groundstaff preparing the pitch instead of the actual play, but I liked the shot.

Tweaking sports

Watching Wimbledon, I was thinking about how much the appeal of tennis depends on the scoring system. You have to win games by a two-point margin and sets by a two-game margin, so at the key moments in the match, when it’s tightest, the drama is artificially enhanced: the balance can swing back and forth between the players.  But on the other hand, a 40-0 game is worth exactly as much one that goes to deuce and a 6-0 set is worth the same as one that goes to a tie-break. And that means that there is always the chance for the losing player to pull back.

As a thought experiment: the minimum number of point you have to win in a five set match is, if I’ve got my maths right, 72. So what would tennis be like if you scrapped the games and sets, and the winner was the first to 120 points? I assume it would be much less entertaining, as one player would tend to gradually pull out ahead and the match would just peter out.

But what would happen if you altered other sports? Some have made the experiment for us. There are various forms of cricket that use basically the same rules but take different amounts of time to play; the extremes are test cricket (five days) and 20-over cricket (about four hours). The five day game is gradual, attritional; it rewards virtues like concentration, will-power and consistency. The short version is explosive and fast-scoring; it rewards power, flair and risk-taking.* Both versions can produce great drama, but they are quite different to watch.

It gives me the urge to tweak other sports. For example, I don’t know much about ice hockey, but when I have watched it, as a soccer fan, it seems like the ice is just too crowded; there’s not enough time and space for anything to happen. So how would the game change if the rink was four times the size? Hell, let’s do the same with basketball — a much bigger court, perhaps a couple more players on each team.

I’m not suggesting that these innovations would definitely make for a better sport: it’s just a curious thought experiment. Maybe there’s a something waiting to be invented, some simple change to an existing sport that would magically make it much much better: American football with smaller teams, ping-pong with bigger tables, soccer without goalkeepers, indoor polo. Perhaps (probably) these ideas are stupid, but who knows?

If any of these ideas are, unexpectedly, brilliant — well, we’ll never know. There’s the weight of tradition that makes sports fans scream bloody murder at the idea of tinkering with their favourite sport; but also it would often take years to find out if a radical rule-change was, on balance, better or worse. It’s not enough to take existing players, ask them to play to new rules, and see what happens: you need time to see how it develops, for thoughtful people to come up with ideas and try them, for a new style of play to develop. Time for the law of unintended consequences to kick in, but also for people to adapt to to it.

But it’s fun to consider the possibilities, so any suggestions about how to improve your own favourite (or least favourite) sport should be posted in the comments.

* I won’t try to explain why this is true, since I know most of my readers come from non-cricketing nations, and those who know about cricket will understand already. And for those who do know about cricket: yes, this is probably an over-simplification, but hey-ho, it’ll do.

» The photo is Men’s Wimbledon Final 2008- Federer Vs Nadal, posted to Flickr by and © channy937.

The sad decline of West Indies cricket

There was a good documentary on last week about the West Indies tour of England in 1976. The tour was notable in part because before it started the South-African born captain of England, Tony Greig, said in an interview

“These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel.”

The West Indians, not surprisingly, took offence at his phrasing—it doesn’t sound any better for being in a South African accent, either—which gave the series had a bit of an edge to it. Here’s some frankly scary film of Michael Holding bowling to Brian Close. I know most of the people who read this blog probably aren’t really interested in cricket, but if you’re ever going to watch a cricket video, make it this one:

It was also the great heatwave summer in the UK, and a time of distinct racial tension in England anyway, including a riot at the Notting Hill Carnival. They had some great footage filmed in Brixton that year by a young black amateur filmmaker to compliment the film of the cricket and all the talking heads.

It gave me a kind of sweet and sour fake nostalgia. Fake I don’t remember 1976; I was a toddler, and presumably spent most of the summer being uncomfortable because of the heat and making sure my mother knew about it. But there’s nothing like a bit of 1970s sports footage to create a sense of instant retro.

Sweet and sour because, as a documentary about race relations in the UK, it was possible to look at it and feel we’ve come a long way in the right direction. These days no one worries that the Notting Hill Carnival is going to develop into a full blown race riot. But as a documentary about West Indian cricket, it made a sad contrast with the West Indies team currently playing in England.

That team in 1976 thrashed England, with particularly spectacular performances from Holding and Viv Richards; but it was just the start of a period when the West Indies completely dominated world cricket. After Greig’s ‘grovel’ comment, it was 13 years and 19 matches before England managed to beat the West Indies again. And that wasn’t because England were rubbish. Between 1976 and 1996, the West Indies played 39 Test series against all opposition; they won 26, drew 10 and lost just 3.

For a whole generation of people, including me, the West Indies was synonymous with cricket. They were the best and most exciting team in the world. They seemed to have an endless supply of terrifying fast bowlers; towering men whose bowling had a real physical threat to it. Their batsmen were pretty special too. Here’s a little compilation of the great Viv Richards playing against England:

The West Indies team in England this summer produced some good individual performances, but England won the series comfortably without needing to be ruthless or brilliant to do it. It’s not just that they don’t live up to the great teams of the late 70s and 80s; they are really quite bad. Their situation has become so desperate that it’s not even much fun beating them any more. The West Indians on the commentary team, including Sir Viv himself, were simmering with frustration at having to watch it.

It’s not just the falling standards of West Indies cricket that stood out, though. The crowds have changed as well. In the film of the matches in 1976, the crowd is full of black faces—the West Indian population of England turning out in force to support their team. It’s most striking at the Oval, only a couple of miles from Brixton. You can see it in this film of Michael Holding (again), notably in the pitch invasion when he takes Greig’s wicket. Notice, as well, how the heatwave has bleached the grass:

That kind of local support isn’t there any more when the Windies tour in England. And whereas at one stage there were plenty of British West Indians coming up through county cricket and indeed playing for England, apparently they too have largely disappeared. I guess this is a sign of increasing integration; cricket isn’t the most fashionable of sports, and if all the young men from West Indian backgrounds are more interested in playing football, it only puts them in line with their contemporaries. But it does make cricket matches between England and the West Indies just that bit less interesting.

Meanwhile, there are now a lot of players from Asian backgrounds playing county cricket and starting to come through to play for England. And when England play Pakistan in Manchester, the children and grandchildren of Pakistani immigrants come out in numbers, blowing horns and waving flags in support of Pakistan. I guess it’ll be a sign of that their position in Britain has been normalised when they lose interest in cricket. Perhaps the next generation of potential fans will be bored stiff by their fathers’ misty-eyed reminiscences about watching Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Yousuf, and just want to play for Manchester United.

Cognitive dissonance at the cricket

The first international cricket match of the season started on Thursday; the F.A. Cup final is tomorrow. Which must make it the official start of summer.

Dunst and a wicketkeeper

I was watching the cricket on TV today and of all people, there was Kirsten Dunst, at Lord’s, drinking a cup of tea and watching England’s middle order knocking the West Indies bowling attack all round the park.

Presumably she was there in her capacity as girlfriend of Johnny Razorlight, but you have to wonder what she made of it all. I mean I like cricket and have been watching it for years, and I still find it somewhat slow. Perhaps Johnny filled some time by explaining LBW to her.

The cheerful-looking bloke I’ve edited into the picture above is Dan Lockyer, wicketkeeper for Glasgow University Staff Cricket Club. All I know about him is that Google found him for me when I was looking for wicketkeeper pictures.

Soccer in the US

All the coverage about the position of soccer in the US, and whether Beckham moving there will have any impact, had me thinking. If his new home ground is only half-full, he’ll still be playing in front of about 13,000 fans. It’s true, that’s not very many compared to the Bernabéu or Old Trafford, but it’s a good crowd for a match in the Rugby Union Premiership and a miraculous one for county cricket.

Average attendances for soccer in the US (the 5th most popular team sport) are significantly higher than those for rugby in the UK (the 2nd most popular team sport). In fact, according to this list of sports attendances on Wikipedia, the English rugby premiership draws the biggest audiences of any non-soccer league in Europe, and it still only has an average attendance of 10,271; not just less than Major League Soccer, but less than the National Lacrosse League in the US.

Perhaps ‘why don’t Americans like soccer?’ is the wrong question. More interestingly: why does Europe only manage to support one team sport as a megabusiness while North America supports three or four? Why is Europe a sporting monoculture?

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Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.

Nearly time for the Ashes

Just an hour until the start of the Ashes. Since the play is going to run from something like midnight to 7am, I’m not going to listen to it all, but I want to at least stay up to hear the start of play.

I can’t help feeling that England have less momentum going into this series than the last one, but if our key men play well — Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard particularly, but the batsmen as well — I don’t think Australia will find it easy. We’ll miss Simon Jones, but we’ve still got match-winning bowlers.

I’m kind of blathering at this point.

*fingers crossed*

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the clean, dry corpse of a parrot

From Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That:

24 June, 1915, Versailles. This afternoon we had a cricket match, officers v. sergeants, in an enclosure between some houses out of observation from the enemy. Our front line is three-quarters of a mile away. I made top score, 24; the bat was a bit of a rafter, the ball a piece of rag tied with string; and the wicket a parrot-cage with the clean, dry corpse of a parrot inside. Machine gun fire broke up the match.

I read the Graves at school, but I’d forgotten that little gem. I found it in A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley, a book which I’m finding more entertaining than the slightly dry title would suggest. It would also make an excellent choice for the list of books to explain England, since all the social changes of the past 250 years have been reflected in the development of cricket. The class system is especially well represented. Although it does contain an awful lot of cricket anecdotes which might be a bit impenetrable to our notional foreigner.

Thinking about Englishness lead me to re-read My Five Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin, who was the KGB handler of the Cambridge Five. It really is the most extraordinary story. Having started with an Englishman playing cricket behind the lines in WWI, let’s end with another posh chap maintaining his Englishness in difficult circumstances:

I know that Philby didn’t much care for the character in The Human Factor who is supposed to be modelled on him, a whining fool who ekes out his days in a Moscow hovel. His own circumstances were totally different, what with his huge apartment, his magnificent view, the copies of The Times, Le Monde and the Herald Tribune to which he had subscribed, the videotapes of cricket test matches and the pots of Cooper’s Oxford marmalade sent from London.

We really are caricatures of ourselves sometimes.

Just not cricket

What a complete farce. I just hope the England players and management have the sense to keep their heads down and stay out of the argument as much as possible. Let Pakistan and the ICC sort it out between themselves.

EDIT: Simon Barnes is good on this.

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Summer days driftin’ away

Flicking channels the other day, I was horrified to come across ‘Live Champions League Football’ – a pre-qualifier between Arsenal and Zagreb. Much as I like football, the start of the season marks the start of winter. It always seems especially grim to see football before the end of the cricket season.

Despite the realities of the English weather, I always visualise cricket bathed in sunshine. As long as the cricketers haven’t fluttered away like swallows in search of warmer climes, I can pretend it’s still summer; and as far as I’m concerned the footballers could do the decent thing and wait until after the Oval test against Pakistan. I’m sure everyone in Zagreb will be watching the cricket anyway.

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The ‘cricket test’

Talking about cricket and politics yesterday, one thing I didn’t mention was Norman Tebbit’s famous ‘cricket test’. Tebbit is a Conservative politician, and in an interview in 1990, he said

A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?

I actually think he’s right that it’s an interesting test, even if it’s a mistake to read too much into it. After all, if someone is from a Pakistani family and has grown up with a cricket-mad father telling them stories of Javed Miandad and Imran Khan, it’s natural for them to support Pakistan and that sporting allegiance doesn’t necessarily prove anything about their patriotism. It’s only cricket, after all. And yet you kind of hope that somewhere along the line it would seem natural for them to support England.

The reason I bring it up is that yesterday England were playing Pakistan in Leeds, a city with a large Pakistani community. Playing for England was Sajid Mahmood, and some of the crowd were chanting ‘traitor’ at him. Which seems a bit pointed. It didn’t seem to harm his bowling — the opposite if anything, he took 4 for 22 in eight overs — and he laughed it off afterwards, saying “It was probably my dad down there instigating it!” But still, it’s another example of cricket’s habit of getting dragged into the politics of post-imperial multicultural Britain.

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Cricket and politics

In the comments to my last post about cricket, Scavella mentioned the role of cricket as a ‘vehicle of subversion of empire’. It was always inevitable that cricket would have a political dimension.

For those who aren’t fans, the list of nations that play cricket at the top level is: England, the West Indies*, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. There’s obviously some scope for friction there. For a start, there’s the various kinds of post-colonial baggage in the relationships between England and everyone else. There are local rivalries, whether fairly friendly (Australia and New Zealand) or deadly serious (India and Pakistan). There’s a division between the white cricket nations and the rest, and the awkwardness of South Africa as an ex-white cricket nation trying to produce a more representative team via a quota system. There’s also a psychological division between the Anglophone countries and the Asian countries. The increasing political tension surrounding Islam adds a potential edge to games involving Pakistan and Bangladesh – as indicated by the latest controversy.

What really gives these issues life, perhaps, is the intimacy of the sport. With only ten test-playing nations (only seven before the 1980s), the same teams face each other over and over again. In football, England’s ‘rivalry’ with Argentina consists of about seven matches in 50 years. In the same period, we’ve played 116 tests against Australia, 89 against the West Indies, 60 against India and so on. No match is ever an anonymous one-off against a team you know nothing about. That’s also part of the appeal for the fan; every series brings a long sporting history with it. It can also bring a lot of political issues into the spotlight.

As an example, the liveliest issue over the past few years has been the status of Zimbabwe. Because cricket has historically been a predominately white game in southern Africa, Mugabe’s land reform policies are rather close to home for a lot of people within cricket, and there has been political pressure for England to stop playing Zimbabwe in protest, with the controversy further stirred up by Zimbabwean players protesting against political interference in the sport.

There are always people in these situations who try to insist that politics should be kept out of sport. That’s an understandable aim, not just because part of the pleasure of sport is its inherent unimportance, but because it’s a bit unfair on the sportsmen to burden their actions with such importance. But inevitably politics has a way of getting into everything, whether you want it to or not. Politicians will always try to hijack sporting events if they can see an advantage in it, and sometimes the political overtones are just inevitable anyway.

Just writing all this while listening to the cricket is faintly depressing. I like to think of cricket as being a simple pleasure for long, lazy summer’s days. Ho-hum. Still, England just took another wicket, so that’s good.

*obviously the West Indies isn’t actually a country, but they play as a single cricket team.

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The beauty of cricket

The beauty of cricket, and the reason it can (sometimes) hold your attention for the whole five days of a test match, is that it’s well balanced. In almost any situation, the fall of a couple of quick wickets would significantly change the balance of the match. So even when there’s nothing very exciting happening (and that’s quite a lot of the time) there’s always the possibility that it’s about to.

photo © badgerswan

That’s probably why it’s always been so popular on the radio – because a large part of the pleasure is in the shifting of the balance between the two teams, and the mood that builds up over passages of play. Of course when something exciting does happen it would be nice to be able to see it, but it certainly works much better than most sports. It helps that they have so much time to talk between balls and between overs.

It’s probably true of all sports, of course, that to be successful they need to establish some kind of pseudo-narrative structure. Tennis, for example, would be a much less enjoyable spectator sport if the scoring system was different. You could argue it would be a fairer reflection of the balance of play if, instead of playing games and sets, they just counted up total points scored and the winner was the first to 75. But the gradual establishment of a lead by one player would have less drama than the current system, with its building up of tension towards the set points.

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Harmison’s dew-pearled

The lark’s on the wing,
The snail’s on the thorn,
Harmison is on fire,
Panesar is taking key wickets,
Pietersen is holding his catches,
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!

As I’m sure Browning meant to say.

Not exactly a thrashing

It seems only fair to point out that when I said, about the cricket match between England and Sri Lanka, that Sri Lanka were “almost certainly going to get thrashed” – I was wrong. After following on, they made one of the great comebacks in the history of Test cricket to be 537-9 at the end of the game.

And, again in translation for my American readers, we played one game for 5 days and it was a draw. That’s cricket.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

The NY Times ‘sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”‘. You can see the list of works that got more than one vote here. I’ve read embarrassingly few of them; one that I have read is the most recent, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I read in Spain.

Considering the glowing reviews I read, I thought it was completely ordinary. The historical aspect of it – the speculation of how the US could have wandered into fascism under a Lindbergh presidency – was quite interesting and convincingly done. But as a literary work it did nothing for me. It felt like it could have been written by a journalist or a historian to make a historical point. I was reading it directly after some Pynchon, which probably made the style seem a bit flat in comparison, but still, the characterisation and dialogue seemed unremarkable to me. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood for it, and I’m pretty sure that if it had been set in, say, Surrey instead of Newark it would have been more immediate for me, but I still wonder how it would have been received if it didn’t have Roth’s name attached to it.

The Pynchon, on the other hand (Gravity’s Rainbow), clearly was a remarkable bit of writing, but I’m not sure it was more than the sum of its parts. I think that’s generally a problem, though, with these sprawling, disjointed modernist novels going right back to Joyce and indeed Sterne – can the diversions and oddities justify themselves.

Anyway, I’m now rambling. I think it’s probably a mistake trying to talk coherently about literature and listen to the cricket at the same time. Jayawardene and Maharoof are doing a good job at the moment settling down the Sri Lankans but

And at that moment Hoggard took Maharoof’s wicket, caught and bowled. Leaving Sri Lanka on 129/7 in reply to 551/6 declared, which, in translation for my American readers, means they’re almost certainly going to get thrashed.