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What’s not cricket?

Meet Angus Calder: Scot, poet and cricket fan

Angus Calder

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Reproduced from Last Magazine, summer 2000.

Don’t get me wrong. Although (or perhaps because) I am a Scot, I love cricket with a peculiar fervour, as I find many fellow poets do. Playing cricket on a fine day in high summer in England can be wonderful. Early on, there is the fresh smell of mown grass. As heat builds up, those few spectators are grateful for the shade of trees heavy with leaves which surround an arena of apparent calm, belied by the fierce concentration of 13 men out on the field. A sensational catch or magnificent shot will raise little whoops of applause. Otherwise, the movements of beings in white flannels might suggest a mysterious rite conducted by angels. Strip away all the mythology from this ‘most English of games’ and a core of genuine beauty remains.

But the first myth which has to go is that this game is ‘quintessentially English’. The national sport of England is association football, as in Scotland. In Wales, of course, there is rugby union. Meanwhile, cricket is definitely the main game in all four countries of the Indian sub-continent. (Incidentally, I have just learned that it was a Scot who introduced it to Sri Lanka.) Though US ‘sports’, if basketball and baseball deserve that name, are tending to supplant cricket in the West Indies, it has been central to the development of Anglophone Caribbean identities. For well over a century, Australia has beaten England more often than not in Test Matches.

Indeed, if, at some faraway airport, I fall in with a stranger from Karachi, Johannesburg, Auckland, or Port of Spain, Trinidad, we will likely soon find common ground discussing with professed concern and barely suppressed glee the latest disasters of the England cricket team. Cricket, in fact, is the game through which the Empire has Struck Back.

But to some extent my ex-colonial brothers share the superstition that there is something especially upright and noble about cricket. This is embedded in the language, where one ‘plays a straight bat’. (As it happens, some of the most beautiful shots in cricket simply cannot be played with a straight bat.) I think the shock in April when Hansie Cronje, the especially Christian captain of South Africa, was caught out in conversations with an Indian bookie, and it turned out that certain English players had been accused, like Cronje, of taking bribes to lose matches, lightly rocked most of the Commonwealth of Nations. The honour of cricket, sole virgin among sports, last refuge of Arthurian chivalry and Raj highmindedness, had been sullied. Woe, oh woe, piped up in the English press.

Any sane comment on this must begin by evoking the solid excrement of male cattle.

Cricket has never been saintly. Gambling was closely involved in the game as it developed its code of rules in the nineteenth century. Certain very great cricketers have been addictive gamblers themselves. Keith Miller and Garfield Sobers were known to get themselves out at, say, 3.10 if they had money on a horse running in the 3.15. In the famous Headingley Test Match of 1981, two of the most ferociously competitive cricketers of all time, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, could not resist odds of 500 to 1 against England prevailing against their own side and cleaned up when Botham, Willis and others performed uncanny heroics to beat the odds. I can no more believe that these very tough guys sabotaged Australia’s effort (and remember there were nine other players in that team) than that Cronje, equally combative, ever willed South Africa to lose.

Cricketers no more resemble Parsifal and Galahad than do practitioners of other sports. It was the Cult of the Public School Amateur which fooled otherwise intelligent men into believing that True Cricket was Truly Pure. ‘Play up, play up – and play the game!’, shouts the ex-public school cricketer to the troops in Newbolt’s wonderfully ludicrous poem, as the Empire is in danger of being defeated by fuzzie-wuzzies. No doubt a lot of jolly good chaps from boarding schools, having had the cult drummed into them, played pretty good county cricket as amateurs, very purely, down to the 1960s when that status was abolished at the top level. But Test-class ‘amateurs’ were often merely men from posh backgrounds who earned from the game, in perks, backhanders and promotions, much more than plebeian professionals on poor artisan wages. My hero in youth was the great ‘amateur’ batsman Peter May. I wonder how much he was paid for his signature engraved on the bat I bought? Watching, at the Oval, the wonderful Surrey team which he captained in the 1950s, one saw him sally out on to the field alone, from the ‘amateur’ dressing room, while 10 professionals surged out of their cramped quarters. Such hypocritical snobbery persisted even after England had at last bitten the bullet (in 1951) and appointed a professional captain for the national side.

Cricket in other countries has been infested with colour prejudice. In England, ‘class’ was the main nasty element. Despite the valiant recent efforts of liberal editors it is still enshrined in Wisden, the cricketer’s indispensable annual bible. You will look there in vain for the records of the Lancashire Leagues. The format there was that 10 genuine plebeian amateurs took the field for a one-day match with one ace professional, often a Test cricketer from overseas. In the 1930s, while a few old gentlemen on the boundary snored their way through boring three-day county matches, the great Trinidadian all-rounder Learie Constantine was packing huge crowds into Lancashire grounds with his fast bowling, hurricane hitting and astonishing fielding. His position as the highest-paid sportsman in Britain was justified by his crowd-pulling capacity. Wisden solemnly recorded every statistic of the least consequential match played in his day by one of the ‘counties’, run by gentlemen. Even the resources of the great National Library of Scotland have not enabled me to track down full records of the career of that mighty black man hired to entertain the Lancashire working classes.

Let’s hope that the Cronje affair, and the associated scandals affecting other great names, will assist the demystification of cricket so that everybody can see it, shorn of class and shorn of ‘purity’, for what it, very simply, is – the most beautiful and absorbing of all team games. Forget ethics – let’s argue about aesthetics. Yes okay, I’ll grant you that the long pass of that sadly limited human being, David Beckham, is also exceptionally beautiful, and I can vie with Welshmen in rhapsodising over Phil Bennet’s great long-remembered try against Scotland at Murrayfield. But there’s nothing to beat the sight of a fine spin-bowler pinning down a great batsman, over after over, or Shoaib, the ‘Rawalpindi Express’, scattering stumps with a ball fired down at nearly 100mph. I rest my case.

Angus Calder is a journalist and historian, and editor of Wars, an anthology of prose and verse published by Penguin.

Reproduced from Last Magazine, summer 2000.

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