In a parallel universe, this weekend should have seen the start of the English cricket season. I have a rather heavily mediated relationship to cricket – I read about it, sometimes (less so since the retirement of Mike Selvey as The Guardian’s correspondent), listen because it’s good background noise, but rarely watch it ‘live’ on TV or, well, live. I used, long ago, to play. Not anymore.
I went through a phase, a few years ago, of culling books, a phase which I now somewhat regret (not because I need to read those discarded books again, but because books make good furniture, and also, because I tend to forget what I have read unless I can physically see the evidence). The exception to this regret is cricket books, which I’m always quite good at getting rid of. I keep acquiring them thinking that they are likely to be better than they turn out to be, and then disposing of them. It turns out that, unlike dogs, cricket books really are often just for Christmas.
Sometimes, reading cricket books can be actively unpleasant. A few Christmas’s ago, I read Cricket at the Crossroads, by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which sounded like it might be an incisive narrative of the intersection of cricket, class, race and politics at the end of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, but which was actually a rather reactionary ramble through umpteen England Test series, which ends with the bizarre suggestion that the ascendancy of the West Indies under Clive Lloyd after 1976 – one of the few sports teams to have attained the heights of political cool – marked the start of a new ‘dark age’ in international cricket (and not in an ironic way). Lloyd ends up being compared to both Henry Kissinger and Nazi war criminals. Reading this book was like being transplanted back to The Daily Telegraph editorial page, circa 1984 (I’m less familiar with its stance these days).
I carry a certain sort of shame about my attachment to cricket. I can’t help it if an important part of my own reading history and selective bibliophilia has involved cricket books. My first sustained engagement with the world of libraries was in the summer of 1980, riding to and from the library in East Grinstead every couple of days, working my way through ‘autobiographies’ by John Snow, Tony Greig, Derek Randall, Mike Proctor, Zaheer Abbas, Barry Richards (the books by South African cricketers all had, as I recall, an interesting generic quality, revolving around protected white boys learning how to get along in the multi-racial worlds which they found themselves in once they left home).
Part of the shame probably has to do with cricket being associated with, amongst other things, a certain sort of dorkishness which also served as part of its attraction. At the same time, books are important to the forms of defence that dorky boys have against that very shame. It’s often claimed that cricket generates lots of great writing. This is nonsense, of course. Most cricket writing, perhaps especially much of the lauded ‘literary’ type, is terrible: lots of flowery adjectives does not add up to great literature.
Another line of defence is also supported by cricket’s written archive – this is the “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know” line of defence, a line particularly appealing to young twenty-somethings doing PhDs on more-or-less-Marxist sorts of topics in a more-or-less-Marxist milieu, while also opening the batting a couple of times a week wearing a silly hat.
There are plenty of ‘academic’ cricket books, or cricket books by academics – writing by Derek Birley, Ramachandra Guha, and Ashis Nandy for example. Mike Brearley’s On Form, an odd hybrid of reflection from the perspective of two professions, cricketer an psychoanalysis, would count too. Andrew Hignell’s Rain Stops Play is full-on cricket-climatology. On the other hand, there is a whole genre of low-level pseudo-intellectual writing about cricket (which can you get you the job of selecting the England team).
Cricket has an affinity with baseball for attracting a certain sort of middle-brow literary-like snobbery. On the other hand, I can think of few cricket books which are quite as smart as Stephen Jay Gould’s Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville or Mark Kingwell’s Fail Better (It is one of the constitutive conceits of English cricket that baseball is a lesser, vulgar relative. But baseball is much more traditional, and a lot less corrupt. It is also subject to a more serious, sometimes profound, degree of over-intellectualisation than cricket).
Anyway, all of this is just an excuse for another list, not so much of my favourite cricket books, not even of books I would necessarily recommend to others as good books, but of cricket books that I couldn’t imagine ever getting rid of because of the resonances they still have for me, personally. For example, Mike Atherton’s Opening Up may or may not be just another standard sports bio, but I cherish it for reading it all in one sitting on an 11-hour flight from Johannesburg to London in 2004, and remember it as a genuinely tragic narrative of unfulfilled potential fully acknowledged, and as the single most incisive critique of the parochial nationalistic vanities of English cricket culture in the 1980s and 1990s (I also have a weak Kevin Bacon-esque less-than-six degrees of separation to part of Atherton’s story, but that’s a very dull story about how my finest cricketing achievement was to not score any runs for a very long time).
Here, then, is my list of five books about cricket that I can’t imagine getting rid of:
1). It’s a cliché to have CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary on a list of must-read cricket books. Quite right too. My copy is actually a US edition, bought in the long-lost second-hand store of Oxford Books in Atlanta, and it has a great introduction explaining cricket to the uninitiated.
2). Anything by Gideon Haigh, which is also a bit of cliché I guess, but Haigh’s writing is devoid of sentimentality and full of critical distance in a way that is almost unique in cricket writing. And his book about club cricket might be the closest cricket writing has come to anything as profound as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. I’ve also had an almost sublime book-buying experience with one of his books – in the summer of 2005, quite by accident, in between the 3rd and 4th Tests of the famously tense Ashes series of that summer, I went on a week’s holiday to Rhodes (booked without any thought of cricketing schedules I should add), and in a weird laundrette-bookshop found the perfect book to get me through that week, a copy of Haigh’s Mystery Spinner, which is another tragic cricket story. Come to think of it, there are a few of them – Chris Ryan’s Golden Boy is one of the best ever books about cultures of toxic masculinity, for example.
3). Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England. This expresses almost perfectly the dynamic of repulsion and attraction that sustained my own interest in cricket throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
4). My own attachment to South African things was in large part shaped by the weird status of South Africa in the public culture of English cricket in the 1980s. There’s a whole book to be written about this issue, of what ‘South Africa’ has meant to Englishness – I could envisage a kind of cricketing variant of Bill Schwarz’s historical account of ‘overseas‘-ness in post-war English culture. Bruce Murray and Christoper Merritt’s Caught Behind is one entry point into a small but sustained tradition of South African scholarship and journalism that puts the romanticisation of lost generations and rainbow readmissions into proper perspective.
5). The Wisden Anthology 1978-2006 (sub-titled ‘cricket’s age of revolution’) is a rather wonderful expression of the shift in cricket culture, traceable in the changing register of editorials from curmudgeonly reactionary Toryism to a rather more pluralist perspective across that period. I read it while buried in the first few weeks of new-parenthood in the winter of 2006-7, and remember it as being a book about a culture that I had been a witness to, and sometimes a participant in, over almost exactly that period.
I could go on. I still haven’t got round to reading my late mother’s copy of David Sheppard’s Steps Along Hope Street – he was something of an idol of hers, I think, without her ever quite sharing many of his avowed values. But I should stop. I don’t even really like cricket anymore. I just know about it.