The close links between cricket and literature may help to extricate you from a tight spot. A quick change of subject may be advisable for those who find themselves out of their cricketing depth, and a nodding acquaintance of how some writers are connected to the game might provide the necessary life raft.
The creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, PG Wodehouse, could be described as the patron saint of cricketing bluffers. ‘A man may be an excellent sportsman in theory,’ he wrote, ‘even if he fail in practice.’ Quite so.
In a book called Beyond a Boundary, the Trinidadian writer CLR James unhelpfully coined a more dispiriting aphorism: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ Don’t worry about what this means. Simply say wistfully that it is the seminal work on cricket.
What is crucial is that you should exploit any overlaps that might exist between your particular areas of knowledge (politics, literature, tropical fish, whatever) and, by definition, your limited grasp of cricket. That’s the key to becoming an all-round cricketing bluffer – with a safety net.
Luckily, literature is full of handy cross references. Some famous novelists like Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope have included cricketing scenes in their books. Other, usually lesser, writers have produced fiction entirely devoted to the game. Hugh de Selincourt’s The Cricket Match and AG Macdonell’s England, Their England are useful examples.
More useful to bluffers are wordsmiths who had a crack at the game themselves. You might well impress someone by knowing which Nobel Prize winner played first-class cricket and which writer of detective fiction took the wicket of WG Grace. Here, then, are some names to conjure with.
He might have created Peter Pan but his real passion was cricket. Sadly, he was pretty hopeless at it. A contemporary described JM Barrie as ‘small [he was 5ft 3in], frail…and there was nothing athletic about his appearance’. That, as all bluffers will know, is not necessarily a handicap. To his credit, he not only stuck at the game but put together his own team – Allahakbarries Cricket Club.
It was mainly composed of other literary coves including the creators of the Father Brown stories (GK Chesterton), The History of Mr Polly (HG Wells), Winnie-the-Pooh (AA Milne) and Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K Jerome).
To be fair, they never claimed to be much good. They called themselves the Allahakbarries because Barrie thought Allahakbar meant ‘Heaven help us’ in Arabic. (A more accurate translation would be ‘God is great’.) On the way to their first game, one of their number confessed that he didn’t know which side of the bat was used to strike the ball.
Unsurprisingly, they were thrashed by their opponents – the village team at Shere in Surrey. Nevertheless, the Allahakbarries carried gamely on through many Edwardian summers, almost up to the outbreak of the First World War.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In contrast to JM Barrie, Doyle was an all-round sportsman. A strapping six-footer, he kept goal for Portsmouth FC, captained Crowborough Beacon Golf Club, pioneered skiing in Switzerland and played 10 first-class games for the MCC.
His bowling was slow and described as of ‘puzzling flight’; so puzzling, in fact, that in 1899 he took seven for 61 for the MCC against Cambridgeshire at Lord’s. He was also a hard-hitting batsman; in 1902 he scored 32 not out against Leicestershire and made a top first-class score of 43 against London County.
His crowning glory came in 1900 when he captured the wicket of WG Grace in a first-class match. The great man, playing for London County, was 52 and had scored 110 to notch up his 1,000 runs for the season. Perhaps, though, it was Doyle’s puzzling flight which fooled him into hitting a top edge which was caught behind. Doyle was in seventh heaven and proceeded to write an extremely long poem about it. Who can blame him?
Doyle is best known, of course, for creating Sherlock Holmes, whose name, apparently, was inspired by two Nottinghamshire cricketers: Mordecai Sherwin and Frank Shacklock.
Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E W Hornung, created A. J. Raffles — ‘the amateur cracksman’.*
Living beyond his means and finding himself eternally ‘hard up’ (despite being a cricketer that regularly represents England in Test matches), Raffles supplements his income with a series of daring burglaries, ably assisted by his old school friend – ahem – ‘Bunny’.
Hornung’s vision of a ‘cat burglar’ as a prominent member of London society and a national sporting hero is hopelessly outdated, as we know. These days, he would be a 73-year-old second-hand car dealer from Kent.
*(That’s a safe breaker, incidentally.)
As a player, observer and passionate fan, Wodehouse had a thorough grasp of all the nuances of cricket. At Dulwich College he was an accomplished fast bowler but he once concluded in an essay on the game that ‘it is, on the whole, better to be a cricket spectator rather than a cricket player. No game affords the spectator such unique opportunities of exerting his critical talents.’ Spot on, old boy!
While many of his readers would consider Jeeves and Wooster his finest creations, Wodehouse apparently told George Orwell that he thought his best work was a public school cricket story, Mike.
As a new boy facing the school’s best bowler in the nets, Mike Jackson is asked whether he’s in a panic. Wodehouse writes: ‘The fact was that he had far too good an opinion of himself to be nervous. An entirely modest person seldom makes a good batsman. Batting is one of those things which demands first and foremost a thorough belief in oneself.’
His novels featuring Psmith are equally perceptive. In Psmith in the City, Wodehouse describes a country house game during which a bank manager commits the cardinal crime of walking in front of the sight screen as a player is on the verge of a century. Few things are more frowned on in cricket apart from, as previously discussed, accepting a bribe.
In his younger days Wodehouse occasionally stiffened the attack of the Allahakbarries with his right-arm, fast medium bowling. Later, when he had given up playing and emigrated to the USA, he confessed to missing the game more than any other aspect of English life.
‘Hanging around for something to happen’ might be a description of watching a dull passage of play in a cricket match or of any passage in Samuel Beckett’s best-known play. Waiting for Godot helped the Irish writer win the Nobel Prize and confirmed him as one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. What is less well known is his aptitude with bat and ball.
In his youth Beckett was a ‘gritty’ (his own description) left-handed opening bat and a medium-pace, left-arm bowler. He played two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire, thus becoming the only Nobel laureate with an entry in Wisden. Looking at his figures, literature didn’t rob cricket of a brightly burning star. He averaged a meagre 8.75 with the bat and bowled 23 wicketless overs for 64 runs.
The rhythm of Harold Pinter’s plays, with their long pauses and occasional bursts of action, has also been compared to the game of cricket. Like Beckett, Pinter was a Nobel laureate who mined the absurdities of the human condition and was mustard-keen on the game.
Although Pinter didn’t play at first-class level, he was associated for many years with the ‘Gaieties’ – a club for players of a theatrical persuasion. He also came up with an entertaining quote about cricket: ‘I tend to believe that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth. Certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.’ This might have been something he didn’t share with his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser.
The cast of one of his plays, No Man’s Land, includes characters named after former players. There’s Hirst (George Hirst, Yorkshire all-rounder), Briggs (Johnny Briggs, Lancashire slow bowler) and Spooner (RH Spooner, Lancashire batsman). Pinter’s hero, though, was the great Yorkshire opening batsman Len Hutton whom he first saw as a boy when he was an evacuee in Leeds. Hutton’s bat, he recalled, seemed ‘an extension of his nervous system’.
Pinter also wrote a number of screenplays which feature cricket, including Accident (starring Michael York and Dirk Bogarde) and The Go-Between – his adaptation of the LP Hartley novel which opens with the words: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’The same could be said of cricket. Pinter did much of his writing in a room full of cricket memorabilia, including a full set of Wisdens (about 150 volumes).
At Charterhouse school, Simon Raven played in the same team as Peter May who became one of England’s finest batsmen. Unlike May, Raven was a bit of a bounder with, as someone once said, ‘the mind of a cad and the pen of an angel’. He wove cricket into fiction more convincingly than most other twentieth-century writers. In an early novel called Close of Play, the on-field action is integral to the plot. It concerns a dissolute young man called Hugo Warren, taken under the wing of a kindly prep school headmaster and former Kent county cricketer after his parents’ death.
When the school falls into financial trouble, Hugo reneges on a promise to help in favour of alcohol, sex and cricket. What a frightful cad. In the course of a match he even manages to kill his cousin by striking him with a vicious pull shot. When, eventually, the failing prep school is sold to make way for a council estate, a last game is played before the bulldozers move in and Hugo has a memorable final stand with his mentor before being drowned in the swimming pool by friends disgusted by his selfish behaviour. That’s cricketers for you – driven by a sense of fair play and an unerring need to do the right thing.
Another of this neglected writer’s books, an autobiography called Shadows on the Grass, earned the distinction of being described by cricket writer EW Swanton as ‘the filthiest book on cricket’, a title which it is safe to assume is not often contested.
At his best Raven captures the joy, brutality and subtlety of cricket in a vivid present tense. As for his caddishness, at least it was usually witty. When he received a telegram from the mother of his child saying, ‘Wife and baby starving send money soonest,’ he sent the following reply: ‘Sorry no money suggest eat baby.’
Keep your asking rate down, old chap — buy The Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket.