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Where incompetence is celebrated: a devilishly complex theology


Cricket is a funny game, and you would imagine that it is a rich field for comic writers.

When the Scot Donald Cameron sees the following headlines in newspapers in England, he is almost “numb with the cold of sheer panic.” England Overwhelmed With Disaster, says one. Is England Doomed? asks another. A late edition mentions the Collapse of England.

Cameron soon discovers the truth. This is not about a war or an attack by aliens. It is the “sad story of England’s shame in the second Test match against Australia at Melbourne.”

England, Their England, where this is taken from was published in the 1930s. It feels dated now, but has the best-known report of a cricket match in fiction. Written by A.G. Macdonell, this classic on the quirks and foibles of the English as seen through Scottish eyes, was much anthologised, and even included in some school textbooks. The final catch that tied the match takes four pages to describe, suggesting perhaps that the skier takes as long to descend into safe hands as a reader might take to read about it.

Wodehouse on the game

Cricket is a funny game, and you would imagine that it is a rich field for comic writers. P.G. Wodehouse, a fan who named his immortal butler after the Warwickshire all rounder Percy Jeeves, only occasionally touched upon cricket in his later books.

Psmith in the City, where Mike Jackson gets out on 98 because someone walks in front of the sightscreen shows how much fans missed this especially after Wodehouse settled in America and golf supplied the sporting raw material for his comic pen.

Cricket is like sex in the ridiculous postures one gets into. And this is only one aspect of it. But while cricket has been used to comic effect occasionally by the likes of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hughes, it has seldom been given the full-length treatment.

Funniest genre

The most popular and funniest genre is the pitiless description of all-round incompetence — of individual or team — and about the characters whose passion far outstrips their ability. As Marcus Berkmann says in his Rain Men: The Madness of Cricket, “To be treated with the respect you don’t deserve is the dream of every talentless sportsman.”

What makes such a person carry on season after season? “At some cathartic moment in our stunted childhoods,” Berkmann explains, “this ridiculous sport inveigled itself into our consciousnesses like a virus and never left.”

Rain Men mirrors the experiences of players everywhere, especially amateurs who take their game seriously. Berkmann’s team is Captain Scott XI (named after the explorer who is symbol of the second best, arriving at the South Pole a few days after Roald Amundsen became the first man to get there).

In much the same vein is Gideon Haigh’s Many a Slip, which the author describes as “a short book about a small cricket club with an unremarkable history and an uncertain future”.

Berkmann has also written Zimmer Men: the Trials and Tribulations of the Ageing Cricketer. Written a decade later, it is about the talentless of the first book who have aged and slipped further.

Only the truly obsessed can summon up the detachment needed to write humourously about the game. Here is why cricket is a religion, explains Rain Men: “We already have the trappings. We have the devilishly complex theology whose baroque byways confuse even the most dedicated adherents. We have the curious vestments, for white is a holy colour in many religions. We have our holy book (Wisden), published each April in both hardback and paperback editions.

“For matters of doctrinal policy, we can consult God’s own representative on earth, the chairman of selectors…. We have no room in cricket for doubt or equivocation. Anglicans may believe that Christ was resurrected after death, but we know that David Gower should have gone to India in 1992-93…”

It is, as one reviewer put it, “a very funny book about some very sad men.”

Personal favourite

A personal favourite in this genre is A La Recherche Du Cricket Perdu by the marvellous Simon Barnes (“favourite cricket writer: James Joyce”), an anthology of 25 pieces written by him in the style of various writers such as Melville, Lawrence, Dante, Ian Fleming, Boswell, Eliot, Tolkien, Homer, Nabokov, Twain, Beckett, Conan Doyle, Chaucer and Shakespeare himself (‘The Tragedy of Prince Botham’).

The Love Song of J Derek Pringle by ‘T.S. Eliot’ begins thus: Let us go then, you and me/When the members are spread out after tea/Like patients etherised upon their various tables.

In book three of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, (where at one point the Ashes get stolen from Lord’s), Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent, “We can’t win against obsession. They care, we don’t. They win.”

It is useful advice for both players and writers .

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