Nicholas Lezard’s choice
Alert to the reader: this, as you will have noticed, is a review of a book about cricket. I am not going to explain any terms to anyone who knows nothing about the game, as it would take up too much space. If you’re not interested in the game, don’t bother reading this. Apologies.
Cricket, as has been observed countless times, is a game richer than any other in anecdote because it takes so long to play (so lots of things happen), places a high value on cogitation (so there is a lot of thinking going on), attracts a certain kind of thinker, many of whom like to write about the sport (so some of the stories are very well told), and is, of course, an utterly bizarre way to pass the time, so some very strange things happen indeed. And its history is long, so unlikely things can happen, such as the tied Test between Australia and the West Indies in 1960, or the remarkable fact that Alec Stewart’s birthday is 8.4.63 and also scored, in test matches, 8,463 runs.
Marcus Berkmann’s book contains an excellent account of the tied Test, and the information about Stewart, which is so wonderfully useless that achieves a kind of transcendence. It tells us (which I already knew) that Samuel Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner ever to have appeared in Wisden; but also, which I did not know, that James Joyce, in his youth, was practically obsessed by the game. However, one should not conclude that either fans or players are any more intelligent than the average person. You can see some remarkably doltish behavior in the stands, and as for the players, not all of them are cerebral. Ian Botham, for instance, used to be called “Bungalow” (before he acquired the more durable nickname “Beefy”) because “there was nothing upstairs”. And one Australian player, when asked what his favorite animal was, replied “Merv Hughes”.
The reason I haven’t named the player (I think it was Steve Waugh) is because there isn’t an index in the book; according to the author, from personal testimony, this is deliberate. The book is arranged, utterly arbitrarily, in order of the players’ birthdays (not all the entries are about players; and there are many digressions about other cricket-related matters, like the vagaries of village cricket, quirks of the rules, and his favorite Test matches), so the book leaps from decade to decade, or even from century to century; you become vividly aware of the depth of cricket history, of its richness and variety, and also its continuity; and it was this sense that, I think, Berkmann wanted to encourage in the reader by not having an index; me, I think he did it to annoy reviewers.
The stochastic nature of the book produces some startling juxtapositions. On page 218 we have Chris Gayle boasting to a female interviewer that he has “a very, very big bat, the biggest in the wooooorld ... You think you could lift it? You’d need two hands”; we learn that he had a strip club built for his home, complete with pole for, um, risqué dancing; and he is immediately followed by Martin Crowe, the talented New Zealand player who died of cancer, aged 53, who wrote in his later years with astonishing emotional insight: “I loved batting. But I used to hate myself and the mask I wore. Off the field I was totally lost.” Just as cricket can accommodate players who are anywhere between 5' 2" and 6' 8", so it contains a wide variety of mental types.
But largely, melancholy is not as present as comedy, except in the fact that so many of the cricketers mentioned have died. But even death, and the passing of time, cannot rub the shine off certain stories. Here is Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, “astoundingly posh captain of Hampshire between 1958 and 1965", being interviewed for a TV program called Junior Sportsview: “To what do you attribute Hampshire’s success?” “Oh, wine, women and song, I should say.” “But don’t you have certain rules, discipline, helpful hints for the younger reader?” “Well, everyone in bed in time for breakfast.” The book is packed with amusing incidents, and Berkmann, whose eye for the game’s comedy has been shown in his excellent cricketing memoirs Rain Men and (to my mind, even better) Zimmer Men, can tell an anecdote himself with all the grace and fluency of a David Gower cover drive.
I must claim an interest in this book: I know Berkmann (but I reviewed his work before I met him), and have even played for his team, called, inevitably, the Rain Men, a few times; I am mentioned in the acknowledgments of the book, although I don’t remember contributing anything. But it is not friendship, or some kind of reviewer’s corrupt practice, that compels me to review this book: it’s because it is so delightful, so higgledy-piggledy, so full of stories I did not know before (many obvious anecdotes are missing, which is a good thing). I have now read this book three times. I tried to eke it out on a long train journey, but I couldn’t, and simply started again from the beginning. And then, when a few weeks had passed, I read it again. I am now on my third re-reading, and am probably close to being able to recite it from memory. So, basically, I haven’t been reading anything else.
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.