What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?
-CLR James, Beyond a Boundary
Test matches are novels, and I mean literary novels that are doorstoppers. Yes, I’m talking cricket, for the World Cup fever – following up with the Ashes – is still lingering. A three-day match could mimic a novella, one-day encounters are equal to short stories, and would readers further forgive if I compare a T20 blast to flash fiction? Writers such as Will Self and Howard Jacobson lament "the novel is dead"; there are sports auteurs that say the same about one-day cricket (test cricket died two decades ago). For their benefit, the twenty-over format was invented as an elixir to aid cricket’s survival. Kindle was going to forever change our relationship with bookshops and booksellers. And Silicon Valley was going to give us flying cars.
Let’s go through the prophecies. Fiction writers remain the hardest bunch to book for any event, especially if their novel is published during the year. No, it's not because they are complete hermits, it’s their popular demand. No tickets were available during the recently concluded World Cup, unless you knew someone important; or, alternatively, you spent endless hours scanning the Internet for a reseller. Kindle is preferred only when traveling and we are often stuck in traffic with vehicles that do not fly, occasionally dreaming of Marty and Dr Brown. You get my drift. It is about making predictions.
Human nature revels in deploying the four words "I told you so" whenever possible: Brexit, Trump, and Bangladesh losing to Pakistan. All things disastrous; and it’s somewhat easy to pose as Nostradamus on social media because there’s no accountability for your words. The poseur’s ploy, thus, is simple: make a series of forecasts (all negative), and if they are proven wrong, no hearts are broken; instead, they are lost in the ether – the human race does not care when the mood is jubilatory. There’s neither the need nor the inclination for digital autopsy. Also, you are a plain nobody, but I digress.
In Self and Jacobson’s defence, they made their point by writing well-argued essays in reputable newspapers. They are happy to face their critics in debates and other literary events. The cricket "pundit" from Bangladesh, on the other hand, has no skin in the game, for all his predictions are effectively traceless. They never become published pieces, not even in a mofussil paper. But he’s happy to be lionized as a connoisseur of the game because he "usually" gets it right. Like every time Bangladesh loses. Hallelujah.
This brings me to the crux of the matter: where are our cricket writers? For a nation so enthused about the game, such ravenousness for our team’s success, and with a rich literary, bookish culture to boot, why aren’t we producing folks who’ll merge the two passions? Will the wonderful Mohammad Isam remain our sole representative in international cricket journalism? Where are the stories, a novella, or a novel that weaves around the game?
We are quick to lambast poor performances and share our expert opinions on social media and perhaps on WhatsApp groups, which is fine – doing this in real time with fellow fans form a certain kind of camaraderie and bonhomie that non-fans will find bizarre. But I get it. It’s a form of pressure release, too, especially if one is caught up in the vehement unpredictability that makes a good game. Nonetheless, why stop there? Perhaps one could take the gist of the comments and cobble together a short piece to be considered for publication? It’s high time our poor culture of trolling gets replaced by constructive criticism and in the form writing.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the handful of cricket sessions at Dhaka Lit Fest, to put it mildly, were not exactly bestsellers, even with names like Gideon Haigh, Heath Streak and Ramachandra Guha.
An ardent fan of the game, VS Naipaul would regret his hands were too small to catch a cricket ball. Writing for Encounter magazine in 1963, Naipaul praised Beyond a Boundary as the finest book to come out of the West Indies. The two eventually met in London (on Oxford Street) and continued their communication via letters. That’s another story for another day. Beyond a Boundary is not only the best book on cricket, it’s arguably the greatest sports book ever written. In time for the World Cup this summer, the copyright holding publisher (Penguin/Vintage) reissued this classic, and 56 years later, it remains timeless.
If James’s book proves to be too much of a meditation on the game and the West Indian culture, one can start with something breezier: Pundits from Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya is full of warmth and humour. Ex-cricketer Mike Brearley has written excellent books on cricket, and management gurus make use of his seminal The Art of Captaincy today. And there are three English cricket writers I enjoy, and none were professionals, but boy, what beautiful books they gifted us: Alan Ross, EW Swanton and the great Neville Cardus. At this point it is worth noting, in this genre, CLR James is a cut above the rest, even amongst the very best.
Nonetheless, you might be inclined towards the world of fiction, and good news - there’s choice in that genre, too. From our sub-continental friends we have the aptly titled Chinaman, which won the DSC Prize for Shehan Karunatilaka, The Match by Romesh Gunesekera and Selection Day from the Booker winner Arvind Adiga is unique: you can even watch it on Netflix (after reading it, of course). Further afield, one can try Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, a different flavour of the game comes through the story as it is set in New York. By the way, you don’t have to be a fan of cricket to enjoy any of these books; they might not be all-embracing for you but they certainly won’t be yawn-inducing.
I’m particularly fond of The Picador Book of Cricket (edited by Guha) as it allows you to sample various pieces, from all over the world, in one place – just like any decent anthology should. Of course, it doesn’t list any Bangladeshi name, for there are none. This should change. If we are going to tolerate a culture of cricket punditry, it’s only fair we expect to see their wizardry in print. Less talk, more words – on paper please! Howzat?
Ahsan Akbar is Director of Dhaka Lit Fest. [email protected]