Sports writing is, to borrow a phrase, a funny old game.
It isn’t news, and it isn’t really comment. It reports stories where the reader is often already aware of the outcome.
Perhaps this is why sports writing has a long and peculiar history of being personal, elliptical, even obscure. Hunter S. Thompson is, of course, a sports journalist. His tales of fear and loathing are a product of the fact that his exact turn of phrase would not cause, for instance, the whole machinery of government to turn on him.
Elsewhere, B.S. Johnson’s experimental novel The Unfortunates was provoked by one of Johnson’s forays into the midlands to cover a football match in a strange town, only to find it wasn’t a strange town at all.
Note that I’m not talking here about writers who are sportsmen: though there have been a fair number, from Arthur Conan Doyle (cricket, football), through Camus (football), Nabokov (tennis, football), to Tony Adams (football, drinking). Near the top of that list would be Samuel Beckett, the only Nobel laureate to have played first class cricket. Fascinating, but a subject for another day.
What I’m interested in today is the tradition of sports writers, and in particular, why the greatest of all are the cricket writers.
There are many more in the canon, but with the exception of the likes of Frank Keating, it seems ever fewer than there used to be.
In fact, as is usual with this sort of tradition, one of the indications that the tradition is still strong is, ironically, the number of complaints that all the greats have gone. Unlike football, which with small exceptions, continually pretends that the current generation are the greatest we have ever seen, cricket constantly harks to a golden past, where Cardus endlessly reported in glistening prose the sublime performances of Don Bradman, the feats of both remaining ever out of reach.
Well, of course, they’re not. The sprats of the present soon become the whoppers of the past. Dour old Michael Atherton is rehabilitating his reputation nicely, and Devon Malcolm, a frustrating scattergun of a fast bowler in his day, is perfected in the memory as the fellow who was hit on the head while batting agaist South Africa, murmured “You guys are history” to himself, and returned to take nine wickets in the next innings.
It happens to the players, and it happens to the writers. In a decade cricket writers will be harking back to Keating, in thirty years tyros like Lawrence Booth will be regarded with a sort of puzzled fondness.
Maybe it’s just the relief of England squaring the series against South Africa, and perhaps it’s a soft view of the Boy’s Own performance put in by England’s cart-pulling all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, but this appreciation by The Guardian’s David Hopps tickled me no end.
“Quick, get the beers, Freddie’s in.” A similar cry sounded for Ian Botham 25 years ago. Now it rings for Flintoff. Gary Kirsten might best be admired with your back to the television screen but not to watch Flintoff is like going to Blackpool Pleasure Park and not riding the Big One.
Like all the best sports writing, it captures something you saw, and felt, and wished to share. The art of the cricket writer is knowing not only how to share it with you, but how to fit it into the sense of cricket as a whole entity, a cultural enterprise.
Incidentally, this sense of cricket having a cultural - maybe even a political - resonance, as CLR James would have it, can help to explain many deep-seated feelings. What better metaphor for the meandering curlicues of aggression
between India and Pakistan than a Test series? What better illustration of the different mental universes of the British and the American than the fact that cricket remains a mystery to them? If the typical American could be brought to understand a game that necessarily involved whole mornings in which nothing much happens, perhaps we would be subject to less precipitous handbagging of perceived enemies.
Very well. I may not be entirely serious here, and the Old Cricketer’s writing style can boom and parp after a while, but one thing is heartfelt:
roll on the winter tours, where nobody in their right mind and gainful employment can watch the overnight coverage, and the writers will take to the centre for another long session.