One of the Lucky Ones

Not many novels begin by dissecting a batsman’s play and miss, the “collective in-breath” of crowd and players that follows in the moment of doubt. It is a striking way to immerse a reader into the drama of a Test match, and one we see from the dressing room, an inner sanctum usually off limits to all but the chosen few. The author is one of those, not a player but someone who has won the trust of them, and been absorbed into that world. Nathan Leamon has been England’s team analyst since 2009, helping to find the patterns and hidden truths in international cricket, providing invaluable information and guidance.

Leamon has both excellent insight into the game both in terms on tactical nuance – the difficulty of getting back into a “gunshot” Test, for example, where you just slowly succumb like a wounded cowboy in a Western – and the aura of a Test match – how the members in the Lord’s Long Room cheer the passing England team on like “fanatics driving the peloton up the mountain”. Much of the novel’s strength lies in its realism, unusual for a sports novel, and Leamon’s combination of experience and control of narrative is convincing. It both offers insight into the dressing room and confirms its intimacy, the in-jokes and bonding unique to each one. The use of nicknames throughout is telling – this is the players’ story.

It is also the story of a player, James McCall – Mac to all – and his struggles, on and off the field.  Mac faces the problems of the modern player, worn down by a relentless schedule and a blur of hotel rooms and unable to relax when home. Mac has overcome with a drink problem by the time he becomes England captain, stepping in for the decisive Ashes Test which is the centrepiece of Leamon’s novel. This ascendance is both preordained and ill-timed, a natural culmination and a potential embarrassment. Mac is hanging on to his place in the team and troubled by a knee injury. He seems far from his prime and his relationships with his teammates are terse.

As such, Leamon seems to have written a very modern cricket novel, an attempt to get beyond the crisp whites and lush grass of an English Test match to the physical and emotional pain of the players. Leamon does this extremely well, but it would be a mistake to see this as a new way of writing about cricket. In many ways, he draws on tropes and traditions of fictionalising the game that have been used throughout the twentieth century and earlier. From the martial training of Henry Newbolt’s poem Vitaï Lampada to the idyllic schooldays of P.G. Wodehouse’s Mike Jackson, the batsman is hero, if only he can embody certain values and meet certain standards of restraint. Batting is a way to becoming a better person, a form of self-mastery (no flirting outside off stump), a physical performance of moral standards. Mike can be the match winner only when he stops getting into scrapes that lose him his place in the team; the last man in in Vitaï Lampada must succeed “not for the sake of a ribboned coat/ Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame” if a suitable imperial lesson is to be learnt. Mac the modern cricketer might seem far from such Victorian homilies, but Leamon’s use of various Zen parables suggests that the search for a moral meaning in sport is still present. Batting, especially to save a Test match, becomes a metaphor for Mac’s wider struggles to resist temptation, be it alcohol or a loose shot, a self-flagellating process of strengthening the mind.

Beyond the sense of cricket as ultimately improving, Mac’s story is a very traditional one, almost archaic in the contemporary English game. His journey from school to Cambridge, and then on to Middlesex and England is that of a F.E.C., the neat procession of the anointed. His world is one where a retired professional coaching in your school is normal. Not many cricketing starlets go via Cambridge any more, but the familiarity of the journey is immediate. This is underscored by Leamon’s image of English cricket, a game with “its roots sunk so deep, so entwined with our ideas of ourselves”. Leamon acknowledges the globalised game has left Lord’s lacking its previous position as sporting metropole, but Mac is linked to his cricketing heritage, unmistakably part of a lineage. Mac’s teammates, a mixture of privilege and regional authenticity, fulfil their roles as symbolic representatives of the nation, their lifestyles contemporary but their positions as England cricketers equal to that of their forebears.

The absolution that Mac finds in batting well is matched by the success of the team in resisting, the differences between players in class and temperament smoothed away through success. Sporting achievement creates national harmony. Even if the resistance is ultimately futile, the process of playing well is ultimately improving. Leamon clearly sees cricket as good for the individual and the collective; even if Mac must quit to be truly happy, he must first play a suitable final innings. Mac is able return to the life he wants by retiring, but his success allows him to do so on his terms. His identity, unavoidable given his sporting trajectory, is batsman as hero, achieving, through restraint and perspiration, his best self.

Leamon’s choice to avoid a novel that explicitly challenges the relationship between sport and society is interesting. Whilst we see the effects of everyday life on Mac as a sportsman, his failures and successes are ultimately determined by his reaction to these and his personal resolve. The vagaries of sport are those within the game – the pitch, the umpire, the opposition. Mac is in the bubble of the elite sportsman. This is fascinating in itself, and a large part of the appeal of sport. Seeing an individual cope with the challenges of pressure, the difficulties of teamwork, the masterful execution of a finely tuned skill, are insights into the human condition, recognisable emotions and ability beyond comprehension played out before us.

A novel can do similar things, and Leamon and Raisin’s works both raise important questions about what a novel about sport should and can do. Leamon’s choice is to focus on Mac as sportsman, his novel being an imaginative and impressive realisation of such. He looks outside of the simple prism of the match into Mac’s life, and the portrait of the man is richer for it. However, Raisin’s depiction of Tom and his teammates is far more invested in the social and political, asking important questions of the sport itself. For Leamon, the challenges of cricket are ultimately improving; for Raisin, football, for all the potential fulfilment it allows, is flawed and its homophobia, among other flaws, ultimately limits it. Moreover, it is representative of an unequal society, in which ability does not equal success if your, for example, gender, race or sexuality means you are subject to violence or exclusion.

Aravind Adiga’s novel Selection Day similarly challenges implicit meanings of sport. It is about cricket, but sharply questions its claims to moral value. The two teenage brothers that it follows are cursed with cricketing talent in modern India, their record-breaking success bringing angst, pressure and financial exploitation. This is a novel that looks at cricket and asks how you could love or admire it. Adiga presents cricket in modern India as a corrosive force, a sport that churns through talented youngsters, damaging them and using their passion and ability to enrich others. Record scores attract unwanted attention; the prospect of success attracts unseemly offers.

This is partly a reflection of changes in Indian society – the rise of neoliberalism changing value and values, and where, for Adiga, the financialisation of cricket has warped any notion of the game offering fulfilment beyond the commercial. Whilst in The Test, Mac must contend with the stress that professionalism puts on his life beyond the game, it ultimately has worth for him. Whilst he needs to succeed to pay his mortgage, he can also find his true self in sporting excellence. Manju, one of the teenage protagonists of Selection Day, finds his success stifling, his motivation distant from self-improvement. Unlike Mike Jackson, another literary cricketing prodigy, cricket, not its absence, is a punishment and his dreams of escape are away from the field, not onto it. Moreover, like Tom in A Natural, Manju’s sexuality must be repressed for sporting excellence – his social acceptance depends on performing certain ideals of masculinity.

Ultimately, the difference between The Test and the novels of Raisin and Adiga is their willingness to place sport within a wider social context. Leamon’s text chooses to focus on an insider, a privileged figure, if a not untroubled one. Leamon’s level of insight into the professional game is rare for a novelist and lends a realism to the novel, and his understanding of the pressures of international sport mean that they are powerfully represented. Yet his aligning of the text to a certain vision of cricket as moral force is problematic, in that Mac’s position is one in which he has never been excluded from the game itself or required to subvert his identity in order to achieve success. Whilst he has struggled with personal problems and tragedy, cricket, if done well, offers him escape and salvation, as well as moral realisation.

For Manju, Tom and many others, sport can never adopt such a position in their lives. The sacrifices they must make to fit into sporting societies that seek to exploit or exclude qualify any success they achieve. A discussion of moral worth in sport would seem cruel to them. Whilst Leamon has written a terrific novel about a sportsman, it’s important to remember that he’s writing about one of the lucky ones.

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Feeling is the Thing…: review

Sport doesn’t lend itself to the surreal. Yes, the comic, the incongruous, the miraculous even, but not the weird or the unreal. Even then, great sport tends to the elevated rather than the transcendental. The structures that make games workable, both formal and informal, discourage revolution. Sports photography struggles to capture the rare appearance of the surreal, often a feeling or personal connection, constrained by their inability to control or intrude on the subject.

It is a mark of Patrick Eagar’s skill as a photographer that he captures the surreal in Jeff Thomson, producing an image both bizarre and essential. It is a famous photograph, Thomson stretching and twisting, totally unlike a bowler and the logical endpoint, bowling intensified. Button-up shirt unbuttoned, prog rock hair, face gaunt like Dore’s Satan. The ball visible between his legs, a Freudian hint at the virility of fast bowling. It is an image that captures force and grace, Thomson as gymnast and hitman.

Christian Ryan, the fine Australian cricket writer, has previous with Thomson, the man who, he wrote in Wisden, “bowled faster probably than anyone in the universe ever has, and faster, perhaps, than the universe wanted him to bowl”. For his new book, Feeling is the Thing that Happens in a 1000th of a Second, he has discussed a series of photos from 1975 with Eagar, exploring their imagery, technology and context. The Thomson one is probably the best known, and one which speaks to an era ripe for discussion. The English summer of 1975 was, in cricketing terms, one of the cusp of revolution, the helmets, floodlights and coloured clothing of World Series Cricket just a few years away. It was the summer of the first World Cup, and Eagar captures both the incipient modernity of the rapidly evolving limited overs game and the vestiges of tradition, the cadences of English summers little altered.

Whilst cricket’s revolution was yet to come, it is striking to see Eagar’s photographs presented together with those from the rest of the world. What Eagar sees in front of him are starched shirts, heavy sweaters and warm beer; even the modernism of the Trent Bridge office block is municipal. Eagar’s first photo for the Cricketer appeared in the Cricketer in 1965, a pastoral scene of Fenner’s, complete with suited undergraduates, overshadowing trees and Fred Titmus, black and white of course. In the very same week, Sports Illustrated published, in glorious technicolour, a famous photograph of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston, Ali yelling, gloves scarlet, spectators craning in. As Ryan puts it, “the timing… may be one of the century’s strangest sports photography coincidences”.

The contrast is certainly striking, but Eagar was not simply a reactionary, retreating to the comforts of the traditional. He received a fine training in photojournalism. He travelled to Vietnam in 1966, taking photos in military hospitals. But he chose to continue to photograph cricket when he returned. It seems that this is what Ryan is probing, questioning: what did Eagar see in cricket that caught his attention? What kept him focussed on the game when he could have chosen to photograph the global great and good, the social shifts of the second half of the twentieth century? At times, the political is inescapable in Eagar’s photography, especially in his images depicting Viv Richards and other West Indians, proud black men at the pinnacle of their sport. At other times, Ryan’s nostalgia for Eagar’s photographic pinnacle seems problematic. About the only woman in the photos of Eagar’s selected for the book is one walking past the sightscreen in the Fenner’s picture. The images depict a male world and its homosocial spaces – the congratulatory gathering of players at the fall of a wicket, the inner sanctum of the changing room. The Chappell brothers recline, moustachioed and smoking, captured in their element by Eagar. The power of the images is undeniable; they seem, however, remote, as dated as the helmetless heads and buckled pads in their stern intimacy.

This intimacy is the main quality of Eagar’s photography, what draws Ryan to them now. Eagar tells him of his affinity for umpires, without whom the game “unspools”. The umpire is the person intimately involved with the game who most resembles the observer: their slight detachment, the mundane nature of many of their tasks – counting, checking, adjusting, their physical ability and appearance less intimidatingly distant than that of the players. The photographer is necessarily distant, the playing area bounded and exclusive, unlike the umpire, their role as watcher and recorder requiring proximity. These roles have become blurred in the age of television line calls and referrals, but for Eagar in 1975, all his skill and technical expertise were required to capture the intimacies and intricacies of the game.

Eagar might have got lucky occasionally, but, as Ryan recognises, he “had to dream up the possibilities of the photograph in the first place”. Photographs like the one of Thomson contain the magic of possibility, of momentary unknowing. There is one of Phil Edmonds bowling a hat-trick delivery on debut, where the ball hovers inches from his fingers, a deep breath that watching live or on television cannot prolong. Similarly there is one of Roy Fredericks’ hit-wicket dismissal in the 1975 World Cup final. The eyes of the batsman and the square leg fielder are fixed on the ball sailing to fine leg, but the bails lie disturbed at the base of the stumps. It is a similar moment of unknowing, one that only a photograph could capture.

These fragments of play, shots of time and possibility, are what Ryan engages with, alongside the emotional resonance of faces captured in action. There is a surreal photo – again! – of Asif Iqbal seeming to laugh as his off stump is knocked out of the ground; another which captures Ross Edwards’ anxiety as his eyes track the ball towards the slip cordon from his edge, the earnest concern of a parent or teacher on his middle-aged face.

It is in these images that Ryan searches for art and asks Eagar for exposition or additional meaning. The text is a rich one and can be read rather like the accompanying essay in the catalogue of an exhibition. Ryan’s prose is characteristically engaging, but acts largely as a prompt to consideration. Eagar’s pictures, so full of emotion – brotherhood, nostalgia, energy, potential – and grace both explore a moment and a sport. 1975 in cricket, the year of the first World Cup and the last Ashes before World Series Cricket, sits apart from cultural change, yet also reflects it. But Eagar’s photography also questions our ways of seeing cricket, from the emotions of players to the contortions of bowling actions. This is the great strength of Feeling in the Thing …: two people who stretch our conceptions of the game, question our understandings and – literal – perspectives, in conversation. This search for meaning perhaps explains Eagar’s return to cricket, post-Vietnam – a recognition that sport, even English cricket in the 1960s, can reveal much of the human experience. If 1975 seems distant, its cast faded in the memory, the sharpness of Eagar’s work retrieves it and continues to ask questions for cricket’s present and future, of its aesthetics and its meanings.

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At the Other End: The Ashes, History and Heritage

Not many sporting encounters can match the pedigree of the Ashes. It is approaching 140 years of near-unbroken competition, largely at the pinnacle of the sport, with a storied cast of combatants and a grand compendium of anecdote and legend. Each new series is written into this story, is the latest “battle for the urn” – historic trophy foregrounded. At first glance, the England-Australia rivalry seems overflowing with history, narrative, heritage. But a closer look reveals each of those concepts plays a different role, sometimes overlapping with the others, and often to the detriment of the game and how we understand it.

In a terrific article written during the Melbourne Test, George Dobell criticised the standard of media coverage during the Ashes, and the deliberate attempts to stoke controversy and misinterpret nuanced statements. Here, Ashes history feeds into a narrative comprised of controversial incidents, providing an explanation for supposedly inevitable skulduggery. History leads to rivalry, which must in turn lead to controversy. Manufactured controversy is, of course, attention-grabbing, good for viewing figures and clicks. Perhaps it is a sign of a game unsure of its ability to attract purely as a spectacle, where a diverse media environment both swamps Test cricket as a background to summer and has to repackage it as moments of partisan debate.

What retelling history for the purpose of a narrative of rivalry does is elide much of it at the expense of a few supposedly quintessential moments. Hence the constant references to Bodyline, the acme of Ashes rivalry, colonial conflict and blood on the wicket, but almost no other mention of pre-Second World War Ashes cricket, except perhaps the inception of the urn or WG Grace’s gamesmanship. Cricket’s history becomes one of “ancient hatreds”, that lazy shortcut to understanding conflict.

The only other role the past provides, besides explaining why it’s so important that it all kicks off out there, is as a repository of data against which the present can be set. Alongside the controversy, the other great love of modern coverage is the record, a neat statistic that can take the place of analytical judgement of a performance. To be record-breaking is to be notable and can therefore be used to grab attention. Alastair Cook’s 244* at Melbourne was, for example, the highest score by a Test opener carrying their bat, a striking but slightly recondite stat. Yet this seemed to lead much of the coverage – a record-breaking performance by the England opener. Hence little else needed to be said, in terms of subjective analysis, context, or interesting historical background. The record is easily conveyed to the audience, but genuinely informative coverage is limited.

So history as part of narrative of controversy or silo of statistical data fails to do the Ashes or the game justice. At the same time, one must beware fetishize the past. Meaningless nostalgia helps no one.  The pre-war history that Bodyline overshadows relates to a game very different to the modern one, although the Channel Nine commentary team’s cloying insistence on reliving their ‘90s glory days can rival any Golden Age yarn for irrelevance. The danger is that history stagnates into heritage, a procession of unexamined reference points – Bodyline, Headingley ’81, 2005 – with little sense of what is missed out by Our Ashes Story. Moreover, a reactionary tendency to revere the past can easily creep in, a reluctance to engage with and appreciate what is unfolding in front of us. Even if Steve Smith is not the new Bradman, his innovative technique and staggering run-scoring deserve the recognition of the contemporary spectator.

It is also easy to miss the pleasures of Ashes cricket when the frisson of rivalry becomes all-consuming antagonism. Blind jingoism is a relatively rare, if not entirely recent, phenomenon in cricket, but the culture of antagonism is reinforced by the narrative of controversy. The degradation of whinging Poms/mindless convicts is tedious, exclusionary and once again depends on a selective weaponisation of the past, rather than an engagement with the rich backstory. It adds little and detracts notably from the occasion. Overseas tours of the length that the Ashes maintain now seem indulgent given the international cricketing calendar. They should be savoured, not soured. The Ashes remains a supreme sporting contest, but this has as much to do with the current construction of international cricket as its history. A lengthy overseas tour is the ultimate test of a cricketer, buffeted and baked by foreign conditions, and, as such, an Ashes tour has a value outside of its historical continuum. That England win in Australia so rarely adds a context, but not the only meaning, to the series.

A refusal to see the Ashes in the wider context of international cricket further hinders our understanding of the contest. Other matches are not just warm-ups – they are significant as previous Ashes series. England and Australia should see winning in South Asia as important as an overseas Ashes win. Moreover, this should apply to the history of the game as well, both for considering players’ legacies and for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a wider range of cricket.

More seriously, the modern game can no longer be reduced to the Ashes and little else on and off the field. Cricket more than any other sport in Britain and Australia deals with the postcolonial, and reducing this to snide stereotypes of exiles and masters is a deeply uninteresting approach to this. In Australia, engaging Aboriginal communities is hardly likely to be aided by an Australian self-identity as plucky colonials, as well as obscuring events such as the tour to England by a team of indigenous players in 1868 with a fog of Baggy Green nationalism. In both countries, there are significant South Asian communities who are deeply engaged in cricket, but for whom the Ashes-centric international focus can seem narrow, as Kamran Abbasi has recently described.  Similarly, England-Australia women’s cricket has only recently entered the mainstream, and its long history is still often obscured, despite the work of scholars like Raf Nicholson.

The history of the Ashes then is manipulated in two ways, by being press-ganged into a narrative of eternal rivalry and consequential conflict, and by being reduced into a simplistic series of familiar events, useful for selling the current series through association and nostalgia. This is not necessarily a new thing, but there is no reason we cannot do better. There is much fine writing and commentary out there, but it struggles to define the discourse. Perceptive analysis, over controversy and statistics-as-records, would be welcome online, on television and in the press. The predominance of former players in commentary teams ought to provide valuable insight, but there seems to be a reluctance to allow them to be analytical, and, without insight, surely knowledgeable journalists would provide better colour. A lay audience is as likely to be alienated by chummy in-jokes as by technical analysis and historical context.

Without its history, Test cricket would surely struggle. Who now would want a five day sports match? Even the Ashes, supposedly immune from the pressures of low attendance faced by other series and nations, relies on its past to sustain it. This history, however, has been misused and reduced to a neat story of heroes and battles, easily swallowed and little questioned. It is not too late to rescue the interesting and informative, whilst appreciating the significance of the present and widening our gazes.

When the former Australian opener Arthur Morris was asked where he was when Bradman made his famous final innings duck at The Oval in 1948, he answered, truthfully, “I was at the other end”. Morris made 196, his innings also four short of centennial neatness. At the moment, we are, like Morris, asked to remember moments, quirks and freeze-frames. Let understand the contexts, the details, the men and women at the other end. The game will be better for it.

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Dancing in the Dark: A Day/Night at the Test

The Eric Hollies Stand was full of vestments, but the West Indies never had a prayer. The third day of the first day/night Test match in England featured a steady fall of wickets, never a flood but a drip-drip of edges, misses and misjudgement. Nineteen West Indian wickets fell, with eight batsmen dismissed twice in a day, as the quality of the England attack never wavered. James Anderson was as skilful as always, his control over line, length and movement thoroughly examining the wonky techniques of the West Indian top order. Late in the day, Stuart Broad produced one of those spells, where his knees rise in his run-up, he runs through the crease powerfully and the ball seems to pick up pace off the pitch. The comprehensive castling of Shane Dowrich was an impressive way to pass Ian Botham as England’s second highest wicket taker. Ben Stokes bowled with pace and control, and Toby Roland-Jones moved the ball whilst bowling an aggressive length. Moeen Ali complemented the seamers well, his work with Saqlain Mushtaq visible in his control and his modified quick-stepping run-up.


That England won comfortably, wickets shared round following runs from Joe Root and Alastair Cook, is hardly surprising. The real interest was in the format – a floodlight final session and a pink ball throughout. In the end, it had little impact on the result. Kemar Roach’s testing spell on the first evening was the only passage of play that seemed influenced by the alternative conditions. It rained on the second evening; on the third, the gulf in class rendered the conditions irrelevant. The consensus seemed to be that the pink ball held up reasonably well on a normal Edgbaston Test pitch, and that the appeal of day/night cricket attracted a larger crowd, including many attending their first Test.

For the spectator – I watched the third day from the Hollies Stand – the experience was an interesting one. The pink ball was initially a little tricky to pick up in the afternoon light, only really becoming visible when it slowed down. One ball from Anderson early in the day hit Kieran Powell on the thigh pad; the ball appeared, bright against the whites, as it had fallen from the batsman’s pocket. Part of this was undoubtedly due to my position side on, but the ball was definitely clearer to the spectator later in the day.


The Hollies Stand, aside from being side on the action, is also an odd social space, good fun as long as you don’t want to watch the cricket too closely. As Andy Bull noted, it has something of the airport departure lounge in its attitude to socially acceptable drinking at any time of day. For all its fabled atmosphere, it seems oddly detached from the cricket. When Stuart Broad was on a hat-trick, the roar that accompanied him to the crease was a wonderful example of why the England players love playing at Edgbaston, engaged and passionate. But much of the time it was loud because it was full of drunk people, not because it was uniquely supportive of the England team. The insipid West Indian performance hardly helped, but a disregard for etiquette such as only leaving your seat at the end of the over doesn’t create an attachment to the events on-field.

It was interesting to see that the pace of the day seemed in sync with a day Test – the singing and banter peaked around half past six, the raucous final session of a normal day at the cricket over before tea. You had to remind yourself that there were forty overs left to play. Edgbaston chose to keep the breaks as “lunch” and “tea”, but, ignoring semantics, it might be better to reverse the length of the sessions. Lunch felt too long too soon; tea a rush to get some hot food for the night session. Perhaps the reluctance to extend the second break was linked to the numbers of people who left before or during twilight, when the novelty failed to keep people in the ground.


They will be sad to have missed it, because the novelty, the marketing draw, was genuinely special. I sat grinning at the sight of players in white on a twilit cricket ground, the lights making play possible, but merely enhancing the shades of an English summer’s dusk. The bright early-internet “e”s of the Edgbaston lights shone against the pastels of the sky, dark clouds on pink and orange. The evening is usually the best part of a summer’s day and watching cricket from half past six to half past eight was a treat

I agree with Mark Nicholas’s suggestion of extending play to half past seven as a matter of course, perhaps even an hour further if a pink ball is used. Playing at night, under completely artificial light, as with the last few overs at Edgbaston, seems a novelty too far – the lights required and the size of the ground made it feel like a car park at night. T20 can be neon in the night, its colours and the white ball stand out in totally artificial light. The players’ whites seemed overlit at Edgbaston. I would love to see a midsummer test, using a pink ball and playing until nine o’clock. Floodlights would be needed, but would augment not dominate. It would never get totally dark, and would be a wonderful centrepiece for a summer of cricket, particularly if it was, say, the first test of an Ashes series at Lord’s. Cricket has long played with ideas of modernity – a cricketing solstice would be both novel and linked to deeper traditions of English summer, Lord’s an appropriate setting for a meeting of pastoral time and the reclamation of the night.


The real reason for the day/night Test, of course, is that Test cricket needs to change if it is to have any kind of long term future. All this twilight is perhaps a rather heavy-handed metaphor for a game retreating to the shadows, looking back on what used to be. That it is the West Indies playing, a team both overshadowed by its predecessors and let down by administrators both in the region and at the ICC, only adds to the gloom. The irony is that for all the effort that has gone into making day/night cricket possible and playable, it is ultimately a cosmetic change – quite literally. Tinkering with television schedules and an aesthetic shift only influence so much. A one-sided match was a reminder of the challenge faced to make Test cricket competitive, meaningful and attractive.


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Stroke of Genius: review

If you’re reading this, you’ll know the picture. You’ll probably know it by the name of its subject: Victor Trumper, for the image and the man have become melded in the cricketing imagination, reduced and enlarged to encompass each other. It shows a cricketing Vitruvian man, the batsman extended to his limits, balanced and bursting with potential energy. The front foot is raised, poised to land, a step committed to, but with all the possibilities of success and failure as yet unrealised. The crease is a yard behind his back foot, the abandoned abode of the cautious.

Gideon Haigh’s wonderful new book, Stroke of Genius, is a history of an image, charting the creation and influence of “Jumping Out”, George Beldam’s iconic photograph of Trumper. It is not simply a biography of the man, because the image has consistently changed in meaning since Trumper’s death. Moreover, it is a history of how cricket has been seen, how a game which is inherently difficult to watch has had to be brought closer to the spectator, in a process which is still ongoing. It is also a history of how cricket, and sport more generally, has contended with its inherent tension between aesthetics and achievement – how, or how many?

One of the reasons for the appeal and wide dissemination of “Jumping Out” is its malleability; posed outside of a match, it is contextless and therefore far more flexible than an image of a “live” moment. Trumper becomes an ideal cricketer, representative of “how the game should be played”. During his lifetime, this exposed the tensions between amateur and professional, but over time, Trumper became a symbol of prelapsarian innocence.

The lack of match context reflects the conditions in which the image was created – the photograph had to be carefully staged. The photographer, George Beldam, was himself a first class cricketer, and dismissed Trumper in a match not long after taking another series of photographs of Trumper. There is a hint of the modern bowler, armed with the knowledge of a batsman’s technique thanks to the demystification of technology. It is not the only suggestion of today’s relationship between camera and cricket. Beldam’s first cricketing photograph was of his uncle batting in the garden. Beldam’s uncle was notorious for never accepting the word of whoever was umpire, and so the photo captures the exact moment he is struck on the pad. It looks exactly like a modern freeze frame (it only needs the stumps to be superimposed), and the removal of doubt, the technological judgement, is similarly modern.

Beldam’s ability to capture cricketers in action, however posed, also allowed the study of technique to develop. Two leading batsman, CB Fry and Ranjitsinhji, set the standard for aesthetic batsmanship, with Ranji’s exoticism and Fry’s careful study announcing a shift to visual appreciation of batting, tied into the new revelations of photography. Trumper was crucial to this. Previous stars of batting like WG Grace had been notable for the volume of runs and the stamina required to score them. Trumper was notable for how he looked. This trope was to reappear when Bradman began to dominate the game. Bradman was regarded as cold and mechanical, lacking the exuberance of Trumper – usually based on “Jumping Out”, Trumper’s visual legacy. Bradman himself compared the two men, writing that “Trumper got one century every 9.8 innings, where I obtained a century every 3.4”. Well, quite…

Bradman’s batting was often seen as a product of its age, batting Fordism as opposed to Trumper’s fin de siècle vitality. This is particularly notable in the mythologizing of writers such as Neville Cardus, whose suspicion of modernity led him to eulogise the “Golden Age” of Trumper and co. Yet this is misleading. “Jumping Out” is a deeply modern image. To begin with, it was taken at The Oval, seen then and now as the “people’s ground”, far more accessible to a mass audience than exclusive Lord’s. Moreover, the ground was accessible in a practical sense, served by the new tube and tram network, and surrounded by the buildings of the city – the famous gasholders and factories, foundries and breweries. Trumper himself grew up as a street cricketer, breaking Sydney windows. “Jumping Out”’s amateur elegance came from an urban background, and was set in an urban setting. This was a long way from the pastoral reverie of Cardus.

The composition of “Jumping Out” is also striking. Trumper’s swing was often interpreted as the carefree elegance of the “Golden Age”, as compared to Bradman’s mechanised manner. But the image fits more comfortably with modern art than with traditional cricketing imagery. Many of Beldam’s photographs capture the details of technique. But “Jumping Out” goes beyond that, technology enabling the capture of the aesthetics of batting. Beldam’s photograph brings to mind the new range of modern art depicting sport as an aspect of modernity, overlapped with industry and advertising, and loaded with motion. The looming “Sporting Life” banner hints at Robert Delaunay’s 1913 L’Équipe de Cardiff; the blurred crowd foreshadows Jean Metzinger’s 1912 Au Véledrome. As a moment of sporting stillness, it prefigures Harald Giersing’s Sofus Heading of 1917. Victor Trumper, bourgeois Australian, becomes avant-garde at the crease. As Haigh puts it, Beldam pre-empted the “whole grammar of athletic motion and of mass spectacle” in the modern sporting image.

With hindsight, we see that Trumper is not the antithesis of professionalism, but rather part of a tradition of batting that blends prodigious output with aesthetic charm. As CB Fry’s wife, Beatie, wrote, Trumper was “a poet of cricket”, but “his timing has the exactness, rhythm, and fit of the oceangoing ship’s piston-rod”. As both “poet” and “piston”, Trumper reached the heights of athletic prowess, memorable for style and for efficiency. Beldam’s photograph was crucial to this, establishing a visual shorthand for the aesthetics of good batting. It is this that Haigh traces so successfully – how an unchanging, iconic image can be used to symbolise so many different things. Haigh traces the afterlife of the photograph carefully, but also does the important job of emphasising the conditions in which it was produced and recentring its contemporary interpretations. In doing so, he reclaims the modernity of the picture, drawing it out of nostalgia and linking it firmly to the present.

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The Appeal of Pakistan

On the 24th of June, cricket was a long way from the mind of most Brits. The country had voted to leave the European Union, political norms were unravelling and the hostilities and divisions of the campaign were bringing social tensions to the surface. For weeks, the country choked on a surfeit of news. Those cursed interesting times were here. Sporting escape seemed distant. The England football team were dumped ignominiously out of the European Championships by Iceland. Some one-sided one-dayers against Sri Lanka were pretty irrelevant.

The visit of Pakistan offered little hope of distraction. Rather, it seemed likely that the bitter public mood would curdle a series so often soured by unpleasantness. The return of Mohammad Amir was likely to increase the acrimony. We got lucky. England and Pakistan played out a fine series in good spirit. Cricket provided not only a distraction from the uncertainty of national fate, but, in Misbah’s Pakistan, an example of how a team can both be moulded by and transcend social conditions. Their stoicism and unity, as well as exuberance in victory, won many admirers. A team that left England in disgrace in 2010 now attracts appreciation.

Pakistan have always attracted fans in England for the quality of their cricket, from the huge hundreds of Zaheer Abbas to the pace and skill of Wasim and Waqar. They have always been proudly different, unashamedly rejecting English convention. But this has also been accompanied by tension. Liberals might like the way Pakistan rile the old guard of English cricket or see them as an alternative to tedious English conservatism. Pakistani otherness has always been a crucial part of their perception in England, both in terms of appreciation and suspicion. The flip side of admiring the supposedly “exotic” is a sense that “they” are not like “us” – a feeling that then underpins arguments like the “Tebbit test” which question loyalties. Moreover, this exoticism can be couched in terms of that suggest an unthinking approach – think of all the pieces praising the supposedly childlike enthusiasm of the Afghan cricket team, portraying them as cricketing noble savages.

We must remember that this is a changing world. I travelled from Oxford to Worcester for Pakistan’s tour match. The train journey through the Cotswolds seemed little different to Edward Thomas’s famous poem of a century ago. But get to Moreton-in-Marsh, the quintessential Cotswold town, and there are signs in the train station in Chinese. The old certainties of Britain are shifting, something the Brexit campaigners crudely played on. Cricketing geopolitics have shifted as well. England are financial winners, but are still from certain about the brave new world. Pakistan are losers, mainly due to the seep of broader geopolitics into cricket.

This is the world in which Misbah must lead. The appeal of his team still lies in their difference to England, but not in the traditional ways. This is not a team built on the mastery of mysterious skills or individual match winners. Rather, they are an old-fashioned side, and their appeal to the neutral in part lies in nostalgia. Pakistan are still a unique team, but in a quite different way. In an age when everyone has to bat like Shahid Afridi in T20 matches, they are no longer futurists. Their batsman bat steadily, their keeper chips in unorthodox runs and catches well, their bowlers bowl to take wickets or to a set plan. It is old school, and it works, especially in the UAE.

Misbah is the calm leader and the trendsetter. In the twenty-first century, professional athletes aren’t meant to play into their forties. He puts the needs of his team before any personal desire to retire. He plays within himself. He understands the social conditions in which his team plays. He may not be a funky captain and only a sporadically explosive batsman, but he knows that Pakistan’s success is rooted in a conservatism dictated by conditions. They play few tests, all of them outside Pakistan, stymied by a dysfunctional board, and with the weight of corruption and tragedy on their shoulders. Yet Misbah has taken them to the brink of being the best team in the world.

I was lucky enough to watch Misbah’s chief lieutenant, Younis Khan, in the nets at Worcester. He yelled at himself after each mishit ball, demanded that each throw be just as he required, pushed himself harder and harder. There were doubts about him after three tests of erratic batting in this series. Never doubt Younis. His double hundred at The Oval was a punishing innings, bloody-minded and willed into existence. There is a strange style in Younis’s technique, an intensity in all that movement, a glimpse for the viewer of all the effort that goes in. The beauty is in the struggle, in the defiance and in the pride.

The old-fashioned discipline of Misbah and Younis seems to have rubbed off on the most successful of Pakistan’s batsmen, Asad Shafiq, Azhar Ali and Sami Aslam. They all have different techniques, but accept the traditional test match basics of watchfulness and accumulation. They are not un-Pakistani for this – think of the late, great Hanif Mohammad – but don’t fit the model of a modern batsman. They have shown that patience can and should still be a virtue.

Even Yasir Shah, twice Pakistan’s match winner, is not a mystery spinner, but relentlessly accurate and subtle in his variations. He is not Saeed Ajmal or Saqlain Mushtaq; for all his exuberance, he is a orthodox but very skilful bowler. The fast bowlers are similarly traditional in their bowling virtues and batting and fielding vices. Rahat Ali and Sohail Khan both bowled like the type of English seamer not seen so often these days, and Mohammad Amir, lacking the extravagant movement and youthful excess of his previous incarnation, utilised the conditions skilfully and bowled accurately to plans when they suited him less. Only Wahab Riaz was a real wildcard, useful on flat modern wickets. His spell on the fourth afternoon at Lord’s was an outrageous exhibition of reverse swing and he made crucial breakthroughs at The Oval.

Perhaps we should not fetishize Pakistan’s traditional ways too much. Pakistan fans would doubtless like to see a team able to compete well in the shorter formats of the game. There the game has rather evolved away from them, not helped by the failure of players like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad to fulfil their potential. The team doesn’t just exist to give neutrals pleasure with their retro air, like reverse “calypso cricketers”.

The pared down style they have adopted does, however, offer an interesting insight into the meanings of sport. Osman Samiuddin, the pre-eminent modern Pakistani cricket writer, once wrote that Younis Khan’s career was

“not even a career as much as some great and ongoing cosmic experiment – or perhaps exploration – into mankind. What becomes of us when our ideals begin to curdle into compromise? What becomes of us when we cannot reconcile our contradictions? What happens to us when we acquire authority? In what ways do we build and break trust?”

It might be said that this Pakistan team poses similar questions. Like great literature, sport can force us to ask difficult questions. Misbah’s Pakistan team poses many, about the relationship between the individual and the nation; the meanings of home, diaspora and identity; the ability to transcend our time and place. Of difference, of change, of excellence.

Where Pakistan go next, it is hard to say. This team may break up when Younis and Misbah retire, the attrition of playing away from home all the time taking its toll. Who knows when cricket will return to Pakistan, or where it might retreat from next. Perhaps we should expect the unexpected. But this summer has given us a timely reminder of what cricket can mean to people, and how carefully we must consider about it. Think of all the meanings and emotions in those Lord’s press-ups. If you need a moment of escape, unpick that image for a bit – all the history, all the symbols, all the personalities. That will be Misbah’s legacy – the richness and intelligence with which he has imbued the game.

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Back to the Future: The Construction of James Anderson

Dasun Shakana is not a man who often struggles to hit a cricket ball. In January, he scored 123 off 46 balls in a domestic Twenty20 match, striking sixteen sixes. In his T20 career, he’s hit 58 sixes in 35 games. He had made a hundred against a callow Leicestershire attack a week before this innings. But this was different. This was his first Test innings, at Headingley, against England. His captain and his team’s outstanding batsman, Angelo Mathews, had been dismissed off the previous ball, so disorientated by the ball’s movement that he declined the review that would have reprieved him.

Shanaka was facing James Anderson, a man who, with Mathews’ wicket, had moved to sixth in the list of Test wicket takers. Anderson, perhaps the bowler more suited than any in the world to bowling on a seaming wicket in the murk of a Yorkshire spring. Anderson, who manipulates a cricket ball like few others, bending it with and to his will. Shanaka did well to hit his first delivery, a classical outswinger, luring the drive and snaking away. Unfortunately, the contact he managed was a healthy outside edge, the fatal snick that Anderson has induced from so many.

Shanaka did the same thing the next day. There’s no shame in that. Anderson is deservedly England’s highest Test wicket taker, with a happy knack of dismissing the very best repeatedly. His success against Sachin Tendulkar is well known; similarly, he has often had the better of Michael Clarke in the innumerable recent Ashes. Anderson is regarded as a “skilful” bowler, often as faint praise. That is, he makes the ball do pretty things without always getting the rewards, and struggles on pitches and in climates that don’t help him. In reality, it is his skill that allows him to succeed in a range of conditions. He was superb during England’s win in Australia in 2010-11, showing his control and mastery of reverse swing through the series. His dismissal of Michael Clarke in Sydney, on the penultimate afternoon of the series was one of the finest spells of bowling, reversing the ball both ways before luring Clarke into one of those characteristic nicks.

Similarly, he has been exceptional on England’s recent tours to Asia, notably during England’s win in India in 2012-13. Again, his exemplary control and use of reverse swing transcended difficult conditions. He has been excellent in the UAE on England’s last two visits as well. Despite this, he is often regarded as somewhat overrated, to the extent to which his excellence needs repeating. If anything, he is underrated, to an extent that might not become apparent until England need to replace him. That he has not matched Dale Steyn for pace and potency is understandable – few from the history of the game can. To paraphrase Shane Warne on Tendulkar, Steyn is first, daylight second, Anderson third. Anderson has probably suffered from the paucity of quality fast bowling over the last decade or so. He is not part of an epoch, but instead faces constant comparison with Steyn, his only real rival.

Like Steyn, Anderson has been at his best with a red ball, but he didn’t start out like that. He was plucked from obscurity to play in an ODI tri-series in Australia in 2002-3, where he bowled a spell of 10-6-12-1 in Adelaide, and made a memorable impression at the 2003 World Cup, including four wickets against Pakistan. His swinging yorker to dismiss Yousuf Youhana, as he then was, hinted at what was to come. A Test debut against Zimbabwe, marked with a five-for, followed, before several years in the wilderness. Michael Vaughan never seemed to fully trust him, and he was eclipsed by the rise of Simon Jones and Steve Harmison. Anderson also suffered with injury, and as a result, England’s bowling coaches, first Troy Cooley and then Kevin Shine, tinkered with his action. Anderson seemed to play little cricket, bowling endlessly at cones, trying to remove any idiosyncrasies.

He came through the process, emerging as England’s main fast bowler in 2007. Whether the tinkering helped, what is most noticeable now about Anderson is the smoothness of his action. It is fine-tuned but natural, repeatable but allowing for subtle changes of position on the crease and in the wrist. If you are lucky enough to see him bowl live, watch the follow through. It is short, controlled, measured to help the delivery but not to exhaust the bowler. It is an action grooved to perfection, able to propel the ball at pace but with remarkable ease.

Anderson’s current action gives a clue to his success. He is the great survivor, the man who has come out of Andy Flower’s regime intact. One criticism of Anderson is that he has only taken so many wickets because England play so many tests. This ignores the fact that he has had to stay fit and selectable through that time. He has bowled a staggering number of deliveries in a short space of time, a workload that few fast bowlers have had to manage in test matches. Coupled with the intensity of Flower’s coaching – undoubtedly successful, if hard to maintain – and regularly being part of a four man attack, Anderson has coped with an enormous strain. Being able to stay fit and in form through the last six or seven years has allowed him to take a large number of wickets. That he was able to is remarkable.

Anderson is also worth celebrating for more than his longevity. He is a beautiful bowler to watch. His action is not only admirable for its efficiency. Look at a picture of Anderson in his coil, winding up to bowl. It is a moment of pure sporting aesthetics, like an Ian Bell cover drive, what CLR James called the “perfection of form”. When I wrote about swing bowling for Cricinfo, I compared it to Natalia Goncharova’s Cyclist, an image of motion and potential energy. Jarrod Kimber also looked to art when describing Anderson recently, writing that “that ball is making shapes that HR Giger or Zaha Hadid would kill for. His bowling trajectories should be hanging in some modern art museum or spray-painted on walls”. For his grumpy demeanour and fondness for a sledge, Anderson remains in touch with the aesthetics of sport. It may not be as consciously honed as the impeccable technique of a textbook batsman, but the sinuous paths of his deliveries, the taut energy of his action, elevate his bowling in the memory.

This art has survived the attentions of the bowling coaches, but their tinkering has another side. Easy as it is to bemoan the attempts to change Anderson, it is important to recognise he has had advantages that few other bowlers have had. He has survived so well in part because he has been kept medicated, remunerated, nourished and protected as well as any cricketer ever. He is a very modern cricketer in the sense that he is a genuine athlete, benefitting from a twenty-first century attitude and twenty-first century treatment. But, whilst he may have dyed his hair red at the beginning of his career, Anderson has never been a revolutionary. What all the training, all the tuning, all those advantages, have created is an old fashioned English fast bowler. He undoubtedly belongs in the tradition of Larwood, Trueman, Statham and others. He looks over his left shoulder and moves the ball away. He has a Northern abrasiveness, an action like a bolt of silk unfurling, swing, seam, accuracy. It is appropriate that he is England’s leading Test wicket taker because he ties a history together. He is the modern athlete and also successor to a tradition. He was built by coaches, not summoned from the mine, but he embodies a heritage and keeps old skills alive.

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What If and If Only

The sad news of James Taylor’s retirement due to a heart condition has cast a shadow over the start of the English season. Spring should be a time for optimism and bright beginnings, not elegies and endings. Taylor’s retirement is particularly untimely given his recent success for England – a career that, for all his domestic runs, had failed to live up to its evident promise was finally coming good. He had made runs in Sharjah and Durban, against high quality spin and pace. He had captained England in Dublin last summer, and made a fine one day century against Australia. Now his dextrous batting, belied by those Popeye arms, and his elastic short leg fielding, a highlight of the winter just gone, are just memories, tinged with the melancholia of what might have been.

Counterfactual history is often, rightly, scorned by historians as simplistic and misleading. It avoids the structural and overemphasises the individual. But whilst it might be bad history, it is also beloved of sport. Nothing gets fans going like the question, “what if?” Perhaps it’s because sport still focuses on the individual over the social, players’ careers offer a structure for speculation, and matches are marked by clear results. What could have been different? What if that chance had been taken? What if they’d picked him instead? What if she hadn’t been injured?

Cricket’s history is full of players who never achieved what they seemed capable of, for reasons tragic and not. Think of those left unselected by chance or by circumstance, from Andy Gateaume – one Test innings, 112 runs, never picked again – to Barry Richards and Mike Procter, banished from Test cricket for the racism of the nation they represented. There are those who flickered and faded, like Vinod Kambli, the man who could never be Tendulkar, or Ajantha Mendis, who was left a sphinx without a riddle once his variations were deciphered. Others, like Taylor, have suffered from the vagaries of health and fitness. Lawrence Rowe, the Jamaican virtuoso, made a Test triple century, but, in a magical realist twist, was allergic to grass. Mohammad Zahid was a Pakistani fast bowler of almost mythical pace, but only played five tests due to injury. Finally, there are those are tragically denied a career by death. The late Phillip Hughes, the tubercular wunderkind Archie Jackson, and the numerous cricketing victims of the world wars, their runs left unscored, their wickets untaken.

Unrequited talent always invites introspection, and cricket, a sport prone to nostalgia at the best of times, can often colour these careers with both gloom and glory. Replaying the memories of what might have been becomes a way of coping with the looming uncertainties of the future. The past offers comfort, and seems to offer answers, even if only in the form of impossible alternatives. The memories of unfulfilled talent  are often changed through hindsight as well – would Simon Jones’s signature wicket, Michael Clarke’s off stump detonated in the Manchester sunshine, remain quite so iconic if he had gone on to play more than just a single Test after it? These moments remain sharper for their unfortunate scarcity.

However, the counterfactual is not simply a trigger for memory. Sporting fandom works through unbridled optimism, and the question “what if?” supplies that. If they’d scored, we’d have won, so we can win next time. The counterfactual is hope against hope, a reassurance that it could be different, that next week we’ll turn up and see a win. It’s a salve against the pain of defeat or of loss, of profligate players and those you’ll never see again. It’s a coping mechanism, a simple way to process what has happened. What if, and if only…

None of this will be much comfort to James Taylor right now, and I wish him the best of luck for now and the future. Cricket fans will look back on when they saw him play differently now, and some might think of what might have been, the runs he might have scored, the games he might have won. Imagining a different future helps in the here and now. But perhaps we should channel some of the disappointment and melancholy into thinking about what we did see. We can allow the sadness to illuminate our memories.

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Doosra Détente: Where Next For England and Pakistan?

Three grainy images encapsulate the last thirty years of cricket between England and Pakistan. Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana, jabbing fingers aligned, frustration and affront written across their respective faces. Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe jubilant, their whites lit brightly against the Karachi night, the National Stadium fading to black. Mohammad Amir, popping crease bisecting his delivery stride, watched by Salmat Butt, the captain’s eyes wandering, seemingly guiltily, towards the bowler’s feet. Accusation; victory against the odds; skulduggery.

These themes run through the rivalry, for both sides, creating  rancour unrivalled in many cricketing contests. Pakistan see beating England as a statement of postcolonial belonging, a triumph of the nation-team over the arrogant English. England see playing Pakistan, especially away, as an onerous task, one bound up with frustration, discomfort and disrespect. As Ian Botham said, Pakistan is the “sort of place every man should send his mother-in-law to, for a month, all expenses paid”. Touring the UAE might seem less stressful off the pitch, but playing conditions remain challenging.

The history of England versus Pakistan is often overshadowed by other contest – the weight of history and politics that hangs over Pakistan’s matches against India, and England’s love of the sibling rivalry that is the Ashes. But, for England in particular, playing Pakistan might be more important than any other sporting contest. England may love the Home Nations rivalries of rugby and football, the antagonism of playing the French, the historical charge of meeting Germany or Argentina, but none matter as much to the nation today as playing Pakistan.

The animosity that accompanies the matches has built up steadily, the accumulated sediment of sixty years of controversy. From Pakistan’s almost instant success, winning at the Oval in 1954, inspired by Fazal Mahmood’s bowling and Abdul Hafeez Kardar’s captaincy, barely a Test series has passed without an untoward incident of some sort. On the 1955-6 tour, a group of England players essentially kidnapped Idris Baig, a Pakistani umpire, nearly causing a diplomatic incident. On later tours to Pakistan, Tests were disrupted by political unrest – Pakistan picked an influential student leader, Aftab Gul, for the 1968-9 Lahore Test, whilst he was on bail, and who went on to represent Salman Butt at his spot-fixing trial.

The relationship soured for good in the 1980s. Pakistan won in England in 1987, and England’s tour that winter saw the infamous Gatting-Rana clash, Chris Broad refuse to walk, and each England player receive a “hardship bonus” at the end of the tour. Rana had previously incensed Jeremy Coney when New Zealand toured, and Imran Khan’s calls for neutral umpires seemed increasingly necessary. Gatting’s response – “does Maggie [Thatcher] back down when she’s given no choice?” – suggested a hardening of English attitudes towards Pakistan. Home umpires were the catalysts of the next dispute, when Aaqib Javed clashed with Roy Palmer when Pakistan toured in 1992. That tour escalated into mutual recrimination, with accusations of ball tampering.

In the twenty-first century, Moin Khan’s time-wasting, Shahid Afridi’s pitch-scuffing, Inzamam’s forfeiting, and Butt, Amir and Mohammad Asif’s spot-fixing have all lead to the further deterioration of the relationship. Add in mutters about bowling actions, crowd trouble, and political instability, all of which have cropped up before, and the situation seems practically irreconcilable.

Moreover, the geopolitical situation has deteriorated further. One of the reasons that Pakistan versus England should be taken more seriously as a sporting rivalry is that it is one of the few that exists based on the defining questions of the century so far, what has been loosely termed the War on Terror. Perhaps only the footballing rivalry between France and Algeria has the same post-colonial tension, morphing into new questions about national identity. This is not to argue that England playing Pakistan should be seen as somehow representative of some specious “Clash of Civilisations”; rather, as Mike Marqusee argued in 1994 (!) – the Pakistani cricket team is often used, especially by the English media, as a sporting shorthand for Islam, perpetuated through negative stereotypes. The vocabulary – “volatile”, “excitable” – the suggestions of untrustworthiness and suspicion of religiosity, casually elide, as Marqusee noted, the Pakistani cricket team and Pakistanis, especially British Pakistanis.

It is notable then that there were three British Pakistanis in England’s original touring party – Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Zafar Ansari. Moeen and Rashid are from Birmingham and Bradford respectively, home to two of the largest British Pakistani communities. Ansari’s background (Hampton; Trinity Hall, Cambridge) is recalls a different generation of England cricketer, but his father is an academic, who specialises in British Muslim identity. Perhaps a clue to détente lies with them. They are not ambassadors, and have no duty or special task to perform. But Moeen in particular, open about his faith and close to Saeed Ajmal, who other England players have denigrated, suggests that a working relationship might be possible between England and Pakistan.

For the series not be marred by controversy would be a major step. Both teams would of course love to win, but perhaps something of a “hard but fair” attitude might prevail. There is historical baggage that the contest will never be able to shake. But the possibility of moving beyond a strictly oppositional relationship, the logic of the Tebbit Test, and mutual recrimination would be a huge positive. At a time where many British Muslims face suspicion, a broader acceptance of complex identities could be reached.

A multiracial national team, reflecting multiracial clubs across the country, is a sign of a new England, hopefully one less irascible towards its supposed other. British society still has a long way to go, and international sport rarely provides a healthy atmosphere for national reconciliation. But the nation would benefit with a more fraternal relationship with Pakistan on the cricket field, a recognition of past faults and of common identity over misunderstanding and ignorance.

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Capturing the Spirit: Cricket in Popular Culture

“…a revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity”.                  Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

What can the work of a Hungarian communist exile tell us about cricket? Arthur Koestler might not seem like a likely source of wisdom about the game. Darkness at Noon, his best known work, is a powerful critique of political power, but a guide to thinking about cricket? The sole line doesn’t even seem to make much sense – of course, the laws of the game can’t tell you about revolution. Of course popping creases and proletariats don’t mix.

But look a little deeper. The absurdity is not that cricket and revolution make a surreal mix; rather, they are diametrically opposed. The rules of cricket are the opposite of a revolution – hence, to combine the two is ludicrous. Koestler is using cricket as shorthand for what he calls “the nineteenth century’s liberal ethics of ‘fair play’”. Cricket symbolises what the revolution is opposed to, what must be overthrown.

Using cricket to signify liberal, bourgeois values is not an uncommon trope, especially in an English, or in Koestler’s case, European, context. The enduring idea of cricket in popular culture is as pastoral, staid and moral. It is a game of the village green, with breaks for tea, played with a certain spirit of social harmony and honourable conduct. In fiction, film and television, cricket is an easy symbol for representing a certain mindset and milieu. As Raphael the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle says, “Nobody understands cricket. You got to understand what a crumpet is to understand cricket”.

In recent years, this has begun to shift, and this is not a universal cliché. But it lingers in the subconscious of the non-cricket fan, and it influences the game as experienced by those who would consider themselves knowledgeable. Many would bristle at this suggestion – surely those who follow, watch and play the game know better than those who are strangers to it? In reality, cricket’s place in the popular imagination shapes our understanding of it more that we would like to admit.

Cricket fans bask in the imagined themes of morality or modernity, often unwilling to engage with the structural flaws that these may obscure, afraid to critique popular misconceptions about the game. They should recognise their own willingness to perpetuate them, and we should attempt to understand why those with only a vague conception of cricket think about it certain ways. What should we take forward into new, exciting opportunities and what should we jettison as regressive and limiting? We can and should encourage discussion, in a way that produces depth, nuance, and maybe even art.

This is not a comprehensive attempt at listing cricketing references in culture, or an attempt to sift them into neat categories. Rather, it is an appeal to think about the meanings that have been ascribed to the game. Many allusions may defy cliché, and we should be aware of them, ready to wilfully complicate our conceptions of the sport. A lot of explicitly cricket-themed work is interesting and different. Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel, Chinaman, about a Sri Lankan spinner – mysterious in more than his bowling – is a good example. But where cricket hovers, loosely formed, on the edge of the imagination, we might ask, to paraphrase C.L.R. James, what do they know of cricket who nothing of cricket know? If the spin is positive, those who feel they know cricket are far too content to accept stereotypes uncritically.


Those who write and talk about the game regularly raise the idea that cricket is somehow unique and superior among sports for its conduct, values and ethical integrity. This “Spirit of Cricket”, an amorphous idea based around respect and responsibility, is frequently raised, but little understood. It was only recently codified, in the form of the Preamble to the Laws, a brief summary of its ethos, written by Colin Cowdrey and Ted Dexter, two former England captains, and introduced in 2000. The Preamble is slight – a collection of platitudes and common sense, covering what is already defined as cheating by the Laws, and references to ideals of fair play and good conduct.

The idea of the “Spirit of Cricket” as understood by the public is far broader, encompassing play that is considered unsporting and behaviour that might be “ungentlemanly”. It is probably best encapsulated by the phrase, “it’s just not cricket”, for something that is considered to be unacceptable, even if not unauthorised. The phrase has been stretched beyond useful definition or meaning, into the realms of parody. It is hardly a useful tool for sanctioning behaviour, or underwriting a code of ethics.

There is, however, a wide public knowledge of the phrase, a sense that cricket is, as Koestler suggests, synonymous with fair play. The problem with this is that a historical sentiment is hard to define and harder to apply. Cricket’s perennial bouts of moralising are a product of this confusion, the attempted use of a public perception as an ethical code. When, during the Trent Bridge Test of 2013, Stuart Broad’s fine edge hit Brad Haddin’s gloves and looped to Michael Clarke at slip, his decision to allow the umpire to make a decision as to whether he had hit it was perfectly legitimate. He did not question the decision, or “advance towards the umpire in an aggressive manner whilst appealing”, two contradictions of the Spirit, according to the Preamble. Clarke arguably broke both of these, yet Broad was pilloried as a cheat by everyone from the English tabloid press to Richard Dawkins – Australian antipathy being a given. Broad acted within the Laws; whether he acted within the Spirit is unclear. He certainly was seen to break the Spirit of Cricket as the public imagine it. No batsman would stand his ground on the village green.

Similarly, when, the following season, Jos Buttler was run out by Sachithra Senanayake whilst backing up – a “Mankad” – many denounced the Sri Lankan spinner as a cheat. That his action had previously been scrutinised may have added to the controversy, but his act was entirely legal. He had even given Buttler the non-compulsory “warning” – an unwritten rule seen as part of the spirit of the game. This didn’t stop Alastair Cook, Buttler’s captain, criticising the run out as a “pretty poor act”, a curious denunciation of an entirely legal dismissal. This leads to an odd position: can the Spirit can override the Laws?

Ben Stokes’ recent dismissal at Lord’s, where he was given out obstructed the field having stopped a throw from Mitchell Starc from hitting his stumps, whilst simultaneously taking evasive action, is another example of this inconsistency. Many felt that Steve Smith was wrong to uphold his appeal when it became clear that Stokes would be given out; others felt that Stokes was out under the Laws, and therefore Smith was entitled to his appeal. Once again, the Spirit, in its unwritten form, and the Laws were seemingly opposed.


These contradictions, knots in the fabric of the game, result from the fact that cricket exists as much in the imagination as on the pitch or paper. We rarely remember matches as they were, or the behaviour of the past as it was. Even in an era of instant access to scorecard databases and video archives, the past is fragmented and illusory. Our understanding of the game is influenced by how, when and where we experienced it. Moreover, our interpretations are not simply based on cricket as it exists. Fictional representation plays a role, in the understanding of the layperson, as much as the fan.

When Broad stands his ground, or Buttler wanders out of his, our reaction is one influenced by the same novels and programmes as the casual follower who sees the incident on the evening news. In an English context, this is overwhelmingly the narrative of rural fair play and bourgeois idyll that Koestler uses. On television, the detective dramas Morse and Midsomer Murders have both used cricket as a quintessentially English pastime, timeless and tranquil, sharply contrasted to the brutal homicides of Middle England. Cricket as Arcadia can be seen in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. Wodehouse was a cricket lover, and, in the character of Mike Jackson, he creates a cricketing archetype: public school sporting prodigy, decent chap, adventurous without being dangerous. Cricketing excellence is just part of the make-up of the ideal pre-war British man. Mike plays a game that trains young men for imperial service, sport as a means, not an end. The Spirit of the game is part of his moral instruction.

Cricket can also be a mark of harmless eccentricity, the mark of an obsessive. In the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes, two cricket fans, Charters and Caldicott, are distracted from helping to find a missing woman on a train across Central Europe by their determination to return to England to see the last day of a Test match. Cricket consumes the fan, distracting and fixating them. But cricket’s followers, in English popular culture at least, are never dogmatic or fanatical. In the long-running television series Doctor Who, the fifth incarnation of the Doctor might be an all-powerful, time-travelling alien, but he dresses in a traditional cricket jumper and a Panama hat. He might be fighting evil across the universe, but he appears innocuous, eccentric and distracted. But he is a moral figure, fighting for good.


The fan’s fondness for the popular perception is, however, not necessarily a good thing for the sport. Cricket in England, and perhaps elsewhere, is too in love with the idea of fair play and morality. It induces conformity, where the challenging talent and driven professionalism of a figure like Kevin Pietersen questions the limitations of what a cricketer in England can be and achieve. Pietersen may not have intended to be, but was an iconoclast, challenging the imagined traditions of English cricket, ones which popular culture had done much to develop.

Moreover, by claiming that cricket is moral, socially inclusive and cordial, systemic flaws are disguised. It is estimated that 30 to 40% of recreational cricketers in England are non-white, but only 6% of professional cricketers, mostly from a South Asian background. In 2013, 29% of professional cricketers were privately educated, compared to 7% of the population as a whole. Women’s cricket is still seen as secondary, ignored on its own terms and patronised on others. These problems are intersectional, but English cricket’s nostalgic fantasies do not help tackle them. The pastoral visions of a past England, perpetuated in the popular imagination, elide social divisions and inequalities – as the historian G.M. Trevelyan had it, “if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt”. Class identity is a challenge to cricketing amity, injustice can be glossed over on the pitch. Mike Jackson is seen as a paragon, not a member of a privileged elite. As such, modern inequity can be ignored, cricket’s mythical social salve supposedly rendering unequal opportunity irrelevant and invisible.

This vision of a rural England, populated by public school boys ready to fight for empire, as in Henry Newbolt’s famous cricket poem, Vitaï Lampada, is also incompatible with modern Britain. Do we really expect the England cricket team to reflect a pastoral fantasy? English cricket is still haunted by the language of the Tebbit Test. The construction of English cricket as based on the morality of empire is irreconcilable with progressive reform. The spirit of the game, nostalgia, and the harmless eccentricity is often the sum total of cricket in the popular imagination, and cricket fans are often too keen to accept this as an accurate, flattering portrayal. We should reject it. Cricket will never be imagined as it really is, but we should attempt at least to make an attempt to represent the range of the sport, and resist projecting smug exclusivity.


Cricket has long since transcended the Anglocentric understanding of it. It is now a global sport, with followings outside the traditional heartlands, flickering on multiple screens on multiple channels across the world. Television and the internet have found new markets, and proved a welcome reconnection from those who missed the game. In many ways, the sport has transcended both the colonial and postcolonial. Interest in the games is no longer limited to the former reaches of the British Empire. Moreover, the success of the West Indies and Pakistan, among others, was constructed as an extension of independence and post-colonial identity. The globalisation of the game, however, has removed many of the traces of empire from the game’s geopolitics. Whilst the imperial legacy still haunts England, more than many other countries, the game is now another global sport, freed from its colonial moorings. But, in some places, problematic traces of its origins remain. Outside of its heartlands, the idea of the Spirit of Cricket still embodies the game.

This is apparent in some representations of the game in American popular culture. In Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2013 novel, The Goldfinch, cricket is used as both globalised spectacle and arcane ritual. The characters watch ESPN “with the sound off, no sport in particular, anything and everything that came on: cricket, jai alai, badminton, croquet”. Cricket becomes both obscure and accessible, part of an easily available global carousel of sport. But, for Tartt’s characters, it remains mysterious. One, Boris, a enigmatic, rootless figure, had “ridden a camel, he had eaten wichity grubs, played cricket, caught malaria, lived on the street in Ukraine…” The game remains something un-American, which can only be experienced properly outside the border, or by those born to it. Of course, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are aware of its inscrutability. The crumpet, like cricket, is impenetrably British, evoking tea and class, the pastoral and the traditional. Boris has probably eaten one though.

One exception to this is Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s terrific 2008 novel about cricket in post-9/11 New York. It is strictly too cricket-orientated to count as a popular conception of the sport, and O’Neill is an avid cricket fan. But it is interesting for the way it works cricket into a story about an authentically American immigrant experience. It speaks of an attempt to take cricket out of enclaves and integrate it into a traditional model of the “American Dream”. For O’Neill, cricket can be aspirational. But perhaps we should not be surprised that efforts to spread the game in the USA outside of expat communities have been largely unsuccessful. Cricket is usually irredeemably foreign. Once again, the popular perception is limiting. For the American sports fan, the idea of the “Spirit of Cricket” deciding important plays seems odd – part of the staid nature of “baseball on Valium”. Moreover, cricket’s main linguistic contribution to American English is the phrase, “just not cricket”, the idea of liberal fair play that Koestler would be familiar with.


Of India, there is often a perception, especially outside South Asia, that the culture is suffused with cricket. From Ashis Nandy to advertisements, cricket is considered a default setting of Indian life. One idea that has recently arisen is of certain types of cricket as linked to modernity. If the era of Tendulkar was inextricably linked to liberalisation, the age of Dhoni, Kohli and the IPL is indicative of a new cricket and a new India. Western journalists have used the IPL as shorthand for modern, BRIC-economy India. It intersects with popular culture in the shape of Bollywood team owners, and as prime time entertainment. It is the apotheosis of globalisation, a conclusion to the transition from being merely postcolonial. To use the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, it is “provincializing Europe”.

But again, it is worth considering if the illusion obscures the reality. Does the IPL of the imagination, the glorious festival of cricketing innovation and pageantry, distract from the sometimes sordid underbelly of the tournament: the corruption, fixing and conflicts of interest? Can the idea of the game as moral and fair coexist with that of the IPL as a symbol of modernity? Does it similarly conceal the problems within it?

The English mythology of morality and social cohesion on the village green has been remarkably enduring. It has survived Bodyline and Packer, match fixing and rebel tours. It is likely to remain through the age of Srinivasan and Modi, amongst the alphabet soup of T20 leagues. The problem is when, to challenge the limited image this presents, we reach for an alternative picture. Can the hypermodern, the gold-padded excess of the new forms of the game, really be the only alternative? And is there no room for fair play in the brave new world itself?

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