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.