The power of a sport to charm a prostitute's son and make playing nations blind to colour

The Picador Book of Cricket - Cricket and Race
July 20, 2001

Two new books on cricket - one an anthology and tribute to the finest writers on the game and the other a more academic study of cricket and race, the sport's darker side - provide two completely divergent views of the great English game and where it has led us over the past century and more. Curiously enough, the first book is compiled by an Indian and the second is written by an Englishman.

As a boy born in Ceylon and sent to public school in England in the late 1940s, a form prize of mine was the autobiography of Neville Cardus, that most lyrical of cricket writers. The book is still one of my most prized possessions. Thus, when I picked up The Picador Book of Cricket , I was happy to find that Cardus was the writer who inspired the book's editor, Ramachandra Guha, to amass his first cricket library and now this fascinating anthology. Cardus was the son of a Manchester prostitute who never knew his father and was self-educated. As a music critic, he once found himself filling in for a cricket correspondent, and stayed on for 20 years. At his memorial service in 1975, Alan Gibson remarked that "all cricket writers of the last half century have been influenced by Cardus... whether they have tried to copy him or whether they have tried to avoid copying him".

Cardus, Ray Robinson, J. H. Fingleton, C. L. R. James - all are richly preserved in this anthology. The first two sections profile the truly great, from W. G. Grace to Sachin Tendulkar; the third honours those who have aroused more parochial passions; the fourth remembers some epic matches; and the fifth collects reflections on cricketing styles, themes and attitudes. The book aims to challenge the self-centred chauvinism of many earlier collections of cricket literature, and it succeeds.

Writers from several lands other than England, the Caribbean and India are represented, and it certainly appears that cricket is now much more important in the erstwhile colonies than in the mother country. But England has clearly been the dominant influence in cricket, and the game is still played almost exclusively in the United Kingdom and its former empire. Nevertheless, its decline has caused some concern and it is difficult to imagine that cricket will increase in popularity until changes are made to its structure in this country.

In the book's epilogue, Guha explains his serendipitous discovery in India of Cardus's masterpiece and his acquisition of Keith Miller's delightful Cricket Crossfire , Denis Compton's End of an Innings , Syed Mushtaq Ali's Cricket Delightful and James's classic, Beyond a Boundary . Flirting with Marxism, Guha gave away most of these books (ownership was theft) but returned two years later to rebuild his library. By then he knew which books were worth having.

To list some highlights: we get John Arlott's poem on cricket at Worcester; C. B. Fry on batsmanship; Cardus on Mailey; R. C. Robertson-Glasgow on Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Woolley; Ronald Mason on Hammond; W. J. O'Reilly on Bradman; James on Headley; Swanton on Compton; pieces on Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Botham's fastest hundred, Miller, Tendulkar, Benaud in Brisbane; and a sensitive article by V. S. Naipaul on "The Caribbean flavour". Allow me to quote Cardus's magical description of Woolley: "His cricket is compounded of soft airs and flavours. And the very brevity of summer is in it. Woolley, so the statisticians tell us, often plays a long innings. But Time's a cheat, as the old song says. The brevity in Woolley's batting is a thing of pulse and spirit, not to be checked by clocks, but only apprehended by imagination. He is always about to lose his wicket; his runs are thin-spun. His bat is charmed, and most of us, being reasonable, do not believe in charms."

In the epilogue, this cricket addict of an editor attempts to list the 50 best cricket books of all time. A. A. Thomson, asked by a friend which ten books he would recommend, answered: "John Nyren's A Cricketer's Tutor , Altham and Swanton's A History of Cricket and any eight of Cardus." Guha does not totally agree with Thomson, and I do not entirely agree with Guha. I would have made room for David Foot's sadly moving biography of Walter Hammond and Mike Brearley's brilliant The Art of Captaincy - the most scientific book on the subject by one of England's most successful captains.

Cricket lovers will find reading this book like eating cashew nuts - once you start, you keep dipping in. I think I will keep The Picador Book of Cricket with me at all times - on my travels, at Lord's, in my library and by my bed. It will fill any blank moments with stories and recollections of cricket's finest moments written by the best of its writers. But what a shame there is no index.

One unsettling quote from the anthology stuck in my mind as I started Jack Williams's Cricket and Race . Speaking of his Caribbean education in the early part of the 20th century, James wrote: "I learned and obeyed a code, the English public school code. Britain and her colonies and the colonial peoples. What do the British people know of what they have done there? Precious little. The colonial peoples, particularly the West Indians, scarcely know themselves as yet."

Very little has been published on cricket and racism; it is not even referred to by Guha. This book is a brave and intelligent attempt to fill the gap. It analyses the nature of racial exclusion in cricket and the attitudes to racial identities embedded in cricket discourses over the past hundred years. It also assesses what cricket reveals about the progress England has made to becoming a multicultural society where differing ethnic backgrounds are granted equal tolerance and respect.

Before 1914 the only non-white cricketer to achieve the acclaim and popularity due to his skill was Ranjit Sinhji, the Indian prince born in 1872, despite some pointed instances of hostility. (Someone said of Ranji to Fry: "Yes, he can play, but he must have a lot of Satan in him.") By excelling at cricket, Ranji was living proof of how those who were not white could assimilate white English values. He helped to persuade the whites of his time that coloured people could be trusted, if not to govern themselves, at least to acquiesce in, and even support, white imperial rule.

Between the wars the presence of non-whites in English cricket became a little stronger, and test-match status was granted to the West Indies and India. Non-white cricketers made an impact in league cricket too, particularly Constantine and Headley. Somewhat later came the D'Oliveira affair - the subject of a fascinating chapter by Williams - which caused bitter controversy in England. Basil D'Oliveira, a "Cape coloured" born and raised in South Africa who played county cricket for Worcestershire, was selected to play for England in 1967, but then pointedly dropped by the MCC for the 1968-69 tour of apartheid-dominated South Africa. While first-class cricket fostered racial harmony in Britain in the 1960s, it led to the cancellation of the 1970 South African tour, the English cricketing boycott of South Africa, and the "rebel tours" by English cricketers to South Africa starting in 1982. (Ian Botham refused to join, saying that he would no longer be able to look his friend Viv Richards in the eye.) Finally, with the imminent collapse of apartheid, South Africa was readmitted to test cricket in 1991.

Fierce competitiveness and ill feeling have often characterised international cricket, but in the 1980s and 1990s Williams recounts how test matches between England and Pakistan were embroiled in unprecedented suspicion, bitterness and recrimination, though the situation eased somewhat when Imran Khan, much admired in England, was captain of the Pakistan team. Pakistani umpires were accused of cheating, and Botham once commented: "It's important we don't sink to the Pakistani level." The Pakistanis saw these accusations as expressions of racism. In response, when the cricket authorities in India and Pakistan realised that the popularity of cricket in their countries could enable them to challenge the established authority of international cricket, they voted to allocate the 1996 World Cup to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Further bitterness followed.

It is easy to agree with the author's cold-hearted opening statement that "Race was at the heart of cricket throughout the 20th century". Since the 1980s, Asian and black players have contributed much to first-class cricket in England: eleven players of African-Caribbean descent have played for England, and in 1999 Nasser Hussein, born in Madras, became captain of England. I say this notwithstanding the unimpressive performance of the England team until very recently, which would very likely have been even worse without the black and Asian players. Many feel that England may become a force in test cricket again only by exploiting the enthusiasm for the game among the ethnic minorities in Britain.

There are now signs that racial discrimination in cricket is much weaker than before, despite the ugly spectre of "match fixing". The England Cricket Board is showing more readiness to admit and combat the existence of racism. As Williams points out, there have been few public complaints made that England is now captained by a non-white player. Many countries have had Asian or black captains, but Hussein at Essex, Mark Alleyne at Gloucestershire and Mark Ramprakash at Middlesex have been the only coloured captains who had not played first-class cricket overseas before taking up county cricket.

In conclusion, Williams believes that cricket, as a sport played by three major ethnic groups in England, has the potential to promote ethnic understanding; but that it is not easy to feel confident that it will actually do so. His book is an eye-opening treatise that deserves to be in every cricket library. I did not always enjoy it, unlike the Picador anthology, but I am glad that I read it.

Christopher Ondaatje is a writer, and the patron of the Somerset County Cricket Club.

The Picador Book of Cricket

Editor - Ramachandra Guha
ISBN - 0 330 39612 9
Publisher - Picador
Price - £20.00
Pages - 476

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