Academic all-rounders stroll from the quad to the crease

August 2, 2002

The sound of leather on willow bowled over two scholars and enticed them away from their normal fields of study, writes Huw Richards.

A political theorist and a materials scientist. A Russian-descended Zimbabwean Jew and an Englishman. An expert on Marxism and a pioneering internet entrepreneur. A happy expatriate, and one whose homesickness changed his life.

Norman Geras and Simon King could scarcely be more different. But they share a passion for cricket that has led them down some unexpected paths.

Geras, 58, professor of politics at Manchester University, has written two books about the game, publishing and distributing the second himself. King, 38, a graduate of Liverpool and Oxford universities, was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota when he created Cricinfo, now the largest single-sport website in the world.

It changed King's life. He has the decisive air of a man who was always going places - but he assumed those places would be universities. "I enjoyed being a research scientist and was reasonably successful at it - I published ten papers in 1993, the year Cricinfo started, and won a couple of awards."

For Geras, cricket is "a form of escapism" from a firmly established, highly distinguished academic career. The passion implanted by a Bulawayo childhood mystified serious-minded friends when he moved to Britain - first as a postgraduate at Nuffield College, Oxford, then, from 1967, at Manchester. "I had to justify myself to them. So I am eternally grateful for C. L. R James's Beyond a Boundary , which would certainly be on any list of the ten books that have made most difference to me. James contextualised cricket, showing it as a valid and wonderful form of self-expression. It validated me. I didn't have to make excuses any longer."

He has collected about 2,000 cricket books, but had no thought of contributing his own thoughts to their number until he and Manchester colleague Ian Holliday decided to write a diary of their attendance at every day of the 1997 England vs Australia series - Holliday supporting England, and Geras, Australia. He found the experience enjoyably liberating. "I enjoy academic writing, but I'm a painfully slow writer, always aware of the need to get the argument right and anticipate possible lines of criticism. Writing about cricket gave me much greater freedom of self-expression. As a student I used to be able to write freely, but I'd lost that."

It helped that they wrote Ashes 97 : Two Views from the Boundary as fans rather than as political analysts. Matthew Engel, editor of Wisden Cricketers Almanack , called it "a social document of cricket-watching" - which delighted Geras. "To be reviewed in Wisden confers a sort of immortality. I could not believe it would happen to me."

King, by contrast, hoped to supplement, and in part supersede, Wisden . Homesick, his initial ambitions went little further than devising a simple, reliable way of getting cricket scores in Minnesota. He became aware of numerous others in his position: "Every test-playing country has a large expatriate population in the US." There were electronic means of transmitting scores, but they were random and intermittent.

He also realised that cricket was ideal for the nascent internet: "I used to say that when they drew up the rules in 1744 they were designing for the internet - you have five seconds of action followed by 15 seconds to write about it. The statistics that arise naturally from the game lend themselves to large archives and copious analysis."

His ambition grew rapidly beyond a score service to "centralising all the available information on cricket". His academic background gave him access to high-quality computer experts and skills useful in setting up an effective site.

But Cricinfo's success ended his academic career. Returning to the UK in 1994, he found himself working two ten-hour days, one in the lab at University College London and the other on the site. "I had a choice between the security of life at UCL and the huge potential of the site. There was more demand for the site than there was ever going to be for optoelectronic thin films."

He finally left UCL to go full time on the site in 1997. By then it was firmly established - during the 1996 World Cup it was the most accessed site on the web, ahead of Yahoo.

While always technically sophisticated - it offered audio streaming as early as 1993 - Cricinfo held to King's principle that it should be accessible to the lowest grade form of web access, email. That policy helped it in India, where it commanded about 90 per cent of the market after the country went online in 1998. King left Cricinfo in 2001 after "differences of opinion over the future of the internet economy and where we should go".

While he talks in millions of page impressions, Geras's magic number is 300 - the number of sales needed for Men of Waugh : Ashes 2001 to break even. The two series, and the books, neatly topped and tailed four years as head of department at Manchester, and several publications on the Holocaust. Cricket remains separate from his academic life, although he admits to devising his concept of "the contract of mutual indifference" on the train to a test match at Headingley. "I was reading a book on the Holocaust and was struck by the contrast between the subject-matter and the fact that I was on the way to a place of enjoyment. The phrase came into my mind for the phenomenon of people being able to live contented lives while others are going through hell."

He does not know whether he will write a third cricket book, but there is no doubt that he will go on watching the game.

As will King, whose immediate future is otherwise less clear. He is looking at another business project, but he won't be drawn on specifics except to rule out a return to academic life. If anything, his cricket-watching is likely to increase. "I see more cricket now than I did when I was running Cricinfo. Then, if I went to a game, it was on business. Now I can go for the game's own sake."

Men of Waugh : Ashes 2001 is obtainable from Norman Geras, 10 Danesmoor Road, Manchester M20 3JS. £9.99 plus £1 p&p.

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