I went to the last one-day international between England and Sri Lanka at Old Trafford yesterday with my dad. Watching cricket is as much a ritual as playing the game itself. I never cease to marvel at the extent to which groups of men, despite having paid forty pounds each for a ticket and over the odds for countless pints of inferior lager with a fake German name, will spend the entire day doing almost anything – playing bongos, making towers out of empty plastic beer glasses, screaming at Robbie Savage in the executive boxes to try to get him to wave – rather than watch the unfolding spectacle in front of them. I am sure this is not what C.L.R. James meant when he famously said, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’
I think my two favourite books about cricket are Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England and one I have just read, Duncan Hamilton’s A Last English Summer. Marqusee’s has a memorable description of how, as an expat American attending his first cricket match, he became entranced by the strange, pointless beauty of the changing field arrangements at the end of an over. Hamilton’s is a journey around the cricket season in the Ashes summer of 2009 (inspired by Geoffrey Moorhouse’s The Best Loved Game which does the same for the 1978 season) covering everything from the Lords test to the Lancashire League. I was pleased to see that there is a chapter entitled ‘Yes, I’ll remember Aigburth’ – where I live – about Hamilton’s visit to Liverpool Cricket Club when Andrew Flintoff was appearing for Lancashire to prove his fitness to the England selectors, and where ‘the sun appears briefly, as if wanting to see for itself whether Flintoff is fit’. Hamilton, whom I knew previously from his brilliant biography of Brian Clough, has a lovely turn of phrase, from his account of Leary Constantine ‘hold[ing] the shot, as though posing for a sculptor who is about to strike his chisel against a huge fresh block of stone and free the shape concealed within it’ to his description of ‘the gasometer [at the Oval], rising and falling like a concertina’.
Hamilton also mentions a 1953 film, The Final Test, scripted by Terence Rattigan, in which one of the characters, a poet-cum-playwright played by Robert Morley, says, ‘Of course it’s frightfully dull. That’s the whole point. Any game can be exciting … the measure of the vast superiority of cricket over any other game is that it steadfastly refuses to cater for this boring craving for excitement. To go to cricket to be thrilled is as stupid as to go to a Chekhov play in search of melodrama.’