I’m not qualified to speak or write about cricket, but I do anyway. As my wife likes to remind me, I’ve never played even one single second of the game. And yet it’s all I can think about, read about, dream about. I see the lone batsman, dressed in his whites, standing in front of his wicket, a frail house made of wood. Death appears in the form of the bowler, also dressed in white. But the bowler’s white is not the white of the angels; it is the white of Melville’s existential dread, the white of the great white whale, the white of the pale hills in the distance, signifying terror and annihilation. Suddenly, furiously, a blood-red ball is hurled at the batsman, trying to rip apart his home and destroy him. Crowds look on and cheer, drink and wager on the outcome. Like an angel battling Death, the batsman’s only weapon is a blunt stick carved from a willow tree. Attack or defend? Quickly, now! You have only a sliver of a second left to live. As the ball leaves the bowler’s hand and bounces (bounces?) on the pitch as it speeds towards you, your very life, your soul, hangs in the balance. At least that’s how I imagine it.
This, from Wikipedia: “Many theories exist about the origins of cricket. One suggests that the game began among shepherds hitting a stone or a ball of wool with their crooks and, at the same time, defending the wicket gate into the sheep-fold (from Anglo Saxon ‘cricce’, a crooked staff). A second theory suggests the name came from a low stool known as a ‘cricket’ in England, which from the side looked like the long, low wicket used in the early days of the game (originally from the Flemish ‘krickstoel’, a low stool on which parishioners knelt in church.” (There is something compelling about the image of using a church kneeling-stool as part of a ball game. Angels again, and Death with his red ball, trying to dislodge the kneeling-stool. The batsman is either bowled out and sent off for eternity, or, he defends his home and sends Death packing. I also love the image of shepherds whipping stones or, more practically, balls of wool at one another.)
Cricket has been part of American life for a very long time, and was probably here even before baseball. Now it’s buried in the silt of our past. In 1844, a full ten years before Walden was published, the first official international cricket match took place, not between England and Australia (that wouldn’t happen until 1877), but between the United States and Canada. The venue was St. George’s Club, Bloomingdale Park, Manhattan. Historians think the park was somewhere around East 31st Street and First Avenue. In 1844, it probably wasn’t much more than a muddy field. The match lasted two days in late September. The US lost by 23 runs.
As an American, I can’t help seeing the sport through the eyes of a player and watcher of baseball. There are many aspects of the game that seem odd. I’ll mention just a few. When the batter hits the ball, he doesn’t have to run. Catches in the field, except those made by the wicket-keeper who stands almost directly behind the batsman and acts like a baseball catcher, are made without gloves. (It should be mentioned that a cricket ball is harder and heavier than a baseball). The ball bounces on the ground (known as the pitch) before it reaches the batter. When you are out, you are out for the rest of your team’s batting (or innings), unlike in baseball when you can come up to bat every two or three innings. There are no sacrifice flies in cricket. In fact, unless you are certain you can hit the ball over the head of the fielders, shots that skim along the ground are preferable. And sometimes matches can last for days and still have no winner at the end. Still, the ball is exactly the correct weight, size and color, the bat is exactly the correct width, the pitch, like the base paths in baseball, is exactly the right length; an inch or two longer or shorter would mean the world.
To paraphrase Joseph O’Neill’s narrator in Netherland, the cricket field is so big, it often looks like nothing is happening. A spectator of cricket needs both the attention and eye of the naturalist to spot the action in such a large field of play. Something so small and fragile, like a leaf dropping in a forest or a bird hopping from a branch, all unfolding in the middle of a pristine green oval.
The book I’m reading now, Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, speaks of cricket this way: “The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music.” And this: “I have been told by members of my own family that there is no use or value in sports. I only agree with the first part. I may be drunk, but I’m not stupid. Of course there is little point to sports. But, at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. There is little point to anything. In a thousand years, grass will have grown over all our cities. Nothing of anything will matter. Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”
I recently read an article on one of my favorite websites The Millions about the rich literary tradition of cricket. I’ve become quite obsessed with the game lately thanks to Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland, about a group of immigrants living, loving, striving, and playing cricket in and around New York City in a post-9/11 world. Curious about this bat-and-ball game with English roots (I am a quarter English myself, hence my other obsessions with tea and real football), I started a journey that is only a few weeks old, but one that has nearly engulfed my life. (Just ask my wife and kids. You know you’re in trouble when you start conducting late-night internet searches for the best beginner cricket sets, asking your sleepy and puzzled eight-year-old son for advice (“Which one, buddy? The yellow Gray-Nicolls Nitro set that comes with two sets of wickets or the more traditional Gunn & Moore Icon cricket set that comes with a real wooden bat and ambidextrous batting gloves?” Son: “Wha?”) Or when, after being laughed at in Dick’s when you asked if they carried cricket balls, ordering a beautiful red Teststar hand-made in Pakistan just so you could hold it, feel the weight of it in your hand (all 5.5 ounces of it) and yes, smell it. Or watching grainy YouTube highlights of the latest Test match between India and Sri Lanka.) After Netherland I read CLR James’s classic (I soon discovered) memoir Beyond A Boundary, about his life growing up with and playing alongside some of the best West Indian cricketers of the first half of the twentieth century. His book also provides a look into his boyhood in Trinidad and his prescient analysis of cricket as a classic struggle between ruler and ruled, colonizer and colonized, master and slave (I recently discovered that when the British were exporting their game around the world, teaching it to their “subjects” it was the British colonizers who always batted and the native peoples who always bowled. Imagine playing baseball and always having to pitch and field, but never getting a chance to hit; a sure way to solidify the power structure of the colonial world.) After James, I watched the documentary Fire in Babylon, about the domination by the West Indies cricket team of the international cricket world in the 1970’s and 80’s. In this film, cricket becomes the symbol of black nationalism and post-colonial self-rule. So where am I now on my journey? I’m thinking, like the character Chuck Ramkissoon in Netherland, of starting my own cricket club. When I drive by empty green spaces I wonder I could make it the next Lord’s or if it at least would be a good place for a pitch. I’m going to start researching the cricketing history of the town I live in, a town built by shipbuilders and immigrants, who may (who knows?) even have played cricket somewhere in these environs. (Something else to ponder: before the Civil War, cricket was the most popular game in the United States. It was only after the war ended that baseball started crafting its narrative as the “national pastime.”) And I’m waiting for a chinaman to come to me from across the Atlantic. You see, in that Millions piece I mentioned above, another book was reviewed, also published in 2008, titled Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka. It’s about the fictional search for the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer, a Mr. Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew. The book was just released in the US, but as with everything, was renamed The Legend of Pradeep Mathew to perhaps make it sound quirky and attractive to American readers, rather than the original title that would make one think it was about a man from China (the original title actually refers to a style of cricket bowling that uses an unorthodox, left arm spin). I could have ordered the American edition, but am waiting for the original edition, with the original title and cover, to be delivered to me from that virtual shopping mall across the pond known as Amazon UK (even though I despise the notion of e-books and think Amazon is killing the book publishing industry, creating a world where every future novel, like the Taco Bell chain in the movie Demolition Man, becomes a monolithic choice, a Fifty Shades of Hunger Games in Twilight uber-novel, I still think getting stuff from England is wildly exotic). Could I have “started reading The Legend of Pradeep Mathew: A Novel on my Kindle in under a minute?” Yes, I could have. But like a ball from a slow bowler, I prefer to wait.