I’ve never watched an innings of cricket. Nor have I opened one of the many books written about it, both fiction and non-fiction, that reveal the long history and deep lore of a sport as synonymous with the peak of the British Empire as baseball is with the rise of the modern American nation.
But after luxuriating in Elizabeth Minkel’s recent piece on The Millions, a fabulous book site, about the “rich literary vein” of cricket, I can’t wait to dig into a few volumes to help me better understand a sport that seems exotic.
My only direct brush with cricket — and it was nothing more than that — came during the 2000 Summer Olympics. I was covering soccer matches played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and with a spare hour or two toured the attached museum that’s a shrine to the Australian version of the game. Near the entrance is a statue of Don Bradman, the legendary batsman who penned a noted memoir about his years in the sport.
He appeared to be a ringer for Ty Cobb. My baseball brain, transported halfway around the world, couldn’t switch into a foreign mode to appreciate what was before me. I wasn’t the best international traveler on that trip — it was a three-week working assignment — but I filed away my brief introduction to cricket somewhere in the back of my mind.
So I read Minkel’s examination with renewed interest. She cites quite a few books, even dating back to Dickens and including P.G. Wodehouse, among other British literary luminaries, in her lengthy primer. Then she gets to what appears to be the tipping point:
“The literary history of cricket, in turn, is a lesson in colonialism and post-colonialism. Cricket enthusiasts began building the sport’s narrative in the Victorian era—they wanted it to represent the idea of a near-fictional England, with an emphasis on the rural and the ancient, a construction that they exported to the farthest reaches of the British Empire. The sport was—and still is—imbued with a deep sense of morality.”
In the same paragraph, she references “Beyond a Boundary,” by the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, as not just “politics by cricket,” but also “one of the greatest sports books of all time.”
Okay, then, I’m up for that, since I especially enjoy reading books by authors who have a very different philosophical perspective. I’m going to learn about a sport I know nothing about from a writer with whom I disagree politically.
There are other endorsements for “Beyond a Boundary,” including this one as the best cricket book of all time. There are more, here, here and here, that more or less promise accessibility, so we’ll see. Then there’s this from the writer Joseph O’Neill, author of “Netherland,” set in New York and containing a cricket component:
“Of course, it’s quite possible to enjoy a piece of writing while remaining at a loss about much of what it means: Think of the murky pleasure to be derived from leafing through, say, the poems of Neruda with nothing but a smattering of Mediterraneanese (that quasi-language comprising remembered bits of French, Italian, and Spanish) to draw on.”
O’Neill says “Beyond a Boundary” doesn’t go to those extremes, so I suppose I’m sold on reading this.
Minkel also recommends “Netherland,” along with so many other titles, including literary criticism of cricket literature. The genre is this rich, as she claims, and it’s astonishing to realize how vastly uneducated Americans are about a sport that reaches many more corners of the world than our beloved baseball ever will.
But one book at a time. And some viewing needs to be in order in this age of online streaming. I’ve been seeing a bit of cricket seem into the American sports social media bloodstream in recent weeks, especially about Twenty20 cricket, an abridged version, if you will, that’s extremely lucrative in the Indian and Pakistani hotbeds for the sport.
What a joy this figures to be.