It’s futile and perhaps just a little odious to compare cricket with football (soccer), but like all cricket-lovers, compare I must. While football’s fizz serves it well as a commoditised distraction of corporate capital, cricket for the most part resists the big money phantasmagoria. Cricket – even in its glitzy made-for-Bollywood 20/20 form – does not yield easily to the sponsored shrinkage of space into time. The openness to the elements, of earth and cloud, together with the combination of a team setting and moment-by-moment individual drama (ball vs. bat) lend themselves to strategy, long-form thinking and to depth psychology.
Football at best is about tactics – formations, substitutions and the like – and is pure surface. This depth-of-field difference is reproduced at the level of discourse. Men compete in their talk about soccer to avoid discussing each other. In contrast, people talk of cricket as a way of being together. In drinks terms, football is at best a Belgian speciality lager – a Duvel or a Chimay – while cricket is a Bordeaux or a Barolo.
I came from a cricket family: Dad played on the weekend; the family trouped along to away games. It was a Polaroid era of deckchairs, windbreakers, Ford Cortinas and everyday sexism: wives on a rota to make lunch. It was also a world in white: flannels, mayonnaise, white bread sandwiches, white people. As soon as I could hold a bat, I did. However, a spurting height pushed me into dreams of being a “quick”. I had county trials, was observed at Edgbaston, but alas, something in the musculature or the action was missing.
As I inched towards six feet and beyond, I sensed the subtle complications of the game, reaching beyond the familiar. I remember gulping through a pulp novel about a rural English (white) team playing a city (black) team, recoiling subconsciously at the language. I thrilled at seeing the West Indies in their prime: Holding’s not-touching-the-ground run-up, Marshall’s sheer can’t-see-the-ball pace. By fate of ticketing, we found ourselves alone in a stand full of West Indies supporters: the bells, the chanting and wit carried us into a merry welcome. Another time: standing behind the nets and pretending to face Patrick Patterson as he practised against a stump (the ball came at you like a bullet train), and then watching Lara, without pads, dispatching his team’s bowlers with silken disdain. It was a high voltage thrill to be just feet away from the fire in Babylon. Around 14, I borrowed Beyond a Boundary by CLR James from the library. The signature question of the book: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” haunted me. It pulled me towards an understanding that was yet beyond my reach. And so the summers faded away, and I cast cricket aside for the study of philosophy. But cricket never travelled far. The parents of my girlfriend in Hull were friends with CLR James; her Guyanese mother – a teacher – once knitted him a woolly jumper (it appears in several photographs), while her Norwegian-American father wrote “Black Intellectuals Come to Power.” In the book-lined tranquillity of their home, cricket assumed the level of concept, of resistance to power and of a critique of Empire.
By this time, I was therefore conscious of the divided perspectives on cricket: the “gentlemen’s” world of Lords membership, the city and aristocracy – Jardine – versus the “player’s” world of the club, the commoner and sometimes the pit - Larwood. It was while reading the American Anglophile Mike Marqusee’s absorbing Anyone but England that I finally was able to place cricket fully in its poco setting – beyond its boundary – and to understand cricket as a form of political contestation. I saw finally that the question of belonging forever looms large over cricket – a conversation with the other that ensures that race, nation and class are just one layer below the surface at all times. I realised something those who only know of cricket - the Terry Aldermans, the Mike Gattings, the Colin Crofts (a tragic figure in the game) – will not see. On one side of the boundary we find Stuart Hall, CLR and the Black Atlantic; on the other side are corporate away days, Geoffrey Boycott and the white gaze.
It was Joseph O’Neil’s 2008 novel Netherland that alerted the world to the strange possibility of cricket in America. Netherland is a beguiling novel about Hans, a Dutch oil and gas analyst lost in New York and his friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a naturalised American with grand dreams of establishing New York’s first purpose-built cricket pitch. Among other things, it turns out that cricket is older than baseball in the US. Does cricket then offer a promise of a return to another America, less in hock to corporate intentions and a thousand whispered historical denials? An America that remembers – through sport – its magnificent landscapes, its underdog heroes and a non-instrumental sense of time? Those who love cricket sometimes dream of such things.
And so to A Gentleman’s War, a documentary film project about cricket in New York, centred on the Metropolitan Cricket League. The story begins in real life where the fictional Ramkissoon’s life ended: black cricket on the edges of the urban. Anyone who has read this far will give thanks that this project exists.
Here’s the trailer:
* Photo by Elliot Ross: Cricketers in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, August 2013.