The story of cricket fiction
In Britain the season for international cricket (in the form of Test matches) has just drawn to a close. But there is another cricket season that never closes, namely the season of the imagination. This, in part. takes the form of fiction.
Cricket gets into fiction in two ways: as the main focus of a novel, so that the book in effect functions as a sports book that happens to adopt fictional form; or as a theme or context within literary fiction aimed at a more broadly defined readership.
So far as the latter type is concerned, it may be that our current age is a golden one for this form. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka have both won high praise from literati.
My focus in this post, however, is on the former type, where cricket features as the raison d’être of the novel. Here fiction enjoys something of an inverse relationship with non-fiction. Cricket non-fiction focuses on the’ big cricket’ – that is, cricket played at the highest level by the star players. Biographies and autobiographies of the greats are the staple of publishing on big cricket. In contrast, big cricket has produced little by way of fiction, though former England captain Ted Dexter did co-author with Clifford Makins a thriller – Testkill – based on a Test match between England and Australia.
The staple of cricket fiction lies at the opposite end of the spectrum – village cricket, played by amateurs at a local level. This form of the game has produced little in the way of non-fiction book publishing. I can think only of two books, both entitled Village Cricket: one by Gerald Howat, published a third of a century ago, and one by Tim Heald (2006). But the record of fiction publishing is much stronger.
The classic is the wonderfully comical account of a match between a village team and a literary one which forms a chapter in AG Macdonell’s England, their England. Though the book as a whole is uneven, this chapter is faultless.
In terms of whole novels, I suggest there are three high-water marks. The first is the writing of Hugh de Selincourt, especially The Cricket Match. This is so firmly rooted in the mythology of the game – the youngster getting his chance, the close finish – that even as one reads it for the first time, one feels (in a good way) that one has somehow read it before. The online version of the OUP’s Dictionary of National Biography has a facility for recommending subjects that have so far been excluded from that work: I would be grateful if you could use it to re-enforce by recommendation of de Selincourt.
The second is the writing of John Parker in the 1970s: he returned to de Selincourt’s fictional setting, writing books based in the same village. The Village Cricket Match was published in 1978, Test Time at Tillingfold appeared a year later. To my mind Parker has not had the credit he deserves: though his books pay tribute to de Selincourt, they are better written. The cricket action itself is more keenly observed, as one may expect from a journalist father of an England player.
And the third is Alan Haselhurst’s ‘Outcasts’ series, of which I am now the publisher. More on that tomorrow.