Playing Hard Ball
E T Smith Little, Brown, 213pp, £16.99
From the poetical (Arlott and Cardus) to the political (C L R James and Mike Marqusee), cricket is rightly proud of its literary heritage. Absent until recently from this canon, however, was a convincing grass-roots perspective from one who toils thanklessly on the margins of the county game. It took Simon Hughes's A Lot of Hard Yakka to begin to rectify this.
E T ("Ed") Smith is a county cricketer whose chance of playing Test cricket may well have passed. A product of Tonbridge School and Cambridge, his background would, in a previous era, have distinguished him as a "gentleman" rather than a player. But he is neither a throwback to those class-ridden days nor an example of the typical modern county professional: not for him the off-season spent teaching games at his former school, or combining club cricket in Australia with a little quality time on the beach.
In 1998, Smith travelled to the United States to pursue an interest in baseball, a game he once breezily dismissed with a rationale not much more sophisticated than the old saloon bar refrain of "rounders for poofs". He went back later to enjoy the drama of the World Series and to mingle with the New York Mets at their pre-season base in Florida. "Cricket and baseball," he writes, "are like parents and their teenage children: they have so much in common and yet remain a complete mystery to one another."
Smith enviously compares the plight of the average county cricketer with that of his baseball counterpart. Few will be surprised to discover that baseball players entertain bigger crowds and are accordingly better rewarded. But it is the small things he notices that truly illustrate the gulf between the two: the endless struggle of the county cricketer to find decent practice balls, for instance, or the statutory fine for the issue of replacement kit. These are not concerns that trouble the stars of major league.
But there are problems here. Early on, Smith hints that baseball can be read as a metaphor for the American experience. We can play at that game, too. After all, doesn't rugby personify the smug complacency of Middle England? As for football, well, isn't the game governed by the "money rules all" philosophy of Thatcherism? And so on.
There are also too many quotations from other authors. Yet Smith succeeds in recreating the colour and culture of baseball, whether it is the obsession with statistics which can make even the most introspective club scorer appear a master of the social graces, or the vigour and comedy of its vernacular.
Cricket does, however, have one significant advantage over baseball: it is an authentically international game, something Smith could have explored at greater length. If ever you have travelled on the Indian subcontinent or in Australia, you will appreciate how a love of the game shared with the locals can enhance any journey. Only when the children on the streets of Madras or the beaches of Sydney start talking about curve balls, rather than googlies, should we begin to worry about the future of cricket.