The Following Game

The Following Game
Jonathan Smith
Peridot Press, 232pp, £14.99

Considering how avidly sports writing is consumed, a great deal of it is absolutely rotten. Not all of it - some writing about sports is wonderful, as an encounter with, say, A J Liebling, Norman Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates will remind you. But a lot of it is either platitudinous and dull, or melodramatic and untrue. It is generally bearable over a thousand words in a newspaper. Stretched out to book length, it is, more often than not, intolerable.

The problem is this: sport is so clear and obvious a metaphor for so many other things in life, that virtually no sports writer can resist
the temptation to cosmic grandeur. Sport is also very frequently banal, boring or silly. And as sports writers must quite often write a great deal about not very much, it is easy to see why wins and losses very rapidly become triumphs and tragedies; why the man who kicks the ball into the net is a god, and the one who leaves his team for another is a Judas.

Jonathan Smith's book is, loosely speaking, about cricket. Happily, it is neither platitudinous nor melodramatic. I assume it is true. Certainly it is tender, thoughtful, elegant, passionate and honest. Smith tries, with rare insight, to explain what it is about following sport that can bring an otherwise sane and reasonable man to the brink of madness.

For many years, Smith was head of English at Tonbridge School in Kent, where his students included the author Vikram Seth. He also happens to be the father of Ed Smith, who is now a Times journalist and a fine sports writer who published a book entitled What Sport Tells Us About Life in 2008. Before he went into the writing game, Ed played cricket for Cambridge University, Kent, Middlesex and England, and when he did so, Smith père was there - celebrating and suffering - at every step.

Part memoir, part travelogue, part open letter from father to son, this study of the sporting life could perhaps be described as a free-form dance through the psyche of a supporter. Or, rather, a follower. As the author notes, "'Supporting' doesn't quite capture it. Following is much more much more interesting, and much more disturbing."

The book is built loosely around a diary Smith kept for a few weeks in 2006, when he was suffering from cancer and travelling in India with his son. It is an intricately arranged pattern of memories of and meditations on his schooldays in Wales, his years of teaching at Tonbridge and the exhausting experience of watching Ed grow up to be a cricketer.

A recurring theme of the book is the relationship between literature and sport - or, more precisely, between cricket and poetry. Thus Tom Graveney, Don Bradman and John Inverarity are considered alongside Wordsworth, A E Housman and R S Thomas. And along
the way there are trips into other territories: superstition (never leave your seat at a cricket match when a hero of yours is batting); pessimism ("for those of us with a sceptical cast of mind, cricket is the best game in the world"); talent-spotting (a good anecdote about discovering the 17-year-old Seth and feeling "that tell-tale tremble in my hands"); and rambling ("perhaps walking enables me to take a break from solipsism, to tug myself free from my discontented self").

The central question, though - the crease behind which Smith always grounds his bat - is one that he cannot answer. How can it be that a game of bat and ball makes a man feel like his heart could burst? And, knowing that it will, how should he live? Or, in Smith's words: "Sport matters more than it should, but what if it comes uncomfortably close to mattering more than anything?"

Dan Jones is a historian and journalist. He writes a sports column for the London Evening Standard

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold