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5 July 2023

Why cricket is the most moving art

It is complex and it is gladiatorial – yet farce and comedy are never far away during even the most modest contest.

By Nicholas Lezard

About a decade ago a video was posted to YouTube called “How Cricket Looks to Most People”. Only five minutes long, it is a display of men in cricket whites acting out a farcical scene of baffling tedium, involving hoops, corner flags, garden doors and chess. Sedate strolling is punctuated by sudden inexplicable bursts of athleticism, governed by indecipherable rules and commentated on in a language impossible to transcribe, inspired, it would seem, by the gobbledegook of Stanley Unwin, with the caveat that Unwin’s manglings of the English language are considerably easier to understand. It is quietly hilarious, and every cricket fan watching it who says, “But it isn’t that complicated at all,” has entirely missed the point.

I thought of this film when, the other day, I sent a message to a friend who, by a twist of fate, lives within a literal stone’s throw of the Headingley ground in Leeds, but has never been captivated by the sport, and fails entirely to understand its appeal. Feeling the need to explain why I was going to be largely incommunicado for the rest of the day – it was one of the newly familiar stages of play in the first Ashes Test match against Australia – I wrote something like the following:

“The point about cricket is that it is as much a state of mind as a game. It appeals not just to the sporty but to the unathletic, the contemplative, the geek: you can be tiny, weedy, overweight or almost freakishly tall and be OK at it; sometimes at the very highest level. And at every moment, even the dimmest player or fan is constantly computing run-rates and all sorts of statistics of some complexity without even making a mental effort. And more crucially, of course, from the moments after the ball leaves the bowler’s hand, they’re doing computations of trajectory and speed, as are the actual players.

“And it is gladiatorial: until the ball is hit, it is bowler vs batter only. The others on the pitch are just bystanders. Until they aren’t. People can and do get hurt – not too often, thank goodness, but having a hard ball thrown at you at 90mph, or hit towards you at the same speed, is hair-raising. (And being made to look like a Charlie by a ball bowled at half that speed is another kind of humiliation.) It is stylised savagery, like jousting, but with deliberate imbalances. Like: OK, we’ll do this where I have a horse and you don’t. Then we’ll do it the other way round. Only sometimes – to pursue this jousting analogy into the ground – it is often unclear whether the person on the horse has the advantage or not.

“And the way England are playing these days is a complete and profound reimagination of the tactics and strategies of the five-day game, which changes everything we’ve thought about how to play it, but in the best possible way – except for the fact that it sometimes becomes almost Too Much. And here’s the clincher for me: farce and comedy are never far away during even the most modest contest. It is a rare game of cricket in which there is no laughter at some point; I think it’s fair to say that there is more in it than in any other sport. (Tennis, which shares some of these attributes, is considerably more joyless and rancorous. Golf? Forget it.) Come to think of it, you could actually call cricket ‘slapstick’, for that is what the game is, and how it started: slapping something with a stick.”

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[See also: Why cricket is the most moving art]

And that was where I left it with my Leeds friend; but now, a week or so later, we come to the latest shenanigans, where the Australian wicketkeeper dismissed an English batter by perfectly legal, but highly controversial means. This is not the place to explain what happened. What matters here is that the normal, civilised conduct of the crowd (another singular attribute of the game is that good play by the opposing team is routinely applauded by everyone in the crowd) was upended. Spectators at Lord’s – always referred to as “the home of cricket”, and so is Ground Zero for all the game’s genteel shibboleths – erupted in an unending cascade of boos whenever an Australian touched the ball. And in the normal course of a game, they have to touch it an awful lot.

I am not going to debate the rights and wrongs of the crowd’s reaction – and of certain of the members of the Marylebone Cricket Club who heckled and may even have shoved some of the Australian team as they left the field for their dressing room. I will confine myself to describing what happened on the field of play after the controversial decision.

For I left one thing out in my account of the game’s appeal: it isn’t just about calculating trajectories and angles and all the rest of it. There is also drama, and not just the drama of unfolding play, but the story that every player carries with them. And the captain of the England men’s team, Ben Stokes, has a narrative like few others: one of disgrace, then redemption, and then – for the tactics he had overseen had meant that the match was by this stage out of England’s grasp – disgrace again.

What Stokes did next was one of the game’s grand spectacles. Even someone utterly ignorant of every single aspect of cricket would have grasped the full explosive savagery of his reaction. He hammered the ball all over the place: he suddenly, single-handedly, made the (very good) Australian team look like amateurs. My reaction involved laughter, too, but this was a giddy, hysterical laughter, as might escape one when watching a feat of outrageous heroism. For a while, it looked as though all precedent was to be overturned again. It wasn’t to be – England lost. Yet it was beyond belief, and no work of art, literature or music has thrilled or moved me as much as that Sunday afternoon in north London.  

Spectators and players applaud Ben Stokes’ innings of 155 runs in the second Ashes Test, 2 July. Photo by Philip Brown / Popperfoto via Getty Images

[See also: How English cricket disappeared]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia