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  1. World
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7 August 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 5:41am

Cricket: a civilised confrontation

The view of an American.

By Sholto Byrnes

While David Cameron and Asif Ali Zardari have been patching up relations between their two governments, Pakistan and England have been engaged in the more civilised confrontation that cricket involves (the second Test is ongoing as I write).

This is one area where, when it comes to America, England is still very much the senior partner. There have been efforts to encourage more people to learn to love cricket in the US, but Americans’ bemusement at the game’s longevity and gentility will be hard to overcome.

I came across a charming example of this reaction the other day in Land Below the Wind, an account of life just before the Second World War in Sandakan, the capital of colonial North Borneo, by Agnes Keith.

A peppy American journalist married to Harry, a typically reserved Englishman who was conservator of forests and director of agriculture for the British North Borneo Chartered Company, Keith, along with her husband, was part of a European expat community that numbered only 75. Her book is a treasure of humorous description; I hope readers share my delight in this passage.

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The married men were to play the bachelors of Sandakan in a cricket match. As I had never before seen cricket, or my husband playing it, I thought I should attend.

I went down to the padang [field] at ten o’clock with my best hat on, as I knew the women would be there, too, and we all sat under a canopy with cold drinks and waited for the game to begin. At least I thought we were waiting for the game to begin. The men were on the field in smart white flannels, moving about in such a leisurely manner and with such gentlemanly courtesy and good feeling, and such apparent desire for the opponent to make the best shots, and such well-modulated remarks of “Well bowled, sir”, that I, accustomed to American football, thought they must still be practising.

My husband was sitting (he says he was standing, but he wasn’t) in the extreme corner of the field looking at the sky. I thought he was a substitute and waiting for his turn to come.

Meanwhile the gentlemen on the field continued to exchange courtesies about the weather, and to applaud each other’s plays, and occasionally one would trot good-naturedly off the field towards us, and we would pat-a-cake amiably. The trotting off the field was about the only violent movement there seemed to be.

Every time someone retired I expected to see Harry flash nobly into the thick of the action, or what would have been the thick of the action if it hadn’t been cricket. But he remained with dignity at the corner of the field looking at the sky.

As I had been warned that the game might continue all day I thought I would just walk over and ask Harry if he couldn’t sit in the shade until his turn came to play. I strolled down the edge of the field to his corner, and although he seemed still to be looking at the sky he saw me out of the corner of his eye, and he looked around with disapproval at me for making myself conspicuous. Just then a ball got away from one of the quiet gentlemen who were talking about the weather in the middle of the field, and came towards Harry. But as he was looking with disapproval at me instead of the sky, the ball had the field to itself.

I went home then because apparently Harry had been playing cricket all the time, and that was what his job was, to sit in the corner of the field and look at the sky, and not, even with good cause, to turn and look with disapproval at his wife.

Doesn’t that just capture the essence of everything lovable about cricket? Someone just needs to explain it to the Americans.

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