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13 September 2016

Why failure in cricket is as old as the sport itself

The Meaning of Cricket by Jon Hotten reveals a rich game – and isn't afraid to show its dark side.

By Tim Wigmore

Cricket has a reputation for inspiring some of the best writing on any sport. The nature of the game, particularly Test matches, reveals the character of the players and allows journalists to perceive deeper meanings. Cricket has been intertwined with decolonisation, black empowerment, the dismantling of apartheid and the ascent of modern India. This isn’t a game that is best understood simply in terms of a bat and a ball.

In recent years Jon Hotten has emerged as a worthy addition to the lineage of writers who adhere to C L R James’s aphorism: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” Informed by his wider interests – he was a journalist writing about rock music and boxing before he turned to cricket, initially for his blog The Old Batsman – and by years on the club cricket circuit, Hotten places the sport in context. His work has an elegiac tinge, and his ob-servations are shrewd. He never loses perspective and imagines that cricket is the whole world, but it is clearly an important part of his.

The Meaning of Cricket is at its best when it touches on figures who appeal to Hotten’s sense of romance. Foremost among these is the former England cricketer Mark Ramprakash. There was something wondrous about his classical, consummate batsmanship – yet with his brilliance came frailty. His career was defined not by his 114 first-class centuries (the same tally as for Viv Richards), but by a different number: 27.32, his underwhelming England average. In his first Test innings for England, in 1991, Ramprakash scored 27. He scored the same in the second. For much of the next 11 years, English cricket was obsessed by the Ramprakash conundrum: how could such a fine player at the domestic level be so poor in Test cricket?

Hotten does not focus on Ramprakash’s England career but instead talks to him about his “second act”, the years when he batted in county cricket after his last Test match in 2002. During this time, Ramprakash averaged over 100 in consecutive first-class summers, a unique achievement in English cricket. Hotten at first imagines him to be driven by seeking revenge for his failed international career – “the brooding Heathcliff of the County Championship” – but he finds something else: “Most of all, it was apparent that the great second act of his life was actually inspired by love, the love of what he did and what he had been given.”

Hotten is equally enlightening on another enigma, now long forgotten by most British cricket fans. Vinod Kambli was only the second man from an “untouchable” caste to play Test cricket for India. As a boy, he shared a partnership of 664 with Sachin Tendulkar in a school match. In the years that followed, Tendulkar “took the elevator while I took the stairs”, Kambli later said: a comment, many reckoned, on India’s caste system (Tendulkar is a Brahmin).

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When eventually he arrived in the side, Kambli thrived, scoring two centuries and two double centuries in his first eight innings. Then his form disintegrated, even as his taste for gold jewellery increased, and he played his last Test at the age of 23. In 2013, two weeks after Tendulkar’s 200th and final Test, Kambli suffered a heart attack while driving and needed emergency surgery to save his life. As Hotten surmises, “What happened to Vinod Kambli was strange and sad, his career linked for ever to Tendulkar’s and for ever overshadowed by it, a cautionary tale on the nature of promise and its outcomes.”

Hotten is just as good on cricket’s dark side. The sunny optimism of his writing never extends to being rose-tinted. Many of the sport’s greatest faults, including gambling, match-fixing and gamesmanship, were “in the earliest seeding of its universe”. It carries an inherent physical danger, as the death of the 25-year-old Australian batsman Phillip Hughes, struck in the neck by a ball two years ago – since followed by a small but steady stream of on-field deaths of less well-known players and umpires – demonstrated. It is also blighted by an unusually high rate of suicides among former players.

As old as cricket itself is the failure that can come with it. Hotten was a fine junior cricketer, and he long hoped to make a career in the game. He writes poignantly of the day when he trained with some Hampshire players in the nets and realised that his dreams would not come true. “It was as if I was standing in the foothills of a great mountain and had just caught sight of its shimmering face still miles away, hazardous and sheer and unapproachable.”

At a higher level, something similar happened to the Leicestershire bowler Scott Boswell in September 2001, in a one-day final against Somerset at Lord’s. In the course of a single excruciating over, Boswell bowled eight wides – five of them in a row – and was released as a professional cricketer a fortnight later. “In all the over lasted for seven minutes, 14 deliveries, and to Scott Boswell it has in a way never ended.”

For Hotten, the appeal of cricket lies in “its combination of time, opportunity and the constant threat of disaster”, which leaves the sport “exquisitely balanced and uniquely able to drive its participants to ­despair”. There is much to admire in The Meaning of Cricket, though it’s a shame that much of the writing has been repackaged from Hotten’s earlier work. Nevertheless, this will be a worthy addition to any cricketing bookshelf. 

The Meaning of Cricket by Jon Hotten is published by Yellow Jersey, 240pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers