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Laker’s Nineteen Wickets

On cricket.

The American (gridiron) football season is at hand, and my colleagues and associates have all assembled their “fantasy” rosters. The process is opaque to me, and always has been: it can be a challenge to make a bookish lad care much about the triumphs and disasters of a real sports league, to say nothing of a fantasy one. My heroes were the characters in stories old and new, or the authors who had written them: King Arthur and J. R. R. Tolkien were my world; Alan Trammel and Isiah Thomas figured in it not a jot.

I played sports, of course, as all boys of my generation did. One was expected to be outside in all weather, playing every sport and all sports. Yet even then, I preferred to seek out tigers in The Jungle Book rather than in a live radio or television broadcast from Detroit. In The Morning After: American Successes and Excesses, 1981-1986, George F. Will wrote ”Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” This is one of the arguments that is most often made for sports, and it is a good starting point. But I had already encountered other vivid examples of excellence: in books. Another, better argument was needed.

In college, working for various news websites, I met people from Britain and Australia who were particularly keen on cricket. This sport, they told me, had laws rather than rules, and a Spirit of Cricket which invested participation with a sense of sportsmanship that exalted fair play into a way of life. Here were the “vivid examples of excellence” on display. But I also learnt from my friends of The Ashes, an international sporting rivalry dating back to the nineteenth century, with a storied history that offered a narrative of victory and defeat, including exciting subnarratives like the (in)famous Bodyline series of 1932-33. There were complex individuals such as W. G. Grace and Fred Trueman, colorful characters such as Kevin Pietersen and Shane Warne, tragic heroes such as Hedley Verity, and over them all the towering figure of The Don—Bradman, the greatest sportsman of all time in any sport.

In short, I came to learn that there is a narrative to sport just as there is to a good story: a tale of triumph and disaster onto which meaning can be read. There were characters aplenty—the great and the good, and sometimes even villains: Jardine praising Larwood for hitting Woodfull; Greig intending to make the West Indians grovel; Michael Clarke threatening to break Jimmy Anderson’s arm. Behind it all, more than a century of statistics dispassionately recorded not only the individual figures and scores for every game, but Tendulkar’s nearly sixteen thousand runs, Lara’s four hundred not-out, Bradman’s 99.94 average, and Laker’s nineteen wickets in a match. Here there were real stories with real people, all documented for myself as much for posterity.

Reading Dan Diaper’s Watching Cricket on the Radio, I began to think about listening to sports on the radio as an engaging activity for the mind. After all, cricket commentary has its own very entertaining idiosyncrasies, and one listens to it as much for its calmly delivered intonation of the rituals of the game (”. . . and there is no run”) as for its vivid descriptions of the No. 4 Bus, or an airplane traversing the ground, or the behavior of a flock of seagulls down at third man. Suddenly, I began to understand following sport not merely as a passive thing done for a purely social purpose, but rather as an active participation in a narrative which—like any good book—drew upon the power of creative imagination and interpretation to make meaning.

Soon, I took to playing cricket, joining my university’s club side, and teaching my friends with an enthusiasm that proved infectious. Now my young sons play and watch cricket, too, and they share their names with heroes from England’s national team. From being something I had shunned in my youth as a needless, social irrelevance, sport had become a key part of my thinking about human interactions in the world. Cricket even made it into my doctoral dissertation, on chivalry in Malory and Tennyson, as a means to talk about codes of honor and conduct that persist to this day. I wish that I had taken to following sport sooner, but one of the great joys of statistics and archival sports writing is that one can always catch up on what has gone before.

After I became ill, I was told that regular exercise would aid my recovery. It is not always possible to put together enough people for engaging cricket so, after some thought, I took up golf, a sport beloved both of my late grandfather and of countless retired cricketers. The outdoors dramatically aided my recovery. Little did I know in my youth that sport would be so medically useful to me—an unexpected benefit alongside all of the other narrative interests afforded by following the ups and downs of the English team. Hence I have good reason to be grateful to all those friends who persuaded me to take a look at these grand narratives. Perhaps it may even be time to learn about fantasy football, for it seems that sport is good for us in more ways than one.