Kent v Gloucestershire, St Lawrence ground, 8 April 2017, Kent batting

Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance … It is so organized that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterizes all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own; two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group. One individual batsman faces one individual bowler. But each represents his side. The personal achievement may be of the utmost competence or brilliance. Its ultimate value is whether it assists the side to victory or staves off defeat. This has nothing to do with morals. It is the organizational structure on which the whole spectacle is built.

C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary

I never see a game of cricket without thinking of these words from the West Indian historian C.L.R. James. Beyond a Boundary is the greatest of sports books, because it so persuasively and eloquently places its subject within a personal, social, political and artistic framework. Famously, the book seeks to answer the question, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’, and finds in the ‘structurally perfect’ game a catalyst for understanding the conduct of life.

Cricket stands up to all of the philosophical and critical ideas James offers, but reality can be a little more mundane than one finds on the printed page. Sitting in the unnaturally warm sunshine of a late afternoon in April at the St Lawrence ground in Canterbury, watching Kent play Gloucestershire, I thought of James’s arguments. The beauty of his observation, which he expands on, is that the permutations of the game pit different talents against each other, so any one bowler may challenge any one of the eleven batsmen (or batswomen) on the other side, who in turn may face several bowlers. It is the special feature of cricket – in James’s words, “while the principle of an individual representing the side at any given moment is maintained, the utmost possible change of personnel compatible with order is allowed”. The essential nature of individual facing individual, each representative of their side, is enriched by the intermingling of character, ability and style. There are dramas within the drama, Achilles against Hector, Headley versus Grimmett, Holding versus Boycott.

Watching the game

The humble nature of the second day of an English second division match at the start of the cricket season, however, could put such argument under strain. This is a small battle being fought; the artistry is average, and from my position among the few hundred of us gathered to see the contest, I struggle to work out who is who. I don’t get to as many cricket games as I would like to these days, and I can’t say that I know every Kent player, let alone their special characteristics. The scoresheet in my hand gives me the names, and the scoreboard highlights the numbers of who is batting, who bowling, what the score was at the last fall of a wicket, how many over remain to the close of play. But those figures in white, for all that they have numbers on their back (with names, for the keen-eyed), are indistinguishable from one another. Yes, some bowl fast and some bowl slow, and while one batsman attempts to push on the score the other takes on the cautious anchor role, but character rarely emerges. Briefly Darren Stevens, the stocky Kent seam bowler, shows how seeming ordinariness of delivery may disguise guile, while Mitch Claydon bowls with fire, exuberantly leaping after each successive wicket in a purple patch he enjoys mid-afternoon. But ultimately we are some way off from Jamesian classical dreams. This is the day for journeymen.

Journeyman is a curious word (journeywoman exists too, but doesn’t seem to carry the same weight of connotations). Its traditional meaning is that of a skilled worker who has successfully completed an apprenticeship. But somewhere along the line it has acquired a pejorative secondary meaning, that of a timeserver who does what is required but who is unremarkable, particularly in the field of sports – and in that field especially cricket. There is a lot of ordinariness in English cricket, bred of a large county structure able, somehow, to accommodate a substantial number of competent but generally unremarkable players. Their eternal round of four-day games on far-flung grounds, played under grey skies before a scattered, ageing crowd is well documented in Simon Hughes’ fine autobiographical account of the life of a country cricketer, A Lot of Hard Yakka.

The start of Kent’s second innings (the building works are for retirement flats)

They are not Prince Hamlet, nor were meant to be. But yet they are part of the same play, and the more you concentrate upon the game the more Hamlet-like they become, or more the journeymen of its traditional, affirmative meaning. Cricket, like any art form, demands your attention if you are properly to unpick what has been laid before your eyes: an idiosyncratic turn of the arm in a bowler’s delivery, a florid follow-through, a batsman’s keenness expressed in raising the bat well out of the crease in anticipation of the ball, a batsman’s choice of where to strike and when in an over, the elegance of a forward drive, the uncertainty revealed in a clumsy defence of a fast delivery and the bowler’s shift in strategy to exploit this. Time and observation reveal character. James quotes the peerless commentator John Arlott on the bowling action of Maurice Tate as a model example of the attentive appreciation of the experienced observer (with exemplary command of language):

He had strong, but sloping shoulders; a deep chest, fairly long arms and – essential to the pace bowler – broad feet to take the jolt of the delivery stride and wide hips to cushion it. His run-in, eight accelerating and lengthening strides, had a hint of scramble about it at the beginning, but, by the eighth stride and well before his final leap, it seemed as if his limbs were gathered together in one glorious wheeling unity. He hoisted his left arm until it was pointing straight upwards, while his right hand, holding the ball, seemed to counter-poise it at the opposite pole. Meanwhile, his body, edge-wise on to the batsman, had swung its weight back on to the right foot: his back curved so that, from the other end, you might see the side of his head jutting out, as it were, from behind his left arm. Then his bowling arm came over and his body turned; he released the ball at the top of his arm-swing, with a full flick of the wrist, and then plunged through, body bending into that earth-tearing, final stride and pulling away to the off side.

All these things the textbook will tell you to do: yet no one has ever achieved so perfectly a co-ordination and exploitation of wrist, shoulders, waist, legs and feet as Maurice Tate did. It was as if bowling had been implanted in him at birth, and came out – as the great arts come out – after due digestion, at that peak of greatness which is not created – but only confirmed – by instruction.

James’s point is that the appreciation of cricket as art, as opposed to static art works, lies is seeing the “image constantly recreated”, an ideal that the spectator can carry round with them and recreate as required, whether they be watching the celebrated performers in a Test match or the unknown players in some village game that they might stumble across. So it is that even the journeyman, who might never arouse the level of appreciation an Arlott might see in a Tate, nevertheless brings with them the constantly recreated image of the game. They represent its spirit, its potential, and its art.

I concentrated that much more as the day wore on – it helped that Kent were playing well – and gradually what had been a game with indistinguishable figures was transformed into a contest between distinct individuals, each being themselves yet each being representative of the side. Individual contests were played out, matching character to character, while the greater narrative of one team pitted against another continued.

Above all that, the game itself was illustrated, continuing on its eternal round. James says that cricket is perhaps the only game in which the end result is of little importance: “What matters in cricket, as in all the arts, is … what everyone with some knowledge of the elements can see and feel”.

I don’t know that I entirely agree this, at least in its claim to an exclusivity for cricket as an art form in which the existence of the game matters more than how it may finish. I think that, deep down, it is true for all sport. Art encapsulates experience through form and feeling. So does sport. We are watching contests, one force weighed against another, with the understanding that one must triumph and the other concede. Those contests are at a micro as well as a macro level, player against player, side against side, or (if you must) nation against nation, and what matters is that they are ongoing contests, much more than the passing significance of a result. They represent the choice we have in conquering life’s random obstacles. There is always the chance that we could win, and with such hope we carry on. Cricket exemplifies this, with its particular complexity and beauty, even in an ordinary county game, but it does not do so uniquely. All sport is art, if we can but see and feel.


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