The tale of a person who isn't interested in the game but keeps crossing paths with it
24 for 3 is a book about cricket one wouldn't expect. It's chic. It features extracts from Chekhov, and while it's literary and involved, it isn't pretentious.
The novella has a concern that isn't usually given enough consideration, at least intelligently. What do those (and you probably know and love a good many) who endure cricket in their lives but aren't much interested and don't really know what is going on make of the business?
Its protagonist-narrator is made to countenance cricket by those around her and the circumstance of a Test match taking place in her city. Her husband listens to Test Match Special on the radio and in the evening watches the highlights on free-to-air television. He elucidates, when the family's Polish au pair takes an interest, and makes an effort to engage the household in the game. The au pair, well-meaning, participates. The protagonist, who doesn't, has an extramarital lover and he watches the game live on Sky Television. When she shows interest and asks questions, he says that explanations always make things more complicated than they are. They get in the way.
It's a feature of cricket fiction to treat the game as a backdrop against which a cavalcade of incident occurs. Indeed, those literary works rigidly concentrated upon the sport are, rather like a dry match report, a little lacking. 24 for 3 is set within five days of an England and India London Test match (seemingly, given the names invoked, during the 2007 series, although actually mythical).
Scenes and characters pop up. Such as hyperventilating Harvey, who hangs about in the common room of an adult education centre, ruins a park cricket match, and whose mother, it seems, won him in a raffle
Other than the odd detail, such as England's chase of 287 from 24 for 3 at the beginning of the final day, there is scant description of the Test. Rather, it features in circuitous ways. The protagonist sees a streaker on the television during day two, becomes convinced it's her teenage son, travels to the ground's local police station and bullies the constabulary into revealing that the streaker is a 34-year-old trainee accountant. On day four, she accompanies her lover to work and, in a family room attached to a burnt-out industrial warehouse, watches VVS Laxman crack a four (probably a wristy flicked drive), eats sweets and learns of the accomplishments and Taunton heroics of Mithali Raj.
Dropping in and out, at the dictate of the narrative and whim of the protagonist, cricket writing is an excellence of 24 for 3. It's original, beautiful and stimulating, reading neither like the sport's non-fiction nor the patter that graces the game's fiction. The narrator's circumstances permit a disengagement from the usual mindset of the sport; her voice is fertile and fresh. Unlike many aliens to cricket, who use such opportunity to be contemptuous, her perspective is thoughtful. A perceptive person, contending with the unusual and complex practice that is the game, and engaging with it best as possible.
There are novels that use a cricket setting for a romping plot - such as Allen Synge's Bowler, Batsman, Spy, where a KGB agent attempts to sabotage an Ashes series to dismember the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, booby-trapping the wicket - but narrative in 24 for 3 is not really the point. Scenes and characters pop up along the way. Such as hyperventilating Harvey, who always hangs about in the common room of an adult education centre (without being a student), ruins a park cricket match, and whose mother, it seems, won him in a raffle. Or a Romani street artist, perpetually perched in front of a tube station, fleecing the gullible with underhand card tricks, who gives the book's final score check of England at 199 for 7 after tea on the fifth day.
Style, too, is important. The writing is lean and rich, and each word appears carefully chosen. Unsurprisingly, the book's author, Charles Boyle, has published six collections of poetry over his 40 years of writing. There is the vastness of that medium in the novella, which, not much over a hundred pages, is a dense though not arduous read. (He used the pen name Jennie Walker to alleviate self-consciousness, as he originally self-published 24 for 3 and promoted it to booksellers store to store.)
As for plot, it's a five-day dollop of a headstrong life. A most winning aspect of the book, aside from cricket, is its narrator's unapologetic air. She wants her cake and to eat it too. There is no moral queasiness over adultery and she sees it as perfectly unfair that she can't have it off with a bloke she met at a translation conference and still enjoy the love of her teenage son, who feels that he and the family are betrayed by such behaviour. It's a spirited assault against convention, and perhaps decency, which, as the narrator equates, is the batsman who refuses to leave the pitch after he's been clean bowled; the bowler who keeps on bowling after his over is over; the fielder who picks up the ball and, rather than throwing it back to the wicketkeeper, tosses it into the crowd.
24 for 3 is not a standard cricket novel. Not that there will ever be one. The writing on cricket is striking yet it's a book one is more confident commending to the keen reader of sophisticated contemporary literature than an all-and-sundry sports fan. For, it may be asked, what's the point of these mothers and gypsies and teenagers and insurance claims and nannies, and the rather singular, often detached manner in which they are surveyed? 24 for 3 is an exercise with a theme, using the range of cricket as a literary tool. That, you may worry, risks being abstruse, but the reward is a cricket book that is unexpected and thoughtful.
It's numbers that hold the world together, if sometimes a bit loosely. If I shop for some gloves I expect most of them to come in pairs and with five fingers for each hand, and the temperature can't be minus fifty degrees Celsius or I wouldn't be out shopping at all. Two plus two does equal four, otherwise the supermarket could be delivering three radishes and forty-nine packets of rolled oats and charging me £798 and I'd have no cause for complaint. Any one number is what it is because of other numbers - they hang together, so that in the end E does equal mc2 and we walk upright and most of the time we don't have to think about them. It's when they don't hang together - five thousand fishes, with twelve baskets of leftovers - that we need to start worrying.
I take it on trust that someone has checked all the numbers in Wisden with a calculator and that they do hang together, but the sheer number of numbers in these pages is terrifying. This is a parallel universe in which good and bad, heroism and solid worth, are defined numerically. Also-rans don't get a look-in, the 'criteria for inclusion' being 25,000 runs, 1,000 wickets, 500 'achieved dismissals', or 10,000 runs and 500 wickets, or . . . Divinities include the ones with most runs (B. C. Lara, West Indies, 131 - 232 - 6 - 11,953 - 400 - 52.88 - 34 - 48 - 164: presumably the biggest number) and most wickets (S. K. Warne, Australia, 145 - 40,705 - 1,761 - 17,995 - 708 - 25.41 - 871 - 37 - 10 -57.4 - 2.65: take your pick). A man called G. Allot squeaks in because he managed to score 0 runs in 101 minutes. There are thousands upon thousands of numbers here, and I am becoming dizzy. If I take just one of them away, will they all come tumbling down? Like G. Allot, I much prefer my numbers in small quantities, or even singly, like grapes. Such as the apparently random but unarguably exact numbers which Selwyn once recited from some off-the-wall website: the age of the youngest pope (eleven), the number of spiders eaten by a human being over the course of a life (eight), the number of newborn children given each day to the wrong parents (twelve).
24 for 3
By Jennie Walker
Benjamin Golby is a pre-school music teacher and roulette croupier. Jeffrey Phillips is a Melbourne-based artist
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.