Crickets playing cricket
© Erica James

Dear Cricket Monthly

The soundscape of cricket

Letter from… London (but really Karachi)

Kamila Shamsie

Dear Cricket Monthly,

As I write this I'm looking at a pencil sketch, made to commission by my friend Erica Jarnes: Crickets Playing Cricket. There's a lot to be said about the details of this sketch, including the fact that the facing batsman - batsinsect? - stands on his hind legs and holds his bat with his uppermost right leg while the non-striker grips his bat by the middle left leg. Also, the hoardings along the boundary are magnificent: "Jiminy Jewellery", "Six-Leg Solutions", "Crickets Against Cannibalism" (most crickets aren't, if the internet is to be believed). But as so often happens with a drawing you've looked at often enough, what you start to notice is what isn't there, except via your imagination. Is this a night match, since crickets are nocturnal? Are fielders allowed to fly - if not, is there a grey area between jumping and flying when you reach to take that catch? And, most intriguingly to me, what is the sound of crickets playing cricket? 

Does the chirping of cricket cricketers form a pleasing accompaniment to the thock! of bat on ball? Do two high-pitched short, sharp chirps denote "Howzat!"? Which type of the four cricket songs (calling song, courting song, aggressive song, copulatory song) do the spectators sing when a wicket falls or when a century is scored or when the Shahid Afridi of the cricket cricketing world steps onto the field?

As I think this, it occurs to me that there is no game in the world that has its sounds more fetishised: the clatter of wickets, the Howzat! and especially the sound of leather on willow. Tennis produces sounds no less distinctive, yet I've never heard rhapsodies about the sound of rubber on gut. But if some cricket sounds are universal, there are others that are specific to nations - and when you leave the nation in which your cricketing self grew up and travel somewhere else, there is always loss in the soundscape.

If you're from Karachi the sound of spectators drumming empty water bottles onto the chair backs in front of them, increasing in tempo with the fast bowler's run-up - that is cricket

I was struck by this the first time I took my sister to Lord's. It was an ODI - West Indies v England. The sun shone, the result remained in doubt until the final over, and Brian Lara did those things of beauty that only Brian Lara could do with a bat in hand. But when we returned home I heard my sister on the phone to a friend saying the day was "a bit boring". What more did you want the players to do, I asked? She said, "not the players. The spectators." Then she said, "It doesn't feel as if you're at a cricket match without the empty water bottles."

She was right, of course. If you're from Karachi the sound of spectators drumming empty water bottles onto the chair backs in front of them, increasing in tempo with the fast bowler's run-up - that is cricket. Replace it with the popping of champagne corks and the sounds of stainless steel thermos caps being unscrewed and the game is a different game, one that's less populist, less inclusive, less passionate. Let me make it clear that high volume in itself is not an indication of passion. The incessant horn-blowing at cricket matches in some parts of the UK when Pakistan turn up to play I regard as an affront. Those horns aren't part of the soundscape of cricket - instead, they decimate the soundscape. Because here's the really crucial part about the rising-tempo bottle-thumping of Karachi's National Stadium: it stops the moment the bowler releases the ball, so that nothing muffles that sweet sound of clattering wickets or straight drives struck down the ground.

I wonder if that's really true. Those memories of watching the national team play in Karachi are all wrapped up in the golden glow of nostalgia. Perhaps the ball's release didn't have the effect of a conductor flicking his baton, marking the precise moment when the percussionists in the stands hand over to the pianist on the pitch. Perhaps we were rowdier, more self-involved, less attentive than I recall. My memory is warped by the need for elegy. When the Pakistan team plays its international matches now there's silence in the National Stadium - except, perhaps, for the occasional chirp of a cricket.

Sighingly yours,

Kamila Shamsie is a novelist who grew up in Karachi and now lives around the corner from Lord's. She's a member of the Authors XI, for whom she has a high score of 0 not out