Letter from... Cape Town
Dear Cricket Monthly,
Not a lot of people know that Paul McCartney once wrote a song about cricket correspondents.
You know the one. "Silly Love Songs" were everywhere, sang Macca, and yet we were showing no signs of getting tired of them. It was a song about our insatiable appetite for sentimental lyricism; and what is cricket writing if not a silly song to the game we love?
I'm grateful that fans seldom tire of cricketing love songs. But, like McCartney, I'm sometimes amazed at the demand for the fluffy word-meringues that comprise so much of sport's literature. After all, love is the ultimate you-had-to-be-there anecdote: hard to describe when it happens to you, tedious to listen to when it happens to someone else. Perhaps that's why romantic comedies are the most popular form of love story. At least something happens. A malicious rumour; a kiss misinterpreted: at the end of act two, Boy Loses Girl.
That's more or less what happened to me. Boy met cricket. Boy lost cricket. And in the end, Boy got cricket back. (At least for a while: before you dismiss this as just another sonnet to the game, I must be honest and declare that cricket and I aren't in a very good place right now. If my relationship with the game is Notting Hill, Anna Scott and I aren't really talking at the moment.)
But 20 years ago…
Was it infatuation? It felt more frantic than that. Obsession, perhaps. Whatever it was, I was literally panting as sweat poured off me.
It was summer in the south-eastern United States; oppressive, hazy and vast. Under my feet, a paddock of matted grass, slick with damp that oozed out of the saturated air. Overhead a sky containing nothing but wet heat and biting insects.
But none of that mattered. What mattered was the wicket - two planks propped against the wall of a small barn - and the cricket ball in my hand. The autograph on the ball had been written in silver marker. The lines gleamed in the light: IAN BOTH.
There had been two balls in the bin of odds and ends at the back of the antique shop. I was keeping the other one to give to a friend. That one had the full signature, AM and all. But mine - I could imagine the England legend scribbling away with his silver pen, getting distracted by a team-mate pounding him on the back, handing the amputated autograph to some devastated child who would never be able to show it to his friends.
The balls were inexpensive. The American proprietors of the shop probably looked at the weathered leather and eccentric stitching and assumed they were props in some minor Edwardian ritual. But I knew better. They were love letters, sent to me from far away, by the game with which I was completely besotted.
It was a beautiful time to be in love with cricket for the first time.
South Africa was shaking off the stifling carapace of its old order, and a bold new captain embodied the renaissance. At the start of the year he had led his team to a joyful thrashing of Pakistan, and even though there were now rumours of match-fixing swirling around Saleem Malik and his team, we could celebrate our success safe in the knowledge that Hansie Cronje was as clean as the driven snow.
Was it infatuation? It felt more frantic than that. Obsession, perhaps. Whatever it was, I was literally panting as sweat poured off me
Beyond us lay a horizon that seemed to widen with every match. We had not yet seen enough cricket for contests to blur into one another: each series still shone with a distinct light, like different galaxies in an expanding universe of delight. I couldn't get enough. Act one was complete. Act two had reached its happy midpoint. And then…
Boy loses cricket.
Family in Virginia were offering me a home for many months. It was generous. It was devastating.
Just as I had found cricket, I had lost it. Brian Lara was the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - a trinity of grace, power and consistency. Shane Warne was Satan. But I would not be able to watch their battles any more, because I had been cast out of Paradise.
And so I bowled and bowled that summer, trying to touch the game I loved, watching the autograph scuff away. IAN BOTH became AN BOTH, then A BOT. At last just a single line connected me with Test cricket.
As my ritual in the paddock became a pastime in itself, slowly divorcing from its original meaning, I could feel my relationship with cricket starting to fade. Summer was softening into autumn. American sport began to compete for my affections. Gridiron football was unwieldy but compelling, combining the best aspects of Test cricket and rugby. Perhaps cricket wasn't as wonderful as I'd remembered…
Another month and the flame might have gone out. But just then I moved in with other relatives.
They were young and tech-savvy, and had something called The Internet; and on The Internet I found something called Cricinfo.
It wasn't pretty. Courier font; a few pictures. But there were scorecards. Hundreds of them.
My obsession had become dormant, ready to hibernate through the American winter. Now it exploded. Every scorecard felt like a love letter. I pored over them; touched the names - forgotten bit players from the 1920s, the first run-machines of the 1930s; the blockers and snipers of the '50s and '60s; the rock stars of the '70s and '80s…
Use a plank to keep a ball away from three sticks. The rest is detail
© Getty Images
Use a plank to keep a ball away from three sticks. The rest is detail © Getty Images
Name by name, column by column, the infatuation bloomed again, the sport's present filled out and given life by a magnificent past. Like a delusional conspiracy theorist I began to see huge patterns shimmering through the numbers; waves, trends; truths. I was mad. It was glorious.
Now, two decades later, I'm not sure I'm any saner. At least I've figured out that sport has no intrinsic meaning; that it's purely a blank screen onto which we project our ideals, our hopes and our ugly limitations. I've also had to accept that cricket is just as silly as badminton or curling or tiddlywinks. When you're in love with a sport everything about it feels fundamentally true and right, perhaps even objectively noble. And yet if I'd explained it to my American hosts they would have been correct for seeing a collection of arbitrary rules and peculiar actions with eccentric, Dickensian names. Cricket has a glorious literature and deeply satisfying mythology, but none of that can erase that fact that it's a game where you use a plank to keep a ball away from three sticks. And of course, my hosts' sports were no less foolish: I still don't understand how millions can be agitated by watching giants trundle a large rubber ball up and down between two hoops draped with crochet.
But that's love for you. For starters, it's blind. It masks reality in beauty, and infuses arbitrariness with something that feels like meaning. It transforms awkwardness into beauty; it elevates silliness into poetry.
Do I still love cricket? I don't know. Certainly, some of the old poetry still lingers. But as I said, we've had a few issues, cricket and me. There was Hansie. In the last few years there's been the rise of the batting-industrial complex, feeding the fickle appetites of the run-crazed mob. The IPL has put a major strain on our relationship. Every time I ask cricket why mediocre England and the miserable West Indies get to play so many Tests, while South Africa have to scrounge series against Bangladesh, we have a huge fight. It's not pretty.
Then again, we've been through so much together… what's another few years? And besides, just when it seems that it's all over, there'll be that hour in the late afternoon when the tide turns, when the ball starts moving or a subdued bat begins to glitter; and I'll remember the feeling of that American summer, and how good it is to be close to my old flame cricket once again.
Yours in hope,
Tom Eaton is a columnist, screenwriter and novelist from Cape Town
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.