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A loving exploration of the art of spin bowling that, in its attention to detail and breadth of cultural reference, brings an arcane aspect of a sometimes arcane sport to vivid, joyous life.
Few sports seem to fire the literary imagination as much as cricket. Proper Test match cricket, that is: Twenty20 and one day matches are yet to produce their CLR James or Samuel Beckett (who even has his own entry in cricket bible Wisden).
Perhaps writers recognise something of their own profession in a sport which purportedly requires great skill, concentration and labour, yet appears to the outsider as an aimless exercise of extreme futility which seems to involve very little actual work. More probably, the rigid rules and unspoken codes of sportsmanship, and close association with the class system of the British empire (see, for instance, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land), offer a tantalising metaphor for twentieth-century writers to explore broader political themes. But, above all else, it offers a supreme challenge: how to explain away the continued popularity in the modern age of this apparently inexplicable game. Football is readily understandable and accessible, even if you don’t actually like it, and it tends to churn out prose in the manner of infamously unreadable modernist BS Johnson. Cricket needs at least the sheen of art to redeem it.
So it is with a degree of confidence bordering on brassneck that Amol Rajan begins his publishing career with a history of spin bowling: an aspect of the game so arcane that its main function, which cannot be overemphasised, is to confuse professional cricketers. When you realise that this ‘unlikely history’ starts in 1770, it makes CLR James’ attempt to reconcile disillusionment with Trotskyism with a fearsome defence of Western universal values in the masterful Beyond A Boundary seem like hack-work. Given that this book has been unfortunate enough to end up in the hands of a reviewer whose sole attempt at spin bowling not only ended by striking the batsman on his helmet, but also a batsman who occupied the nets two along from the one he was bowling to, Twirlymen finds itself on the proverbial sticky wicket.
Fortunately, sticky wickets are quite good for spin bowlers, and with memories still lingering even for vague fans of Shane Warne’s monumental Ashes performances in 2005 and 2006/7, Rajan has some favourable conditions in which to try out a few tricks. Part of cricket’s appeal are the paradoxes which lie at its heart. This, after all, is a game which prides itself as a byword for fair play yet possesses more dark arts of manipulation than staged wrestling; a sport which offers the possibility of supreme elegance while, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, requiring its participants to adopt such ungentlemanly poses.
Spin bowling is the apotheosis of these oddities. Few contests in sport are as compelling, in terms of its psychology and slow-burning strategy, as that between a great spin bowler and an in-form batsman: yet, to the interested observer, it is a battle as ugly and tedious as it gets. Spin bowling is a bloody craft which looks utterly lacksadaisical in execution: behind those slow, looping deliveries, Rajan illustrates, lies a lifetime of obsessive practice and intense concentration which can leave the bowler with shredded hands and deformed wrists. Yet what appears to be the most brilliant and magical of balls can be little more than sheer luck, and the pursuit of bowling the one unplayable delivery can – in the case of Saqlain Mushtaq’s ‘doosra’ – leave a great spin bowler utterly unusable.
Given these endless pitfalls and dead-ends, and hampered by the need to explain the preposterously complex terminology of cricket to the casual reader, Twirlymen could end up a book as frustrating and eccentric as its subject. This is where the skill of the great sports writer comes into play: balancing enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject, with enough charm and humour to keep you reading on past the diagrams of the physics of specific deliveries and potted histories of long-dead and long-forgotten sportsmen who you’ll never see in action.
It is this challenge which perhaps explains the literary cricket-nut more than anything: they are generally most interesting when not talking about cricket. As James records in Beyond A Boundary, it was only by keeping his brain and wallet ticking over by writing about the sport that he was able to focus his energy on his masterpiece, The Black Jacobins. He returned to the subject in his memoir as a way of exploring his chief concern: the future of Western civilisation shorn of the possibility of meaningful political alternatives. If oppressed peoples could see only racism and colonial domination in cricket, and none of its mastery and cultural appeal, then that would really be no victory at all: it would be as futile as giving up on Ancient Greek theatre or refusing to read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (which James memorised from a young age). Anyone who has sat through an English seminar today in which Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is read as a commentary on slavery might know what he was driving at, although Edward Said may have a right to protest his innocence. But Beyond A Boundary, despite its claims to be the best book on cricket ever written, is at its most banal when it stays inside the rope.
James does not feature much in Twirlymen, possibly out of fatigue, but Rajan is willing to draw on a rich cultural tradition to analyse the rise of the spinner: Orwell, Hobsbawm and Eliot are cited in the opening pages. This could be dismissed as the typical hyperbole common to a lot of cricket writing – cricketers, along with mad dogs and Englishmen, spend a bit too much time in the sun – but it comes with a refreshing degree of weight. Rajan, acknowledging a certain shared heritage with Matthew Syed’s recent enjoyable book on sporting and artistic genius Bounce, picks up Eliot’s thesis from Tradition and the Collective Talent that the history of talent is a long, awkward march towards perfection. Differing from cricketer-turned-writer Ed Smith and to some extent Syed, Rajan is utterly unsentimental about the impact of professionalism on a sport which still pays lip-service to the distinction between ‘Gentlemen and Players.’ This is a book which is as happy to bestow the honour of contemporary great on Warne and Muttiah Muralitheran as it is on WG Grace and Richie Benaud.
He is even willing to concede that Twenty20 – greeted by many, including himself, as the cash-cow which would kill off cricket’s artistry – has led to greater innovation and creativity in this sullen craft or art. Much of the interest of the book derives from another paradox: that this quaint, old-fashioned game has often found itself at the forefront of cosmopolitan modernity, adapting foreign ideas and willing to venture far and wide in the pursuit of today’s perfection. That India is currently the world’s biggest market for both cricket and Vanity Fair (and Austen, and Dickens…) hopefully suggests that not all of James’ fears have come to pass.
Aimed squarely at the cricket fan, this is a book which seeks to enhance the understanding of the converted: pencilling out the big personalities as well the intricacies of the art. It is unlikely to win over a certain type of cheerless intellectual unable or unwilling to appreciate the subtle art and beauty of the game. Rajan’s achievement, however, is to have written a book which might stop any young sporty reader from turning into one of that sad, unhappy breed.
David Bowden is spiked‘s TV critic.
Twirlymen: The Unlikely History of Cricket’s Greatest Spin Bowlers, by Amol Rajan, is published by Yellow Jersey. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).