How to Catch a Cricket Match
Awa Press, $24.99,
Harry Ricketts’ game plan is simple. He and a Victoria University colleague, Tony (like a character in a Russian novel he has no surname but a defining nationality: he is Australian, and in cricket that is something to be), go to the Basin Reserve in Wellington to watch New Zealand play the West Indies. It is March of last year, and day two of a test match New Zealand will win comfortably. As the day’s play unfolds, we come and go from the Basin: the game’s rules are considered and explained (duly and dutifully, almost as if obliged, rules are seldom found poetry), and great and less great players are remembered (Ricketts is outstanding at this, vividly getting their character from the pitch to the page, confiding in you about them, as if he had only just left their company and bumped into you, full of gossip and insight).
There is another reason to leave the Basin, and that is to revisit the author’s own career in cricket. The book starts in June 1955, Ricketts and his father are playing cricket on their pocket handkerchief of a lawn, and every time we return to Ricketts the player, the book comes alive. My sole criticism of the book, and it is greed on my part, is that the day at the Basin seems inferior source material to the riches of Ricketts as autobiographer and the sheer joy of Ricketts as biographer of cricket’s legends, “oddballs” and magnificent failures. Sometimes, when we return to the Basin, to a diminished West Indian team and a proficient New Zealand one, it is a small disappointment.
This is not always the case. When Stephen Fleming is dismissed in the 90s (as he was in his maiden test match, his particular inability to convert good scores into great ones being one of the defining features of his test career), Ricketts is there standing in the slips:
The next ball is again short, and a bit wide outside the off stump. Fleming cuts hard and high. This is the shot that brought him those three consecutive sixes in the one-day game in Napier. It’s a certain four, possibly a six. Except that he has picked out Dwayne Bravo on the edge of the wide point boundary. Fleming backs away, backs away, his eyes follow the path of the ball.
The repetition of the phrase “backs away” is a very Ricketts device. Strikingly effective, it recalls the justly praised passage in How to Live Elsewhere in which the author repeats the phrase “some boys” to make us realise he was not one of the boys who was happy to be at boarding school. But more than that, it reminds us that Ricketts is a poet too, and that he understands metre and pace. Fleming backs away twice, because there is nothing in sport that assumes slow motion quite as arrestingly as the cricket ball you have hit in the air as it travels towards a fieldsman.
One other repetition worthy of note. It is in a passage about cricket at the author’s school, but, as always in this book, cricket reveals so very many things. We are meeting Mr John, the coach of the First XI: “He had a lisp, a permanent five o’clock shadow, and used hair oil. If you were a favourite of his, he would tickle you. Sometimes he tickled boys in bed before Lights Out.” All that in 33 words. What a mighty little innings.
The predations of Mr John aside, How to Catch a Cricket Match is an informed, boy’s-own testimony to the heroic, the romantic, the ambitious, the cunning and the singular, and to the way cricket, of all team sports, puts an individual at the centre of what purports to be a group narrative. The batsman waits, alone: sometimes for hours on end. He has one team-mate at the other end of the pitch, who can do nothing whatsoever to help him, and the nine other people he is allegedly playing with aren’t even on the field.
Ricketts observes that this isolation while among people – this paradox which is a defining peculiarity of cricket – is sometimes apparent in the people who love the game as well as in those who play it. We meet Geoffrey Boycott, the great but difficult batsman, who is determined not to tell the rest of his team how to play a bowler he has deciphered, and we meet the author’s late father-in-law, who takes his small radio and a supply of batteries to listen to the commentary away from distractions, in a “corrugated-iron-roofed lean to, known as Lords”.
It is stories like those that make me love cricket. And it is stories like those that Ricketts gives us aplenty, making us understand why people are so besotted with a game that can last five days and still end in a draw. At its best this enchanting book gets exactly and evocatively not so much to the heart of the game itself, but to the heart of what it is to live in its thrall: as a spectator and as a player. You will not read better passages about being in love with cricket. Think of it as the very best kind of fan mail: literate, generous, heartfelt, wise and grateful.
John Campbell is a television presenter and cricket fanatic.