Sunday, July 01, 2012

"Cricket with the crusts still on"

Cricket: a sober, civilised sporting pursuit played by gentlemen on sunny summer afternoons on impeccably groomed village pitches within sight of church spires, while snooty blazered chaps wearing straw boaters show their appreciation for the satisfying thwack of leather on willow with a smattering of polite applause in between plucking perfectly triangular cucumber sandwiches from wicker hampers.

All a myth, or at least exclusively southern (an adjective loaded with pejorative meaning), according to Harry Pearson, who in Slipless In Settle sets off in search of the real authentic spirit of the sport in the northen leagues. What he finds is cricket red in tooth and claw - or, as he puts it, "cricket with the crusts still on" - featuring a colourful cast of gritty, occasionally intimidating characters who work hard and play harder, and grounds in grim towns where visiting teams and umpires are almost guaranteed a barracking by a puce-faced loon clutching a can of lager.

Over the course of the book Pearson draws a sharp distinction between the game in the north and south. In the north it's a tough non-fairweather game for tough men, watched by hardy, witty, stoical crowds who value grit, aggression, dogged determination and will to win above grace, artistry and strokeplay (Geoffrey Boycott above David Gower, essentially).

Pearson's style will be familiar to any readers of The Far Corner, his superb tome about a season in the life of north-east football. The chapters nominally focus on particular fixtures, but are prefaced with descriptions of his journey to the grounds and their environs, and stuffed with potted histories of the teams involved and their star performers' most impressive feats. Pearson spends much of his time caricaturing his fellow spectators with reference to acutely drawn stereotypes, critically assessing of the quality of the various food and drink on offer (surely his waistline must have expanded, such is the quantity of teacakes, pies and pastries he seems to have consumed), and relaying anecdotes from his own cricketing experience. Wicketkeeper Demon Bob, for instance, "had guts that hissed and gurgled like a Gaggia coffee machine": "He was given to such savage and unholy eruptions that at one point a visiting umpire threatened to call a priest and have him exorcised." The actual live action he's paid to see is almost incidental, and indeed in several cases the games are called off without a ball being bowled.

Pearson certainly isn't a line-and-length sort of author, then; on the contrary, he delivers a bewildering array of googlies, full tosses, bouncers and flippers with only the odd wide or no ball, and his knack for a memorable simile is much in evidence: mentioning the time he saw camcorder footage of his own bowling action, Pearson describes himself as looking "like a squid fired from a catapult".

With its often arcane and daft rules, eccentric players and supporters, and bizarrely misplaced faith in British summertime weather, cricket is ripe for a book in this vein: comical and gently mocking if nevertheless warmly affectionate. Buried beneath the jovial ramblings, though, there's a serious work of social history waiting to get out: a portrayal of the "coloured gentlemen" from the West Indies and Sri Lanka whom cricket brought to England and who integrated themselves (and were welcomed) into northern working communities in the pre- and post-war period. That it doesn't get out suggests that Pearson doesn't feel he's quite up to the job, and he's probably right - but that's not to say someone else couldn't take the subject matter and expand on it to good effect.

Given that Slipless In Settle is presented as something of an investigation or survey, it's a little disappointing that the findings are scant and shoehorned somewhat awkwardly at the end of the final chapter. Would a separate and more fully realised conclusion not have made more sense? Perhaps Pearson consciously avoided this - reading the book, you get the feeling that quality in the northern leagues has declined, with crowds dwindling in parallel. Acknowledging those facts would have resulted in an elegiac tone out of keeping with the book as a whole - so perhaps it's best left acknowledged only implicitly.

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