Before I even begin, I would like to offer my apologies for such a long,laborious post and a pretentious one at that. I love cricket much like everyone else. In fact, somewhere in the book, Mr.Selincourt comments that some are so serious about the sport that you’d say it was a religion and I could genuinely identify with the thought. But the length of this review can be attributed to the joys of reading and wild imagination as well. You see, something other than the story caught my attention and it was just hard to let go of it. I had to put it down somewhere. So, before I begin with my review, I would dedicate some space to that “something”. Again, this might not be the best place for a post like this but indulge me here for I couldn’t think of a place better than this either.
I have never been a fan of pre-owned books. Weird as it may sound, I am one of those who like that new book smell. So, I surprised myself when I picked up a pre-owned copy of this book. The book’s exteriors and interiors are in a dilapidated state. The pages are slowly turning yellow. The hard cover, which I imagine, used to be white has taken a brownish hue. And the very first page is littered with signatures. I presume everyone who read or even owned this book signed it as well. And then, looking at that first page, it occured to me. The book itself had a story to tell; separate from the one the author had.
Travelling through eight decades, for it is a 1935 edition; it must have changed so many bookshelves. It must have pleasured so many individuals. It must have been at least a very small part of each of their lives. And I could not help but wonder what each person’s life was like. I started guessing based on the signatures that I saw. It wasn’t long before I could almost see every individual reading this book. That one signature which was so bold that it might as well have been embossed on the page must have been of an English nobleman. Confident, arrogant but learned nonetheless. He might have played back in his days; not too well to be a constant fixture in his team but well enough to know the nuances of the game and critique other players at every available opportunity. He must have read this book in his study after a long day at work, while smoking cigars and enjoying ciders. To him, his signature mustn’t have been just an affirmation of the act of reading but an approval of the quality of literature itself.
This other signature looked like it was hastily done. He must have been a student. He must have picked this book up from a library while looking for books on engineering, or botany, or literature. He must have read this in his down time, just to refresh himself. May be, he even played for his varsity’s team, imitating the likes of WG Grace and Ranjitsinhji, or Jack Hobbs, or may be Sir Don himself. He mustn’t have paid much attention to the book itself. He must have missed how the first page had so many signatures. In fact, he must have noticed that first page while returning it to the library and signed it with the librarian’s pen, much as an afterthought. I let my thoughts swirl and concoct stories, associating them with each signature for quite some time and come to think of it, that first page was one of the finest novels I have ever read. The pleasures of reading a pre-owned book are immense. Anyway, for the rest of this piece, I’ll concentrate on the story that Mr. Hugh de Selincourt tells.
This book, I am told, is one of the best pieces of fictional work on Cricket, coinciding as it did with the times of Neville Cardus. I couldn’t help but wonder how cricket literature has evolved through generations. From Mr.Selincourt’s and Cardus’s fictional musings to CLR James’ and David Firth’s social commentary to Ramachandra Guha’s and Boria Mazumdar’s historical accounts to Peter Roebuck’s and Gideon Haigh’s relevant modern satires, cricket literature has indeed come a long way. And it is not to say that you wouldn’t connect with the subject matter.
The plot is about a cricket match between the villages of Tillingfold and Raveley. The players, or, if you will, the gentlemen amateurs of Tillingfold play the hosts and are the protagonists here. After he briefly explains the setting of the match, Mr.Selincourt then goes about explaining some of the Tillingfold players’ mornings and afternoons just before the game in the evening. He explains how every player comes from different socioeconomic strata. He goes on to explain the basis for team selection. Some are there because of talents, some because of their social standing and yet some because of their zeal. He explains the players’ respective personalities. By this point, you begin to see yourself in the characters. Some would identify with the enthusiastic Horace, some with aggressive Hunter, some with respectable John McLeod and some with talented Sid Smith.
It is as if the way we form a team (of amateurs) hasn’t changed since the beginning of cricket, or for that matter, any team sport. Neither have the anticipations and apprehensions that grip each player before the game. Everyone hopes for a good game; a game in which one performs heroically; a game which ends with him being on the victorious side. But, reality is seldom this ideal. For, in a game, you would have people who would mess up. Someone would bowl a bad over, or drop a catch or get out cheaply. Not everyone would be a hero. And no one wants to be that guy. Everyone fears being that guy. These hopes and fears, these human emotions haven’t changed and you would definitely identify with these. Mr.Selincourt remarks that in every match, every team has two and only two types of people-the sportsmen and the others. We never want to be “the others”. We want to be the sportsmen and this is true of every team setting. You always want to be in the thick of the things and perform well. You never want to be the also rans. And you do not have to be a cricket fan to identify with this emotion.
But once the game begins, we leave all these hopes and fears behind. We abandon our problems and social statuses. Out there on the field, even in the pavilion, we are just players. No more, no less. And it suddenly becomes just about the next ball, the next moment. People of a generation gone by felt the same way, we feel the same way and the generations to come would think and feel the same. It is no surprise that the Tillingfold’s players have the same emotions and Mr.Selincourt has indeed portrayed this quite well. So much so that you are transported to that ground, practicing and playing with the players, echoing their every emotion and miming their every move.
Through out the text, Mr. Selincourt reminds everyone how sports can be a great unifier. The team that Tillingfold fielded had a 50 year old man in John McLeod and a 15 year old kid in Horace and they bat together as if they are colleagues. When on the wicket together, Mr. McLeod isn’t patronising and Horace isn’t childish. There is Sid Smith who is a labourer ,but on the cricket field, he is just another man among men, free and high spirited. He is confident and sprightly on the field for he knows that cricket is what he is good at and respected for. Mr. Selincourt presents a notion of two Sids, one on the field and the other off it. Off the field, he is a sub ordinate of others but on the field, he is an equal sometimes even a leader of men. His deeds on the field keep him going off the field. There is Mr. Waite, called upon from a different village for this match and is unknown to the whole team. He comes off as a confident cricekter to some and an irritating character to others. But, no one voices concerns. Everyone is welcoming of the man despite their respective perceptions of him.There is Mr. Hunter, forever unhappy with how the Cricket Club is run, but on the field, he is one with the team. All the players have some or the other personal differences but on the field, they are a team with one and only one motive – to win. And isn’t it how every team is supposed to be? It is such thoughts of team spirit and sportsmanship that make these lines echo with you, “The game is greater than the players of the game. And the ship is greater than the crew”.
The narrative is free flowing and the language used is easy. At times, its almost as if you are reading the transcript of a commentary. It reminds you of a far simpler times. Times when you had no worries. All the worries belonged outside those boundary ropes. Inside those hallowed ropes, you were just another player, free from social conventions and titles. Ironically, inside those ropes you were free. If you have ever loved or played a team sport, you will relate to this book for sure. And to all the Cricket lovers, do read this book. It would make you fall in love with cricket all over again. My word, it would delight you to no end. And if you come across a battered 1935 hard cover edition, the first page filled with signatures, after reading the book, sign and forward it. You might just be fuelling someone’s imaginations.