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Cricket in Literature

Cricket has occupied a place in the English literary imagination for three centuries. When considered as an inspiration for creative writing, as distinct from ordinary sports journalism, it is probably the most written-about of all our national sports.

Boy's Own
Cricket makes the cover of The Boy's Own magazine
The first surviving literary work on cricket is a 95-line Latin poem written by William Goldwin, published in 1706. It adopts a mock-heroic tone, but is also full of rural boisterousness, with the players descending in festival mode on the field, and the result greeted by the exultant laughter of the rustic throng.

Actor and writer James Dance, writing under the pen-name of James Love, is the author of the first work in English on the game, the 316-line Cricket: An Heroic Poem (1744). Documenting a match between a national and a county team (England v Kent), it too is written in the epic style, with the game being celebrated in Shakespearean vein – “Hail, cricket! Glorious manly, British game!/ First of all Sports! Be first alike in Fame”. As such, it is compared favourably with tennis and “puny Billiards”.

The Pickwick Papers

The best account of a rural cricket match in 19th-century literature is All-Muggleton’s home match against the hapless Dingley Dell in chapter 7 of Charles Dickens’s comic novel The Pickwick Papers (1836). The air of municipal pride worn by the local dignitaries, the sheer sense of occasion invoked by the anchovy sandwiches and devilled kidneys on offer, are entertainingly caught, and Dickens relates the events of the match with a mixture of sporting excitement and a nose for the comical side of the game. He describes the fielders taking up their positions:

“Several players were stationed, to ‘look out,’ in different parts of the field, and each fixed himself into the proper attitude by placing one hand on each knee, and stooping very much as if he were ‘making a back’ for some beginner at leap-frog. All the regular players do this sort of thing; – indeed it is generally supposed that it is quite impossible to look out properly in any other position.”

After the match, the whole party repairs to the local hostelry, the Blue Lion, where there are speeches and toasts and much consuming of “eatables and drinkables”, the revelries going on until virtually midnight.

Tom Brown and AJ Raffles

Cricket features prominently in Thomas Hughes’s vintage portrait of the Victorian educational institution, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Relentlessly victimised by the sneering tormentor Flashman, our plucky hero Tom nonetheless distinguishes himself on the field of play. Ironically, Flashman himself becomes a cricketer in later life in George MacDonald Fraser’s 20th-century sequels to Hughes’s story.

EW Hornung’s philosophical burglar AJ Raffles (star of a series of stories puiblished in the 1890s) is a keen cricketer, relying on the game to lend him an air of gentility so that nobody will suspect what he really gets up to. As he explains to his sidekick Bunny Manders: “Cricket ... like everything else, is good enough sport until you discover a better. As a source of excitement it isn't in it with other things you wot of, Bunny, and the involuntary comparison becomes a bore. What's the satisfaction of taking a man's wicket when you want his spoons? Still, if you can bowl a bit your low cunning won't get rusty, and always looking for the weak spot's just the kind of mental exercise one wants. Yes, perhaps there's some affinity between the two things after all. But I'd chuck up cricket to-morrow, Bunny, if it wasn't for the glorious protection it affords a person of my proclivities.”

Cricket in poetry

In poetry, the much-loved Vitai Lampada (1897) by Sir Henry Newbolt remains the outstanding example of cricket as a metaphor for the travails and challenges of life. Just as it was for Tom Brown, a proficiency at cricket was thought to school the Victorian boy for what life held in store for him in his adulthood, no matter how dire the circumstances. Even desert warfare – the kind that Britain as a colonial power was prosecuting in north Africa in the 1880s – can be seen as a kind of match:

The sand of the Desert is sodden red -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; -
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel’s dead,
And the regiment’s blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

Siegfried Sassoon

For an account of the iconic role that cricket has always played in English village life, Siegfried Sassoon’s chapter on “The Flower Show Match” in Memoirs Of A Fox-Hunting Man (1928), the first volume of his autobiographical novel sequence, is hard to beat.

This is a world of unruffled tranquillity and dusty country lanes, of slow, gentle applause and the occasional umpire’s cry of “Out!”, all the more nostalgically evoked for being recalled from the other side of the Great War that tore it apart.