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Robert Chesshyre

Notepads & Thighpads

The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon
By The Authors Cricket Club (Bloomsbury 226pp 16.99)

Occasional cricketers and writers, as Sebastian Faulks points out in his introduction to this evocative collection of cricket memories, have much in common: they 'tend to be vain, anecdotal, passionate, knowledgeable, neurotic and given to fantasy'. In other words cricket and writing constitute a marriage made in heaven.

In 1913, a celebrated team of author cricketers - including Arthur Conan Doyle and P G Wodehouse - played their final game. Last summer modern authors joined forces to re-establish a team of authors. No literary giants this time, but enthusiasts of the ilk to be spotted every summer weekend on village greens and city parks, defying the years and spreading waistlines to recreate the fading joys of youth. The players take turns to write essays which report the games in entertaining form, while linking each match and ground to one of the themes that cling to the summer game: empire, books, broadcasting, politics, history, class and, of course, running through them all, nostalgia for those golden days of memory.

The writers are well connected and many matches are played in privileged surroundings, including the playing fields of Eton, Paul Getty's ground in the Chilterns, and even Lord's (Arundel is rained off). Most players are genuine authors, though the team does include a Downton Abbey actor and a publisher, and is captained by literary agent Charlie Campbell, once deputy editor of this magazine.

As with most Sunday teams, the range of abilities is vast but despite these disparities, the camaraderie almost never lets up. The team has mixed results, and several matches conclude in nail-biting finishes, but this is not the stuff of Wisden and the results, though important to the players, scarcely concern the reader. The delight is in the anecdotes, personalities and fables that make the game.

We read how Lord Harris encouraged cricket in order to civilise Indians, while simultaneously using the comparison with white players - the dusky-skinned were too 'excitable' - to demonstrate his own race's superiority. In the end, cricket, far from keeping uppity colonial subjects in their places, was one of the springboards for independence in India and the West Indies. We read of John Arlott, the voice of summer, and his felicitous prose, and Fred Trueman's truculent self-assertion. There are also wonderful nuggets of obscure information: early scorecards listed players according to social rank, rather than batting order; memorable quotes like Neville Cardus's warning against being critical of sporting autobiographies ('you never know who has written them'). Reading about the Authors' cricket season (and the memories and the research it occasioned) is like a day out in congenial and articulate company at Lord's or beneath a village ground's chestnut trees. The players had a wet summer, with many interrupted days, but the reader stays dry and amused, informed and entertained.

If I have one (minor) quibble, it is that the writers occasionally try too hard: they are, understandably, out to impress. Menelaus is invoked twice in the first eight pages. Which brings me to a point about the present game. Only a small minority of the authors did not go to fee-paying schools. As a parent who tried - and failed miserably - to introduce cricket at the comprehensive which my children attended, I feel strongly about lack of opportunity. Urchins painting stumps on walls are as much part of the game's tradition as village greens, but they have long departed. At Test level, the game is becoming more elitist.

Towards the end of their season, the Authors travel north to play the teams that nurtured two of the state-school alumni. The tone changes. Nicholas Hogg, the team's vice-captain, tells of once walking away from a county trial as he was 'intimidated by cut-glass accents and Range Rovers, bags of kit and doting parents'.

The authors support Chance to Shine, a charity that promotes cricket among disadvantaged children. But, unless cricket can again by played by all, it is in danger of becoming a curiosity rather than a national sport. Read and enjoy, but also ponder the imperilled future of the incomparable game.

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Robert Chesshyre's latest book is When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain (Alma Books).

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