Slipless in Settle, By Harry Pearson

Bowled over by cricket's comic side
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When John Major talked about long shadows on cricket grounds, he was probably imagining a lazy, pastoral scene somewhere in the Home Counties with a chestnut tree on the boundary and an ancient steeple for sloggers to aim at: cricket as a metaphor for Englishness.

A certain type of Englishness, anyway. What he almost certainly didn't have in mind was the ferociously competitive Northern leagues, where at one time or another most of the great players have plied their trade as club pros. Every match is a fight to the figurative death; sometimes there's even crowd trouble.

Harry Pearson's warm and funny exploration of this parallel universe must have made a pleasant summer, pootling round on railway lines that Beecham somehow missed. He didn't go hungry, chomping his way round the region: Eccles cake, Chorley cake (like Eccles cake but fewer currants), flatcake (like Eccles cakes but not from Eccles), meat-and-potato pies, homemade gooseberry ice cream, pot pie with peas, paradise slices... Manuscript delivered, crash diet presumably followed.

It's as much about life up North as about cricket. Pearson has been making his living as a comic writer since starting out on the football fanzine When Saturday Comes 20 years ago, and he excels himself here, his one-liners jostling for attention with overheard gems. A woman on a train tells her friends about getting her husband to pierce her ears. "I said, 'You sterilise the needle and I'll numb my lobes with a couple of frozen chips.' Well, he did it. But I tell you what – he had to have a lie down on the bed after. His legs had went."

There was one distraction from the excellent comedy: the shifting tenses, which careered wildly between past and present. One other minor complaint: why were all those world-class cricketers playing in the leagues rather than on the county circuit? There's probably a simple reason, and we should have been told.

Most of the matches Pearson saw were competitive and hard-edged, but the best was saved until the last of the season: "It was rough and rude and shaven-headed, certainly, but it was also high quality, ferocious and unique. Unrefined, unadorned, it was cricket with the crusts still on." Cricket, but not as Southern softies know it...