Brian Viner: Shostakovich certainly knew the score when it came to the finer things in life
Men with poetry in their hearts can appreciate football just as much as cricket
Saturday 03 December 2005
Even 48 hours later, I am still savouring every mouth-watering syllable. "The sands of time," said Bob Willis, gazing unnervingly into the television camera on the third morning of the third Test in Lahore, "are drifting through England's fingers."
It was a memorable remark because Willis is not known for the lavish turn of phrase. He might have the voice of a chartered accountant and the eyes of an assassin, but he does not have the soul of a poet. At least, we didn't think so. But could Shelley, Byron or Keats have improved on the image of the sands of time drifting through England's fingers? I doubt it.
Of course, not only was it exquisitely poetic, it also had the merit of being, if the ghosts of Shelley, Byron and Keats will forgive me for a crassly modern expression, bang on. By the time you read this the sands of time will almost certainly have drifted over the hills and far away, leaving Michael Vaughan and his team to mull over the fact that cricket, as less imaginative men than Willis like to say, is a funny old game.
With Australia having battered the West Indies and England having been squished by Pakistan since that glorious September day when the Ashes were secured, it is almost as though the old order has been restored. Almost. It will take more than Multan and Lahore to wipe out the memory of Edgbaston and Trent Bridge.
Anyway, let me leave it to others to digest the significance of defeat in Pakistan. Instead, inspired by Willis's drifting sands of time, I would like to consider the artistic sensibilities of the cricket fan. Maybe it's all to do with the celebrated dictum of C L R James: what do they know of cricket who only cricket know? There was no contradiction, for instance, in The Guardian's Neville Cardus pursuing twin careers as a music critic and a cricket writer. The one informed the other.
"At Lord's one afternoon in 1938," Cardus once recalled, "I wrote 1,500 words after seeing Wally Hammond make a wonderful double-century. When I went to Covent Garden that night, I felt a certain lowering of aesthetic temperature. Nothing I had heard from those Italian tenors, bawling away in some Italian opera, could compare with the uplift that I got from Hammond's marvellous innings.
"I have had aesthetic experiences from the cricket field which I mix and mingle, without any dissonance or discord, with all the pleasures I've had from music, from the theatre, from literature. If I were put in a corner by the Almighty and he asked me, 'Did you get a bigger aesthetic thrill when listening to a well-known violinist than you got when seeing Frank Woolley bat?' I would say, 'Not necessarily. I'd have to go to a violinist of the stature of Yehudi Menuhin in order to find a musical experience that surpassed the thrill of watching Frank Woolley'."
In fairness to football, later in the same interview Cardus said that Bobby Charlton and Stanley Matthews too plucked the harp-strings of his soul. Not that he used quite those words; that's just me trying to get in on the act.
Moreover, it would be negligent of me not to tell the little-known story of Shostakovich's long-lost diary. Dmitri Shostakovich, as you will doubtless agree, was perhaps the greatest composer of the 20th century. Next year will be the centenary of his birth, and I was going to save this tale until then, but it seems irresistibly relevant here.
Apparently, Shostakovich kept a detailed diary which only surfaced last year, in somebody's attic. Professors of music history were agog when they heard. What light might the great man's diary throw on his famous Violin Concerto, or on Stalin's reported hatred for his opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, which had to be withdrawn because of its supposed decadence?
No light at all, as it transpired. With due reverence, the diary was opened to a distinguished group of classical music experts, who fell like hungry wolves on Shostakovich's meticulous handwriting, only to find that the first entry they looked at, from 1958, was something like: "Yashin seemed a little off colour today, and was slow to leave his line, but at the same time how wonderful to see the artistry of Garrincha and this young fellow Pele." Appalled, they flipped back to 1953 to find, and I paraphrase: "Hidegkuti is clearly at his most effective as a deep-lying centre-forward!" And on, with growing horror, to 1966: "Nobby Stiles has many of the qualities I admire most."
There was scarcely a single mention of music. It was all about football.
So there we are. Men with poetry and music in their hearts can appreciate football just as much as cricket. And even the great cricketing aesthetes can let themselves down from time to time.
Yesterday morning I turned on the Sky Sports to hear Willis criticising Vaughan for over-bowling Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff: "These are jewels in England's bowling crown and they don't want to be flogging a dead horse," he said.
Who I Like This Week...
John McEnroe, in London for the Senior Masters at the Royal Albert Hall, who at the age of 46 announced that he intends to rejoin the main ATP tour next year. The maestro will play doubles with Sweden's Jonas Bjorkmann in a tournament in San Jose in February and who would bet against him winning the thing? It is 15 years since his old partner Peter Fleming said, "The best doubles pair in the world is John McEnroe and anyone else", but few sportsmen have ever raged so fiercely against the dying of the light. McEnroe also endeared himself to British tennis enthusiasts by predicting that Andy Murray is certain to become a top 10 player, and will probably be in the world's top 20 by Wimbledon next year. He knows how to push the right buttons when he comes over here.
And Who I Don't
John McEnroe, who not only rages fiercely against the dying of the light, but also against umpires and referees. He turned back the clock to the bad old days in his match against Mikael Pernfors in London on Thursday, ranting and even threatening to withdraw from the competition over a disputed line-call. McEnroe knows that some people will turn up to watch him these days expecting a show of stroppy petulance, and indeed hoping for one, but he isn't a vaudeville act and shouldn't indulge them. Of course, there is always the possibility that he was serious - he did win the match. But that makes his behaviour even more unseemly.
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