It was at a Christmas party 17 months ago that the actor Dan Stevens said I was going to get a call from Charlie Campbell, a man bent on reviving the Authors XI that played over a century ago. It had then boasted such talent as Arthur Conan Doyle and P G Wodehouse, and came out of J M Barrie's Allahakbarries, one of many occasional literary teams of the period.
Charlie is a literary agent of considerable renown, and I thought the chances of my being allowed to join such a high-minded expedition close to nil. Besides, he almost certainly laboured under the delusion that, having written a book on spin bowling, I knew how to pitch a leg-break. Alas for him – as I told Dan there and then – I haven't landed a leg-break on the strip for at least a decade.
But some weeks later I found myself in first email and then telephone contact with Charlie; and, not long after that, I appeared to be sitting in his office at Ed Victor's literary agency as he explained that Christie's were on board as sponsors, there could be a winter tour to India, and would I fancy playing at the Nursery Ground at Lord's later in the season? I remember very distinctly thinking: blimey, this is actually happening. It sounded so much the stuff of fairy tale – a squad of authors, retracing the steps of unimaginably illustrious predecessors – that the possibility of it being real seemed very limited. I didn't know any of my would-be team-mates except for Dan, and he was presumably tied up with Downton Abbey.
And yet, through the tireless efforts of both Charlie and Nicholas Hogg – our vice-captain and a magnificent writer in his own right – the modern-day Authors XI was indeed formed. What followed was the stuff dreams are made of.
The idea was that we would play a season of cricket and then each write a chapter on some aspect of the game. This joint enterprise would result in a book that told the reader wonderful stories not just about us, but about cricket too.
"Us" was the finest, most clubbable, generous, funny, charming and amateur – in the virtuous sense of that word – crew of rascals ever yet assembled within sight of a cricket pitch. Names such as: Anthony McGowan, James Holland, Tom Holland, William Fiennes, Ed Smith, Kamila Shamsie (our one and only female member) Alex Preston, Sam Carter, Peter Frankopan, Richard Beard, Matthew Parker, Jon Hotten, Tom Penn, Sebastian Faulks, Mirza Waheed, and Andy Zaltzman. Together we'd play (badly) and write (beautifully) about the noble game.
Other than sheer joy, I have taken two important lessons from our experience. The first is that cricket, more than the vast majority of sports, rewards the efforts of the amateur. I used to think that, having given up bowling fizzy leg-spin for my old club, Sinjuns CC in Wandsworth, I'd never again enjoy devoting whole weekends to playing cricket, on the grounds that competing poorly would annoy me. Quite the opposite: choose your opposition wisely, and your team-mates more wisely still, and donning the whites – as generations of village players have discovered – will be a joy so long as you can stand on two feet.
The second thing is, no sport lends itself to good writing quite like cricket. The unique combination of skill, virtue, history and beauty that makes our game what it is fits the demands of the prose stylist and the lyrical poet exceptionally well. That is why, from Nyren and Swanton to Arlott and C L R James, cricket has produced sentences that are a joy for ever. Perhaps, on reflection, the modern Authors XI wasn't so unlikely after all.
'The Authors XI: a Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon' by The Authors Cricket Club is published by BloomsburyReuse content