Can literature ever replace sporting prowess?
This summer the Authors Cricket Club will attempt to marry the power of the written word with that goosebump moment that comes from the perfect cover drive
Saturday 21 April 2012
Before I was lucky enough to publish a novel, my crowning achievement had been sporting success. I played cricket for Leicestershire U19s and rugby for the county, winning player of the year in a team containing several members who would ultimately turn professional, including my back row partner – I was an open side flanker – Will Johnson, brother of former England coach and world cup winning captain, Martin. I still have the dogeared invitation to join Leicester Tigers – rugby union would be amateur for one more season, making the offer easier to decline when university education was still paid for by the government.
However, sporting glory was brief. I prolapsed a disc in my neck hitting a tackle bag head on, and then a nasty fight in a Tokyo karaoke box left me without the ligaments for an arch on my left foot. Laid up in bed with the gloomy realisation that I wasn't going to open the bowling for England, or ever play for the Lions, I picked up a book.
Language came to the rescue. Poetry and fiction gave me the energy and buzz that sport had once provided. In the tingling verse of Ted Hughes and John Burnside, the visceral intensity of a Cormac McCarthy novel, were the goosebump moments of that perfectly weighted pass, the flashing cover drive.
But can literature ever replace sporting prowess?
Aged eighteen, the idea of the word outscoring the try would have seemed fanciful. In the last minute of losing a game against Brighton RFC, I dummied the entire back line, side-stepped the rushing flanker before handing off the chasing winger and diving under the posts. It was a Roy of the Rovers, match-winning fantasy. My comic book heroics come true.
Even when Don Delillo, an avid baseball and gridiron fan, closes in on the end his monumental tome, Underworld, a stand out passage is not a homage to art or writing, but the physical longing for his (not the protagonist's, as I read it) youth, "the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real."
Yet when former England hooker and BBC pundit Brian Moore won the 2010 William Hill prize for his autobiography, Beware of the Dog, and Gabby Logan asked him if any rugby victory had ever brought him to tears, a choked up, "No," was his poignant reply. The ferocious rugby player tamed by prose.
Perhaps the best line on the relationship of pitch and page belongs to Eric Cantona, the mercurial French striker and budding philosopher: "I have never and will never find difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970, and the poetry of the young Rimbaud."
This summer, the Authors Cricket Club will attempt to marry art and sport. A century on from the original XI, which contained luminaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse and JM Barrie, the all new side will play a variety of matches across the country.
Bloomsbury plan to publish the team writings about our exploits, and the structure of the book means that each author will produce a chapter and a match report, and will therefore both write about the game and be written about by their peers. The jostling competition within any cricket team – which, unlike rugby, is ultimately a collection of individuals – and particularly this team, should push artist and athlete to produce their best performances with pen and bat.
And certainly writers are as prone to rivalry as sportsmen and women.
But effort is generally better rewarded in sport with fewer variables, where plain luck, the bounce of the ball or a freak gust of wind, cannot be called upon to blame for defeat. The Olympics are the pinnacle of application, desire and focus. Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world. This is the fact. Are England really the best cricket team?
From rugby to cricket, boxing to football, subjective opinion is often contrary to the result. This is evident in matches where the losing team is roundly thought to have deserved the win. Wales versus France in the rugby world cup semi-final. And then France versus New Zealand in the final, when man of the match, Thierry Dusautoir, pulled out his heart and left it on the turf of Eden Park.
However, it is the All Blacks' name engraved on the Web Ellis trophy. And, as any batsman knows to reply when the swearing bowler he has just edged for four doubts his ability, "Look in the book."
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