Howard Jacobson: I've played only once, but I'm a lifelong cricketer

What’s charming about cricket’s fraternity is it has a keen sense of the ridiculous and excludes no one
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The Independent Online

What a wonderful thing is Wisden, that lovely, lozengy, yellow-jacketed, Bible-shaped and Bible-weighted cricketers' almanack, 1,500 pages deep, in which the averages of batsmen and bowlers and wicketkeepers, English and not-English, male and female, living and dead, are collated with a mystic punctiliousness that proves beyond argument the existence of God. You want to see the Divine Watchmaker at work on the mathematics of life? Then read Wisden.

If it falls marginally short of retelling the whole story of human existence in statistics, that is only because it records achievements at the cost of failures: number of runs scored, but not number of balls missed, number of catches taken but not number of catches dropped, outstanding seasons in schools cricket but not suicidally dismal ones.

To this degree Wisden is essentially a commemoration of success, unlike great novels which are commemorations of failure. But I would still be inclined to put Wisden on my fiction shelves, so fantastical, like a tale from Kafka or Borges, is its illusory narrative of order.

I was guest speaker this week at a dinner to celebrate the 149th edition of Wisden, held in the Long Room at Lord's. Though not the sort of memorabilia freak likely to be stirred by candle snuffers and inkwells in the form of W G Grace, I am a sucker for rooms with history, for walls hung with portraits of whatever the plural is of genius loci, for the company of eminent practitioners, and for a good dinner. So when I was asked to give the speech, I couldn't say no. How else was I ever going to get into the Long Room at Lord's?

Readers unsurprised that I accepted might wonder nonetheless why I was invited. All I can say is that I am known to have a passion for cricket, albeit more of the passive than the active sort. As far as the active side is concerned, I have only once played what could be called a match, and then was out first ball, being simultaneously bowled and adjudged to have fallen on my wicket. This was before the days of the instant replay which would have shown that I was also out LBW, caught behind and stumped. Whether I illegally handled the ball as well, only I knew for sure. Let's just say I wanted to be out before I was in, fearing what damage the ball could do to a frame as unused to bruising as mine.

What's charming about the fraternity of cricket is that it has a keen sense of the ridiculous and excludes no one. There's probably a page for the likes of me buried somewhere in Wisden – batsmen out to the only ball they were ever called upon to play. There I sat, anyway, in the nervous hour before I gave my speech, discussing Cambridge in the early 1960s with Mike Brearley, a man I had long heroised for thinking the Ashes out of Australia's grasp, but never imagined I would one day be exchanging thoughts about F R Leavis with. Here, you see, is what's irresistible about cricket, whether you're out first ball or not: it's a game of the mind pretending to be a game of the body.

As I explained when I rose to speak, my more passive lifelong participation in cricket – ie listening to it at all hours of the day and night on radio – had, over the years, slipped into a mild form of insanity akin to that described by Dr Johnson in Rasselas, when he has an astronomer believe he can control the elements. "Flood!" he orders the Nile, and the Nile floods. And no argument on the side of pure coincidence can shake him.

Similarly, lying there in my bed in the early hours of the morning, listening to the commentary coming in from Melbourne or Sydney, I would exhort Fred Trueman or Bob Willis to take a wicket and, provided I was concentrating adequately, a wicket was exactly what they took.

Of the forms of superstition that rob the human mind of reason, sporting superstition is at once the most innocent and the least susceptible to cure, so easy is it to persuade yourself that even if you are not controlling the game from your bed entirely, you are still controlling a major part of it. Geoff Boycott didn't always hit a century when I slept with the light on and the dog out, but Ian Chappell was invariably dismissed for a low score when I went to bed without pyjama bottoms.

Believe me, reader, when I tell you that the famous partnership of close to 200 put together by Mike Denness and Keith Fletcher during the 1974-75 tour of Australia was achieved only because I switched from my left side to my right side with every alternate ball Dennis Lillee bowled. In the end it was Max Walker who broke the partnership, and that only happened because I had to go to the toilet.

Whether my pleas to be included in Wisden as the unseen force guiding English cricket will be heeded, I won't know until next year's 150th edition. I suspect not. But I think I was able to persuade the majority of people there that you don't have to play the game to be infected by those magnificent numerical obsessions that Wisden celebrates. We also serve who turn over in our beds only during Test Match Special, now once to the right, now twice to the left...

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