Posts Tagged ‘On Cricket’

When I went to the bookshop a couple of weeks back and saw Mike Brearley’s newest book ‘On Cricket‘, I was very excited! The release of any new book by Brearley is an event and I couldn’t wait to read it. I dropped whatever I was reading then and started reading Brearley’s book. I didn’t want to rush and read it slowly, savouring every word and sentence, and reached the last page yesterday.

I am sure cricket fans here would have heard of Mike Brearley, but if you haven’t, here is a little bit about him. Brearley was one of the greatest English test captains. He made his debut for England when he was around 34 years old, and it happened probably by good fortune. He became the captain probably after a year, because of more good fortune and historical accidents – like the Kerry Packer series. But his real self flowered when he became captain. He was a brilliant leader, he knew how to inspire the team, he was wonderful strategically and tactically, and it all came together for him. After a wonderful stint as captain, he retired. England started a new Ashes series in 1981 against Australia and they were in a disastrous position, with their present captain Ian Botham having a bad year as captain, and during mid series, the selectors requested Brearley to come back and lead the team. He came back to just lead the team. He stood in the slips while fielding, he batted at No.9 or 10, and just captained.

(Brearley’s test batting average was 22.88. There is nothing much to say about it other than that there was no way he could have been picked for any international cricket team, as a batsman, with that batting average. One of the great things about Brearley is that he pokes fun at himself about it. There is a passage in the book which goes like this – “Rodney Hogg recently raised this role with me on air, asking with apparent innocence, “Why did you give up wicket-keeping, Mike?” “I wasn’t very good at it,” I replied. “But you carried on batting?” he said. Point taken!” I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that 😁)

Now back to the story of the 1981 Ashes. Brearley turned the series around with his amazing leadership, inspired Botham to get back his magical game, and won the series 3-1 for England. He then promptly went back and retired from the game. It is a story as fantastic as the ancient Roman general Cincinnatus, who had retired and was working as a farmer in his small farm when his country went into deep crisis because of enemy invasions. The people prayed to him to come back from retirement, and he did, and led his country’s army and defeated his country’s enemies. But once it was all done and dusted, when his fame and authority were at their highest, he handed over the reigns of the country to the civilian authorities and went back to his small farm and continued with his farming. It is a story which gives me goosebumps everytime I think about it. Brearley’s story during the 1981 Ashes is the sporting equivalent of that. After retiring from the game, Brearley became a psychoanalyst. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy‘, which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest books on cricket captaincy or even leadership ever written. He also wrote the occasional cricket article for the newspaper. Now in the last two years, after a long hiatus, he has published two books in succession. It feels like Christmas.

On Cricket‘ is mostly a collection of short essays and articles that Brearley wrote across the years and some he wrote especially for this volume. I think half of the articles are modified versions of already published articles and half of them are new. The book is divided into many parts. The first part is very autobiographical and in that part Brearley talks about how he got into cricket during his childhood and how his father, being a club cricketer himself, inducted him into the game. He also talks about two of his favourite players Len Hutton and Denis Compton. If you like cricket history, especially post-Second World War cricket history, these two chapters are an absolute delight to read. There is a section on the Ashes (there is a good discussion of Douglas Jardine and the Bodyline series in one of the chapters), there is another where Brearley talks about his cricketing heroes (there are some usual suspects and there are some lesser known legends), there are two sections on cricket controversies, covering cricket and race, and cheating and corruption (the Basil d’Oliveira affair is covered in reasonable detail, there are also pieces which talk about the Zimbabwe affair involving Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, and another about how Frank Worrell became the first black captain of the West Indies), there is a section on the innovations which have happened in cricket (including thing like reverse swing and switch hits), there is a section on Indian batsmanship which will delight Indian cricket fans (Brearley reveals here that his wife is Indian, which is so cool). There is a section on commentators which is very beautiful – there are chapters which talk about the marvellous John Arlott, the great Harold Pinter, the wonderful Ian Chappell, and there is an overall chapter which discusses C.L.R.James’ famous question ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?‘ There is a section on wicketkeepers and I was so happy to read that because there were chapters on two of my favourite keepers, Rod Marsh and Alan Knott. I wish Brearley had compared them both and revealed who he thought was the better among the two. Many former cricketers have said that Alan Knott was the greatest keeper ever, but Rod Marsh has the better keeping record in terms of catches and stumpings. Brearley praises them both, though I think he leans more towards one of them. I won’t tell you which one ☺️

One of the last sections in the book is about cricket and aesthetics. In my opinion it is the most beautiful section in the book and the section which is the most accessible to a reader who is not a cricket fan. There are two chapters in this section. In the first one, Brearley describes how cricket is the art of the masses. The second chapter is a conversation between Brearley and the art critic David Sylvester in which they compare cricket to art. This is the longest chapter in the book and probably the most beautiful. I think it is a must read for any reader who contemplates on beauty whether in its static or kinetic form.

I was so thrilled to read Brearley’s ‘On Cricket’. It is a pleasure to read for any Brearley fan and any cricket fan who likes intelligent writing. There are chapters in it which are fairly straightforward – like those in which Brearley raves about his favourite players. There are other chapters which bring cricket, art, philosophy, literature, beauty, music and psychoanalysis together and weave them into one beautiful whole. These chapters have passages which we will rarely find in a cricket book, passages like this –

“I read recently of Mozart’s support for democracy, not in politics itself, but in the music of his operas. How so? Mozart gave his minor parts complex characters, with complex music. They are not just pawns, either in the plot (content) or in the music they are given to sing (their form). He shifted music away from a hierarchical tradition. Rather than there being a totally dominant top line, with others in unison beneath it, supplementing, harmonizing, fitting in, in short, serving the dominant tune, Mozart gave each instrument and voice a unique line of its own.”

And this –

“When I hear the first movement of Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat, with its lyrical sweetness interspersed with growling rumbles from the lower depths, I think of John (Arlott).”

Mike Brearley says in his introduction to the book – “If a sufficient number of people enjoy the book, and if I live long enough, there may even be a sequel. You may take this as a warning or a promise.” I hope and pray that there is a sequel. Mike will be 77 this year (I can’t believe how fast the years pass), but I hope he lives long and writes not one but more sequels to this book. Mike Brearley is one of the greatest cricket writers in the last 50 years. I think he belongs up there with some of my other favourites, David Frith, Gideon Haigh, John Major (Yes! The former British Prime Minister wrote a cricket book! It is beautiful!), Ed Smith. He has a unique way of offering commentary on the overall state of the game which is very insightful, wise, aesthetic and a pleasure to read. I think the only contemporary cricket writer who can come close to him is Ed Smith. I hope more readers read this book and fall in love with it like I did.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Discipline Vs Flair

“We (all) need both discipline and flair.
We need to practise, to be trained, to think clearly, not to let ourselves off the hook into dishonesty and self-delusion. We need to learn from mistakes, keep control of our recklessness, rein in some of our emotions. We need to be realistic. Yet it is not realism to deny a further fact of human experience : that we also need to give up our desire to control everything; that we have to let go of our attachment to the will, and allow spontaneity, freedom and flair their place. We have to trust the parts of our minds over which we have no immediate control. Provided we have a sound basis of discipline and an ability to monitor what we produce, we need something other than, wider than, deeper than, discipline and convention.”

The Meaning of Life

“We are confronted in life by the reality that we are specks of dust in the vast aeons of space and time; that when we die we go (I believe) into nothingness; that our importance in the long run is nil; that we live always in the brink of ‘death’s dateless night’. But we believe that at the same time, or in the same breath, there are things (if one is lucky) that make life fascinating and well worth living. Literature, love, family closeness, art – all these and others may do so. Even sport quickens the apprehension, lifts the spirits, engages and challenges the whole being physically, psychologically, emotionally.
And cricket – a rare team game each of whose dramatic moments is a contest between individual protagonists, the only game that goes on seven hours a day for the best part of a week, and at the end of which neither side may be much nearer winning or losing than they were five days before – cricket has (for me) the capacity to enthrall, bore, enchant and also evoke argument to a greater extent than any other.”

The Essence of Sport

“…it is of the essence of sport that, unlike much music and theatre, the course and outcome are not ordained before the event, however predictable it might be that the favourite will win. The drama of sport lies partly in the way things turn out on the day. There is always the chance of a shock result. The result is not, then, ‘fixed’ in the other sense; that is, there is no script or score (as in theatre or music) : cricket matches are open to the vagaries of form, morale and luck. In normal circumstances we naturally take it as given that both sides are striving to succeed.”

On Beauty in Sport

“It is a nice question how far beauty lies in the outcome of an action. Is salvation achieved by works or by faith, by successful actions in the world, or by right attitudes? When David Gower, the languid genius of left-handed batsmanship, caressed the balls through the covers with effortless ease, and impeccable timing and placement, was his stroke any different from the one where the ball deviated a few centimetres, found the edge, and was caught at slip? Had elegant beauty degenerated into a careless waft? Would we have been right to bemoan and castigate his ‘carelessness’, his not going on? Yet both strokes were identical, both balls pitched in the same place, at the same speed, perhaps from the same bowler. Had these unpredictable centimetres turned virtue into vice, beauty into ugliness (the ‘waft’)? If we ignored the fate of the ball, we have exactly the same movements of the batsman. Phidias could have constructed his sculpture on the basis of either.”

Sport and Life

“Sport and art have something else in common. They are set aside from the absolute necessities, the bare necessities of life. And they have a frame around them. The painting with its frame, or the cricket ground with its boundary, or the boxing ring, or whatever. They are framed and set off from ordinary life. This wouldn’t be true of everything, of architecture for instance, but it’s true of many forms of art and sport. And yet within that frame, there’s a possibility of finding many of the qualities in life that we admire or lack in concentrated form. What fascinates us is a moral dimension, in a broad sense of ‘moral’ : the dimension of the revelation of human qualities.”

Have you read Mike Brearley’sOn Cricket‘? What do you think about it? Have you read any other Mike Brearley book?

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