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A SUMMER GAME FOR ALL SEASONS

ELK STOPPED PLAY AND OTHER TALES Edited by Charlie Connelly, Bloomsbury, Rs 299

Cricket is an Indian game that the British discovered: so Ashis Nandy who gave conventional wisdom a bizarre twist to underline the Indian obsession with the English summer game. For most traditional cricket lovers, the game of cricket evokes images that are remote from today’s hurly-burly: a beautiful sunny day, a manicured cricket ground with a tall church spire in the background, men in tweed jackets emerging from a neighbouring pub to have a look at run stealers and fielders in creams, the sudden crack of the willow hitting a cricket ball, a whiff of timelessness in the air with the church clock at ten to three and honey always for tea.

There is something quintessentially English about cricket, but it is the singlemost significant item to be exported to the world from England. Cricket travelled piggyback on empire to reach remote parts of the world. This book is about cricket’s travels. It is obviously about cricket but it also contains some very fine travel writing.

Notwithstanding the sentiments expressed in the first paragraph of this review, it would appear from some of the accounts here that it is Indians and Pakistanis who have kept cricket alive in places where it should not have any existence. Here is an account of cricket in Kazakhstan: “Western expats have come and gone over the 16 years since the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan became independent. But, with the capital Almaty now established as the boom town of Central Asia, there is a settled Indian and Pakistani community, and about 15 regular players… the game began regularly in 1995 with makeshift equipment made from boxes and broom handles. Now [2007] the Almaty Cricket Club has real wickets, a couple of brand-new bats, a supply of tape-balls… It is inevitably a little makeshift: no runs behind the wicket... bowling only to one end… and no lbws — too many arguments. But there is a strong community spirit behind the whole project.”

Here is another, showing the same spirit, from Angola: “In Angola, a country devastated by civil war since gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, cricket has formed a bond between the Indian and Pakistani communities. Kashmir and other issues are forgotten as around 20 hardy souls meet three times a week to play next to a floodlit football ground in the capital Luanda.’’ Cricket is an English game that Indians and Pakistanis keep alive.

Readers should be warned that they might lose their bearings if they attempt to read this book without an atlas handy. How many people know that Christmas Island is in the Indian Ocean and actually belongs to Australia? The island has a detention centre and “cricket provides a vital degree of normality for the lives of the detainees.” But the detainees are not alone in their fondness for cricket. The Island also holds the “Coconut Ashes”, an annual match between “chalkies’’ (teachers) and the locals. The community oval is surrounded by jungle, and so losing a ball can be dangerous; the game can also be interrupted by fog and low clouds, as matches take place on top of “The Rock”, as the island is referred to, a full 300 metres above sea level.

This book is full of esoteric facts and is thus a quizzer’s delight. There is an Estonian Cricket Club (Esti Kriketi Klubi) and it was born in a pub called The Lost Continent in Tallinn. The first email from the chairman announced that there would be practice on Sunday afternoon at 1pm provided there was no snow. Why should snow be a hindrance to cricket, since this good book tells us that cricket is being played every year in Antarctica at the Casey Base on February 12, Casey Day, the anniversary of the founding of the Australian Antarctic Research Station, some 3,880 km south of Perth and 2,580 km from the South Pole? Here bowlers always bowl to a packed slip cordon, not because of swing but because a missed catch entails a trek down treacherous slopes to fetch the ball from a small meltwater lake. Post-match analysis is fuelled by the local brew called Penguin’s Piss.

To add to obscure facts: cricket in El Salvador began with an email from an Englishman about to end his teaching stint at the British School. He offered his cricket set and his regional cricketing contacts to whoever was interested.

It would appear from this delightful book, which should be part of every cricket lover’s library, that wherever human beings have trod cricket is being played. There is cricket at Lord’s — pucca, played by the rules of the MCC with Duke’s balls and Gunn & Moore bats — and there is cricket that is improvised and played with tennis balls and according to strange rules. But it’s cricket nonetheless. This book shows how much cricket has spread and also how much cricket is loved.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” C.L.R. James had asked. This book reveals the profundity of the question. Cricket is the story of empire; it is also about the end of the empire. Cricket is history, cricket is geography. Cricket is a means to survival. Cricket is about human endeavour. Cricket is more than a game.