In issue 11 of The Nightwatchman, Gideon Haigh talks about what he talks about when writing.
I have been asked to write a piece for The Nightwatchman. About what I’m not entirely sure. I feel faintly uneasy. But then, at this prospect, I always do, and somehow it has always ended up getting done.
It’s made me think at any rate. Because this month is actually 25 years since the publication of my first cricket article, in Wisden Cricket Monthly. It concerned a County Championship match at The Oval, all four days of which I attended, in which Lancashire made 803 in reply to 9 for 707. At the moment, coincidentally, I am sitting in the living room of one of the players who made a hundred in that game, Mike Atherton, now my friend and Times colleague.
He is at the other end of his dining-room table in the act of writing a column about England’s selection for the third Ashes Test. He is using a battered old silver MacBook Air identical to mine. The tableau is a little like a literary Magritte painting. Because while I watch someone write a column, I’m contemplating a column about columns.
Mike is looking out the window just now. He hasn’t typed anything for a few minutes. We were chatting earlier about Gary Ballance and Ian Bell, the difficulty of sizing replacements up given the lack of pace and the shallow ranks of spin bowling in the County Championship. He’s drawing a few ideas together, preliminary to committing his thoughts to print, as am I. Curious: I’ve never really thought about how people do this, including me.
Yet it’s the form of writing I’ve done most of: columns of 900–1,000 words about cricket, expressing opinion, describing action, capturing moments. And it’s very different to my other main form of writing, of books, which I do alone, surrounded usually by other books. Today Mike and I have only one another for company; quite a lot of the time we tap away in a room full of other people describing similar events, at similar lengths, for similar publications.
In some senses, it’s an activity that’s changed little from a hundred years ago when the likes of Pelham Warner wrote for the Morning Post and Philip Trevor for the Daily Telegraph. After the First World War, Neville Cardus raised it to an art form in the Guardian. He might not recognise cricket any more, but he could still relate to the act of writing about it.
Certain unchanged aspects of cricket lend themselves naturally to opining: the amount of time it takes; the amount of that time in repose, between balls, between games; and now, funnily enough, the degree of its electronic diffusion, which means that many, many people see it who aren’t there and who wish to check their views against those who are. As a proportion of overall output, there’s probably more opinion generation than ever, television and radio bearing the main brunt of instant reporting.
In the apparatus dedicated to following the game, written media occupy a special, at times slightly uneasy space. We do not pay for our privileges: our lanyards reveal us to be “non-rights holders”. We are less of a clerisy than in the days of, say, EW Swanton or John Woodcock, and are now in some respects quite marginal to the game. The true opinion shapers are the eminences of the commentary box, heavy with playing honours – Mike, of course, doubles as one of those. But there’s still something about words nailed down, rather than in flight, that provokes response. As Cardus wrote in comparing the publics whom he served as music critic and cricket writer: “If I said that the Hammerklavier Sonata was the last thing Beethoven wrote, I’d get a couple of dozen letters, 75 per cent from foreigners. But if I said that Sir Leonard Hutton made 363 at The Oval in 1938, I’d get thousands from Yorkshiremen alone.”
Mike’s just got up to make coffee, wonders if I’d like one. Frankly, I should be making the coffee. I sometimes say that between us we played 115 Tests for England, but I enjoy no natural authority. I’m no more than averagely opinionated about cricket; I am fair-to-poor at prediction, no better than ordinary as a judge of talent. My head is overstocked with cricket memories mixed with history and biography, while I’ve an abiding interest in cricket’s business and politics, partly because these seldom seem to interest many others. But in this sense I don’t feel myself much advantaged as a cricket writer, especially given my everyday earnest incompetence as a cricket player.
Which may be why I’ve continued at it – for the stimulation of the constant low-key stress involved in finding new things to say about old things. Batsmen hit a ball, bowlers try to get them out; players play well and badly, set records good and bad; players get picked and dropped; coaches, selectors and administrators are perceived as a result to have succeeded and failed. A writer of female erotica once said to me: “The challenge with writing my stuff is that sex is such a repetitive activity.” I replied: “That’s the challenge with writing my stuff too.” How many ways can you describe the activities of cricket meaningfully, in such a way that it doesn’t sound like something said many, many times before, but also in such a way that doesn’t sound like a flight of gratuitous fancy? I’ve wondered this for 25 years, then consoled myself with the advice that the Martian gives Woody Allen in Stardust Memories: “You want to help mankind? Tell funnier jokes.”
Being a current player, even an exceedingly modest one, adds a little layer of interest too. Winning; losing; staying in; getting out; attacking; being attacked: it’s not only big-time cricketers who do these things. Funnily enough, just last summer I developed a new sense of sympathy with modern players. I won my very first flag in 40 years as a club cricketer. On retirements I had until that time taken a fairly unsentimental line – that rational self-appraisal was the duty of every cricketer; that big wins should be regarded as opportune moments for graceful departures. But if top cricketers feel anywhere near as good as I did after forming part of the Yarras 3rds in the Mercantile Cricket Association C-Grade, then I don’t wonder that quitting is hard, because my first instinct was not to rest on my laurels but to want to feel that good again.
Hmmm. Mike has just typed something. Must have been good, because he is – the best in the business, I think. And he just wrote something else. I bet it was smart. Unlike this rubbish I’m writing. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. There’s that voice – the voice that tells you you’re missing the point, off on your own folly, speculating idly. But, of course, some days it’s like that. A trend is hard to delineate. The ideas refuse to form. On the days you are writing about an actual game, the play may be uninspiring, the context unclear. You commit too early. You start too late.
Of course, you hanker to watch exciting, dramatic cricket; but, perhaps even more so, you wish it to occur on a timetable conducive to straightforward interpretation and punctual delivery. The two do not necessarily always go hand-in-hand. An example that sticks in my memory was the Lord’s Test ten years ago, when England walked off to a “glory-glory-Ashes-coming-home” ovation at tea having bowled Australia out for 190. As this was obviously the story, I duly wrote so for the Guardian.
Then English wickets started falling. “Yes, that’s not good for England,” I said after each. “But hey, the story is still their bowling and Australia’s batting, right?” Not with England 7 for 92 it wasn’t. My 1,000 carefully chosen words had perforce to be dustbinned, 1,000 more in praise of Glenn McGrath cobbled together. Not that the first lot were bad; they were just wrong for the occasion. Not that the second were any better; they were merely more current.
I swapped stories recently with Martin Johnson, who inevitably had a better one, about a 1993 B&H Cup group game involving Surrey and Lancashire at The Oval – the first in which cameras were used for line decisions. There was a run-out sent upstairs which revealed only David Shepherd’s ample posterior, around which Martin crafted a typically wry and waspish column, then filed it with Surrey on 1 for 212 chasing 236 as he was embarking on a hot date.
Unfortunately, Surrey promptly lost their last nine wickets for 18. Martin found himself on a phone trying to dictate an additional paragraph that a) salvaged the piece, and b) redeemed his evening. He had to admit he rather failed. A week or so later he ran into the game’s individual award-winner, Neil Fairbrother, whom Martin had failed to mention in his piece at any stage. Fairbrother, he said, did a double-take. “I know what you’re thinking,” said Martin, getting in first. “And you’re right.”
Watching a day’s cricket in order to write of it critically, I’ve often thought, is like trying to review a stage show in which two theatre companies attempt simultaneously to present different plays, absorbing into the cast their unwilling rivals. Space and time fluctuate unhelpfully too. Perhaps you have 800 words when you want 1,000; perhaps you have 1,200 when you need only 700; perhaps you have early-Friday deadlines when you need the time to weigh and consider. At least in my experience, rare are the days you leave feeling you’ve got it even half-right, and there can be very bad days when you feel it is entirely wrong, and no sooner have you filed than you rewrite compulsively in your head. Pressing the “send” button is the best and worst moment of the day, the long-term question being whether relief or regret will be the abiding emotion.
Hmmm, I’ve just mentioned that 1993 game to Mike. He remembers it; he played in it; it’s on YouTube. That’s one thing that has assuredly changed since the days of Cardus: the tools at our disposal. When I started, some colleagues still arrived in the press box weighed down with Wisdens. Now it’s more Google than googlies, no score being more than a few keystrokes away. Cricket writing features more stats because there are more stats handy; a “good stat” is almost tantamount to a scoop.
Back in the day, there was an almost-puritanical commitment to arriving at one’s own perspective. In The Australians in England (1961), Charles Fortune described his shock at finding that a few reporters in the Lord’s press box were listening to radios. What was the world coming to when scribes required help in arriving at their opinions? What would Fortune would make of our quarters now, festooned with screens, humming with radio headsets, a nerve centre of social media. As a luddite, I confine myself to studying the occasional replay; but I’ve also sat next to reporters who’ve barely raised their heads from Twitter.
This being so, I may be the wrong person to reflect on how this shades what we write. A broad consensus usually does form on a day’s play, and always has, not because cricket journalists are particularly conformist thinkers, but because groups of people watching and discussing the same thing will tend to agree on the narrative that divides them least. In that sense, watching, reading and listening to other media, social and antisocial, expedites a process bound to happen anyway.
But it does place a heavy onus on those in the business of the instant: one of my friends from Cricinfo recently described to me the experience of walking in the back of a press box to see a hundred or so laptop screens all showing his website. It also poses a challenge to stay fresh and new when daily journalism is at best a third draft of history, and possibly even a fourth. Given the game’s modern fascination with epiphenomena – stats, quotes, replays, graphics – you might wonder where the incentive to watch the play still comes from. Perhaps in time a day’s play will come to be regarded purely as a form of data generation. I hope I won’t live to see it.
Mike’s got his head down now. How’s his piece going? “Almost done,” he says. “I was thinking more about the column I have to write tomorrow.” Yes, we – all of us – in a way are on this treadmill, meeting the moment’s needs, shooting at moving targets. After a while you just have to draw a line under things, let your piece go and hope to do better tomorrow. “I’m just going to file,” says Mike. Think I might do the same.
This article appears in issue 11 of The Nightwatchman. Available in print and digital editions.
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