Since 99.94 knows no bounds in its service to its readers, over the next few weeks, we will be providing advice for those faced with the deathless question, “What would you like for Christmas?”
In the days when broadband was a new, magical device that plugged you into the internet all day, every day and before office managers had heard of the word firewall, the boys at The Guardian Online’s Sportsdesk (before it became one er… big happy family at guardian.co.uk) decided to watch some cricket and write about it, updating the report each over as the field turned round. They thought it would be fun to let the readers e-mail in their thoughts on the cricket and, as it turned out, on pretty much everything else too. And so was born the Over-by-Over (OBO), much imitated, never bettered.
Amongst the rolling cast of conductors who would write superb copy while reading, posting and responding to e-mails for hours on end, was the self-deprecating 90s kid Rob Smyth, drinker of Relentless, hopeless suitor of Scarlett Johansson and a sharp observer of the game with an instant recall of the career stats of Martin McCague. Though he would claim not to possess one, Rob’s personality poked through the text and we learned of a love of the game grounded in its culture and the cricketers who were out there making the instant history he chronicled so skilfully.
Rob, on a break from the slog of journalism, took time to reflect on the game and has, to the surprise of many of his fans, produced a book rather than a set of reasons why doing so wouldn’t be a good idea. His friends, not for the first time, were right to pester him into action, as “The Spirit of Cricket” proves.
In the text between the dustjacket representation of the Brett Lee – Freddie Flintoff handshake at Edgbaston in 2005, Rob surveys not the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket in the Preamble to the Laws, but a concept much wider, more inchoate, something inside the game that emerges in its play, not something outside the game that needs to be demonstrated. He does it through a series of vignettes, loosely gathered together in chapters, but much more like a conversation amongst cricket fans that includes lots of phrases like: “And remember when…”; “Just like that Indian batsman, what was his name…”; and “Yeah, but I can name at least one Aussie who walked…”
Interspersing accounts of Richard Hadlee taking a blinding catch to deny himself an innings “ten-fer”, Olonga’s and Flower’s black armbands and Harold Larwood’s retirement in the warm embrace of the Australian public are brief interviews with many of the game’s greats from both sides of the press box windows. And, as befits a graduate of the OBO, there’s many ideas on show that you won’t find in more conventional writing. Page 133 is headed, Gavin Larsen / Rod Latham / Chris Harris – Dibbly, Dobbly and Wobbly – not exactly Sachin, Rahul and Dada! The three Kiwis won’t be too surprised to read that they don’t quite make Rob’s Spirit of Cricket XI, but they have their place.
Amidst the whimsy, there is an undercurrent of worry, of treasuring something fragile, something that needs nurturing and loving husbandry. This this feeling comes through most explicitly in the conclusion in which Rob runs his fingers through his er… hair as he reflects on the march of Twenty20 and its implications for Test cricket. But he leaves the reader with an optimistic thought and a summary, much better than mine, of just what he’s writing about – “… we can invest a legitimate hope in the idea that (cricket) will remain a unique sanctuary, a place of subtlety, charm, integrity and decency; and that it will always be infused with something intangible but magical, indefinable but instinctively understood by all: the spirit of cricket. ”
At Christmas, we can say Amen to that.
The Tooting Trumpet, whom you can often find at Testmatchsofa.com and on Twitter at @garynaylor999 and @Fakeadil and who is fortunate to count himself a friend the author.