Cricket as It Should Be: The French Way

The English humorist Denis Norden says October is a "funny kind of month. For the really keen cricket fan it's when you discover that your wife left you in May."

No danger of that in our household.

In spite of all the TV coverage, our summers are blissfully cricketless.

I suppose it is a sign of latent foreign tendencies or something, but when it comes to even a mention of this archetypal English summer game (and now with satellite transmission, it seems to happen somewhere in the world, like the ripening of strawberries, year-round), I feel a yawn coming on.

Other Englishmen, when they dream (in winter) of long, delicious summer days, seem to associate them with cricket. Me, I like summer for other reasons; and when I think of cricket, I think of waste - of "interminable hours [at school] when I stood fielding, never being allowed to bowl a single 'over' and finally when my innings came round, always out for nothing!"

These are not my words. They are from the 1934 autobiography of John Cowper Powys - a reputable literary ally, indeed.

I was telling an amiable English countryman I met on a Gloucestershire village bus about this failing of mine vis-a-vis what he had just told me was his favorite preoccupation.

"It seems to me to be a game involving 22 players in which, almost all the time, only two, or possibly three, people are actually doing anything," I began. "The main aim of these two or possibly three is to continue doing what they are doing - and enjoying very much, thank you - in order to make certain that the remaining 20, or possibly 19, have no opportunity to do anything. Personally, I spent most of my school cricketing days in a sunburned endeavor to stave off stupefaction by making daisy-chains over by the boundary.

"In short," I continued, "cricket is a game much relished by the few star players who are particularly good at it, while everyone else is simply there to admire their prowess - or so they think. If you are bad at cricket, this is an absolute guarantee that you will never, ever be given the opportunity of actually playing it - so that, with practice, you might improve. Oh no! Your function will match your inability: You will only stand and stare. If you are good at cricket, you think it a wonderful game. If you are bad at it, you...."

At this point in the accelerating gallop of my hobby-horse, the amiable cricket aficionado interrupted.

"But you are quite wrong," he said. "Many people, in spite of being terrible at the game, still adore cricket." And he cited Robert Louis Stevenson.

Or was it Charles Kingsley? Maybe it was Kingsley. It was one or the other.

Either way, he was apparently a cricket fanatic in spite of being an appalling cricketer, and I am not too keen on him for having punctured my vigorously inflated argument against the dreaded game. I certainly shall not read "Treasure Island" again. Or "The Water Babies." Whichever.

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that I am opposed to games. My youngling days were packed with them. At croquet, I am as competitive as the next guy. At Ping-Pong, I do not at all like being beaten. Tennis, I think, is a marvellous business; I am for it if anyone is.

And there is a kind of cricket that I find completely absorbing in its multifarious subtleties. Not only that, it still fills me now, as I recall its delights, with an indescribable longing to be 9 again and playing it out there on the front lawn late into a balmy July evening, until the soft descent of night stops play and another sort of bat begins to flit and wheel about one's head in the midgy gloaming.

French cricket.

That's the game for me.

"French cricket?!" I hear the scorn in your voice. "Everyone knows that cricket is utterly, irredeemably, indelibly English. What do you mean 'French' cricket?"

As it happens, there is a definition to be found in Bamber Gascoigne's "Encyclopedia of Britain." (I do not think it would be in an equivalent French volume.) I have to say that Bamber's snobby side shows itself here:

FRENCH CRICKET: A simple game in which a ball is tossed at the legs of a child, who defends them with a cricket bat held vertically in front of them; the child's turn lasts until his or her legs are struck by the ball. The game shares with cricket only the concept of defending a wicket, and its name was presumably a joke at France's expense. It is first mentioned in the early 20c.

His assumption that French cricket is only fit for a child surely displays a sad disregard for what games are all about. This is a game that anyone can play, anywhere, at any time. It has no ritual, scarcely any equipment, no (so far as I know) codified rules, no solemnly timed matches, no governing bodies. It requires no commercial sponsorship and calls for no umpires. It can be played by participants, gathered ad hoc, of virtually any age, color, sex, class, creed, or ability.

Scoring is easy. The one wielding the bat whirls it around his body, each revolution counting as one run. He or she can do this only while the opponents, who may be legion, are chasing the ball the batsman has whacked as far as he can. The bat, you see, whatever Bamber says, is a tool of attack as well as defense.

Bamber also omitted another vital feature: The batsman can only stand facing one way; his feet, once placed, must not move. Thus he or she has to contort and elasticate marvelously while the ball-throwing crew may be pitching balls from any direction.

They can pass the ball (preferably, by the way, a soft one) to each other in order to confuse the batsman, or pretend to angle it from the left then throw it from the right. The batsman needs iron nerves not to strike out at pretend balls and so leave his legs exposed.

All told, this is a true and glorious game, spontaneous, aesthetical, deft. It is in fact a tribute to the French that it carries their nomenclature. I suspect that if the French had invented cricket, this is pretty much what it would have been like. It is a game in which everyone is likely to have an equal opportunity to shine: a democratic, republican, egalitarian game. Cricket as Jean Fayard sees it.

I have discovered Mr. Fayard in "The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations" and have to admit that although I have not previously heard of him, I am persuaded he is French. Here is what he has to say: "If the French were to play cricket they would all want to be 'batsmen' - the cynosure of all eyes - at the same time, just as nearly all of them want to be Prime Minister."

Bien sur.

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