Nobel laureate Harold Pinter is a great cricketing fan, to the extent of putting it into his works as well.
Writing about the game: Harold Pinter lives for cricket.
WITH advancing age, most club cricketers tend to have the reverse of amnesia they remember things that never happened. Highest scores get higher, catches get increasingly brilliant in the description, and bowling figures get more impressive with every over not bowled.
Harold Pinter, literature's most recent Nobel laureate, is an exception to the rule (as he was the exception to most rules). He told an interviewer three decades ago "My highest score is 49." Years later, when one of his team-mates, the writer Robert Winder, wrote a poem in which he mentioned that Pinter's top score had been 59, the playwright suggested he get the figure right; it was 39.
On the game
It is one of the ironies of cricket, indeed any sport, that the greatest players are not its greatest enthusiasts. If enthusiasm and a deep understanding of the game were all that was required to play at the highest level, Pinter might have played for England many times. "I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing God ever created on earth," he once wrote memorably, "certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either."
Of Len Hutton, his hero, he wrote the finest two-line poem on cricket: "I saw Len Hutton in his prime/Another time, another time." It was Pinteresque; what he left unsaid was essential. He sent the couplet to friends, and when he ran into one of them weeks later, the receiver confessed: "Sorry, I haven't read it yet."
English writers, from Arthur Conan Doyle (who once dismissed W.G. Grace in a match) through J.M. Barrie, P.G. Wodehouse and more recently Tom Stoppard, have all played and written about the game. Rice, in fact, threw the audience into confusion at the Oscars when in his acceptance speech as best lyricist, he thanked his "boyhood hero, Dennis Compton."
Yet it is Samuel Beckett, Pinter's spiritual guru, and James Joyce, both Irishmen who are better known for their cricket. Beckett, as every trivia buff knows, is the only literature laureate to appear in Wisden. He was a left arm seamer and opening batsmen who played two first class matches.
Those who know both their Joyce and their cricket have discovered the names of many players, great and small in Finnegan's Wake. In a passage of about 400 words quoted in The Faber Book of Cricket, references to 32 players appear; Spofforth, Trumper, Ranji and Hobbs among them.
In his works
Pinter too put cricket into his works. According to his biographer Michael Billington, "Pinter loves cricket and indeed lives for cricket and puts more energy into running a cricket team, The Gaieties, than he does into almost anything else. There is a cricket match in one of his films, `Accident' and it's actually extremely important in the context of that movie.
One of the great lines in The Birthday Party, when Goldberg and McCann are interrogating Stanley, is "Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?" and in No Man's Land there are references to an unseen female character and someone asks `How does she come off the wicket... does she google?'"
Pinter, after leading the Gaieties Club for five years, then became its chairman. He was also its scorer, umpire, drawer-up of fixtures, driver, buyer of drinks, poet, batsman and public face. "Gaieties makes a great difference to my life," he once said, "Simply, the rest of the world ceases to exist."
But the cricket wasn't restricted to club matches on Sundays. Like the greatest fans of the game, Pinter played a lot in his mind too.
"When I direct, or see my own plays, I am playing cricket shots in my mind. I'm always going through the motions, the feet perfectly in position." Gaieties toured India under Ian Smith in 1996-97, but Pinter didn't make the trip although he kept in touch. The chairman was, in the words of the captain, "a benevolent despot."
The biggest name to play for the club was the Test player and Somerset star Arthur Wellard who, till Gary Sobers broke it, held the world record for hitting five sixes in an over (and he did it twice!).
In a delightful tribute to Wellard, Pinter wrote: "Even side-on to the pitch and not apparently paying any attention he could see what the ball was doing. She popped, he would say, he wasn't forward enough. It's no good playing half-cock on a wicket like this"
It was Wellard who told Pinter the story of how before a match at the Chepauk for Lord Tennyson's XI in 1938-39, Joe Hardstaff drank late into the night and could barely stand up. Next day, Hardstaff made 213, still considered by many old-timers to be the finest innings played at the ground.
"My skills were limited," Pinter, who trained at the Alf Gover school, wrote of his own batting. "There were only two things I could do well. I possessed quite a gritty defence and I could hit straight for six sometimes, oddly enough, off the back foot. But I didn't do either of these things very often. I had little concentration, patience or, the most important thing of all, true relaxation."
Although Pinter often said that cricket is a wonderfully civilised act of warfare, more recently he has said it is a "very violent game, however friendly it may seem." He might have been speaking of life itself as expressed in his plays.
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