I’ve always found that the cricket writer-reader-fanatic fits into a niche. In my world, it’s a source of fascination for people I encounter briefly and those that know me a little better; a dimension where references and sudden, half-baked statements are best approached with an air of nonchalance.
My suspicions that I am not the only one have been confirmed in the pages of Charlie Connelly’s book.
He combines quirky tales of cricket with little-known facts about the country where the story originates and with each story coming from the ‘Cricket Round the World’ section which appears in the annual Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack publication, those who send the stories in fit embody all that the cricket enthusiast should.
The structure of Connelly’s book is very simple; there is a brilliant foreword penned by Michael Palin, followed by an introduction by Connelly himself which sets out for the reader just why Elk Stopped Play has become a publication and then, in alphabetical order by country, stories of cricket being played in the most unlikely countries.
This allows for the reader to either travel cover to cover, or dip in and out at their leisure. Although I advise choosing the latter at your peril; despite each section standing strong in its own right, the reader develops a hunger to find out what misadventure the next section will bring.
The beginning seems a sensible place to start: Palin’s inimitable nature transcends his words and puts this book on the front foot immediately. The foundation that he lays – ‘we tend to think of cricket as the quintessential English game’ – helps with setting the right tone for this book. The juxtaposition that is conjured up when one thinks of cricket being played in Lesotho is reinforced by Palin’s words.
Palin invokes his own historic cricketing tale remembering when Wisden regaled its readers with the behaviour of one King of Tonga who was limited to how many days of cricket his subjects could play in order to ‘avert famine’.
Call me sentimental, but any book which has examples of fellow humans who are so seduced by this wonderful game that they will risk starvation, reassures the reader that there are like-minded individuals in the world.
One of the adjectives I would use to describe this book would be endearing. It has a certain air of nostalgia about it as well as solidifying in the minds of anyone in doubt that cricket is by no means heading towards extinction.
Often, the country’s anecdote will have a special role allocated to the English expatriate who has endeavoured – largely successfully – to bring their dear pastime to their new locale.
However, when you read about Iceland and their desire to partake in a sport which appealed to them based on the fact that the players were ‘dressed in white […] with pressed trousers’, you realise that the spread of cricket does not rely on Brits relocating.
This is a repeated juxtaposition in the book: the concept of a sport so renowned for its lazy-Sunday-afternoon attitude (unless of course you watch England scramble to a now-rare victory) being so enthusiastically embraced. For Ragnar Kristinsson, it was a series of events remarkably similar to those that led Connelly to become so entranced with cricket: a brief encounter in a foreign country.
Which is where Connelly’s introduction, detailing his inspiration for creating this collection comes in. As you might expect, it was through one player, in this case, Lance Cairns. He explains how he was just a boy of twelve when he became ‘a little bit obsessed’ and was unceremoniously removed from the country during this particular summer to broaden his experiences; this sent him to The Hague.
The fact that he then stumbled across a cricket match being played, is something he shares with many of the contributors to this book. It seems that there continues to be a distinct amount of surprise when cricket enthusiasts find fellow cricket enthusiasts, and yet as Palin observes, ‘there is barely a corner of God’s earth where you can walk without at least some chance of being hit by a cricket ball.’
Indeed, it also comes to light through the stories how subjective cricket is. This brings me back again to the idea of juxtaposition – cricket is a game that is known for the intensity and complexity of its rules, the length of the full format (five days is heaven for international spectators but is hardly conducive to the amateur leagues) and the equipment that it demands.
As one Wisden contributor observes, to play cricket there is a level of dedication that is unparalleled in other sports. Therefore, there has to be an element of improvisation and malleability to those rules it’s so famous for having.
This is yet another charming aspect of the Elk Stopped Play, and indeed cricket. There is a dedication to play even if it means 13 of the batsmen have to ‘retire frozen’ which happened during a match played in Antarctica or the game has to break off while the church which happens to be within the boundary hosts a wedding (Ascension Island).
It puts into perspective the light drizzle that threatens Headingley all too frequently and sends our international team scurrying for the sanctity of the changing room.
Essentially what this book has done is, perhaps inadvertently, explained how cricket has worked its way around the world. By corroborating a large number of short stories that all share one basic factor, Connelly has managed to make a history of cricket. In doing so, he has populated the minds of his readers not only with stories of the establishment of cricket in far-flung lands but also one-off matches and culturally relevant context.
This makes the book a truly fascinating read and the information manages to surreptitiously infiltrate the reader’s brain.
This is how I found myself suddenly aware of the location of Ascension Island and that there is a St George’s Oval in Hungary. Probably rather fittingly I opened Elk Stopped Play on a train journey from Harrogate to Southampton. What I, and presumably everyone else on my various trains (and taxis), had not anticipated was the seemingly sporadic eruptions of laughter from my seat.
But this is precisely what happened, repeatedly. Connelly’s sharp wit, combined with the most entertaining stories from around the globe cannot help but make you laugh out loud.
BY EMMA CARTER
Elk Stopped Play by Charlie Connelly is published on 13 March 2014 under the Wisden imprint. For launch, the hardback has an online price of £8.99 via Bloomsbury.