Cricket in Poetry

Published: 2024
Pages: 248
Author: Doran, Bob
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 4 stars

You shouldn’t, so the saying goes, judge a book by its cover, and wise counsel it is too. A variation on the theme, as to whether or not you should judge a book by its title is, however, one which it used to be possible to answer in the affirmative, at least in terms of cricket books.

But no longer. Not for the first time Pitch have thrown out a book which has completely foxed me as to its content. Which is something that in this case I have to say I am rather pleased about, as an anthology of cricketing poetry down the ages was not something that really appealed.

Which begs the question as to what then is the book actually about? That summary has to begin with a reference to two pieces of cricketing poetry, and indeed the two best known. One is Francis Thompson’s At Lord’s, that of the run stealers flickering to and fro, and Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada and its entreaty to play up, play up and play the game.

Both poems were written during cricket’s ‘Golden Age’, Newbolt’s in 1892, and Thompson’s around 1906. There however the similarity ends. Newbolt was 30 when he penned his homage to the part cricket played in preparing soldiers for war. Thompson’s classic was written shortly before his death at 47, and is the work of a dying man recalling the sporting heroes of his youth.

Despite its 248 pages the book is not a long one, a large font making the 30,000 words or so an easy read. Much of the book is about Newbolt and Thompson’s lives, but it is not a conventional biography, and might better be described as a series of discursions prompted by the stories of their lives.

Thompson was a cricket lover, so he is the excuse to look at the history of the game and in particular Lancashire cricket, the Graces and Ranji. His drug addiction and difficult personal circumstances also allow Doran to go into the superficially attractive theory, ultimately wholly unsupported by a shred of evidence, that Thompson was the notorious Victorian serial killer ‘Jack the Ripper’. 

The digressions inspired by Newbolt’s story are rather different and are rarely related directly to cricket. One that is arises out of Newbolt attending Clifton College in Bristol, so Doran does relate the story of AEJ Collins long time record score of 628* and, just to show he is not hide bound by the game’s history, adds that of Pranav Dhanawade who,in 2016, finally broke Collins’ record and pushed it on to 1009.

An altogether more stable character than Thompson Newbolt was a barrister and a writer of some consequence albeit one whose best known work remains his link to the game, Vitai Lampada.

One further cricketing avenue opened up by Newbolt is his friendship with Siegfried Sassoon. A noted cricketer enthusiast, Sassoon fought in the Great War with exceptional courage and, with the likes of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke was one of the renowned ‘War Poets’.

Which leaves just one last topic for Doran to examine, and one that brings him forward to the 1950s courtesy of a leap from the batting couplet of Hornby and Barlow to the bowling one of Ramadhin and Valentine. A whistle stop tour through the history of West Indies cricket is followed by a more detailed look at the famous calypso, Cricket Lovely Cricket, that celebrated the tourists famous series victory in England in 1950.

Doran is a professional writer, although as far as I am aware this is his first book. It is an excellent read, cleverly constructed, well written and well illustrated. He fully succeeds in inspiring his audience to enjoy reading something that he very clearly gained a great deal of pleasure from writing. Cricket in Poetry is highly recommended.

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