Episode 82: Great cricket writers – and capping the Pope

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

What defines great cricket writing? Should it be on the side of “progress” in the game? Should it be more representative of the global world of cricket and its players and lovers? Is there too much of it by louche comic incompetents? These are among themes of a fascinating hour with two distinguished practitioners. Jon Hotten is the author of The Meaning Of Cricket, a collection of essays which illuminate … well, the meaning of cricket. Matt Thacker is managing editor of The Nightwatchman, Wisden Cricket Quarterly’s collection of fine cricket writing and publisher of Fairfield Books. They are the guests of the latest cricket-themed podcast by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller. Roger Alton is co-host in Peter’s unavoidable absence.

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Jon and Matt begin by responding to the wide-ranging attack on cricket writers developed by the historian Duncan Stone in his book A Different Class and as a recent guest on the podcast. chiswickcalendar.co.uk/episode-77-class-and-the-myths-of-english-cricket-analysed-by-historian-duncan-stone/

Essentially he had argued that too many cricket writers, whether deliberately or not, had abetted the efforts of an amateur leisured class élite to control the narrative and values of cricket. Jon warmly praises Duncan’s book but suggests that English cricket’s dominance by white upper-class males has much deeper origins than anything cricket writers have done. He suggests that the advent of blogging and social media has democratized cricket writing and allowed the expression of many more views of cricket. New media had allowed many more ways of telling cricket stories at different lengths, rather than the old prescribed formulas of newspaper reports, Wisden or published books. 2-8 minutes

Matt endorses that view as a publisher, as evidenced by the greater variety of submissions he receives. He comments that it has never been easier to write about cricket but never harder to get published other than online. A major object of The Nightwatchman was to create an outlet for less ephemeral, longer-form cricket writing, and it is especially open to writers and subjects outside the traditional range. That said, it is often flooded with submissions from white middleaged men being nostalgic about how terrible it was to watch England in the 1990s. These have to be terribly good to beat the cut. 6, 20-22 minutes

However, he suggests that the arrival of books by incompetent, uncompetitive and sometimes louche cricketers (which had featured in Duncan’s attack) had added variety to the content and style of cricket books to the narrative accounts by successful ones. Jon believes that the current prevalence of this genre is a tribute to its pioneers, especially Marcus Berkmann. But by contrast both comment on the writing of Scott Oliver on the intensely competitive North Staffordshire League. There might well be room for a new genre of “cricket misery memoirs.” 23-30 minutes

Jon emphasizes the limited market for cricket books, especially cricket fiction which had left an enduring vacancy for the Great Cricket Novel. Matt recalls the experience of Sebastian Faulks (who had played with them both in the Authors cricket team): he had discarded an attempted cricket novel because a plot with 22 characters plus umpires, scorers, families and other supporting cast had become unmanageable. 10-11 minutes Jon suggests that cricket is ideal for situation comedies, and cites some notable examples. 12-13 minutes

They both analyse some fine recent cricket novels. In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Shehan Karunatilake’s Chinaman cricket is a jumping-off point for wider issues. Nathan Leamon’s The Test (is a highly authentic roman a clef, based on his personal knowledge. 14-16 minutes Nathan discussed it himself on an earlier podcast. chiswickcalendar.co.uk/episode-6-analysis-with-nathan-leamon/

They contrast the greater variety and depth of baseball fiction over cricket fiction and suggest that baseball is more embedded in the American way of life than cricket is now in English life. Partly for reasons of climate,  cricket is more important to Australian culture than to English. 17-20 minutes They praise the Grade Cricketer narrative sequence, both comic and melancholy, developed from small beginnings on Twitter. 31-33 minutes

They both combat the persistent myth that writers need to have played high-level cricket in order to write about it – although the experience of playing at any level creates understanding of what top players go through. Jon makes a profound point that cricket is a game of failure. Batters regularly fail to achieve their average performance, bowlers fail to take a wicket with the great majority of deliveries. Success at cricket demands the ability to cope with failure. 35-36 minutes They both agree, however, that cricket offers compensatory moments of incandescent success. 42-43 minutes They mention some indifferent performers, such as Frank Keating and Geoff Lemon, who have written brilliantly about the game, and hail some such as Mike Atherton who have been equally good at playing it and writing about it. 38-39 minutes  Jon describes his soon-to-be-published collaboration with Geoff Boycott on a highly personal book about his (Boycott’s) 108 Test matches. 40-42 minutes

Finally, they describe highlights of their careers with the Authors CC, including being presented in Rome to the Pope (Francis, not Ollie) and giving him his colours after a massive defeat by the Vatican XI. 46-48 minutes They outline some of the famous writers and cricketers who have played for the club. 49-50 minutes

The Nightwatchman

Exclusive to Oborne & Heller on Cricket, listeners can claim 10% off any purchase at thenightwatchman.net. Use coupon code OH10DD (for rolling subscriptions) or OH10 (all other products) at the checkout.

Admired works and authors

The Grade Cricketer podcast

Shehan Karunatilake

Frank Keating

Geoff Lemon

Scott Oliver

Joseph O’Neill

Anthony Quinn

The Barry Richards Story

Christian Ryan


Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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