the guardian Fri 24 April 2009
Once upon a time, many years ago, Marcus Berkmann wrote a very funny book about cricket called Rain Men. Because no one had seen a funny cricket book in ages, it was compared to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. "The Fever Pitch of cricket," they said, or something very much like that.
This was not a valid comparison. Berkmann's book is more or less pure comedy (and its successor, Zimmer Men, is even funnier); but Hornby's also dealt with deeper emotions, and contained real pain, or the possibility of it. But here we have something that is a lot closer to the concept of the self-lacerating or self-revealing memoir seen through the lens of the summer game. Surprising how it hasn't been done before; cricket, especially at club level, is not only absurd, it also is its own elegy. Loss haunts it.
For this isn't really about cricket. Some years ago, Sandy Balfour wrote a book about crosswords called Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8), which wasn't really about crosswords (although there was lots of good stuff about them in it, such as that Bunthorne's original proposed nom de guerre, unaccountably rejected by this paper, was "Cunnilingus"). And while there is lots of good stuff about cricket in What I Love About Cricket, the book might as well be called What I Love About My Daughter.
For Balfour has reached that awkward stage in his life when his daughter has acquired her first boyfriend. As a devoted father to a daughter myself, this is something I am not really looking forward to very much, and have a shotgun oiled and ready for the eventuality.
Balfour, though, really has the heebie-jeebies about it. When the boyfriend, aka "the boy wonder", comes round - he's a lanky skateboarder with tastes that incline to the gothic - he says very little but eats an awful lot. "I suppose it is because the boy doesn't talk that he can eat so much so fast. But I am mindful of my girlfriend's looks and I say nothing about the equation that every father knows by heart where their daughters and their boyfriends are concerned: boy + food = energy=?"
Yes, well may he go "?". (You will note, incidentally, that he uses the term "girlfriend" to describe the mother of their children. Not only is this an unseemly term for anyone over 35, it also causes mild confusion when it runs up against the term "boyfriend" - ie, the boy wonder. At times I had to reread sentences, having confused his life partner with his daughter.)
Balfour decides, then, to reach out to the boy by trying to get him interested in cricket. This is a tall order for someone who is interested, apparently, only in skateboarding and young Ms Balfour, particularly when he is part of that generation educated while the Major administration was selling off all the school playing fields it could get its hands on.
So Balfour interleaves his feelings about his daughter with his feelings about cricket - which sounds rather unlikely, but he makes a very good job of it. Some of the stuff about his daughter is incredibly soppy, but then fathers do entertain such thoughts, and Balfour describes them very well. Sometimes, you might think, too well; writing about one's children is, after Myerson, a tricky business. "Mostly I am grateful to two young people who shall, by all that is holy, remain nameless," he writes in the acknowledgments.
As for the cricket, I know quite a bit about the subject and can testify that Balfour knows more than quite a bit. Not only does he seem to be able to play the game pretty well (little of Marcus Berkmann's engaging self-deprecation here), he writes so well about it that you can just about say that no prior knowledge or even love of the game is necessary to enjoy the book. (You may, however, need to ask someone what a "wagon wheel" is.) His description of That Catch in the 2005 Ashes series is unimprovable. "So spare a thought for Hayden. He had hit a cracking shot - and he is out. How was he to know that Collingwood had recently learned to fly?"