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In the dead sunlight of a forgotten spring the major leaguers were trim, graceful and effortless.
— Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer.
There are ways to intuit the summer’s arrival, long before it truly arrives. The sudden warmth of an April morning, where before there was chill and darkness. The welcomed lengthening of the days – the day, in fact, where the waning light begins to push the night back so that they marry for an hour or less or more as bruised purple. The British jettisoning of shirts and prudishness as the mercury touches twenty.
Beyond all of this, however, lie my personal favourite markers for the shift from winter to spring to summer. Writing on sport inevitably means that it dictates the rhythms of one’s life – so that for me, the reappearance of cricket and baseball after a winter’s hibernation heralds the first distant, yet unmistakeable cry of summer. How better to judge the seasons than through the most seasonal of games?
The English cricket season now begins as early as late March – still with the traditional curtain-raiser of the Marylebone Cricket Club against the County Champions of the previous season. Thus it was that on March 26th the MCC bested Durham by six wickets: not at Lord’s, however, as has been customary in the past, but at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Money screams that an English summer must now begin in the Middle East.
Just four days later America’s Major League Baseball year was underway – not in Los Angeles or New York but Sydney. But a predilection for beginning in the chill of spring and a taste for globalisation are not the only characteristics that baseball and English cricket share. In The Boys of Summer, his magisterial account of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, Roger Kahn wrote: “No game is as verbal as baseball, which spreads twenty minutes of action across three hours of a day.” Despite his undoubted brilliance as a sportswriter, Kahn was wrong on this point – though forgivably so, given that he had probably never seen a game of cricket. For in its purest form, cricket spreads perhaps an hour or two of real action across five days of cricket. For the controlled menace of baseball’s pitcher read the coiled fast bowler lurking at the end of his run; for the quiet that follows a strike listen for the red leather ball nestling in the wicketkeeper’s leather gloves. In each game, talk rules action, and the cerebral cortex the heart.
J.B. Priestley once said, “I cannot believe there is another game in the world that releases so many floods of reminiscence as cricket”. Like Kahn, Priestley was wrong – and just as forgivably, too. Baseball exists in the same, sepia-tinted haze – perhaps because, like cricket, as a summer game it harks back to some of our most innocent, playful days. Kahn recalls his boyish failures as a ballplayer in theatrical terms: “What a summer of tragedy. With my stickball swing I’m not much of a hardball hitter.” Slipping into the present to describe the past is no literary conceit – more a concerted longing for those days of light and heat, when the worst that could happen was a misfielded groundball or an ill-struck cover drive.
Even when – especially when – featured in a novel, both cricket and baseball betray a reputation for bucolic nostalgia. In The Village Cricket Match, John Parker’s fictional account of a game between the Sussex villages of Tillingfold and Raveley, the protagonist Gauvinier “wondered as he had done a thousand times before what it was that made cricket of such importance to so many in the village – whether they played the game or not”. It’s a question unwittingly answered by G.M. Trevelyan in his English Social History, in which he wrote: “Village cricket spread fast through the land… Squire, farmer, blacksmith and labourer with their women and children come to see the fun were at ease together and happy all the summer afternoon.” Trevelyan, like Priestley, found in the game a key layer of England’s social fabric. Today, if you pass through a village of a summer’s Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you will see the ritual enacted again, and anew.
In Richard Ford’s Pultizer Prize-winning Independence Day, Frank Bascombe takes his troubled, estranged teenage son Paul on a desperate, last-ditch tour of America’s sporting Halls of Fame. After an excruciating visit to the shrine of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts, they arrive in Cooperstown, New York for the baseballing equivalent:
When we walk through to the end of the tunnel we could easily stroll straight out onto the field where the players are, or else turn and climb steep old concrete steps into the grandstand. Paul shies off from the field as though warned against it. But to me it’s irresistible to walk a few yards into the open air and simply stand on the grass where two teams are playing catch and limbering stiff, achy joints.
Bascombe subscribes to baseball’s powerful scent of nostalgia and mistakenly believes that the relics of America’s Game can help heal the rift between him and his son. It’s a forlorn hope, but one with precedent: baseball has bound families throughout its existence simply for the smack of ball on glove; the crack of steel; the puffs of dust that cloud first base of an August afternoon. And this just as true for cricket. Here’s Duncan Hamilton in the introduction to A Last English Summer, his retrospective on the 2009 English season:
The man who taught me to love cricket was born in 1889, one year before its Golden Age began and those glorious summers of W.G. Grace and Archie MacLaren, F.S. Jackson and C.B. Fry.
The man whom Hamilton describes is his grandfather – here, familial ties, nostalgia and the love for a game go hand-in-glove-in-hand as they do for Kahn, whose father threw him grounders in the hallway of the family’s Brooklyn home.
For me, as for Priestley and Trevelyan and Kahn before me, summer will always be a synonym for baseball and cricket. No matter that the rampant free market has both in its tight grip – these two most literary of sports will survive into the future because of the writer’s and the spectator’s shared longing for memories of a bygone age. And memory, for the writer, spectator and athlete, is at once a powerful and beguiling twine. With it we will always be knotted to our summer boys and games.