Tuesday 24 April 2018

Chapter and verse on cricket and the perfect flow of motion

'This elemental physical action in modern society is most beautifully expressed by the great sportsmen, batsmen and bowlers included' Photo: Getty
'This elemental physical action in modern society is most beautifully expressed by the great sportsmen, batsmen and bowlers included' Photo: Getty

Tommy Conlon

For Christmas reading we took home a classic of sports literature that promised to be a pleasurable voyage of discovery.

Published in 1963, Beyond a Boundary remains high in the canon to this day. The venerable BBC Test Match commentator John Arlott famously described it in that year's Wisden as "the finest book written about the game of cricket". In 2005, The Observer ranked it the third best sports book of all time.

I'm afraid I found it fairly boring in parts. Its author, CLR James, does not wear his knowledge lightly. The book is semi-autobiographical but it reads more like a very long lecture, from a rather tweedy academic, than a memoir.

But life apparently can't always be about beer and skittles, not even at Christmas. A child will sometimes have to read the instructions before having fun with the toy. And even the laziest sports fan will occasionally have to trudge to the kitchen for another packet of crisps.

The book should perhaps be read in this spirit too: a sacrifice worth making, a hill worth climbing, because you will feel a wiser and better couch potato for having studied its weighty arguments. You mightn't enjoy it, but it will be good for you.

And in the end the author rewards the reader with an intellectual vindication for the sporting life that can be strategically deployed against the eternal complaint from non-believers that it is all just a spectacular waste of time, money and emotion.

One wouldn't recommend that it be quoted during every domestic argument about washing the dishes, putting out the bins, or getting a life. But if your addiction to games is coming under serious fire, then Beyond a Boundary might well be your trump card.

Born in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James grew up on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. His twin obsessions were cricket and literature. In time he would combine both to vault himself out of his island circumstance and into another world.

He first worked as a teacher before moving to England where he became cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. It was through the prism of cricket, he writes, that he became steeped in the politics of class, race, colonialism and nationalism. He was in his time a Marxist, a campaigner for West Indian independence, a connoisseur of art, an historian, novelist, social theorist, newspaper editor and political advisor.

All of this vast learning and experience beyond the cricket field is funnelled into Beyond a Boundary.

It was Rudyard Kipling, the so-called poet of Empire, who coined the phrase "What do they know of England who only England know?" James in his preface famously adapted it: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"

But although he rambles far and wide, he keeps coming back to the game. He writes deeply and philosophically of its technical richness, its drama and of its greatest exponents.

He argues adamantly for its relevance in telling the wider story of human society in the 19th and 20th centuries. He commends "the grandeur of a game which, in lands far from its birth, could encompass so much of social reality and still remain a game."

And he sets out "to prove that cricket and football were the greatest cultural influences in nineteenth-century Britain, leaving far behind Tennyson's poems, Beardsley's drawings and concerts of the Philharmonic Society."

Whether he succeeds or not is a matter for the relevant historians of culture, politics and society.

But not content with asserting a central role for the game in British and colonial history, he also dares to assert its validity in the world of art too.

There is, he states, a "momentous fact" that has been neglected: "the enormous role that elemental physical action plays in the visual arts throughout the centuries."

This elemental physical action in modern society is most beautifully expressed by the great sportsmen, batsmen and bowlers included. He quotes the Austrian photographer Ernest Haas who, in explaining the appeal of bull-fighting, said that people are drawn to "the perfect flow of motion" between matador and bull.

"Another name for the perfect flow of motion," writes James, "is style, or, if you will, significant form." And at the heart of sport's mass appeal is an age-old appreciation for physical style. "We respond to physical action or vivid representation of it because we are made that way. For unknown centuries survival for us, like all other animals, depended upon competent and effective physical activity. This played its part in developing the brain."

The earliest primitive artists were capturing this sense of physical symmetry in motion, and the consciousness of its primacy has remained intact to this day.

"The faculty or faculties by which we recognise significant form in elemental physical action is native to us, a part of the process by which we have become and remain human."

The industrial revolution, the onward march of civilisation, may have diminished the universal need for such physical prowess. But "the perfect flow of motion" is something that "men since they have been men have always sought and always will."

And we are hardly going to stop now, men and women. So wherever your sporting quest takes you in 2016, if anyone asks, say it's not because you are trying to escape the realities of life. In fact it is the opposite. It is because you are all too human.

And Mr CLR James has said so.

Sunday Indo Sport

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