Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: I have always been touched by the aesthetic appeals of cricket

Even when my father had Alzheimer’s and couldn't understand the game, he loved watching cricket on TV
October 4, 2023

Like art, sport is set aside from our regular activities of work, material gain and survival, and one aspect of its appeal is aesthetic. We love not only the contest, the outcome, the scores, but also the style, the beauty, the form; in few other fields of life do crowds of people share, with complete absorption, the intense thrill of a physical moment—a goal, a brilliant try, a single batting stroke. 

Fine cricket writers—CLR James, Gideon Haigh, Scyld Berry—have analysed such instances in cricket. James speaks of “the one saving grace” in his “ne’er-do-well” neighbour in Trinidad—Matthew Bondman.“Matthew could bat… When he practised… people stayed to watch…my own little soul thrilled with recognition and delight.” James quotes from an 18th-century account of an eminent cricketer of the time, William Beldham: “It was a study for Phidias to see Beldham [noted particularly for his cutting] rise to strike… Michael Angelo [sic] should have painted him”. Haigh writes a whole book on the first famous action photo, taken by George Beldam in 1905, showing Australian Victor Trumper jumping out to drive, bat held high. Berry too analyses an early action photo—the 1928 depiction by Herbert Fishwick of Walter Hammond playing a cover drive at the Sydney cricket ground. 

As a player, captain and writer, I too have always been touched by the aesthetic appeals of cricket. 

When my father’s mind was so damaged by Alzheimer’s that he had no understanding of the state of a game, or of who was playing, he still got pleasure from watching cricket on the television. And he could still recognise and be moved by a well-played stroke. (He usually got the umpire review decisions right, too, lifting his finger for an LBW or shaking his head dismissively.) 

One element of beauty in the game is the economy of effort combined with maximum effect. This is a value shared in mathematics and the sciences—Albert Einstein spoke of his maths and physics as being, in part, art; he sought elegance, even beauty, in his equations. I recall fielding in the covers to Colin Cowdrey, at Canterbury, where the crowd regularly purred its admiration for him. His silky cover drive required minimal movement of the bat, without flourish. Yet his timing and placement, produced by the subtlest adjustments of his hands, meant that he could almost at will pass me on either side. Its beauty partly consisted in its functionality—it was safe as well as elegant: the bat straight, the balance perfect, the head still. It was classical batting, “correct”, hard-earned by discipline and practice. Technique may at times be overvalued, but it is at root important because it is reliable, repeatable. For Cowdrey, there was no excess. 

The classically elegant is not the only style that appeals. Brian Lara, the West Indian star, had a wristy twirl to his strokes. His batsmanship had a more baroque flair than the sparer, almost puritan simplicity of, say, Sachin Tendulkar, his great Indian contemporary. The comparison reminds me of two great English players from the mid-20th century, Denis Compton and Len Hutton. Hutton’s approach was safer, more restrained, less adventurous, less decorated. Yet the Lara/Compton decorations were not mere add-ons or ornaments; the spiciness of their play amounted to a change in content as well as style. Of Ranjitsinhji, the great Indian batsman of the late Victorian age, it was said that he “never made a Christian stoke in his life”. Lara, Compton and Ranjitsinhji were more romantic than classical.

We are also thrilled by displays of power, strength, even violence. The muscled hitter with his speed of bat: earthy, wholehearted, sheer freedom. I recall the exuberance and boldness of those late-match onslaughts by Ben Stokes, which took us (certainly took me) back not only to the village green, but to the optimism and dreams of childhood. In this mood, Stokes is a superhero for people of all ages.

I’ll add one more feature, one laced through all the kinds of aesthetic impact I’ve mentioned so far—the classical, the romantic and the earthy. There is at times an approach to the sublime. Sublimity is reached when sport is lifted from the merely cultured into another domain, when daring rises up out of hesitation, when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, when players transcend what we have any right to expect. I think of Brian Close, advancing down the pitch at Lord’s in 1963 towards the great fast bowler, Wes Hall, taking blow after blow on his body without flinching. 

So far, so good—moments of beauty, of power, poise, balance, grace. But aesthetic appreciation goes deeper than this. 

Aesthetic appeal is not to be seen only in a moment, captured as in a photograph. There are also qualities that emerge over time, like resilience through difficult patches and creativity in playing smart cricket, whether as batter, bowler, fielder or captain. And there is the nature of motivation involved. I recall John Arlott describing the pleasure that comes from playing for the delight of a match, as opposed to playing for national or local prestige only.

In his book, James’s aesthetic appreciation starts with individual moments and strokes within the game, but extends far wider to the richly varied features of individuals and groups inside and outside cricket. He sees connections with broader aspects of life, including both moral qualities and social factors informing identity—but these will have to wait for a second article.

As spectators, we identify with the player or team, almost (in imagination) becoming the other. When, in the past, I would emerge from a theatre where a Harold Pinter play was being performed, especially if Pinter was himself in it, I would find myself walking with his gait, talking with his rhythms and voice, in fact becoming his characters and speaking with their voices. Something similar happens in sport. 

Sometimes, too, the skill of performers extends to their attention to the task, to their good sense, total commitment, truthfulness and creativity; there is a subtle but inherent shift from (mere) skill to virtue. Perhaps Matthew Bondman became a better person when he walked onto the cricket field and when he bent his back knee to play his characteristic sweep shot, arousing the approving “Ahhhs” of the crowd. 

Skill merges into, or combines with, moral qualities, and these qualities merge into beauty. As Keats said: 

“Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty,—That is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”