Sunday, April 22, 2012

Adult Book by Malcolm Knox

The cricket novel is in fashion, a genre, almost. There is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, in which the game is a symbol of calm in post 9/11 New York. Today’s Guardian carries a favourable review of Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka. The recent history of Sri Lanka is contemplated through the story of a journalist making a documentary about a disappeared spin bowler.

Then there is 28 for 3 by “Jennie Walker” – a pen name for a writer called Charles Boyle (what if cricketers had game names?; another time, perhaps) – in which an eternal triangle is played out to the background of an England v India Test.
And I learn from the 2012 Wisden – received a couple of days ago – that Alan Gibson’s nemesis PJK Gibbs has a cricket novel, Settling the Score, on the way. Gibbs’ dogged approach to opening the batting for Derbyshire regularly prompted Gibson to scorn:

When Gibbs…was out for 40 scored in 223 minutes, he walked back to the pavilion in a silence which was eloquent and not, in the circumstances, churlish. 7 June 1968
After giving up the unequal struggle against the new ball Peter Gibbs became a successful writer, for stage, screen and radio, including more than 50 episodes of Heartbeat and several dramas with cricket themes or connections. Like several cricket players turned journalists (I mean you, Mark Nicholas), it is to be hoped that he is more entertaining to read than watch.

Any of these works might have been included in The Wisden Cricketer’s list of the top 50 cricket books had they been published a few years earlier. As it is, Adult Book by Malcolm Knox is the only fiction represented. Knox is in the tradition of Alan Ross as a writer whose work can be found in both the sport and literary sections of the paper. He was cricket correspondent, then deputy literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and still writes about the game, most recently as Greg Chappell’s ghost.
The story moves between two timelines, one before and one after a Sydney New Year early this century. The central characters are the Brand family. Dr John Brand, the father, is alive in the first timeline, dead in the second. His wife Margaret, and their three sons are the other major characters. Davis, the eldest has followed his father into medicine. Hammett, the youngest – estranged from the family as the story begins – is a significant figure behind the scenes in Sydney’s pornography industry (hence the title). The middle son, Chris, is the lynchpin of the Australian middle order. He is 34 and has played 91 Tests and 201 ODIs. To describe him as hard-bitten is an understatement. In comparison Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh are happy-go-lucky chancers.

The later timeline takes us through the New Year Test against South Africa at the SCG. As it begins Chris Brand is dealing with his father’s death and is fighting to save his career: his last six innings have accrued 0, 0, 0, 0, 1 and 1.
And there’s the thing. We would understand that the player was struggling to hold his place if a couple of low double-figure scores had been thrown in to that sequence, or the ducks halved in number. But Knox carries a heavy bat and wants to clear the ropes, when delicate shots played with a lighter blade would be more satisfying to the discriminating spectator. Throughout the book such points are underscored too heavily. For example, we have already got that John Brand is a porn-obsessed old man by the time Knox has him leave a family gathering to slather over more of the hard stuff on the internet.

The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the cricket, particularly Chris Brand’s redemptive innings. After –predictably – being dropped at third slip early on, he survives through to lunch, rediscovering form and confidence in the process.
…Chris’s mind is drained. There is no longer a need for solutions. There is only a ball, and his bat…His bat and the ball start arriving at the same place at the same time. The scratchiness, the hesitation, the undecided shotmaking of recent weeks seem to have fallen away like a snake’s skin, a decayed product of his last form cycle.

By close of play he has a century, and by tea the next day has a double, though only after being caught (you’ll never guess) off a no-ball. At the close he is 331 not out, three short of Bradman and Taylor’s joint landmark, and with Hayden’s 380 in sight (publication preceded Lara’s 400), but his despised skipper Tom Pritchard (not obviously based on any recent Aussie leader) declares overnight.
As it happened, I read Adult Book during this year’s Sydney Test, when Michael Clarke passed RE Foster’s 287, the individual record score at the SCG for 108 years, a few years after Chris Brand had done so in fiction. For a time as I read and watched they matched each other, run for run. Clarke declared when he was 329 not out, two short of Brand’s mark.

Off the field, Knox’s portrayal of life around the Australian Test team is less convincing. It must, of course, be acknowledged that any author’s obligation to present the world as it really is extends only as far as they themselves determine it should. Knox has spent plenty of time in the world of international cricket, but it would be disappointing if the reality closely resembled Chris Brand’s world, summed up thus:
No matter how individually talented, no matter how great they all think they are…the glue that holds them together is the lowest common denominator. They’re boys.

The glue is spread very thin. None of the Australian players appear to like or respect any of the others. Off the field their main form of entertainment is solitary surfing for internet porn, punctuated by trawling for groupies, wives and girlfriends kept away. Only a fool would imagine that there is not a strong element of truth about this, the Australian team consisting of rich, successful twenty-something males as it does. But few of them will be quite this one-dimensional and the majority will be more interesting and nicer people than their fictional counterparts.
Mind you, none of the spheres of life represented in Adult Book would be delighted with their portrayal in it, particularly the medical profession. It is not a book that makes it easy to sympathise with any of its characters. Like a ground-out 40 on a seaming pitch it is to be admired for its technical proficiency, but it is a relief to be able to turn to the newspaper for diversion while it proceeds. O’Neill’s Netherland is more deserving of fiction’s token place on in the top 50, even though the cricket is more tangential to its story.

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