The Wodehousian touch in cricket

If you grow up in India and are fond of reading, it is almost impossible to miss either the pull of cricket or that of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. And once drawn to either, you are bound to discover the twain that bound them.

Updated: October 16, 2012 15:35 IST
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Bangalore: If you grow up in India and are fond of reading, it is almost impossible to miss either the pull of cricket or that of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. And once drawn to either, you are bound to discover the twain that bound them.

On Monday (October 15), PG Wodehouse - Plum to some, simply 'Master' to many - would have turned 131 had he still been alive. If Jeeves, perhaps Wodehouse's most famous character created, had been at hand, he might have pointed out several bits of cricketing trivia about 131. Such as the fact that 131 was the score Virender Sehwag got against Sri Lanka in November 2009, the first time in six years that Sehwag had passed a century and failed to go beyond 150.

You don't need to delve into Jeeves-esque cricketing facts to associate cricket with Wodehouse though. His two most famous characters derived their names from cricketers Wodehouse saw or took the field with.

For Jeeves himself, the name was inspired by Percy Jeeves, the Warwickshire allrounder whose promising career was cut short when he was killed in combat during the World War I in 1916. Tragically, he did not live to fulfill his potential or see his name immortalised in literature.

Perhaps less known is the fact that Bertie Wooster's name was possibly derived from Albert Trott, the former England player. Trott's first-class career spanned from 1892 to 1910, and he was by some accounts unlucky not to play more than five Tests for England. He did find a place in what Wodehouse described as the highlight of the Master's cricketing career, in a Surrey v Middlesex match at The Oval.

But don't go looking into the back issues of Wisden yet, because Wodehouse's name won't be there. How it came about is best described in Wodehouse's own words in his delightful essay, "Now, Talking about Cricket".

"True, I did figure, rather prominently, too, in one county match," writes Wodehouse. "It was at the Oval, Surrey v Middlesex. How well I remember that occasion! Albert Trott was bowling (Bertie we used to call him); I forget who was batting. Suddenly the ball came soaring in my direction. I was not nervous. I put down the sandwich I was eating, rose from my seat, picked the ball up neatly, and returned it with unerring aim to a fieldsman who was waiting for it with becoming deference. Thunders of applause went up from the crowded ring."

The sports that found greatest prominence in Wodehouse's writing later on were golf and baseball, but cricket reigned in his heart, at least at the start. As he wrote in the same essay, "… in the innermost depths of my sub-consciousness, cricket ranked a long way in front of all other forms of sport."

The game may have lost some priceless literature with Wodehouse's moving out of England, but what he did leave us with is sometimes enough.

It's a mistake to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses, but it's equally impossible to not get drawn into the gentle, idyllic world that Wodehouse painted with words - mostly when speaking of the English aristocracy, but even when writing on cricket.

It makes you wonder how he would have viewed the modern game.

Would the mushrooming Twenty20 leagues with their curious cricketainment mix have put him off? When he died, only 16 One-Day Internationals had been played and none of them fitted the 50-overs a side, six-balls-an-over standard. Would the changes in the game have been too radical and rapid for a lifetime spent watching four and five-day cricket?

For any other old-timer, it would probably hold true, but I'd like to believe it would have been different with Wodehouse. He might, in fact, have viewed cricket's administrators as extensions of Lord Emsworth, the Duke of Dunstable and the Earl of Ickenham.

Several players could fit into the moulds of Bertie Wooster, Psmith, the Efficient Baxter, a collection of the Eggs, Beans and Crumpets from the Drones Club or even George Cyril Wellbeloved.

Cricket has long had the ability to uplift those who watch it with a single bowling spell or an hour of twinkle-toed batting, but it has of late, often thrown up circumstances that depress as much as delight. A Wodehouse-ian take on Mohammad Amir's exile might have made the loss of that exceptionally talented young man more bearable.

Who else could take a score-card and turn it into a plot device, as Wodehouse did in Piccadilly Jim (written in 1918) to illustrate the wisdom of a butler and simultaneously his employer's ignorance of cricket?

When asked to explain what the numbers on a bare bones scorecard mean, Bayliss, the butler, says: "It's perfectly simple, sir. Surrey won the toss and took first knock. Hayward and Hobbs were the opening pair. Hayward called Hobbs for a short run, but the latter was unable to get across and was thrown out by mid-on. Hayes was the next man in. He went out of his ground and was stumped. Ducat and Hayward made a capital stand considering the stickiness of the wicket, until Ducat was bowled by a good length off-break and Hayward caught at second slip off a googly. Then Harrison and Sandham played out time."

There's cricket writing, there's writing that transcends the sport and then there's writing that's good enough to be considered part of literature. But there's only one PG Wodehouse. Less prolific with his cricketing output than many would have wished him to be, but more brilliant than any when he put pen to paper with the beautiful game in mind.

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