By Tayo Fagbule
When I began to write this blog, I saw football as an easy topic to explore the socio-economic and political environment of Nigeria. Take football under Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s “last dictator”, a man whose rule cast darkness over the country, a blackness as tenebrous as the shades he wore all day long. In 1996, displeased with South Africa’s condemnation of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Abacha prevented the Super Eagles from competing in the African Cup of Nations hosted by South Africa. That same year, when we won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, on the night of the final match against Argentina, I stood with my right hand across my chest to sing the national anthem. Overnight, euphoria descended with the rain. It was still raining when we left Sacred Heart Church in Badagry. Through the window I stared at a man striking a metal object on an empty beer bottle. He was stripped to his trousers, and beads of rainwater dripped from his torso as he gyrated to his own music. The hum of the air conditioner of the maroon Peugeot 504 was all I could hear. Beating Brazil and Argentina to the gold medal was a miracle. All of us forgot, for a moment, we were supposed to be praying to God to deliver Nigeria from chaos, anarchy and doom.
Football preoccupies most male (and increasingly many female) Nigerians. Hundreds of young men dream of playing overseas, many risk their lives to achieve this dream. Radio stations and TV programmes talk about and show football round the clock. At the barbershop I frequent, my preferred barber and his friends, young unemployed men in their mid- or early twenties, who mingle at the shop would, once the generator was switched on (the shop was often without electricity), leash their phones to chargers and harness them into sockets, then sit and wait for the satellite TV to beam onto their somnolent eyes musical videos, a Yoruba or Chinese movie, and in between musicals they’ve seen before or a predictable plot, swap gist about matches and tactics and transfers, and exchange betting tips.
This writings, a distraction from a transition in my life, began to diverge from the initial intention when I came across a quotation from George Plimpton’s game theory of literature. Is the size of a ball related to its dominance in literary and popular culture; is there a correlation between the size of a ball and the quality of sports fiction or nonfiction? These were the questions that bounced in my head, lobbing me farther and farther away from football, so that a folder in which I kept a miscellany of cricket materials now seems to contain rich deposits of gold, and has beguiled me into a sport I know next to nothing about and, above all, one most Nigerians don’t care about.
Sport didn’t always fascinate me. Then, in 1994, Nigeria qualified for the World Cup and won the African Cup of Nations. This new interest fed on a diet of Bundesliga via cable TV (Jayjay Okocha was with Eintracht Frankfurt), Complete Sports, which my friends and I readily devoured like jollof rice, and the epidemic excitement over Nigeria’s first World Cup. It was also the year Barca lost to AC Milan in the Champions League. I learned a lesson in randomness that no course in statistics could have bettered. Though I knew the future was unpredictable, even when you play by the rules, I went to bed the night before the final dreaming of Barca’s victory. When the match ended it dawned on me to never underestimate an opponent; an impressive past record is never a good judge of the future. I also learned that life continues after a defeat.
I had finished secondary school – where I never went near a football – and was preparing to study economics at the university. At the federal government college I attended, a smouldering desire for playing sports was snuffed out. My height, size, poor sight and an appalling tendency to travel with the basketball yelling in search of Johnnie, my kind all-rounder friend who selected me to make up the numbers, made me persona non grata when it came to sports.
In a 1992 article: The Smaller, the Better the Book: A Game Theory of Literature, George Plimpton, a writer, journalist and editor, declared there were “not many good books about football or soccer”. Pele’s My Life and the Great Game, is only book he’s encountered but admits he possibly omitted novels and articles from far-flung places in South America and Europe. Football, he wrote, is “a gentleman’s game played by thugs” who are better at using their feet than their brains.
I was curious to know if this theory was still valid, even more, why Plimpton omitted to weigh in on the quality of sports literature about cricket. Was this an oversight or a disavowal of the world's first and oldest modern spectator sport? The first international match the US played was a cricket match against Canada in 1844.
Every year since 1989, William Hill, a bookmaker based in the UK, awards a prize for the sports book of the year. In its first three years, books on rowing, cycling, and boxing got the prize. In 1992, the same year Plimpton's article appeared in the New York Times, the prize went to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, a memoir by an Arsenal fan. In the past 25 years, seven books on football have gone on to win the award, the most among 10 sports from Aikido to rugby.
Plimpton claims that “the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature” hence there are “superb books and very good books” about golf and baseball respectively. Yet one book on golf, and none on baseball, has won the William Hill prize. Books about cricket have clinched the second-highest number of prizes, five. Does this mean his theory no longer holds? No, the William Hill prize is a literary award for British sports.
On the scale of size, squash balls followed by table tennis balls are smaller than golf balls. Whether there are fine writings on squash or table tennis, Plimpton doesn’t say. Instead he says a lot about baseball, which has a “monumental shelf, only limited to golf because the game does not have much international appeal.” Football’s international appeal isn’t matched by the quality and quantity of literature. What of cricket? The cricket ball is 0.03 inches smaller than the ball used in baseball. The Plimpton rule is off by inches. Or miles. For baseball is to the UK what cricket is to the US: a foreign sport.
Plimpton grew up in a family were sports was not watched or read about, except for instructional materials. It was played. He studied English at Harvard, one of the elite schools cricket was relegated to as baseball spread across North America. The Harvard Cricket Club, which was revived in 2011, is mostly made up of students from cricket-crazy Commonwealth countries (for some time they played “on a basketball court using tennis balls wrapped in electrical tape.”)
Wondering why poets fail to take advantage of themes associated with sports e.g. triumph, despair, prowess, beauty, and the idea that sport encapsulates life, Plimpton concludes it’s frivolous. I think his puzzlement with the paucity of high quality poetry on sports can be blamed on his inconsiderate attention to cricket. For centuries, the sport has preoccupied British poets (Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon), playwrights (Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter) and novelists (P.G Wodehouse, J.M Coetzee and Joseph O’Neill).
An exhibition on Literature and Sports by the Ransom Centre, University of Texas in 2013 featured American football, baseball, boxing, bullfighting, cricket and tennis – football (soccer) was eliminated. The exhibition displayed books, excerpts, manuscripts, letters, memorabilia, paintings and photographs to show the significance of cricket to writers – some of whom were ardent players or supporters – and how they employed it in their works, as an analogy, a metaphor, subplot or setting.
Cricket is a lodestone for writers. When cricketers bat and bowl on the pitch they engage “in the elemental human activities, qualities and emotions—attack, defence, courage, gallantry, steadfastness, grandeur, ruse… the very stuff of human life.” These words, quoted in the exhibition, are of C.L.R James, a Trinidadian and author of Beyond a Boundary. It was published in 1963 it is considered the best book on cricket.
To show cricket’s power for metaphor the exhibition quotes from the memoir of John Fowles, a British author:
Something in me still sees novels—and not only my own—as cricket games: and their writing, as having to bowl against some fiendishly good batsmen (the readers) on a featherbed wicket. Cricket remains for me the game of games, the sanspareil, the greatest metaphor, the best marriage ever devised of mind and body.
After culling my observations I began to conclude that before a sport captures the imagination of writers, irrespective of the size of the ball used, it elicits passion off and on the field of play. How it’s discussed, compared, remembered, perceived and considered a thing of national pride determines its reception in other forms of popular culture. After all, Plimpton is from the US. For over a century cricket has stumped North Americans.
In 1973, Fowles wrote an essay, A Pitch for Cricket, for Sports Illustrated in which he compares cricket to baseball. He says,
"Britain and America were created, as every serious historian knows, just to see how profoundly two cultures sharing a common language can fail to understand each other. Nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than in the malignant mutual travesty that concerns our respective summer games."
Cricket’s decline in the US dates back to the 19th century. It is a tale of old versus new England (Plimpton’s parents were New Englanders). Cricket was rejected in the US because of its association with Old England, its “aristocratic ethic” and exclusiveness. Cricket was seen as a game of gentlemen; baseball, the people’s game, was egalitarian and participatory.
Because it refused to adapt cricket failed to charm North Americans. To Americanize cricket, to inject some excitement into it, to suit it to the taste of spectators, to change its structure, was not cricket. Those who oversaw and played cricket in North America could and would not imagine playing it otherwise. This insularity was a direct cause of its decline. Cricket didn't have mass appeal. There were not enough matches, to draw crowds, cultivate intense rivalry and build a fan base.
Baseball batted cricket out to become the national pastime of North Americans thanks to the organizational and entrepreneurial drive of men like A. G Spalding. Albert Goodwill Spalding was a “star player, manager, league organizer, and sports manufacturer”, according to Jason Kaufman and Orlando Patterson, co-authors of Cross-National Cultural Diffusion: The Global Spread of Cricket. Spalding was more than a promoter or marketing genius. He knew where he stood, he knew the importance of star players and club rivalries, and from his position he pitched and batted to make baseball popular among the masses and elites. Spalding professionalized the sport, manufactured balls and bats, which he donated to schools, he sold them through retail outlets alongside paraphernalia such as “How to pitch” a pamphlet, the type of instructional material read as a boy.
Spalding’s book, America's National Game, published in 1911, contributed to how to North American's perception of cricket:
"I have declared that cricket is a genteel game. It is. Our British Cricketer, having finished his day's labor at noon, may don his negligee shirt, his white trousers, his gorgeous hosiery and his canvas shoes, and sally forth to the field of sport, with his sweetheart on one arm and his cricket bat under the other knowing he may engage in his national pastime without soiling his linen or neglecting his lady … Not so the American ball player. He may be a veritable Beau Brummel in social life. He may be the Swellest Swell of the Smart Set in Swelldom; but when he dons his Base Ball suit, he says good-bye to society, doffs his gentility, and becomes – just a Ball Player! He knows his business now is to play ball, and that first of all he is expected to attend to business … Cricket is a gentle pastime. Base Ball is War! Cricket is an Athletic Sociable [sic], played and applauded in a conventional, decorous and English manner. Base Ball is an Athletic Turmoil, played and applauded in an unconventional, enthusiastic and American manner."
The book was a bestseller.
Over a century after cricket’s decline, optimists say Twenty20 (T20), a short form of the languorous original, which is now played at North American universities will re-ignite interest in the US. This fast-paced reinvention of the game, which can be completed in three hours, was introduced in 2003 to attract a younger crowd, boost sponsorship and add more excitement. Is T20 the result of the lesson from cricket’s downfall in the US? Not everyone is optimistic. A comment on a BBC story about T20’s chances in the US said, “The English had no conception of boredom and so they had to invent cricket.”
Tayo Fagbule, a journalist and aspiring Arsenal fan, is interested in the socio-political and economic environment of sports in Nigeria. He blogs at buffball.blogspot.com.ng