Nirmal Shekar

Boxing’s literary left hook floors cricket

In days long gone by, but not quite forgotten in the English speaking world because it was a time when the British Empire was not far from its zenith and ruled the waves and everything that sailed or sank in it, cricket was a game played mostly, if not exclusively, by the so-called gentlemen on velvety lawns at home but with a fairly impressive imitation of those conditions in other countries under their rule.

And between the two great wars, thanks to Don Bradman and others, cricket turned out to be more than a gentleman’s game in Australia to which country the undesirable men and their families were loaded on to ships and packed off.

Nirmal Shekar
But along with the political and cultural twists, turns and evolution, was the emergence of serious cricket journalism that not only aimed to surpass its past but one that attempted to improve on it.

Oh well, wait, wait, wait; I am getting there. And one man’s output symbolised the finest of the best — with the style and substance predictably catering to the upper and upwardly mobile classes. Neville Cardus was to cricket what Ernest Hemingway was to bull fighting and Norman Mailer was to boxing, although their writing styles had little in common.

But across the Atlantic, cricket was found to be about as boring as solitary confinement. Baseball was the Americans’ spiritual equivalent of cricket and it produced some extraordinary talent in the print media.

This was the time when what might be the oldest sport in the history of our species — when you suddenly find yourself using two hands, a privilege denied to every other species — was up and running. But then, what do you do with the new weapons when competing for scarce resources?

This is not an educated guess about why and how boxing emerged, but you can be sure that our ancestors used their hands with darker intentions in mind than hugging and picking lice!

Well, that is enough. The point of this column is simple: the educated classes in the English-speaking world have long assumed — or were made to believe by their white masters — that what was being written on the gentlemen’s game was the finest of all sports writing.

Impressive list

To them, the best of sports writing was synonymous with the finest of cricket writing, for that is what they were told by their masters. After all, how can you beat Cardus’s Invincibles?

Writing about what the men in whites accomplished in cricket was another business. Cardus’s Invincibles included, over generations, the multi-talented John Arlott, Jack Fingleton, A.A. Thompson, Denzil Batchelor, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow, E.W. Swanton, C.L.R. James, Chistopher Martin-Jenkins, Frank Keating, David Firth, Mike Atherton, Gideon Haigh and my dear, dear friend Peter Roebuck.

Impressive as that list is, and beautiful and timeless their reports and columns have been, boxing in the US attracted some of the finest talent too, ones not only devoted to the sport but were also well known names in English literature itself.

The Englishmen, and some of the men in their colonies romanticised cricket to the point where hype merged with truth so much that you couldn’t tell one from the other. But for every masterpiece on cricket, there were two or three on other sports in the US.

“The world of boxing has initiated, and been the setting for, more top-class writing than any other sport,” wrote Marcel Berlens in The Guardian in 2007.

And to make sure the point was clearly understood, the author continued: “This is true both of the factual — Joyce Carol Oates, AJ Liebling, Norman Mailer, Hugh McIlvanney and many more — and the fictional.’’

From the time of Socrates (469 to 399 BCE), some or the greatest philosophers and writers have often turned their attention to the fight game time and again.

Said Socrates, the street-roaming mad genius, aiming his barbs at the upper classes. “Do you not support that a single boxer who is perfect in his art would easily be a match for two or more well-to-do gentlemen who are not?’’ the great man asked rhetorically.

Surely, cricket has had its share of big-league (intellectually) backers and does deserve many of the accolades coming its way.

“Cricket is one of the relaxations of a weary world,’’ wrote Swanton. And you may want to add that his words are more significant today, but for fewer and fewer days – although in an entirely different context than it was in Swanton’s time. Then again, Swanton would certainly not have said what he did sitting in an Indian Premier League press box.

The cricket that Swanton was in awe of for its charm and nobility — Test cricket — has one foot in the grave, and the garish Twenty20 — a pathetic parody of the great game — is certainly not a sport that lends itself to literary masterpieces.


And whatever way in which the best of cricket writers console themselves, this is no passing phase. The Indian Premier League will leave Test cricket teetering on the very brink and it doesn’t take a genius to imagine Test cricket’s fate 25 years from now.

Boxing, to be sure, is in much worse shape. The decline began with the predictable fall of Mike Tyson and the suspicion with which African-American youngsters viewed the old sport that produced the most recognisable sportsman — Muhammad Ali — on the planet.

But from the early years of the 20th century, right up until the peak years of Tyson — which was much shorter than the time he spent in prison — boxing was the sport that generated the best of sports writing, hard hitting and going for the jugular.

“Boxing is not violence, it’s a conversation, an exchange between two men who talk to each other with their hands instead of their voices; hitting at the ear, the nose, the mouth, the belly, instead of hitting at each other’s minds,’’ wrote Mailer.

Mailer’s masterpiece

“When a man fights in the ring, he is not expressing brutality. He expresses a complex, subtle nature like that of a true intellectual, a real aristocrat. With his fists, a pugilist transforms violence into something noble and disciplined. It is a real triumph of the spirit,’’ wrote the man who authored one of the greatest sports books of all time.

Simply titled The Fight, it was the story of the 1974 world heavyweight championship match — in what is now Democratic Republic of the Congo but was then known as Zaire — in which the rank outsider Ali floored George Foreman to win his record third title.

Even if you hate boxing like nothing else on earth and thought it was primeval stuff not worth your time, if you read the candid, unmatched literary magic produced by Mailer and others, who knows what your heart might do!

I believe, in its heyday, boxing produced a brand of sports literature that relegated cricket to the spot of the second best.. Do I sense Cardus turning in his grave?

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:44:46 PM |

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