Tuesday, July 13, 2021

I don't like cricket (I love it)


New Zealand became the first-ever World Test Champions in June (ICC)

Craig every second Tuesday.

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

As England comes down from the highs and lows of the Euro 2020 championship (played in the summer of 2021 and split across several countries, thanks to the pandemic), with an exciting and inspiring young squad having gone further in a major championship than any English side since 1966, before losing to Italy in a penalty shootout to conclude Sunday night's final, I found myself mulling once more about the place of sports in our society - in ways great and bad. 

And curious, once more, that we don't see more crime and thriller novels set in the sports world. 

Crime fiction has become a broad church in recent decades, with everything from classic whodunnits to comic crime, psychological thrillers to police procedurals, deep characters studies to 'beach reads'. 

Tales of mystery and mayhem have been set in all sorts of places, and against all sorts of settings, but to me it seems that the sports world has been rather overlooked, proportionately, given how prominent it is in real life. Chunks of most news bulletins, billions of viewers for global events, many millions of people participating or watching live or otherwise involved every weekend across many countries. 

World record-setting fast bowler Richard Hadlee in action

Growing up in New Zealand in the 1980s, I loved both books and sports. As a primary schooler (grade school in the US), on my bedroom wall were posters of LA Lakers basketballer Magic Johnson and New Zealand cricketer Richard Hadlee (later Sir Richard), who'd finish his career as the greatest wicket taker of all time - since surpassed by several modern players who play a lot more tests each year. In my wardrobe were shelves full of books like Danny the Champion of the World and The Hobbit. 

To me, it seemed that growing up where I did in New Zealand there wasn't as much of that 'jock vs nerd' divide we saw in American high school movies. I spent plenty of rainy lunchtimes in the school library, and most fine days out playing a whole variety of sports with my friends and classmates. Touch rugby, cricket, soccer, basketball. While football (soccer) was my winter sport and cricket my summer one, in terms of playing competitively on weekends, growing up in New Zealand you learn how to play many sports - rules, basic skills, etc - from tennis to volleyball, basketball to rugby, netball to softball. 

I remember splitting my school holiday time between 'library days' and heading to the cricket nets with mates, or the park or the beach with a ball of some sort. Beach cricket and backyard cricket were staples of barbecues with friends and family. At high school I was both a librarian and in the First XI (for soccer) and Second XI (for cricket). Books and sport, always, along with everything else. 

Your author caught mid rugby pass at a US summer camp

(I hasten to add that I was in no way a sports star - especially compared to several of my childhood friends who ended up becoming regional or national reps in various sports (meaning I always felt a bit useless compared to them) - but I was an enthusiastic and competent participant at local club level. And did coach kids sports both in New Zealand and a wee bit at summer camps in the United States.)

I know that sports aren't for everyone, but billions of people do enjoy them. So it does surprise me that we don't see as many crime and thriller novels set in the sports world as you'd think given sports' ubiquity in the world, and how many other settings have been well-canvassed in crime. Especially given sports deliver plenty of dramatic fodder: drug taking, betting, big money and big egos, etc. 

Of course, there are some good and great crime novels set in the worlds of sport (just not as many as I'd expect), from the horse racing novels of Dick Francis to the baseball mysteries of Troy Soos, to Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series, which in its early instalments was often entwined with sports. 

Given cricket was one of my favourite sports as a kid, and the Black Caps won the World Test Championship last month, I thought today I'd cast my eye over a couple of cricketing crime novels I've read and enjoyed in recent years. Maybe one day there'll be more. 

A Season in the Sun by Robert Rees is a 2017 novel that's a bit of a light-hearted crime romp, as a London commodities trader takes up a role managing a local cricket club in the Seychelles, only to find his efforts on the field may be complicated by betting syndicates and other dastardly characters.

As I said in a review at the time, in a way, Rees captured that sense of village cricket known throughout the British Commonwealth - a leisurely feel with moments of intense action, a sunny, summery vibe. Seriousness and hilarity (absurdity?) all rolled into one as eager amateurs battle it out on the field. 

As a cricket lover from my youngest years, I enjoyed the way Rees entwined the game with a fish-out-of-water tale that was part mystery, part farce. This is the kind of book that, like watching a lower-grade cricket game with a drink in hand on a summer evening, you can just sit back and enjoy for what it is, rather than thinking too much.

A much darker crime tale, and a rather brilliant one, is award-winning Australian author Jock Serong's The Rules of Backyard Cricket (2016). It's a superb, nuanced read that blends crime and sport along with other authentically rendered themes (toxic masculinity, suburban life, coming-of-age stories, etc).

Here's the official backcover blurb: 
"It starts in a suburban backyard with Darren Keefe and his older brother, sons of a fierce and gutsy single mother. The endless glow of summer, the bottomless fury of contest. All the love and hatred in two small bodies poured into the rules of a made-up game.

Darren has two big talents: cricket and trouble. No surprise that he becomes an Australian sporting star of the bad-boy variety—one of those men who’s always got away with things and just keeps getting.

Until the day we meet him, middle aged, in the boot of a car. Gagged, cable-tied, a bullet in his knee. Everything pointing towards a shallow grave."

Given my own history growing up with cricket as a summer staple in New Zealand, there was a lovely sense of nostalgia for me reading about the Keefe brothers growing up with cricket as a shared and antagonistic passion, how they'd get the backyard set-up for their games, how they'd get ultra-competitive with each other, imagining days when they would play at the highest level (my friends and I would commentate as if we were in a team alongside Martin Crowe, Sir Richard Hadlee, and international greats like Viv Richards, Ian Botham, and Javed Miandad).

Serong captures that sense of antipodean suburban childhood brilliantly, in a very authentic and layered way. He writes in a literary rather than airport thriller manner, with prose that delights as much as the situations and characters it reveals. An absorbing, brilliant read that was shortlisted for the Edgars. 

Have you read any sports-set crime or thriller novels you've really enjoyed? 

Thanks for reading. Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Mā te tuakana e tōtika te teina, mā te teina e tōtika te tuakana
(Seek guidance from both young and old, the two will balance each other out)

A native New Zealand weka and its chick


  1. I played cricket all summer, every summer - at home, at school, at university. If the weather wasn't good, I played miniature cricket indoors. I can remember the unbearable anticipation of a visiting team from England, Australia, or New Zealand. Then spending five days if at all possible watching a test match, waiting eagerly for breaks so we could run onto the field a play our little match.

    Of course, I didn't have TV when a kid. Rather when cricket was overseas, we'd be glued to the radio.

    I think there is too much cricket now - kids I know don't have the anticipation I had.

  2. I have my characters, just in Tolliver, the protagonist of my Africa series is a wonderful cricket player. I would feature the game more often in the texts, but though Stan promised me he would take me to a cricket game and help me understand it, he welched on that deal. Blame him. I do.

  3. Justin! Why does autocorrect show you the the right spelling while you were talking and then sneakily change it when you have gone on to other thoughts? This confirms my suspicion that software engineers and algorithm designers are either stupid or sadistic, or both

  4. I remember the BBC showed an action reply of a pigeon flying across a wicket as that was the most exciting thing that had happened that day. Why can't they do the whole thing quicker!

  5. I was baseball, football, and basketball driven as a kid, played mostly on large empty lots and paved schoolyards, providing unimaginably different experiences (though not necessarily better)from those of kids playing those same sports today--when not playing video versions.