Beckett, Cricket and The Void

Sat, Sep 17 2016

Credit: Roger Pic via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start at the end, where few stories have the decency to finish. Samuel Barclay Beckett died in Paris, aged 83, on December 22nd 1989. Among the tributes paid was one notably belated obituary which appeared the following spring.


In it, the towering figure of 20th century theatre found himself sandwiched between Fred Demetrius Beattie (five appearances for Lancashire in 1932) and Ronald Victor Bell (a “hardworking rather than penetrative” left-arm spinner of the early 1960s). Bell was accorded 149 words of memorial, compared to 125 for Beckett. (In all fairness, it should be noted that both men achieved further note away from the cricket field, with Beckett’s Nobel Prize and Croix de Guerre narrowly eclipsed here by Bell’s handful of appearances for Chelsea).


The obituary appeared in Wisden, the renowned cricketers’ almanac – often called “the Bible of cricket”, though it might more aptly be said that the Bible is the Wisden of Christianity. A fat yellow slab of obsession published annually since 1864, the almanac prides itself on an exhaustive obituary section which leaves no gravestone unturned.


Anyone who was anyone in the sphere of cricket is apt to be included, even those whose connection to the game was brief and tangential. Dr. Timoci Bavadra, another neighbour of Beckett’s in the 1989 obits, is ruefully reported to have been “almost good enough to have played cricket for Fiji”, before he lost focus and became the country’s Prime Minister instead.


Beckett, however, is not to be lumped in among this cohort of dabblers and dilettantes. He features in the record books on merit, having played to first-class level – the equivalent of a footballer playing to professional standard. Beckett owes his modest niche in the pantheon to a brace of first-class appearances for Dublin University against the touring Northamptonshire teams of 1925 and 1926.


In the first of them, the nineteen-year-old student of French, English and Italian performed quite creditably in a heavy defeat. Batting well down the order, he scored 18 in the first innings and 12 in the second; he also bowled a tidy spell of eight overs for just seventeen runs, though he was destined never to take a first-class wicket. The following year, Dublin University were well and truly trounced by the same exalted opponents, with Beckett - now promoted to opener - contributing just 4 & 1 (though he did hold two catches in Northants’ innings).


It’s hard to reconcile the teenage athlete with his later image as a craggy-faced intellectual so cerebral and austere that he became spontaneously French. In fact, given what we know of Beckett’s activities in the wartime Resistance and his subsequent spell as a farm labourer, his cricketing exploits ought not to surprise us. But if we dig a little deeper, we can perhaps prove how the game might have reflected, or even shaped, Beckett’s view of the world.


Cricket, said George Bernard Shaw, was a game the English, “not being a spiritual people”, had invented to give themselves some concept of eternity. There was, perhaps, an element of bitterness in this statement; Bernard Shaw was such a lazy cricketer that he was said to have engaged members of staff to chase the ball for him during casual games at Coole Park.


Nonetheless, cricket, like drama, does possess the rare ability to transcend the merely temporal. A cricket scorecard, like the script of a play, is a blueprint for dissolving time. With their lists of characters and terse but detailed descriptions of events, each allows us to preserve and reconstruct a complex sequence of meanings and interactions long after, or long before, they are played out in the real world.


Who would win a match between a team of pensioners with one arm and a team of pensioners with one leg? It sounds like a non sequitur tossed out by Beckett’s Lucky or Nagg, but thanks to cricket’s obsessive need to measure and document, it’s a question for which we have a ready answer.


In August 1796, Greenwich Pensioners with One Arm took on Greenwich Pensioners with One Leg at Montpelier Gardens in Walworth. For the record, the legless team won by a handsome margin (one is tempted to say that they won handily). The preserved scorecard reads like the plight of Beckett’s characters, a fundamentally absurd situation rendered mundane by platitude and routine.


Cricket is, by its very nature, an illogical and perverse pursuit. Where football is profoundly rational, cricket is arbitrary and unfair; where football sees two teams competing on exactly equal teams, cricket essentially involves two different games being played simultaneously. One team bats, the other fields; they alternate, but remain permanently at cross-purposes. Cricket is not so much a sport as an epic tragedy of miscommunication.


In the 22 university matches for which records survive on Cricketarchive, S.B. Beckett is credited with 376 runs at a poorish average of 14.46. His frugal medium-pace bowling (left-handed, like his batting) accounted for nine wickets at an average of 43.66. Beckett’s finest moment in university whites came at Rathmines in June 1925, when he plundered 61 runs in the first innings of a drawn match against Leinster Cricket Club.


Despite his mediocre record, Beckett seems to have had a knack for getting dismissed by eminent bowlers. Eight of his conquerors were Irish internationals, including the legendary Bob Lambert. Against Railway Union in 1925, Beckett was caught-and-bowled for 18 by Louis Bookman, a Lithuanian Jew who escaped Tsarist repression and went on to play football and cricket for Ireland.


But perhaps his most telling appearance, in terms of his future trajectory as a dramatist, was his final outing for Dublin University in June 1926. Set a modest target of 99 by Civil Service, the scorecard notes curtly that Dublin University batted on after winning.


Can there have been any more formative experience for a connoisseur of futility and impotence, than to watch on as a team of civil servants continued to play a game they had already lost? Beckett himself, incidentally, barely featured in the match. He was relegated to third-change bowler in the first innings, and wasn’t called upon to bat in the second. For the student genius in his final appearance on the cricket field, this was a game in which nothing happened, twice.