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Part One: Being Funny About Cricket

Cricket and comedy have been happy bedfellows for centuries. Ever since the game began, an embarrassing wealth of comic literature – and plays and films and songs and TV shows – has found laughs via the game’s idioms, idiots and idiosyncrasies. In a new regular feature designed to help you get your life back on track, AOC enlists the (much needed) help of three cricket-loving comedians and writers to bring you the perfect guide to being funny about cricket.

Lesson 1: Hone your uselessness

One thing’s for sure: success ain’t funny. Everyone enjoys tales of the keeper who inadvertently took a stumping off his head, or the almighty swipe that gives rise to the fatal ‘arse before wicket’ dismissal on the village green – scene of human frailty since 1727 – every weekend during England’s dank and drizzly summer. Michael Simkins, best-selling author of the hilarious cricket book Fatty Batter, and now the equally funny and charming These Flannelled Fools, says: “Being self-deprecating is not essential, but it’s 90 per cent of it, because in a sense it’s the only thing that humorous writers on the subject have got over professionals. The only thing I’ve really got over someone like Kevin Pietersen is an ability to laugh at myself, and the ability to laugh at one’s own incompetence is a quality that all Brits love.”

Lesson 2: Experience childhood catharsis

What shapes many a comical cricket ‘tragic’ are those formative years. These are the days of localised trauma, of playground dread, of daily wars with ourselves… It spills out, into the classroom first, then the park after school, and next onto the cricket pitch, where, if you’re lucky, one’s inadequacies are laid so hilariously bare that the only protection available is to grab for the comfort blanket of comedy. You might not get the girl, but you might just get the book deal. Simkins owns up to it. “I grew up in a sweet shop, and I was enormously overweight. My only prowess as a kid really was the fact that I could demolish an entire economy size bottle of cream soda within 30 seconds, which for an eight-year-old is pretty good going. Cricket seemed to me when I was a kid the one sport that I could play. We were a very good cricketing school and I was absolutely on the fringes all the time, and I’d have ritual humiliation, where I’d go in at No.6, make nought and they’d all laugh at me and say ‘Old Fat Simmo – it doesn’t matter, we still won the game, but you gave us a laugh because you dropped two catches, you were out for none and you can’t run very fast,’ and my way of dealing with it was to take some sanctuary in the humorous byways of the game.”

Lesson 3: Get yourself to a minor public school

Cricket is class, class is cricket; at least in the generalising environment of comedy. So ensure you’re well grounded in filibustering, the acute, knee-knocking hell of ‘games’, and the delusions of the ‘master’, and you’re already halfway there. Miles Jupp, award-winning (and, it has to be said, well-spoken) stand-up, comedy actor and writer says: “One of my favourite pieces of comedic writing ever is a cricket sequence in The Liar by Stephen Fry. There is a sequence where the protagonist is a master at a prep school, and he takes his team to play another team and they’re bowled out for very little by this amazing legspinner, so while he’s umpiring he takes it upon himself to demoralise the bowler. There’s a fantastic bit where he tells this 11-year-old-boy just how much his googly sticks out, and he has him on the verge of tears. The bowler lobs up a full toss that gets hit for six, so the umpire says to him: ‘Very nice, but try getting it to bounce next time,’ so he then goes and bowls a long-hop that gets hit to the boundary for four, so as he’s walking back the umpire says to him: ‘There you are, that’s two less already.’ This is stuff that would only really be enjoyed by real cricket people.”

Miles Jupp wrote Fibber In The Heat, about trying to become a member of cricket’s press corps

Lesson 4: Learn the language

The lexicon of cricket, with its variously-layered entendres dipped in puerile prep school mischief and childish changing room chit-chat, is an absolute must. Your comedy armoury just isn’t complete without a full set of dubious, indecipherably crickety turns of phrase. Without them, the aspiring cricketing writer is landing his well-shined balls full of length when the cherry should really be buzzing around the helmet, coming off a grassy wicket in order to get him on the pull, before, tempted by a swinger, he hangs his wooden weapon out to dry etc, etc. Cricket’s full of filth: if you can’t reel off a few pages of this stuff you’re beaten before you start.

Lesson 5: Be a man, preferably middle-aged

Sad but evidently true. Books documenting ‘cricket as obsession’, ‘cricket as retreat from reality’, ‘cricket as metaphor’, ‘cricket as life and death and ‘cricket as impromptu games with llamas in Bolivia’ appear to be an almost exclusively male domain. Simkins is well aware. “My wife has been quoted saying ‘Sunday afternoon cricket is just meaningless encounters between groups of pathetic, middle-aged, sexually inadequate no-hopers’, which always seems to me to put it rather well. Without wanting to be too poncy, books should also say something about people: what it’s like to be an incompetent middle-aged man facing incompetent middle aged concerns. But in mine I try and also write something for the long-suffering wife.”

Lesson 6: Hate the game as well as love it

Any true cricket lover also harbours a healthy dose of mind-exploding frustration at the game they simultaneously adore. That’s got to be channelled for comic purposes. “Cricket is absolutely rife with moments for self-reflection and self-doubt,” says Simkins. “It’s curious that of all games cricket is both the most sociable and the most lonely. Is there any lonelier place in the world than coming in to bat when your team’s depending on you to try and see them through and there are 11 cricketers gathered around you? Your one friend down the other end might as well be in Edinburgh for all the use he is to you. The most fantastically cruel and yet wonderful aspect of cricket is it gets right in there between the mental cracks; it can really expose you. How many times have we all travelled back from matches, nursing a bruised foot and an even worse bruised ego, saying: ‘That’s the last bloody time I’m ever going to turn out again’, and then within a couple of days you’re thinking: ‘Hang on, the next match isn’t too difficult, and I scored 30 there last year…’ and before you know it, you’re going back and having another go. The most incompetent cricketers I know seem to survive on nothing more than hope year after year.”

Lesson 7: Get behind a microphone

A stand-up comedy gig – just getting up in front of a crowd trying to be funny – has got to be one of the scariest tasks going for anyone who’s not a seasoned performer. But try doing it talking about nothing but cricket…Doing cricket-related stand-up is tough – but not impossible. Ex-players do comical after-dinner speeches all the time, and even those without a wealth of wild anecdotes have given it a go. Jupp did it, and Andy Zaltzman, award-winning stand-up, podcaster and comedy writer – author of The Confectionery Stall blog on ESPNCricinfo – also gave it a try when he played in Bangladesh. The key, obviously, is that they, the punters, know what the hell you’re going on about. Ex-players have an in-built advantage – they don’t really have to win the crowd over. But, as Jupp explains: “You do have to tell people what you’re doing. When I first did the cricket show in Edinburgh, that was the fourth year in a row that I’d done a solo show, and the other three had all been fairly straight stand-up, so I was aware that people would be coming having seen my other ones and sitting there wondering, ‘What is he doing talking about cricket?’”

Jupp’s big on the parallels between playing and performing. “The very first time I did Have I Got News For You, the feelings of fear I got I associated very much with when I play cricket – I don’t play very often now, but you get the call when someone says: “We’re a man short, can you play for us on Saturday?” and you go: “Oh great”, and when someone asks you: “Would you like to go on Have I Got News For You?” the feelings are the same. But when the theme music starts going, it’s the same as when the ball starts coming towards you after you haven’t played for 18 months, and you go: “This is terrifying, absolutely terrifying!” and you suddenly think: “Oh no, what have I let myself in for?”

On a similar theme, Zaltzman reflects on the hit and miss nature of performing live: “I always think that a club set in stand-up can be equated to the first session of a Test match. Ideally you want to be 90-1, 110-2 maybe; if it’s gone really well maybe 130-1, but I’ve had some gigs where I’ve been 40-8 with a couple of batsmen in hospital.

“I did a couple of gigs in Dhaka in Bangladesh – I think I was the first British comedian to play Bangladesh – and I did quite a lot of cricket jokes in that, which made me think in certain parts of the world there may be a stand-up audience. But you have to be careful. In all honesty an hour of cricket stats is probably not what most stag parties want to hear at Jongleurs on a Friday night.”

We can’t think why. Cricket’s the funniest damn thing in the world. The sooner the world accepts this, the sooner we can all get on with our lives.

Words: Ed Kemp and Phil Walker

Click here for part two of AOC’s Designs For Life: How To Be A Commentator

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