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‘The Authors XI’: Howzat! A literary look at cricket

Writers are not famed for their athleticism. Yet according to novelist Sebastian Faulks, there is one sport that’s made for them: Cricket.
“Amateur cricketers tend to be vain, anecdotal, passionate, knowledgeable, neurotic and given to fantasy,” he says in the foreword to “The Authors XI,” a whimsical new collection of essays by cricketing authors. “So do writers.”
In the book, memoirist William Fiennes muses on cricket and memory; Anthony McGowan, who writes young adult fiction, riffs on cricket and class; and novelist Kamila Shamsie, who grew up watching cricket in Pakistan, considers the women’s game.
All are members of the Authors Cricket Club, a historic British team whose roster once featured P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle, and which was revived in 2012.
On a Sunday summer afternoon, the Authors gather in rumpled whites at Wormsley, the Buckinghamshire pitch created by Sir Paul Getty. (Getty was switched on to cricket by Mick Jagger.)
Framed by gently rolling hills and wrapped in the tranquility of the late Anglophile’s Buckinghamshire estate, it’s a setting that could have been ripped straight from a novel by E.M. Forster, if only Forster had cared more for sports.
“I suspect that this Authors team is considerably better than the initial one,” Faulks tells me. “P.G. Wodehouse was very keen on cricket but was very shortsighted. Arthur Conan Doyle was Scottish and played rugby.”
Tall and wild-haired with a surprisingly weather-beaten face, Faulks claims to spend most of his life either watching or playing cricket. He even worked a game into the Wodehouse tribute novel he’s just completed — not his only attempt at combining passions.
“The first novel I ever wrote was entirely about a cricket match,” he says. “It had 22 main characters and then most of them had wives or girlfriends so it was a very unwieldy cast. Mercifully it wasn’t published.”
The Authors’ opponents today are the Lords & Commons, a side of politicians and peers that includes Faulks’s own older brother, Edward Faulks, a senior lawyer and member of the House of Lords.
The Authors are no spring chickens. One of their youngest players is 34-year-old Alex Preston, who published his first novel while working in asset management. Just before the start of play, I ask him if literary types deserve their sedentary reputation. He laughs.
“Look at us,” he says. “We dropped 12 catches yesterday. We are profoundly unathletic, but there are occasional flashes of utter brilliance.”
One such flash occurs early on: Opening the batting, Lord Faulks is bowled almost immediately by historian Tom Holland, who’s fond of quoting the poet Robert Browning in between overs.
The Authors are captained by writer and literary agent Charlie Campbell, who had the idea of resurrecting the team after a banker at Duncan Lawrie suggested he gather some writers to play the company side.
Campbell joined forces with novelist Nicholas Hogg to enlist the likes of Ed Smith, who’s written most recently on luck and just happens to be a former professional cricketer for England, and Andy Zaltzman, an ESPN cricket blogger and author of a book that asks “Does Anything Eat Bankers?“
Newspaper columnist and former “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens played before moving to the US
The team’s debut season yielded six wins, two draws and seven defeats. They followed it with an India tour during which they lost all five games. Season two has been mixed so far. The Authors have beaten their first national side (okay, it was Japan), and lost to some actors and Eton schoolboys.
Back at Wormsley, the opposition’s secret weapon turns out to be Jo Johnson, a Conservative legislator and younger brother of London Mayor Boris Johnson. He hits the first six of the match and keeps them coming.
By teatime, the Authors are left chasing 202 runs.
Cricket and writing are both slow pursuits, notes sports author Jon Hotten as he waits to go into bat.
“Like writing,” he says, “you spend more time thinking about cricket than doing it. It inhabits your dreams in the same way.”
The match’s second half is pacier though. Fiennes, who snapped his collarbone in the outfield last year, falls foul of a hotly contested leg-for-wicket call (“Howzat!“).
There’s a dicey moment when Faulks slips mid-run. He’s later bowled out by John Redwood, the cabinet minister-turned- Rothschild banker, having notched 42 runs.
“Not enough,” the “Birdsong” author declares, making for the bar.
As the shadows lengthen, the mood grows tense. Preston runs Campbell out and is caught on the next ball. By the time Hotten’s turn comes, the Authors need 32 runs off just two overs. In the end, they lose by a noble 22 runs.
The stereotype of writers as butter-fingered couch potatoes is going to take some scotching. Meanwhile, there can be no team better equipped to appreciate the elegiac wistfulness of defeat.

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