Given how much good writing there is about cricket, it is surprising, perhaps, that there is so little entirely satisfactory fiction about the game. What there is tends to be broadly farcical (humorous tales of incompetent amateurs) or accounts of the lives of cricketers (amateur or professional) in which the cricket itself is incidental (these tend to be gloomy). Older books tend to be twee, or laced with sententious moralising, the more modern aspire towards the way that Americans write about baseball.
Stuart Larner's 'Spin and Guile' combines many of the best elements of existing cricket fiction, while avoiding the worst pitfalls. The outline of the story - the revival of a defunct small town club and the revitalisation of a struggling community - is not unfamiliar (it reminded me a little - in spirit - of that other self-publisher J.L. Carr's 'How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the F.A. Cup'), but is made original through what feels like close observation of time and place - small town Yorkshire in the current recession, a world of condemned leisure centres, the ominous threat of spending cuts, half-abandoned youth, predatory entrepreneurs and the Byzantine struggles to secure funding. The author has some sharp fun with the absurdities of management-speak and the weary pettinesses of office life.
Anyone who knows club cricket will meet some familiar characters and scenarios - the gnarled old pro, the bumptious committee men, the territorial tea ladies, the ancient quarrels and long-nursed grievances, the perpetual wrangling over the interpretation of league regulations. The author knows his cricket well enough to make the matches themselves exciting, but credible. There are, too, some vividly-written descriptive passages (Larner also writes poetry), such as the hero's first sight of the abandoned ground and some sympathetic portrayals of non-cricketing characters, such as his faithful, underestimated deputy Ann.
Not the smallest achievement of the book is in balancing the elements of farcical comedy (Tom Sharpe without the misanthropy), satire, realistic observation, and downbeat romance with the essential point (I think) that the elusive Spirit of Cricket can be found doing its good works in some apparently unlikely places.
Somewhere close to the heart of the book, too, is the equivocal figure of Fardeep Singh - a real mystery spinner - a Bedi-esque Indian bowler-cum-guru, who operates at the point where mysticism meets sports psychology, where the Zone meets Satori. As he says
"Many people, they think cricket is boring because nothing ever seems to happen. But it does. Cricket is like a still pool - with the life bubbling under the surface."
'Spin and Guile' is never boring - the plot is too twisty and fast-moving for that, but there is a sense that its real purpose, too, is bubbling under the surface and only occasionally reveals itself openly. Perhaps, to understand that fully, I'd need to read the book again. Which would be no hardship.
I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in cricket. To anyone, too, who - like the hero - needs an initiation into the mysteries of the most fascinating of games.