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Mid-life midsummer madness

13 August 2005

12:00 AM

13 August 2005

12:00 AM

Zimmer Men Marcus Berkmann

Little, Brown, pp.212, 16.99

Many things lead to addiction and obsessiveness, even madness, but one of the most surprising, and lasting, is cricket. You don’t even have to be any good (I know); it can still take over too much of your life.

Marcus Berkmann, a writer (how he finds time to write anything during the summer is a puzzle) is no great shakes at the game. His account of his annual batting-average varies, but he never claims even to approach double-figures. At university he and other cricket failures founded a necessarily doomed team called, with student gallows-humour, the Captain Scott Invitation XI. Berkmann wrote a book about this team’s misadventures called Rain Men. (‘A very funny book about some very sad men,’ Ian Hislop.)

It seems that in the end they all grew to loathe each other so much — obsession plus competitiveness is near-lethal — that a breakaway team was formed later, called, with slightly more sophisticated gloom, the Rain Men. Of this team Berkmann was captain, therefore playing every match, and fixtures secretary, therefore on the telephone all winter and summer. Obsessive? No, crackers.

Time passes, prowess declines, if indeed there ever was any prowess; hair recedes and girths expand, so now we have the title of this rueful book, because the addiction is undiminished by time or by obvious absurdity. Invited to take part in some far-flung game, a fellow mad philosopher e-mails: ‘It would be so staggeringly pointless (especially if I get a duck) that it has to be worth doing.’

Cricket seriously damages the brain. While fielding, and being soundly beaten, to avoid talking about the game Berkmann asks a fellow-fielder if any dismissal could be briefer than ‘b. Cork.’ After lengthy debate they decide on ‘b. Lee.’ Then they move on to what might contain the most letters, ‘b. Venkataraghavan’ and so on. It passes the time. Such matters can also ruin the game: a Rain Men bowler, amazingly, has two batsmen stumped in successsion. The hat-trick ball is useless because Berkmann can see the bowler wondering if there has ever been a hat-trick of stumpings. By nightfall they know the answer: ‘W. H. Brain, off the bowling of C. H. Townsend, Cheltenham, 1893.’

A much-loved cricketing friend, Cie Malde, dies, aged 50, in the act of scoring a boundary. Introduced to cricket 20 years before by Mick Jagger’s brother, he opened a nightclub to free his day so that he could play four or five times a week. At the wake after the funeral a friend laments, ‘He was only 25 runs off a century,’ and everyone falls thoughtfully silent. Then someone says, ‘21 runs away. He must have known it was a four as soon as it left the bat.’ Berkmann adds, awestruck, envious, ‘Fancy thinking that as your last thought on earth.’

Fellow-addicts will recognise themselves. Non-addicts will also laugh, because the book is both truthful and crazed.

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