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The philosophy of the cricket ball

Cricket Ball: The Heart of the Game
by Gary Cox
(Bloomsbury 2018, Hardback £20)

 

ACCORDING to Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre is reputed to have been impressed by Raymond Aron’s remark that one could look at an apricot cocktail and make philosophy out of it.

Gary Cox — himself the author of a number of books on Sartre and existentialism — doesn’t try to make a phenomenological treatise like Being and Nothingness out of a cricket ball, but he does use it very effectively as a prop for opening up “many new ways of thinking about the infinite cricket universe.” 

The result is a light-hearted, entertaining and informative book that is likely to give even those already very familiar with “the most beautiful and refined of games” something new to think about. 

For example, I’m sure the vast majority of cricket players and fans have never given much thought to the actual physical composition of the ball.

Cox — armed with a hacksaw — takes us inside the ball to reveal its many hidden mysteries, then works his way back out to consider questions about the relative merits of white versus pink versions, and introduces exotic-sounding variants such as the Upfront Opttiuuq Whispering Death Cricket Ball.

There are also incursions into the history of the game — its emergence out of Cat in the Hole, the Anglo-Saxon origins of the word “wicket” and the relevance of the Dutch word “krickstoel” and much more are all explained.

Given that entire empires have come and gone in the meantime, I was (pleasantly) surprised to read that there has been little change in the cricket ball since 1775 and even more surprised to read that overarm bowling was only legalised in 1864.  

Moving onto the use of the ball in the game, Cox covers many of the most famous (and infamous) moments in cricket history — various ball-tampering controversies, the 1981 Chappell brothers “underarm” delivery scandal and deaths caused by misadventures with cricket balls. 

Mysteries such as reverse swing are given a fair treatment and there are cameo portraits of the likes of WG Grace and Fred Spofforth, the Australian fast bowler who at Lords in 1878 bowled out England for 33 runs in their first innings and 19 in their second.

Among the best sections of the book for me were Cox’s careful and detailed dissections of some of the great deliveries in the history of the game, with pride of place rightly given to Shane Warne’s memorable first ball in Test Cricket in England — the so-called “Gatting Ball” that opened up the then England captain like a can of beans and had him walking back to the pavilion utterly mystified as to how the ball had struck the top of his off stump. 

Throughout, there are guest appearances by philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Wittgenstein, but never at the expense of accessibility or clarity. 

Cox’s infectious enthusiasm for the game shines throughout and one has the feeling that Cricket Ball might lead to cricketers taking up philosophy or, perhaps more worryingly, philosophers taking up cricket.

Either way, this is a unique and memorable addition to the literature of the game. 

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