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Writing for Love (of Cricket)

Posted on 18th August 2016 by Sally Campbell
When writer and journalist Jon Hotten began his blog The Old Batsman:The Consolations of a Cricketing Life in 2008 he had no idea of the popularity it would achieve; or that it would springboard him into the job of his dreams. With a new book, The Meaning of Cricket fresh off the press, Hotten discusses how writing for love - and not just money and a deadline - led him into his ideal career as a cricket writer

Image: The Dreaming Cricketer (c) Sir Frank Lockwood/The British Library 

It was November 2008. India were playing Australia somewhere or other. I was watching on TV. From memory, one of the commentators began to talk about Michael Holding’s famous over to Geoffrey Boycott in Barbados in 1981, one of the fastest ever delivered, the sixth ball of which had knocked back Geoffrey’s off stump in spectacular style. As usual when this over was discussed, there was some schadenfreude-type joy taken in the great Geoffrey’s misfortune.

“Yeah,” I said to the screen, “But no-one ever remembers that Boycott was almost 41 years old when he faced that over… or that he got a hundred in the next Test against the same bowlers…”

It had happened. I’d become one of those people that muttered at their TVs in empty rooms. I was a writer, but I didn’t write about cricket. Instead I’d done other stuff: about boxers, bodybuilders, heavy metal musicians – two books’-worth, plus hundreds of magazine and newspaper stories. I knew less about those subjects that I knew about cricket, but I’d always avoided writing about it, I think because cricket had, amongst other things, been a refuge and an escape.

Very few people that write for a living get to write exactly what they want. Everything comes with a deadline, a word count, a brief, an angle, an outline, an interviewee, a sub-editor, a re-write… Even writing books, where you fondly imagine a free reign to indulge your (equally fondly imagined) muse and artistry, is subject to the restrictions of length and structure and editing, plus the requirements of the sales and marketing departments and so on.

I went out for a run one day, and as I was passing this rather grand old house that I’d often fantasised about buying once I’d made it (as if…) the words ‘The Old Batsman’ came into my mind. At first I thought it sounded like the kind of pub you’d find beside a village cricket ground, the sort that would have pictures of long-gone cricketers on its walls and in the winter, log fires on dark nights. But then I thought it would be a good name for a cricket blog. I wondered, naively, if there were many out there. I googled and there were hundreds, a great clamour of voices, some mad, some melancholic, some clever and knowing, others innocently shouting into the void, … The best was by someone named J-Rod. It was called Cricket With Balls and its logo was a cricket (the insect) with a big pair of cricket balls dangling from it. J-Rod’s writing was irreverent and funny but also deeply knowledgeable, and it came at a hell of rate, sometimes two or three posts a day, done in staccato sentences piled one on the other. J-Rod wrote what he wanted when he wanted, and sometimes the stories he came up with were way ahead of the conventional media and far more in tune with what was happening. He seemed to have inspired lots of imitators, too, which was always a sign of being onto something.

The one thing that writing had taught me was that voice is the most important thing. You needed your own, not someone else’s. I knew I couldn’t write like J-Rod, but after reading Cricket With Balls I started up The Old Batsman, and I loved it right away. It was addictive, being able to write whatever I wanted: whatever length, whatever subject, with no deadline or editor. For the first month or so I posted every day. I didn’t care who read it, or if anyone read it. I also liked the anonymity – not because I had any illusions that I was known as a writer (the opposite was made patently and repeatedly obvious), but because if anyone read the blog, it was because they liked cricket and what was on it. When, after quite a few posts, I finally got my first comment, it gave me as big a buzz as almost anything else I’d had published. I still remember the post – it was about Michael Vaughan and how frequently he got bowled, and the comment came from J-Rod.

Every writer has heard (repeatedly) the old Dr Johnson rubric ‘No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’. It’s good advice, too, and yet blogging for free has genuinely changed my life. Perhaps inevitably, I found I loved writing about cricket. Through the Old Batsman, I was invited to join the team I now play for, Authors CC, and after thirty years of the club game, had some of my greatest experiences on a cricket field. The blog has been mentioned in the Wisden Almanack, which is a kind of cricketing immortality. And I met J-Rod, who turned out to be an Australian guy called Jarrod Kimber (for whom blogging also ultimately provided a way into a career as a cricket writer), and through him and Sam Collins, got to help them co-write their documentary film Death of a Gentleman. Some people I greatly admire told me they read The Old Batsman and liked it. It gave me far more than I gave it.

After several years of blogging, it gave me something else too. I began to see themes emerge, players and subjects that I returned to again and again. When I had the chance to write The Meaning of Cricket, I had those themes already waiting: the physiological miracle of being able to hit a ball travelling at 90 mph; youthful promise; the game’s weird and wonderful history (one of the Old Batsman’s most read posts was about a match in 1848 between a team of men with one arm and a team of men with one leg); failure; amateurs and pros; growing older; cricket’s great psychological hinterland; its legendary players and so on.

Starting a blog was one of the best things I’ve done, and although as a form it’s changing and evolving, anyone can do the same. Jump in – you never know what might happen if you do. 

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