Cricket was a major part of poet Zaffar Kunial’s childhood when growing up near the Edgbaston cricket ground in Birmingham. New pamphlet Six, published by Faber, gathers six of his new poems on the subject, along with a series of previously published ‘Extras’. John Andrews reviews.
We all have dreams growing up. To be someone. Not long after a review copy of Zaffar Kunial’s latest volume of poetry Six – Cricket Poems arrived in the post from Jeff, I bought a box of old Hampshire County Cricket Club Guides in a job lot at auction. Buried amongst the near one hundred volumes was a complete run from the 1930’s. Flicking through them I came across a page in one I could not quite take in. It was an account of a cricket match that had taken place on Newington Green two centuries ago in the year 1811. Newington Green, Stoke Newington, tiny in cricketing terms, a place where today you would struggle to mark out a bowling green, let alone a cricket square and an outfield. In 1811 it would have no doubt been larger, not bordered by the Victorian terraces, shops and the Unitarian Chapel that overlook it now, but even so. It was not Clapham Common where the match was originally meant to have been played but for some ‘unfortunate circumstances’. More remarkable than the location of the match, or its date, were the identities of the teams themselves. The match was played between the Women of Hampshire and the Women of Surrey. Sarah Luff opened for Hampshire and Ann Baker opened for Surrey. Hampshire won the match by 14 runs.
I had been looking for a way into Zaf’s new volume for days, but an opening had not revealed itself. Some of its themes were so heavy it was as if Zaf had tossed me a ball mid-session for a quick polish and had instead thrown me a bomb. The eternal question of identity. How far up or down the order are you? Are you an opener or a tail-ender? What is your average? When did you arrive at the crease? The truth is not many of our families would have contained women of Hampshire or women of Surrey in 1811. A lot of our families had yet to arrive at these shores. But nonetheless via the account of the Women of Hampshire v the Women of Surrey in 1811 I had found a starting point. Something physical, call it a beginning. A place I knew. Wasting no time I headed across to my former patch of Stoke Newington. We all have dreams that take us from one place to another and back again. Migration. There at my old bus stop on Church Street outside Ryan’s Bar I climbed on board the No. 73 to Victoria and let it take me south. Down Albion Road we bombed, past doors holding memories, past street corners so familiar and as the bus slowed to go round Newington Green, time stopped and I opened up the first page. I thought of Sarah Luff as the 73 slowed momentarily and overlooking the Green through the trees I read Zaf’s first lines out in my head,
was out early and I came in
for my first innings
at number three, Gower’s
Hannah Parker’s number too in that year 1811, and I
wondered if she felt the same pain on being out,
head turning, west to east
ears half hearing the word Out
slowed down, mid-stop, like a deer’s voice sounds, mouth open, caught –
a gaping field, some foreign
corner of my eye clocking
the far finger raised to the sky.
By the time I got to Angel I was firmly in England, the ‘England’ of Zaf’s own making, arguably the best poem in the volume, certainly the most affecting, a poem so finely constructed it is fit for T.S. Eliot, as if ‘Little Gidding’ had been slipped into every copy of Wisden the year that Zaf was born. On the day he was really chosen. Oh, but all that goes in between. Everyone remembers the moment when time stopped on their own particular sports field. In their own cursed corner of England. Cursed forever from that moment when an escape from it was within touching distance. When the door to a magical Eden was open a crack. When you knew in your heart you were good enough and were waiting for someone else to deliver their verdict.
We all have lives that go on without us.
I’ve a cricket-me who didn’t stop – like that
was that, when my bat had felt as heavy as England
and I took no wickets while the coach stood in my net
in the second and final trial for Warwickshire.
Yes, we do all ‘have lives that go on without us’ but they are never the same again after that. After that golden dream is stolen.
I read ‘Nuclear Test’ going down the Pentonville
Road and smiled at the account of Zaffar’s first
match as spectator,
My first match. History in the making –
the way history turns in the air like a coin –
creating a rupture. The first day Imran
captains his country. Dad and I in our seats –
Whilst we are dreaming the world is turning, in perpetual motion. And yet despite this we are transfixed by any game, be it on a street, in the park, on the beach, at county ground, in a Test arena or on a dusty town square in a former hill station. Migration. Flight, the arc of the ball. The turning of a page. Carrying with you the consolation that someone cared enough once to introduce you in the first place. To put a ball in one hand and a book in the other. To pass on the light. By Kings Cross I was in love and took Zaffar, his father, Imran Khan, Sarah Luff, T.S Eliot and even that bastard of a selector for Warwickshire down the escalator to the Northern Line. No one stopped to look, no one stopped to stare, and at the bottom as we waited on the southbound platform we met Brian Johnston in his brogues just as Zaffar did,
One blue-skied morning of a Test…at Edgbaston.
Onto the train we went, found our seats and lost
ourselves in our own thoughts. All going south like
so many before. South to another cursed field,
He wants to play for England one day, pronounced Dad.
I didn’t nod. Still too shy to speak.
At Oval we abandoned the selector to his eternal fate, a one-way ticket to a semi in Morden, where all selectors live behind stained net curtains, alone by a failing one barred fire with no cake from Maureen in Crewe in their cupboard, and took the escalator up into the daylight. Up and onto Harleyford Street, at once amongst friends, amongst old acquaintances. The throng. Nothing quite matches that walk to the ground. That feeling in your stomach. The company you keep over the years, the steps you take backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards,
I should pursue this future – that was almost
behind me, at the woods’ edge, a realm between
weathers, where losses and times fold,
I paused when I finally reached Hobbs Gate, and stood and read the last entry from the 2019 poet- in-residence of this place, Zaffar Kunial, King for a Summer of The Oval, the country’s best pace bowler of the human heart, as he described where he was made, suburban Moseley boy,
it still feels magical to me, even from this distance
and thanks to him and his small pamphlet of grace for once my dreams were in the blue sky, up over the boundary ropes never to come down like one of his perfect stanzas.
SIX: Cricket Poems was published by Faber and Faber to coincide with Zaffar Kunial’s residency at The Oval. It costs £6 and is available here.
Zaf reads at our Social Club at The Golden Lion in Todmorden this Wednesday, for which there is an extremely limited number of remaining general admission (£6) and suspended (free) tickets. More information and tickets available here.