W hen Durham County Cricket Club chiefs decided to recruit a writer in residence for the fourth Ashes Test at the Riverside ground in Chester-le-Street, their selection might, on the face of it, have seemed a tad bizarre —a Jewish American former professional basketball player.
But Benjamin Markovits has plenty going for him. Firstly, knowledge about sport — both from a playing and writing standpoint.
He also has the perspective of an outsider in the ferocious rivalry between England and Australia. And perhaps most interestingly, as an American who grew up playing cricket.
Markovits’s formative years were split between Texas, the UK and Germany. “I spent about a third of my childhood in England and played a lot of backyard cricket. Even when we were in Texas we would knock the stumps in, although that’s difficult in the summer when the ground is so hard.”
He played basketball professionally for a second division German side before settling in London 13 years ago. Since then, he has authored four novels and now teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.
He has followed Test cricket for years, but his writing assignment was a new experience. “Test match cricket takes so long — there’s no way around that. Watching a Test is like having a very pleasant full-time job for a week. You get there early, you have lunch on the job and you stay late. Apart from maybe golf, I can’t think of any spectator sport like it.”
And cricket, he says, is a world removed from American sports which are set up for dramatic finishes. “It’s a sport where for very long periods of time, nothing happens — and when it does happen, it happens so quickly that you probably missed it. That produces its own kind of tension. In a classic basketball game one team is leading by a single point with five seconds to go and you know that something will happen to decide the outcome. Everything leads towards that. In cricket, you rarely know when the outcome-deciding event will happen, so a very different kind of patience is required.
“It’s a bit like one of those video box sets or lengthy novels. Once you’ve put in 600-pages worth of effort, you are going to want to see how it finishes.”
Unlike the journalists in the press box tapping away on their laptops, reporting on how England clinched a series victory, Markovits’s challenge was to find an angle for his essay, which is yet to be written. He is pondering writing about the change of fortunes in British sport over the past decade. And he is also interested in whether the baseball phenomenon of moneyball — ascribing a financial value to a player’s talent — has any parallel in cricket.
Meanwhile, he has been enjoying all aspects of the Test match experience — even the controversial decision review system (DRS). “There was a lot of grumpiness about DRS but my feeling was that it added to the fun and produced more right than wrong decisions. In America we would say that the on-field umpires were batting 500 — meaning that they got half the decisions right and half wrong. So they could probably do with some help.”
He was quite taken with how the match swung back in England’s favour in what proved to be the final session thanks to a brilliant spell of bowling from Stuart Broad. And he is a big fan of Kevin Pietersen’s batting, describing him as “stylish and athletic”.
But although feeling fairly conversant with most aspects of cricket, one element still confuses Markovits — the fielding positions. “I can locate the wicketkeeper and the slips but I have to be honest and say that I can’t always tell the difference between a gully and a silly mid-on,” he adds laughing.