Cricket has an entire writing genre of its own and a long-standing place in literature, from Dickens to Pinter, but music about cricket can be counted on the fat fingers of one batting-gloved hand. There’s one genuine masterpiece, ‘When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’ by Roy Harper, a song fit to be played at any man’s funeral. And then there are various co-opted TV and radio signature tunes… and ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ by 10cc.
Neil Hannen, and Thomas Walsh of Pugwash, have set out to right centuries of wrong and fill a gaping black hole in our national songbook. A tough job, you might think, but these are formidable songsmiths. Cricket fits beautifully with Hannen’s love of the everyday, as showcased in Divine Comedy songs such as ‘National Express’. His new partnership with Thomas Walsh has revitalised his work, and the result is an album that has to be the best thing he’s done.
‘The Duckworth Lewis Method’ (it’s a mathematical formula for recalculating the targets when a one-day match has been curtailed by rain …) is structured like a proper 60s album, with an intro and a coda, an halftime instrumental, and a mixture of elegiac ballads alongside upbeat, even comic songs. Hannen and Walsh plug straight into the pastoral pop of Small Faces, XTC and Blur. They clearly understand that only the right English sound can make sense of the English game, and the results are glorious. Firstly, they’ve written a successful comedy song, ‘Jiggery Pokery’, a near-impossible task. What’s more, it’s about Shane Warne’s “ball of the century” to Mike Gatting in 2003. This alone will hook in the cricket fans who will greatly appreciate in-joke lines such as “If it had been a cheese roll, it would never have got past me.” (Gatting is a large, lunch-loving fellow.) It’s also a lot of fun for those who haven’t the faintest idea what the lyrics are getting at.
This is the most crickety track on the album and the most rumbustious. At the other end of the scale is the glorious ‘Mason on the Boundary’, a song that inhabits an eternal sunny afternoon in July, infused with the delicious melancholy of Blur’s ‘The Universal’. Here Duckworth and Lewis have really outdone themselves, with a lyric about the mysterious Mason, always hovering at the boundary rope watching the game until suddenly he’s “gone to Zanzibar, underneath his panama.” Mason is both a Le Carré character, the loner in the background who’s really in charge, and a universal spectator. Neil Hannen understands the real significance of cricket, that it’s not so much a game but life itself ritualised and played out within the confines of boundary rope for the watching crowd. The self-contained outsider, turmoil simmering just below the surface, is the perfect mirror for the game. This is a delightful song, perfectly pitched, with a lovely hook that makes you want to put it on repeat and lie back.
Two other tracks capture the same reflexive mood. ‘Gentlemen and Players‘ conjures up the 19th century origins of the game, channelling the spirit of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ in the process. ‘The Nightwatchman’, with a very Divine Comedy combination of strings and keyboards, is about a batsman who can’t sleep, waiting for the morning to take the field. ‘Flatten the Hay’ is drenched in what sounds like psychedelic harpsichord, and is a joyous ode to playing in the grass. It sounds gorgeous, bringing to mind the Troggs and Jim Parker’s music for the Betjeman albums, ‘Banana Blush’ and ‘Late Flowering Love’.
More upbeat tracks include ‘The Age of Revolution’, a skilful song about the commercialisation of the game. It combines jazz age trumpets with squelchy synth beats, but also manages lyrics that sum up the shifting power base of the game rather well, no mean achievement. ‘Meeting Mr Miandad’ is a cheerful, 60s power pop chant about a backpacking trek across Asia to Pakistan in a camper van, apparently with the sole aim of meeting 80s Pakistani legend Javed Miandad. The reason remains obscure, although Hannen sings “It’s our historical, phantasmagorical destiny.” Indeed. The only track on the whole album that misses the mark is ‘The Sweet Spot’, which ventures into dubious cod-funk and isn’t properly about cricket, which is the real problem.
‘Test Match Special’ is the album finale, a souped up rock anthem, how why listening to TMS is so great. It’s the ideal way to end, with a track that sums up this deranged, inspired concept. ‘The Duckworth Lewis Method’ should be set as a cynicism test. If you don’t love this, you need to take a long hard look at yourself.