Robert Selby reviews Zaffar Kunial

Six published by Faber & Faber (2019)

“The English are not very spiritual people,” George Bernard Shaw supposedly once said, “so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity”. Eternal or interminable depending on your viewpoint, the cricket with which Shaw was familiar was not, of course, the high-octane sport of “The Big Bash” or the “super over”, but a pastime that was – at international level at least – quite often literally timeless, played until one side emerged, limping and having been truly tested, victorious. The pre-industrial pace survives in our time, just, in the form of Test and County Championship cricket, which lasts for five and four days respectively, often hinging on one moment – a rash shot, a mad runout, a miraculous diving slip catch – that rewards the patience of player and spectator and stamps itself into sunlit memory and, more prosaically, the incorruptible scorebook: D.G. Bradman, b Hollies, 0.

Cricket thus lends itself to Zaffar Kunial’s poetry just as the poet in his youth lent himself to cricket, watching Test matches at his local ground of Edgbaston (“a green bucket of mixed memories”) with his Kashmiri father, and trialling with Warwickshire CCC. Kunial has thoughtfully interpolated life and cricket before, in the poems ‘Fielder’ and ‘Six’ which appeared in his debut collection Us (Faber, 2018), and these have gone forward as addendums to Six (Faber, 2019), an over’s worth of new cricket-themed – but winningly theme-transcendent – poems written while poet in residence at another Test venue, the Oval.

The First Test between England and Pakistan at Edgbaston in 1982 is, in the poem ‘Nuclear Test’, “History in the making – / the way history turns in the air like a coin”, not only because it was the totemic all-rounder Imran Khan’s first match as Pakistan captain (an on-off reign that would see his country, finally, become a Test force) but because it was the nucleus of Kunial’s passion for cricket, watching Imran turn at the City End and run in to England’s openers “in godlike / moves I would go on to copy”:

                               …As history heads back, face up, I ask
                               Who is he, Dad? His man turns. Runs in. Gaining

                               pace, history is bound. Then is in the air again.

The split-second here, captured like a photograph, is of Imran at the end of his lithe bounding run, mid-leap, about to loose an 85 mph in-dipper into Derek Randall’s off stump. “I knew it was the beginning of something”: Kunial, hooked, goes on to mimic Imran’s famous action – a photo of him doing so “barefoot in Kashmir, holding a stone wrapped / in cloth” appears at the back of Six – and has trials with his county. But, in another of life’s crux-points – “Life forks and stops / where another follows on” – butterflies and bad weather end his chances: “We all have lives that go on / without us [….] I have history on grounds // I’ve not played on.”

The heartbeat-long moment is there again in ‘The Opener’ when, promoted to bat at number three, “Gower’s number”, his inner cricket fan’s weakness for aesthetics trumps the true batsman’s desire for runs: he’s satisfied to waft with Gower-like “lazy grace”, succumbing to “the thinnest of edges / […] “a butterfly whisper”. The umpire’s verdict is “slowed down, mid-stop”, the guillotine’s descent paused, and we are in the hinterland where either future is yet possible: a stay of execution, or back to the pavilion? In Kunial’s earlier cricket poems, a well-timed shot sends the ball arcing through time, into reflections on his childhood (‘Six’), and time, and play, are stopped while he searches, in the boundary rhododendrons, for the ball (‘Fielder’):

                               The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me,
                               some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave
                               that brings the ball    like time itself    to hand.

All the while, he writes, “in the middle, the keeper’s gloves / clap at the evening”. This recalls ‘Sunstruck’ by Ted Hughes, in which the ball, hit for six, is “clapped into hands”, “jerked back to the stumper on its elastic” and “everything collapses that bit deeper / Towards Monday”. And indeed Kunial’s ‘Fielder’ and Hughes’s ‘Sunstruck’ perpetuate the paradox at the heart of cricket’s traditional portrayal: the game as symbol of continuity, but also of something irrevocable, a nagging foreshadowing of evening closing in even as the sun-kissed feats are at their zenith. In short, just as it draws the best out of Kunial’s tendency – in his poetry – for melancholy, cricket dovetails with a characteristically British love of elegy. “The field is full of shades,” lamented poor Francis Thompson before his death from TB:

                               … as I near a shadowy coast,
                               And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
                               And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host 
                               As the run stealers flicker to and fro, 
                               To and fro:
                               O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

Cricket as a sport is not alone in engendering these feelings of melancholy, but, as John Lucas has written, with its wariness of ever-approaching autumn, its many pauses inviting spectators to compare the scene before them with ones past, “nostalgia is the besetting sin of many who write about cricket”. Indeed, Kunial uses for an epigraph two lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60 – “Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end” – and refers to the sonnet in a sequence of twelve technically skilful haikus called ‘Oval Hours’. This sequence can, through word-play, grope clumsily for connections (“Shakespeare caught The Globe; / his father was a seamer”) but at a late hour comes its finest section:

                               See the nightwatchman 
                               spin his bat – sun on the blade –
                               summer, then autumn. 

And in ‘Over’, the last of the new poems in Six, the shore pebbles in Shakespeare’s poem become the sixth stone counter the umpire places inside his pocket, marking the end of the over. The finality of the word ‘over’, called out by the umpire after the completion of each, portends some greater finality: of innings, match, summer, even the prospect of another summer.

Yet the spectacle goes on. “Old men coming up to bowl remember / Other old men who in their turn remembered…” observed John Fuller in his survey of England, ‘The Shires’, echoing the “someone running up to bowl” Larkin glimpsed from his Whitsun train, that simple, passing mention painting the scene synonymous with England: the fielders in creams on the green, the whitewashed pavilion, the church spire beyond the fringing trees. A vision, as Brian Jones put it, “totally absorbed with itself” where time is “utterly elsewhere”.

The poems in Six can sometimes mistake listlessness for profundity: “a whitened // pebble that might just / as well be a wisp or the lonely / thought that I haven’t connected / to anything”. But if on the field of play his misfiring bat may feel “as heavy as England”, on the page Kunial’s pen is mostly sweet spot, middling Six over the long-on boundary, into the rhododendrons by the railway line.

Robert Selby is the editor of Wild Court and the co-editor of The Selected Prose of Mick Imlah (Peter Lang, 2015). His debut collection The Coming-Down Time, is out with Shoestring Press:

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