Fifteen years ago I attended a portion of a cricket cup match in Bermuda and have had a curiosity about the game ever since. Now I’ve discovered a book by a cricketer who loves baseball, a game I understand much better. Playing Hard Ball: County Cricket and Big League Baseball (2003) by professional cricketer E.T. Smith is an amusing and insightful comparison of the national pastimes of England and the United States. Smith visits New York in 1998 and is swept up in baseball fever and yearns to learn more about the game. In 2000 he returns to New York to watch the Subway Series rightly supporting the underdog Mets agains the dynastic Yankees.
The next spring he spends a few days with the Mets at Spring Training. Some of the more humorous moments of the book are here as Smith takes a few cuts against live pitching and the American ballplayers inevitably refer to him as a cricketeer. But it also shows that the then Mets manager Bobby Valentine has a sharp mind and actually knows enough about cricket to help Smith with his swing.
In the next section of the book Smith compares the rising fortune of his own Kent County Cricket Club in 2001 while the Mets collapse and fail to make the postseason that same year. The highlight of this book is Smith’s reflections on the Mets playing the first game in New York after the September 11th attacks. The memory of the night made me a little bit weepy as did the part where Smith quotes Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech. According to Smith, everyone cries at that speech, including himself.
Other chapters of the book focus on sporting dynasties, statistics, and sports literature -which Smith believes is vastly superior in the US than in England, at least prior to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Smith is less flattering on a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the ideas of baseball as representing national character. Yet he balances this with equal bunk stated about cricket. In the end he concludes, baseball and cricket are great games but have no inherent morality or character other than what people bring to it. Smith also observes about how much more international cricket is compared to baseball although this was written before the coming of Ichiro and Japan’s back-to-back victories in the World Baseball Classic.
This is a good, fun book for sports fans and those who are interested in cultural exchange. I can’t say that I’ve learned much about cricket though as those passages are written for an English audience leaving me completely befuddled.
It is a surprising comparison. America, which so values individuality and self-expression, has produced sports which are massively reliant on the intervention of coaches and managers, and a culture which demands players to adhere to their demands. But in England, and in English-invented games worldwide, the players have hung on to more of their self-determination.
Authors: Smith, E. T. (Ed T.), 1977-
Title: Playing hard ball / E.T. Smith.
Published: London : Abacus, 2003.
Description: viii, 213 p.,  p. of plates : ill. ; 20 cm.
Notes: Originally published: London : Little, Brown, 2002.
ISBN: 0349116660 (pbk.)