Mark Mason is the author of What Men Think About Sex, The Catch and The C Words. His non-fiction includes The Bluffer's Guide To Football - Mark supports Coventry City - and The Bluffer's Guide To Relationships. He writes here about Marcus Berkmann's Rain Men.
Mark Mason on Rain Men by Marcus Berkmann
The true greatness of Rain Men is that it avoids the common failing of special-interest books: rose-tinted corniness.
Golf books are the perfect example. Aimed at the Pringle-clad middle manager on Christmas morning, they promise a (dread word) 'wry', (dreader) 'affectionate' and (dreadest) 'sideways' look at 'the game we love even though it drives us mad'. Knowing references to the 'nineteenth hole' count as humour. But Rain Men shuns parody to paint cricket in its true colours. The myths of village cricket, for instance, are mercilessly dispatched by Berkmann. Villages are far from idyllic ('the jolly landlord waters down his Skol'), and the play is far from sporting ('tactical use of partially-sighted umpires, stomach-deadening teas'). Rivalries between teams are only matched by those within them ('Y has nearly forgotten that Z reported him anonymously to the Inland Revenue'). John Major's spinster cycling to evensong would crash in horror.
The book has two main themes: playing village cricket, and supporting the national team. The latter is no less brutal in its honesty (and therefore successful in its comedy) than the former. Berkmann relates the torments of watching England batting collapse after England batting collapse. This has all changed, of course, during the summer of 2005. But that makes the book more, not less, entertaining. For most of the ten years since publication, it was a painfully accurate picture of the present. Now it's a cautionary reminder of the past, whose dawns were continually false - 'Pringle... graduating from promising young shaver to wily old pro without the usual phase of being good somewhere in the middle'.
More than any other game, cricket prides itself on its philosophical, 'metaphor for life' qualities. Here too, Rain Men is yards ahead of the competition. Clichéd comparisons between the umpire with his extended finger and the Grim Reaper have no place. 'Cricket is a game of confidence,' says Berkmann, 'and I suspect the only surefire way to maintain that confidence is never to play it.' One of his team-mates 'delights in the role of official worst player - either you delight in it or you connect the hosepipe to the exhaust.'
The book is laugh-out-loud funny. My girlfriend can confirm this, having had two days' sunbathing interrupted by repeated cries of 'listen to this bit'. Like any good comedy, it has a cast of characters you quickly get to know and love. Tim, for instance, the 'perennially angry' fast bowler. 'Last season, when one opposing team was fifteen minutes late, he suggested, without irony, that we go round to their houses and "do them over".' Eccentricity is a defining quality for many of those characters, but Berkmann communicates this by showing, not telling. Books are like people: if they tell you they're eccentric, they aren't. They're just tedious.
On only one point do I seriously disagree with Berkmann: Test Match Special. One of cricket's noblest traditions is watching the television coverage with the sound turned down in favour of TMS's radio commentary. Berkmann labels this 'stupidity', on the grounds that you can see what's happening, so don't need it described by Blowers, Aggers and CMJ. But this is television's curse as well as its blessing. Because TV commentators don't need to describe the action, they tend not to be as eloquent or amusing as their radio counterparts. Their speech isn't match-fit. (There are a few exceptions, like Richie Benaud and Mark Nicholas, but one's retired and the other's now redundant.) The TMS team, on the other hand, not only know their cricket, they have personalities too. Perhaps the greatest tragedy about cricket going to Sky is that satellite coverage is a second or two late: by the time you see the stumps shatter, Aggers has told you they've shattered. It's very annoying.
All of which makes no sense if you don't understand cricket. The same cannot be said of Rain Men. OK, it can be said of about 70 per cent of it. But the other thirty per cent will more than make up for that. You don't have to be a cricket fan to recognize the 'round-avoidance' tactics analysed by Berkmann. (He differentiates at least five types of 'skinflint'.) Familiarity with the LBW rule doesn't preclude you laughing at cricketers' relationship problems (often caused by over-familiarity with the LBW rule). Anyone who's tried losing weight will identify with the accounts of trying to get fit ('most of the time I regard my body with a combination of shame and resigned amusement, but in April I almost feel sorry for it'.)
In fact, I'd wager that non-fans will be so amused by these passages they'll learn about the game in order to enjoy the rest of the book. But then again, I didn't think England could win back the Ashes this summer.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]