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Samuel Beckett: The only Nobel Prize winning author to play First-Class cricket

Samuel Beckett: The only Nobel Prize winning author to play First-Class cricket

Samuel Beckett, one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. Beckett played two First-Class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926, scoring 35 runs in his four innings and conceding 64 runs without taking a wicket © Getty Images

Samuel Beckett, born April 13, 1906, is the only Nobel Prize winning author to have played First-class cricket. Arunabha Sengupta looks at his short cricketing career with a new theory about Beckett’s seminal work ‘Waiting for Godot’. To him, the play is nothing but a metaphor of cricket.

Universally hailed, variously interpreted and seldom understood, Waiting for Godot is supposed to be one of the most significant plays of the 20th century. A literary landmark, a masterpiece amongst the Theatre of the Absurd, it has been performed countless number of times all around the world.

It is a tragicomedy in two acts, revolving around two central characters Vladimir and Estragon, and their fruitless wait across a couple of days for someone named Godot to turn up. That is more or less all there is to the plot.

Well, masterpieces can get away with enormous holes in the plot — or just holes and no plot at all. But, that is another story.

A cricketing metaphor?

The interpretations provided over the years — since the first composition in French in 1949, Samuel Beckett’s own English translation in 1952 and first production in 1953 — have encompassed myriads of angles. Existentialism, meaning of life, hope, despair, waiting for the saviour, allegory of the cold war, French resistance to Germans, Ireland’s view of mainland Britain, Freudian psyche, Jungian archetypes — in fact it is perhaps far easier to list down categories to which the plot has not been mapped.

It is, however, my firm conviction that one major interpretation has been missed by most reputed scholars, annotators and critics. The world has not yet realised what Beckett had intended the play to stand for.
It is nothing but a crystal-clear metaphor of cricket.

No, I am not trivialising a great work. Linking to the noble game is not my way of scoffing at classics of literature. Besides, I don’t understand the play well enough to underplay its standing. And, I do have my evidences.

Irish literary critic Vivian Mercier remarked that Waiting for Godot ” has achieved a theoretical impossibility — a play in which nothing happens (for days), yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.” Now. tell me, which human activity has the power to do precisely that but cricket?

If we look at the play itself, the action is taken forward by several well-defined pairs. Estragon and Vladimir is one duo, Lucky and Pozzo another. The boy appears and his brother doesn’t, but they form a pair nonetheless. Besides, we hear allusions to the two thieves, to Cain and Abel. So, it boils down to days of action carried out by pairs and ultimately nothing happens. Are we getting somewhere? Symbolism for pairs of batsmen, bowlers, umpires, sightscreens… There are two Acts in the play. Do they stand for two innings?
Let us delve somewhat deeper and scrutinise sections of the dialogue. In the early minutes of Act I, Vladimir, tired of Estragon’s stonewalling responses, ends up exclaiming, “Come on, Gogo, return the ball, can’t you, once in a way?”

And why would the two think that the tree in front of which they spend their time waiting is a ‘willow’?
There are tell-tale signs everywhere.

If that is not convincing, let us turn to Beckett himself.

The author himself directed the play for the Schiller-Theatre in 1975 — the first time he had taken over complete control of the proceedings. His precise words when explaining the stage directions were, “It is a game, everything is a game.”

Beckett — the unfulfilled cricketer

What is sometimes overlooked is that Beckett, born on this very day 107 years ago, was a cricketer of no mean ability during the days of his youth.

His later academic days at Trinity College, Dublin, ended in disillusion, and are captured poignantly in the lines: “Spend the years of learning squandering/ Courage for the years of wandering / Through a world politely turning / From the loutishness of learning”. But he did spend his time fruitfully enough as a student.

Bulk of his time was spent, of course, in polishing his French, English and Italian, which would enable him to inflict his masterpieces on the world in the years to come. And when not absorbed in his books, he spent some excellent time on the cricket field, as a left-handed opening batsman and a left-arm medium pacer.
By his own admission, he possessed a gritty defence and was useful with the ball. In fact, he was good enough to play a couple of First-Class matches, for the touring Dublin University side against Northamptonshire in July 1926.

He remains the only Nobel Prize winning author to have played at this level — although Jonathan Rice implies in the Wisden Cricketers Almanack that his feat will remain unique only until that inevitable day when Dickie Bird is finally honoured for his efforts with the pen.

Beckett did not achieve too much success in the two First-Class games. He scored 35 runs in four innings with a highest of 18 and did not manage to register on the wickets column. 

However, I would ask the reader to take note of a striking coincidence that underlines my initial claim. There are clues that unravel the very mystery of the metaphorical meaning of ‘Waiting for Godot’.

Dublin University lost the two matches against Northamptonshire — and on both occasions, the action lasted only two days. That is precisely the number of days that Vladimir and Estragon are depicted waiting for the unseen Godot. Two days through which nothing happens and yet the audience is held captive.
And who is this vague, never-seen Godot? Hope? Messiah? Salvation? Death? Life? God?

My theory is different.

Twice in his short career, for two days at a time, left-arm medium-pacer Samuel Beckett ran in and sent down ball after ball. His final career figures stood at none for 64 from 23 overs.  He must have had glimpses of occasional hope, with the odd ball striking the pad, going through to the ’keeper just past the edge. In youthful hope and ardour, he must have once in a while thrown his arms up and asked beseeching questions of the umpires. None of them had been answered positively.

Godot may well be the dramatic device symbolising the elusive finger of the umpire, which never once got raised in response to a young man’s entreaties.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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