A galaxy of stars at Lord's, 2008, for the England-South Africa Test. Jeffrey Archer is at extreme right; Ronnie Corbett is extreme from left; next to him is Stephen Fry; and Greg Dyke is seated next to Archer © Getty Images
A galaxy of stars at Lord’s, 2008, for the England-South Africa Test. Jeffrey Archer is at extreme right; Ronnie Corbett is extreme from left; next to him is Stephen Fry; and Greg Dyke is seated next to Archer © Getty Images

There are several references to cricket in the works of Jeffrey Archer. However, for the demanding cricket aficionados, there is a distinct lack of accuracy in the way the writer uses cricketing events  as the backdrop of his fiction. Arunabha Sengupta looks at glaring cricket-linked errors in his otherwise racy and thrilling ‘Matter of Honour’.

Matter of Fact, Fiction and Honour

For some authors factual accuracy is a nasty, often irritating compulsion. And the hard work that it entails is often rewarded by the approval of the most finicky of readers — those sticklers for precision, the nit-picking busybodies who can be colossal pains in the neck. These are the souls who provide the greatest satisfaction when convinced.

In non-fiction this is an absolute necessity.

And in fiction it is almost as important.Especially so when facts form the historical backdrop of a work of fiction. Here the business of writing is tricky. There are obviously parts where events need to be tailored to be seamlessly sewn into the plot. But, too much deviation from truth can suck the author down like quicksand. It undermines the work, trivialises it. READ: Pataudi’s charisma made Archer pen a short story

Shakespeare can perhaps get away with anachronisms like “The clock has stricken three” in Julius Caesar. Mechanical clocks would not be invented until centuries after Caesar’s time. Neither did Romans wear doublets at that time, although Casca declares, “he plucked me open his doublet and offered them his throat to cut.”

But if one is not the Bard of Avon, such errors are way more difficult to excuse.

‘Steep learning curve’ in the early 20th century setting of Downton Abbey definitely borders on the ridiculous. And in spite of its excellent storyline and remarkably authentic backdrop formed by cricket, suffragettes and the Great War, Half of a Human Race by Anthony Quinn suffers terribly because the upper class hero,who is also the captain of his county team, is depicted as a professional cricketer.Will Maitland had to be an amateur, but Quinn made a glaring error.

Yes, the domain of cricket houses some of the most fastidious readers who will scrutinise every detail whenever the noble game is mentioned in order to determine historical accuracy of the reference.

This is of course in stark dichotomy with the millions who generally swear by the fables and myths dished out by media-men and careless chroniclers in the guise of reportage.There are still many who take the flowery words of the champion charlatan Neville Cardus as gospel. Plenty of fabrications and pseudo-analysis of not so accomplished wordsmiths are also gobbled and shared by the uncountable masses. READ: India stand a chance of retaining ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, says Jeffrey Archer

But there remains a small number of aficionados who turn over every mentioned detail to find hints of inaccuracy when held against the backdrop of pristine facts. And after relegating some of the fancied reportage to the realms of fiction, they also dwell on the mentions of the game in the fictional works.

Pure as Snow, Archer misses the mark

It is here that Jeffrey Archer comes up way short of expectations. And it is here that someone like CP Snow earns full marks.

Archer dwells on cricket often enough in his works. Indeed, in A Quiver full of Arrow she penned The Century, an enjoyable tale about an Oxford cricketer. Besides, in many of his novels and stories there are stray references to the game, characters are either interested in cricket or play the game themselves. His A Change of Heart in To Cut a Long Story Short is about a former cricketer who had been good enough to be considered for the 1970 tour of England (which was finally cancelled).

In the cases of The Century and A Change of Heart the game plays a major part in the stories. It is linked to the characters. Talking about factual accuracy does not make sense in such cases. There are conjectures that the tale of cricket set in Oxford is based on the younger Nawab of Pataudi, but the details have been changed … and that is fully within the rights of an author of fiction.

But Archer errs when actual cricket, contemporary to the timeline of the story, is used as backdrop. There he comes across as more than a little careless, treating the subject casually, making up facts on the way. Of course it is fiction. Yet, as stated earlier, real life events used as the backdrop without much ado about authenticity undermines the worth of the work.

In contrast, CP Snow, the celebrated novelist and the author of the Strangers and Brothers series, was scrupulously accurate in his cricketing references.

The first novel(chronologically) in the Strangers and Brothers series is Time of Hope.  It begins in June 1914 and in the beginning the narrative describes the young hero and his father as they watch Leicestershire play Sussexat the Aylestone Road ground.It is a Saturday, and the two watch Cecil Wood and John Herbert King bat for the home county. READ: Virender Sehwag is the most exciting batsman after Viv Richards: Jeffrey Archer

Turning our attention to old scorecards, we find that Snow did not succumb to the lazy excuse of ‘not letting facts get in the way of a good story’.Neither was it beneath his dignity to check the details. Indeed, the match had started on Thursday, Sussex had been bowled out for 224, and Leicestershire had lost two wickets in the late afternoon. Friday’s play had been washed away by rain, and when the match had resumed on Saturday, Wood and King had indeed resumed the Leicestershire innings.Considering that the novel was written in 1949, it shows scrupulous adherence to facts. Snow was a cricket tragic.

The young protagonist also picks Wood as his hero, even though he is not as spectacular as Gilbert Jessop or Johnny Tyldesley. “But I told myself he was much sounder.  In actual fact, my hero did not often let me down.  On the occasions when he failed completely, I wanted to cry.” He is almost scandalised when Wood plays England bowler Albert Relf with, “a clumsy, stumbling shot that usually patted the ball safely to mid-off but which this time sent the ball knee high between first and second slip for four”. He is scornful of those who greet this stroke with claps and say ‘Pretty shot.’

This is an excellent demonstration of research and accuracy that form a substantial part of the author’s skill set.

In fact, we find this attention to detail even in Snow’s first novel, Death under Sail, a complicated tale of murder and detection.

Cricket crops up at multiple and rather unexpected junctures even though there is no tangible connection between the game and the plot. The detective is a rather curious character called Fenbow, and he declares at the outset that if he had not been called to work on the case, he would have spent the day watching Beds play Bucks.

In order to think clearly, Fenbow takes a taxi to Lord’s. He sits at the corner of the ground between the tavern and the pavilion, the sunshine pale and melancholy, the big scoreboard blank and hopeless. There he says, “I once saw Woolley make 87 on this ground. After that any innings that could be played is an anti-climax. There is no point in trying to repeat perfection. Cricket, having been created and evolved, has achieved its purpose, produced one lovely thing, and ought to die.”

A brief perusal of scorecards, and we find that in 1926 Arthur Carr’s Englishmen played against Herbie Collins and his Australians at the hallowed ground. Frank Woolley came in after Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe had put on 182 for the first wicket, and played a delightful innings. His score? Yes, 87. In his book about the series, Plum Warner gushed effusive about some of the drives that the Kent legend played, straight down the ground and to the on-side. Yet another example of splendid attention to detail.

In The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock was magnificently accurate about the abandonedManchester Testof 1938 that Charters and Caldicott are in a tearing hurry to attend.

But, not so for Archer.

Anyway, one cannot accuse the British peer of extraordinary fondness for factual accuracy. We can see it in his own Curriculum Vitae. From his getting A levels at Oxford to his representing Great Britain as a sprinter in the Olympic Games, his life is riddled with myths. He was also not, contrary to his claims, the youngest MP when he got elected to the House of Commons in a by-election at Louth in 1969. Aged 29 at that time, he had a colleague in Bernadette Devlin who was just 22. And then there were three more between them.

However, we are not dealing with Archer’s life here, which can be a rather murky region full of gaping pit-falls. We will restrict ourselves to his fiction.

Slips and silly points

In particular, we will look at one of his books, the racy spy-thriller set in 1966titledA Matter of Honour.

The novel is a complicated, edge-of-the-seat, action-packed Cold War page-turner; full of old letters from the Nazi era, obscure treaties, a predictable yet interesting race between KGB and CIA and the usual ingredients surrounding car chases, twists and turns,with a likable hero trapped in this intriguing game of cloak and dagger. It remains taut and gripping throughout.

Cricket is mentioned as a minor diversion, as in many Archer tales. In the very beginning Adam Scott, the hero, learns that in his will his father has left £500 for him, £400 for his sister, while a sum of £25 has been bequeathed to the Hampshire County Cricket Club.Additionally, Adam receives a sealed envelope that kick-starts the complicated ride through the Cold War landscape.

It is June 1966. The following morning, Adam talks to his flat-mate Lawrence Pemberton and is informed that West Indies has made 526, and England has not yet begun their innings because of bad light. The same day, in the afternoon, he watches the 5:45 news to find that Mrs Gandhi, the new Prime Minister of India, is facing an open revolt in her cabinet, and that England are 117 for 7 in their first innings.

The next morning, as he looks at the Test score, Adam asks Lawrence, “Why can’t we produce any really fast bowlers?”

On the next morning, the newspaper carries the photograph of Ted Dexter, the captain of the defeated England side.

As the plot rushes ahead, cricket is only referred to once more. Adam drives through France and tunes in to the BBC Home Service to listen to a report on England’s chances in the second Test at Lord’s after the Rest Day.

Such fascinating details should delight the cockles of the cricket lover’s heart.

Only, when we look at the scorecards, we are shocked at the casual hand with which Archer has allowed his pen to make a hash of actual cricketing events.

Yes, West Indies did visit England in the summer of 1966. Garry Sobers was the captain. They played two Tests in June, the second one was indeed played at Lord’s. They also started the third Test on the last day of the month.

And yes, it was about five months into Indira Gandhi’s first term as Prime Minister.We would of course have been up in arms against Archer if he had written that Nehru or Shastri was the Prime Minister of India at that time. But, he got the political fact correct. However, he got the rest of the cricketing details horribly wrong.

In the first Test at Old Trafford, West Indies ended the first day at 343 for 5. On the second day, Garry Sobers, at the height of his phenomenal powers, took his score to 161 and the visitors were all out for 484 … not 526. And contrary to bad light stopping play, the Englishmen ended the day on 163 for 8, the damage done by the spin of Lance Gibbs and David Holford.

Even if we consider that Archer got the day of the game wrong, England were never 117 for 7. A fighting stand between Jim Parks and David Allen ensured that the 7th wicket fell at 143 and not earlier. In the second innings, the 7th wicket fell at 218, thanks to some spectacular hitting by Colin Milburn.

By the next day, the match was over. Hence, if we look at the timeline of the Test, the report of the end of the match should already have been in the papers when Adam was lamenting about the lack of genuine fast bowlers in England.

We can perhaps argue that the England captain’s picture could have been posted the following day as continuing analysis of the match. However, Adam’s lament about the lack of fast bowlers seem out of context. True, Ken Higgs, Jeff Jones and David Brown were just honest English county trundlers compared to Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. But, the difference in the match was the spin of Gibbs, Holford and Sobers, and the superior batting of the Sobers-powered West Indies. Both Hall and Griffith were no more the forces they had been in the 1963 tour and were nearing the end of their frightening careers. They were rather ordinary through the series.

Given the year was 1966, the nation was actually caught up in the World Cup football madness. The event was hosted in the country from July 11 to July 30, and the Test series was also scheduled so that the touring team played the 3rd Test before the start of the event and contested the 4th Test only after the end of the competition. However, Archer does not mention the football World Cup even once in the novel.

When Baron Archer tripped over Lord Ted

However, the most glaring error sticks out like a sore thumb.

It is in the picture of the defeated England captain Ted Dexter that Adam sees in the newspaper.

Dexter captained England for the last time in the Ashes series of 1964. He did lead against West Indies, but that was during the summer of spectacular cricket in 1963, made famous by the unforgettable Lord’s Test.

After 1964, Dexter’s multiple interests got better of his cricket. He stood down from the tour of South Africa in 1964-65, being more interested in contesting the Cardiff South East seat against future Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. After his campaign had ended in a dismal defeat, Dexter travelled to South Africa as the deputy of Mike Smith. He never regained captaincy. Being an MP, even if not the youngest, Archer could have been expected to be aware of this.

In 1965, Dexter was driving in the town when his Jaguar ran out of petrol in West London. He was pushing it along to the nearest petrol pump when he got pinned by his car against a warehouse door. His leg was broken and that virtually ended his career.

Yes, not only was Dexter not the captain of the England side in 1966, he did not play a single Test match that series. In fact, he played only three First-Class matches that entire summer.

He tried a brief comeback two years later, but failure in the 1968 Ashes series prompted him to give up international cricket.

In this context, Archer’s portrayal of Dexter as the captain of England against West Indies in the summer of 1966 is actually rather careless.Perhaps he was carrying the false impression of the 1963 tour, projected on to 1966. But, to cut a long story short, he did mess it up.

Well, as Archer himself put it in a spurt of realisation: “We all make mistakes.” But, by now he knows quite well thatthe fourth estatecan be quite unforgiving.

Besides, as I have already stated, the cricket world does contain such sticklers for accuracy.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)