As I write this, the final of the cricket World Cup is only a couple of days away. And believe me, I’m not being sexist when I say I’m glad my wife isn’t going to be around for it. The truth is that unless you have played a sport at whatever level, you just can’t appreciate the finer points. I recall that when she was alive, my mother would punctuate periods of tight bowling and low scoring in televised cricket matches with exclamations of: “Kambakht marta kyon nahin?!” (“Why doesn’t the wretch hit the ball?!”).
So I can sympathise with the male journalists who were appalled when The Times asked Lynne Truss to cover sports for the newspaper. Before this assignment, Truss had been entirely uninterested in sports of all kinds, something she shared with large numbers of British women. As Truss confesses, she had routinely thrown out the sports section of the newspapers she bought. The editors at the iconic daily thought that by sending a woman to report on the sounds and passions surrounding popular sports, they could get women readers interested.
In an engaging, often amusing book, Get Her Off The Pitch!: How sport took over my life, Truss recounts how she got hooked as soon as she began spending time watching the ebb and flow of sporting events, and the intensely competitive nature of professional sports. The author of a number of books, including the bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss uses a self-mocking style that invites the reader to sympathise with a clueless writer who becomes a passionate fan. Sent to New York to cover the epic heavyweight boxing championship between the British fighter Lennox Lewis and the American Evander Holyfield, Truss finds herself on a steep learning curve. Having always dismissed boxing as a violent, nasty sport, Truss comes face to face with the inner workings of boxing, with all its corruption and glitz. Here’s her picturesque description of Lewis:
“Lewis was just enormous, six foot five, over 17 stone, with shoulders like beach balls and arms like young trees, and skin so velvety that it surely has to be lovingly brushed each morning in the same direction…” It’s hard to imagine a male reporter describing a boxer thus.
Her description of the fight is also colourful and breathless and her anger boils over the fact that it was called a draw by the judges despite the clear advantage Lewis enjoyed through most of the bout: “As, one by one, we saw how Lewis had been robbed, the temptation was to burst into tears. How could we have been taken in? Didn’t they have us fooled this time, eh? I found myself not bothering to think of synonyms for ‘stinks’. I was too upset. I was completely wrung dry for a full week for this? ‘This stinks’, I kept saying, as disbelief turned swiftly to disgust. ‘It stinks. It really stinks. Oh, poor Lennox. Somebody should say to him, this absolutely stinks.’”
Writing about her four years as a sports correspondent, Truss is disarmingly honest: “I was permanently on an almost-vertical learning curve, clinging for life. For four years, week after week, at football stadiums, golf courses and race tracks, I would gaze around me… and think, afresh, ‘Lynne, what the f*** are you doing here?’… My colleagues in the press box, notably, were actually asking themselves the same question — i.e., ‘What the f*** is she doing here?’”
Long cricket tours Truss sees as a recipe for marital disaster with players being away for weeks at a stretch. And yet this sport is the one she finds most rewarding in the long run. She learned enough about the game to see its twists and turns and how the result can depend on a dropped catch or the spin of a coin. The format of Test matches permits teams to recover from mistakes in a way that most other sports do not. But as Truss waxes eloquent about the limitless possibilities of cricket, self-deprecation catches up: “But hark at me. A woman who can’t tell her deep square leg from her third man, or her extra cover from her backward point…”
And as she admits, she used to take a chart with the various fielding positions when she went to a match. Inevitably, she would annoy her colleagues by peppering them with questions throughout the match.
Describing the World Cup final at Lord’s between Australia and Pakistan (in which we were thrashed in what Truss describes as a “dodgy business which has never been fully accounted for”), the author writes about a relatively new Pakistani bowler:
“The cricketer who made the biggest impression on me, I remember, was the young, scowling, skinny and fascinating Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar. This was before Shoaib was officially classed the fastest bowler in the world, but even an ignoramus could see (as she tried not to swoon) that he wasn’t exactly a slowcoach; also that his technique earned his team great results, and that he had magnificent nostrils.”
After four years of travelling from one sports venue to another, staying at cheap hotels, and meeting tight deadlines in the days before universal Internet access, Truss called it a day. But she still recalls her days as a sports correspondent with nostalgia and great fondness.
Get Her Off The Pitch! How sport took over my life
By Lynne Truss
Fourth Estate, London ISBN 9780007305742 320pp. Price not listed