‘Samson wis a mighty man
he fought wi the cuddy’s jaws
he fought ten thoosan battles
in his crimson flannel drawers’
In the Bible, Samson is conceived by a woman previously thought barren and becomes a notable hero of Israel, smiting the Philistines before falling from grace through his infatuation with Delilah, which leaves him ‘eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves’ – from where he makes a rousing final comeback which literally brings the house down.
It might seem a long step from Samson to Test cricket, though to be sure, he would be a mighty run-maker, smiting his opponents hip and thigh to all corners of the ground with his patent ass’s jawbone bat (not that Test cricket is all about scoring runs, as we shall see). However, it was not his imagined prowess at the crease that prompted me to make the connection, but rather the angel that announced his nativity.
Samson is not alone in having his birth heralded by an angel: there is Isaac, and John the Baptist, both likewise born to women thought past childbearing age, and of course Jesus himself. One view might be that such angelic annunciations must be a great boon, not only reassuring the prospective mother of her offspring’s future greatness, but also announcing it to the public at large, or at least anyone in the vicinity (and word would surely spread); but modern readers might make them grounds for scepticism.
That is what set me thinking about Test cricket. At the start of the week, an irate listener texted the BBC to deplore the glacial rate at which England captain Alistair Cook and his partner were scoring runs on the penultimate day of the fourth and final Test in India. This complaint earned a swift rebuke from one more knowledgeable -‘You haven’t really grasped Test cricket, have you? Why should England jeopardise all the good work of the past few days – and with it, the series – in pursuit of runs they do not need? This isn’t tedious – it’s enthralling: Test cricket of the very highest order.’
The first man thought he knew what cricket was all about – scoring runs and taking wickets – and seeing neither happen here, concluded it was tedious. The second, watching the same action, was able to relate it to the wider context of the match (where England had a slender lead) and the series (which they led 2-1) and see it for what it was – a situation balanced on a knife-edge, a titanic struggle with one side determined to stay in, and the other trying all they knew to get them out. Runs did not matter; what counted was wickets. If England could keep theirs intact, the game would be drawn and the series won, the first such victory in 27 years.
The first man’s error is an interesting one: I think it has a parallel in the reading of stories, especially nowadays, when we (in the ‘West’ at least) have lost the habit of storytelling and are apt to confuse it with other things, like news reports or historical records (I feel there is another parallel here, in the way that photography has obscured our understanding of painting, but that is a subject for another day). Some people might seize on the angel in the story of Samson (and the others) as grounds for doubting its veracity; others, equally, might assert that the mention of the angel (in a sacred text) is proof that such beings exist. Both, I think, are mistaken, in a similar way to the man complaining about slow scoring in the Test match: they don’t understand what they’re talking about.
Stories are retrospective, in the sense that (regardless of how they are told) they look back over a sequence of events which form a whole of some sort: in other words, they are complete, and have unity. That is what makes them stories, and distinguishes them from life, at least as we experience it, from its midst. The beginning of a story can only be fully understood with reference to its end: why it begins where and as it does. Those of us who make our trade in writing stories know that the beginning is often the last part to receive its final form. (There is a parallel here with music, and the opening bars of a symphony, say – once we are familiar with the piece as a whole, we listen with greater understanding – indeed, our understanding of how each part works to create the whole may deepen with every hearing – and that capacity to give more each time is a good index of great art).
I can imagine how some might find this explanation exasperating.
[enter Jeremy Paxman, looking inquisitorial, a sheaf of papers in his hand.]
‘So, Mr Ward, was there an angel?’
‘There was an angel in the story.’
‘But was there an angel?’
‘In the story? Yes, there was.’
‘Never mind about the story! Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – was there an angel?’
‘Jeremy, that is like saying, ‘never mind the Test series, why aren’t they scoring runs?’
(Paxman looks blank)
‘Let me put it another way, Mr Ward, was there really an angel?’
‘Yes, there really was an angel in the story.’
‘Forget about the story! If I was walking past Samson’s mother’s house some nine months before his birth and looked in at the window, would I have seen an angel, yes or no?’
‘That is a hypothetical question.’
‘So there was no angel then?’
‘Why do you think that matters?’
(spluttering) ‘It matters because if there was no angel, then the story isn’t true!’
‘I don’t follow you.’
(patiently, as to a slow-witted child) ‘The story says there was an angel. Now either there was an angel, or there wasn’t. If there wasn’t, then the story isn’t true.’
‘How do you make that out?’
(splutters)‘Because the story says there was one!’
‘Ah!’ (slow-dawning-of-the-light face) ‘I don’t think you’ve got that quite right, Jeremy. The story doesn’t say ‘there was an angel’.’
‘No, the story says there was a man -’
‘Yes. A man called Samson, who was an extraordinary fellow.’
‘But what about the angel?’
‘Well, that heralded his birth, as befits an extraordinary fellow.’
‘But you said there wasn’t an angel!’
‘No, no. I never said that -’
‘You did! Just now – (checks notes, reads triumphantly) “the story doesn’t say there was an angel.’’’
‘Ah! You’ve misunderstood. The story doesn’t say, ‘there was an angel,’ the story says, ‘there was a man – called Samson, an extraordinary man, so extraordinary that his very conception was heralded by an angel.’
‘So you’re saying there was an angel, then?’
‘Yes. In the story. I thought we’d established that?’
(with a great effort of self control) ‘But what about outside the story?’
‘There is no outside the story. The angel only makes sense within the context of the story, just as Alistair Cook’s innings makes sense only within the Test match and the Test series. Just as a particular sequence of notes has its meaning only within and as part of the symphony of which they are the opening bars.’
(Paxman, shaking his head in disbelief) ‘that’s it – we’re out of time!’
(gathers up his papers and withdraws, muttering)
‘Why can’t he just give a straight answer to a simple question? grrrrr’