It is not very well known that John Fowles, the British novelist who passed away on November 5, 2005, was a fine cricketer in his youth and a devoted fan of the game. Arunabha Sengupta relates one bizarre cricket viewing experience during the final years of his life.
As a novelist, John Fowles was a heady mix of European influences. A lot of his writing was moulded by his early perusals of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Many are fascinated by his post-modernist style, and his experimental dabbling that went beyond the conventional art of the novel. Times named him as one of the 50 greatest post-World War Two British writers. There also remain a few who find it laborious to plough through his acknowledged classics like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus.
What is often difficult to believe is that this serious writer, his pen heavily dipped in continental forms, had a fascination for the English game. He was a rather good bowler in his youth who retained a deep interest in cricket till the very end of his days.
Fowles studied at Bedford School from 1939, which involved a two-hour train journey north of his home. He remained there till1944, becoming the Head Boy along the way. He was a member of the rugby-football third team, the Fives first team as also the captain of the school cricket team. He was one of the main bowlers of the first eleven.
In fact, he was good enough with the ball to have trials with Essex.
In the opening chapters of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the view of Lyme Bay is described as seen from his own living room in Lyme Regis. He took up residence in Lyme Regis in 1965, four years before the publication of the celebrated novel. And it was in the same living room that he sat on July 1, 2000, glued to his television set watching the third day’s play between England and West Indies telecast live from Lord’s.
It was indeed an extraordinary Test match — the 100th played in the historic ground. It was a game that defied prediction, changing momentum as quickly as “a spare ticket among the touts, who, sensing something special, thronged the pavements surrounding the ground.” The atmosphere was enhanced by music during lunch, and the drama produced matched the beats of Third World and Jools Holland Big Band.
After West Indies had been put into bat and had passed a rather normal first day, scoring 267 for nine, things turned absolutely chaotic from the second morning. For the first time in Test cricket, all four innings was seen in the course of a single day’s play, albeit just one ball of the first innings and seven of the fourth.
First Andy Caddick trapped Courtney Walsh leg before off the first ball of the day to end the Windies innings for 267. Next, Walsh and Curtly Ambrose struck back to rout England for 144. And, after Alec Stewart’s dressing room speech had stung every member of the English cricket team to the quick, there was a miracle enacted by the English seamers. In a spellbinding space of 26 overs and two balls, Caddick, Dominic Cork and Darren Gough scythed through the West Indian batting, knocking them over for 54. Only Ridley Jacobs, with a gritty 12, reached double figures. England remained on zero for no loss when play ended on this fascinating day.
After a start delayed by 50 minutes due to overnight rain, Michael Atherton and Mark Ramprakash walked out to get the 188 runs. And the 74-year-old Fowles perched on his sofa, and followed the action from the edge of his seat.
After Ramprakash had played on to Walsh, 92 painstaking runs were added between Atherton and Michael Vaughan, each run dripping with tension and cheered to an echo by a full house. Atherton took 27 balls to get off the mark, Vaughan 29. Ambrose beat the bat again and again, but the two men stuck to their task. They both got to their forties before falling to Walsh, the big fast bowler gobbling up Graeme Hick in between the two. Alec Stewart and Craig White also fell to the sustained pace of the Jamaican, giving Walsh the first six wickets of the innings. And Nick Knight, playing with a cracked finger, falling to Franklyn Rose, it was 149 for seven. The target looked far away for the hosts. Only the tail remained in front of the towering fast bowlers.
Around this juncture a stranger walked into the living room where the author sat watching the game and enquired about the score. After a bemused Fowles had informed him about the details, the man sat down to watch the game.
Caddick fell to Ambrose at 160, but Cork remained valiant and determined behind the layers of chap-stick. A lofted drive off the tiring Walsh went for four, and Rose was pulled for six. Singles were stolen with curious expressions of his face and body language, cheered at Lord’s and miles away at Lyme Regis by the unannounced visitor and the somewhat confused writer.
Gough’s bat remained straight and unflinching, and Cork brought the difference down into the realms of possibilities. Finally, Walsh ran into bowl the fifth ball of his 24th over.Cork drove it through the covers for four amidst scenes of euphoric joy. England triumphed by two wickets. The stadium erupted and at Lymes Regis, two men cheered heartily.
And now, beaming with delight, the stranger turned towards Fowles and asked him how much he charged for bed and breakfast. The layers of bewilderment now fell away from the writer’s face. The visitor had obviously mistaken his house for some other and had come in uninvited. In the process, he had watched over an hour of nail-biting cricketing action.
But, a true cricket lover, elated by this extraordinary victory, Fowles did not grudge the involuntary hospitality. After all, there is joy of triumph lies in sharing the moment.
Fowles passed away on November 5, 2005.
West Indies 267 (Sherwin Campbell 82, Wavell Hinds 59; Darren Gough 4 for 72, Dominic Cork 4 for 39) and 54 (Andy Caddick 5 for 16) lost to England 134 (Cutrly Ambrose 4 for 30, Courtney Walsh 4 for 43) and 191 for 8 (Michael Atherton 45, Michael Vaughan 41, Dominic Cork 33*; Courtney Walsh 6 for 74) by 2 wickets.