Heroes, villains, and cricketers; here are 10 of our favourite fictional figures from page and screen.
10) Quanko Samba
The Pickwick Papers, (1836, Charles Dickens)
Dickens might be remembered for documenting the industrial filth and misery of 19th century London, but he was a funny, funny man. And he wrote about cricket. In The Pickwick Papers, an unknown drunken spectator watching a match between All-Muggleton and Dingley Dell recalled the ill-fated heroism of a West Indian he knew called Quanko Samba: “‘…Iwentin; keptin-heat intense – natives all fainted – taken away – fresh half-dozen ordered – fainted also – Blazo bowling – supported by two natives – couldn’t bowl me out – fainted too – cleared away the colonel – wouldn’t give in – faithful attendant – Quanko Samba – last man left – sun so hot, bat in blisters, ball scorched brown – five hundred and seventy runs – rather exhausted – Quanko mustered up last remaining strength – bowled me out – had a bath, and went out to dinner…’” And bowlers reckon they put the yards in nowadays…
9) Neville Gribley
More Tales From a Long Room (1982, Peter Tinniswood)
From the fevered mind of Peter Tinniswood, Gribley is a hilarious parody of Ian Botham. A greengrocer by day, Gribley (also referred to as ‘Batman of Botham City’ by the author) is “five foot three in his stocking feet, seven and a half stone… and a man of profound meekness, sensitivity and modesty,” only revealing his extraordinary all-round abilities when he leaps into his blood-red Botham mobile. In Tinniswood’s surreal portrayal of a cricket-lover’s middle England, Beefy is also the true identity of a multiplicity of celebrities, historical figures and politicians, including Hitler, The Duke of Wellington and Roy Hattersley, but it is Gribley, a man who spends his evenings relaxing with a “pot of Mazawattee tea and custard creams,” who is the silliest and funniest of Tinniswood’s Bothams.
8) Sam Palmer
The Final Test (1953, dir. Anthony Asquith)
In this unapologetic slab of schmaltz, the story centres on the relationship between the ruddy, seen-better-days England batsman Sam Palmer, and his haughty, bookish son, Reggie. Sam’s about to play in his last Test for England, and his strained efforts to persuade his boy to see him off at The Oval gathers pace and pathos as we built to the climax. A sentimental study of father-son relationships, with real-life cameos by England players of the day, who potter about in the background, smoking pipes, raffishly flicking through newspapers and uttering words of encouragement to outgoing batsmen. England skipper Len Hutton’s wonderfully clipped Queen’s English – straight out of Pudsey – is a comic joy, as is Denis Compton’s semi-corpsing smirk from the back of the dressing room.
7) Pradeep Mathew
Chinaman (Shehan Karunatilaka)
This Tamil mystery-spinner’s character is revealed, unreliably, through the arrack-addled mind of the dying narrator, and in truth we learn precious little about him. That said, he once had his own ESPNCricinfo profile, and a webpage complete with grainy images dedicated to his achievements. Amongst these, he was the man behind pinch-hitting, advising Murali not to change his action, and encouraging the Sri Lankans to sledge. Volatile in character and dogged by bad luck and unsympathetic management, Pradeep is a character who really should have been real, his tale capturing the chaotic essence of Sri Lankan cricket brilliantly – the good, the bad and the ugly.
6) David Wiseman
Wondrous Oblivion (2003, dir. Paul Morrison)
The 11-year-old boy at the centre of this 2003 film is a poignant and recognisable figure to many sports fans: a cricket lover who’s no good at cricket. Already something of an outsider growing up in ‘60s London as the son of wartime Jewish immigrants, he is placed as scoreboard monitor rather than player, until a cricket-mad Jamaican family move in next door and allow him to practise, become better, ever-more transfixed by the game, and, eventually, successful and popular. Wiseman is a young protagonist at the heart of a story about people on the fringes who fight for acceptance in an often hostile environment.
5) Detective Sergeant Lewis
Inspector Morse: Deceived by Flight (1989, dir. Anthony Simmons)
Kids, meet Detective Chief Inspector Morse, everyone’s favourite opera-loving, ale-slurping rozzer-romantic. Fond of the line “Fancy a pint, Lewis?” and perpetually in thrall to flame-haired sirens in beige culottes harbouring dark pasts, Morse bestrode our TV screens for years, solving highbrow murders with plucky Lewis, Geordie serf, faithfully by his side. Deceived By Flight (geddit?) sees Lewis infiltrate an Oxford cricket team in an effort to uncover the true cause of the recent death of one of their players. The cricket scenes are as you’d expect. We get all the clichés – the dashing No.3, the boisterous grandee/umpire, the eager young ‘un, the too-loud call of ‘RUN!’ – and then Lewis himself, a rather canny leg-spin bowler who threatens to blow his cover by being a bit too good. Lewis emerges as arguably the finest post-war leggie this country has produced.
Lagaan (2001, Ashutosh Gowariker)
The hero of the film (one of the greatest cricket movies going) in which a group of Indian villagers take on unfair British rulers’ taxation by taking up cricket and challenging their imperial masters to a game. Bravery, leadership, love of cricket: the handsome Bhuvan is a fine protagonist.
3) Adrian Shankar
Version 2.0 (County Blagger, 2011)
Shankar himself is a real man, but in his quest for a county contract he re-wrote his CV to create a ficticious alter-ego: one who was younger, and better at cricket. Lancashire and Worcestershire were both duped enough by his birth-date and run-scoring claims to reward him with a contract, before he and his fake documentation were rumbled in 2011 two weeks into a new two-year deal at New Road. It turned out he was 29, three years older than he claimed (a claim that saw him qualify for the ECB’s young player incentives to counties) and had not in fact, just scored a bucket-load of runs against top-class Sri Lankans that winter, had not been the youngest ever Cambridge University captain, played football in the Arsenal academy, nor played tennis to a national standard. He had actually averaged 19 in just a handful of first-class games and had got where he was largely through elaborate bluff. Weirdly impressive, and to be fair the guy he made up sounds like an unbelievable player.
2) Hooker Knight
Glory Gardens (1990s, Bob Cattell)
In a terrific series of cricket books for children (and a few grown-ups) following a young cricket team, there were many notable characters: Tylan Vellacott, the mercurial leg-spinner with a propensity to be expensive (unlike the socks he sold on his dad’s market stall at weekends, severely impacting his availability for selection), or Jason Padgett, the promising youngster who gave up after two years to pursue his chess career. But it has to be the captain and co-founder of the side: Hooker Knight, a talismanic allrounder who led a varied group of egos on almost implausibly regular and dramatic cup runs. A fine young man and committed student of the game; no relation of Nick’s.
Tom Brown’s School Days, (1857, Thomas Hughes); Flashman series, (1977, George Macdonald Fraser)
One of life’s unpleasant truths: being an utter $&*% doesn’t prevent you from being dynamite on the cricket pitch. Such is the case with Harry Paget Flashman, the swaggering bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the star of a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser, in which he bestrides the Victorian era like an unholy anti-Jonah, his every act of epic cowardice misconstrued as heroism. However, with ball in hand Flash had the stuff. Invited to turn out for a Rugby Old Boys XI at Lord’s, he records cricket’s first-ever hat-trick and triumphs over an array of great (non-fictional) cricketers, including the fantastically named Fuller Pilch, a giant of the game years before the letters ‘WG’ had ever been placed next to each other in a sentence.