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American writer Ben Markovits to speak at Durham Book Festival

Writer Ben Markovits was writer-in-residence at the Durham Ashes Test as David Whetstone found out

Writer Ben Markovits at the launch of Durham Book Festival
Writer Ben Markovits at the launch of Durham Book Festival

Not all the professional writers who gathered in Chester-le-Street for the fourth Investec Ashes Test were cricket correspondents.

In their midst was an American novelist and former professional basketball player.

Rather than filing for the newspaper sports pages, Benjamin Markovits was the official Test match writer-in-residence, commissioned by Durham Book Festival.

On Saturday he will read from the resulting essay which is also to be published in the London Review of Books.

But what did a Texan make of a game that, far from conquering America, baffles many people even in the country of its birth?

“The club (that’s Durham County Cricket Club) were great,” he says.

“They made sure I had different seats around the ground so I got to see it from different angles. I had a press pass so I could sit in the press box and I also had a view of the action from the boardroom.

“People were really great. I knew that as an American I had a pretty low bar to cross. If I knew anything about cricket – and I could talk about (cricket legend) CB Fry – they would be pleased. And I really did get the excitement.”

It transpires that Ben Markovits, whose novels include a trilogy about the Lord Byron, was not exactly the cricket virgin you might suppose.

Though born in America, he spent part of his childhood here and has British citizenship. He has also written for British newspapers and, I learn, has seen more professional cricket than me.

“An editor of mine took me to the Ashes a few years ago so I spent a day at the Oval, and I’ve also been to Lord’s to see a county championship match. But cricket is an endurance test and I’d never done a full Test before.

“Because I’ve written about sport before and I used to play, they thought I might be suitable for the residency.”

So he prepared himself for an Ashes Test – and an endurance test – and headed north from London.

What he found was a sport at the mercy of nature, to the possibility of the heavens opening, darkness descending or cracks opening across the wicket.

“One of the distinctive things about cricket is there isn’t any expectation that every field will be the same,” he says. “Part of a cricketer’s skill is his ability to adapt to different conditions.”

This was very different to basketball, a sport Ben played professionally in the German second division after leaving university. His mother’s German nationality and his height, 6ft 6ins, got him in. He thought it would buy him time to write.

Actually he didn’t even last a season because the club folded. But sport’s loss was writing’s gain.

Ben says his essay does not dwell exclusively on his time in Chester-le-Street, although he swears he loved the ground with its Lumley Castle backdrop. Rather it explores the upturn in Britain’s sporting fortunes – think Ashes, Tour de France, Olympics, Andy Murray.

Something has been going on, he reckons. And while money clearly has something to do with it (as in the allocation of lottery largesse), can this be the only explanation for us Brits losing our mantle of gallant losers?

As a native Brit, I’m inclined to think the mantle is just in the wash. Let’s reserve judgment until Brazil 2014 or even Australia in November when Ashes battle recommences.

Still, a lanky Yank’s optimism is refreshing. Hear Ben Markovits at Durham Town Hall at 12.30pm on Saturday as part of Durham Book Festival. Tickets and details: 03000 266600 or www.galadurham.co.uk

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer