The Authors XI in Iceland: (From the back, left) John Sutton, Nicholas Hogg, Tom Eadon, Sadie Holland, Matt Thacker, Steve Cannane, Laura

Book me a tour: the Authors on the team bus in Iceland

© Next Stop Iceland

Northern exposure

The Authors XI goes to Iceland to play a series of matches and finds it not quite different from England

Anthony McGowan |

Cricket can be an unkind mistress. I'd come more than a thousand miles to open the batting for my team, and so far, in the first two T20 matches of a three-match series, I'd faced three balls, all propelled by a young Sri Lankan called Dushan Bandara bowling left-arm swing at disconcerting speed on a surface that was, quite literally, made for football.

I wafted my first delivery into the covers, where the fielder managed to drop me, surprised perhaps by a lack of timing so that the ball reached him with the pace of an electric mobility scooter in need of a recharge. The next ball struck my pad before I'd had the chance to execute my usual lunging forward defensive, and I was sent on my way. In the second match, the first ball of the innings took my inside edge, deviated onto my back pad, bounced forwards, hit my front leg, and then, as I scrambled and flapped as frantically as a teenage boy trying to erase his browsing history before his mum comes into his bedroom, it trickled slowly back and, more in sorrow than in anger, nudged off the bail. In three balls, I'd been out twice. And been dropped once.

It might come as a surprise that all this drama and pathos happened not under the sweltering skies of South Asia but on a barren rock, touching the Arctic Circle. The only place, I'm fairly sure, where a day of cricket can be followed by a night in which you look up to see, as we did, a luminous green smear in the sky, like a line of mucus blown from a footballer's nose, accompanied by the discordant sound of a drunken team-mate singing, horribly out of tune, "Northern Lights", by one-hit wonder prog-rockers Renaissance (11 weeks in the charts in 1978).

If one tries to think of improbable (and, for that matter, unsuitable) places to play cricket, the volcanic wastes of Iceland must be up there. A quick google shows games being played 5752 metres up on Mt Kilimanjaro, amid penguins in Antarctica, and in a slate mine hundreds of feet underground. But all of those have the feeling of a gimmick about them: they were stunts, done simply to prove that it was possible. But my team, the Authors XI, were on their way to the land of fire and ice to play real cricket, against a real side. There was even a real prize at stake: the Halldór Laxness Trophy, named in honour of Iceland's greatest writer, a gloomy Stalinist whose novels tend to begin with scenes of desperate poverty and degradation and spiral down from there.

Tom Holland is bowled while trying to hoick to leg

Tom Holland is bowled while trying to hoick to leg © Anthony McGowan

And this wasn't just any old Icelandic side. It was the national team, picked from the cream of Icelandic cricketing talent.

A little history - for both sides - might help with the context. Some scholars have tried to finger the medieval Icelandic pastime of Knattleikr (literally: ball game) as a possible origin for cricket. Egil's Saga gives a vivid depiction of one match, in which our hero responds badly to some Viking-style sledging. "Then Egil got angry and lifted up the bat and struck Grim, whereupon Grim seized him and threw him down with a heavy fall, and handled him roughly, and said he would thrash him if he did not behave… Then Egil bounded upon Grim, and drove the axe into his head, so that it at once pierced his brain". Makes that James Anderson-Ravindra Jadeja spat seem like a very mild difference of opinion.

In reality Knattleikr clearly has a far closer kinship to the Celtic games hurling and shinty than to cricket. If we leave aside a couple of inter-service games during the Second World War, when the Allies occupied the island, cricket in Iceland only really goes back to 2015, when a group of expats - mainly Sri Lankans and Indians, with a smattering of Aussies, West Indians and Brits - set up two clubs, Reykjavík Puffins and Kópavogur Vikings. Since then they have been playing each other in a slightly incestuous old-firm derby sort of way, and hosting club sides from the UK, the US and Australia. They have visited Prague for a tournament, and the day after our tour, they were due to fly back out for another. So far they only have a solitary Icelander playing regularly, but one of the key goals for our visit was to do something about that - we were here to bring the glorious, subtle, beautiful game of cricket to a wider audience, and help kick-start the Icelandic cricket revolution.

So who were we, to come with such grandiose plans? The Authors XI has been around in various forms since 1891, and has been graced by the likes of PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and JM Barrie. Later, cricketers who picked up the pen in retirement were allowed in, meaning the quality of play improved - how could it not when the team included Denis Compton, Richie Benaud and Len Hutton? But the team expired some time in the 1960s, and the corpse lay dormant until reanimated by our current captain Charlie Campbell, and vice-captain and senior pro Nicholas Hogg. Together they gathered writers who also played the game. Some were eminent, others less so. All were united by a determination to have one last crack at cricketing glory.

Over six seasons we have given as good as we got. We even have form against an international team, winning a famous victory against the Japanese - ranked in the top 40 in the world at the time. We have toured India and Sri Lanka, and if we were generally well beaten when away from our familiar grey skies and green tops, we have seldom been humiliated.

Icelandic daily Fréttablaðið covers the demonstration game

Icelandic daily Fréttablaðið covers the demonstration game © Fréttablaðið

The opportunity to venture north came with the Reykjavík Literary Festival, to which a smattering of the team had been invited. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss - cricket and literature is what we were all about. The team we brought was strong, on paper. Along with Charlie and Nick, our team included acclaimed novelist Sebastian Faulks, historian Tom Holland, sportswriter Jonathan Wilson, and a couple of Aussies: broadcaster and writer Steve Cannane and philosopher John Sutton.

We arrived in Reykjavík already weighed down with duty-free. The one thing we all knew about the country was that the booze was going to be painfully expensive. We were thinking the pain levels would be about the same as a sharp rap on the knuckle from a quickish opening bowler. It turned out to be more like taking a beamer flush on the box. When you have forgotten to put the box in.

We were confronted with typical English cricket weather: low cloud and a heavy mizzle, which made it impossible to get any sense of the grandeur of the country. It could have been the outskirts of Halifax or Rotherham. A 40-minute coach ride took us to our hotel. On one side we could just make out some low rocky fells, covered with a thin scum of lichen. A grey sea occasionally lapped on the other. True to the classic tour, we were bunked up in twos and threes, but there was no time to settle as the first match was that evening.

The sense of being lost somewhere in the suburbs of a northern English city lingered. We were playing in a town just to the south of Reykjavík, called Kópavogur, and had to take a couple of local buses to get there. This, as is the way of the bus, involved quite a lot of standing around in the drizzle, by the side of dual carriageways. Iceland suddenly felt a lot like Sheffield. Someone took out a ball and we tossed it around, as bemused Icelanders on desultory dog-walking expeditions looked on. Perhaps for a few fleeting moments we appeared a bit like elite athletes, but then I managed to drop the ball into the road and had to scurry to fetch it, dodging the cars and lorries.

The original plan had been to play outdoors, but that just wasn't possible. We were therefore going to be playing indoors at the Korinn stadium. It was stupendously impressive - a huge echoing space, like an airship hangar, placed over a great expanse of AstroTurf - 14,457 square metres of the stuff, to be precise. Perfect for football. And for cricket? I put my hand down and touched the "grass". It was fine - springy, longer than ideal, but we'd certainly played on worse outfields. I scanned the ground for the wicket, assuming I'd see some kind of matting. But no. The stumps were out in the middle, placed simply on the raw Astro. I've never been able to read a wicket. What looks to me like a shirtfront can spit and shoot, and if I predict a hell-track it'll almost certainly be as gentle as a lamb. But even I could see that this was going to be tricky.

All play and no work is hard: the Authors rest in between games

All play and no work is hard: the Authors rest in between games © Anthony McGowan

As it transpired, it was beyond tricky. We were playing with yellow indoor balls, at 4oz a little lighter than a real ball. The combination of the lighter, softer ball, and the clinging AstroTurf meant that anything short tended to slow down and bounce high. If you were used to it, it made it easy to hammer it away. If you weren't, timing was virtually impossible. Anything pitched up swung extravagantly under the roof.

Our first look at the opposition, as they warmed up, was a little worrying. They were younger, lither, quicker. On the whole, authorial success doesn't arrive until early middle age (if it arrives at all), and several of us were well beyond that. When most of us bend to pick up a ball we emit a low groan, intermixed with a higher-pitched strangulated cry, as a tendon pings or another segment of cartilage disintegrates. Our throwing arms have gone, and we loop the ball back to the keeper with the gentle trajectory of back-garden badminton with Aunty Mabel. The Icelanders, however, swooped, silently and sent the ball back so quickly you lost it in flight, and only heard the thwack as it hit the keeper's gloves, or the clatter as the stumps went down.

The tournament consisted of three matches over two days. One that first evening, two the next day. They won the toss and batted. Chatting with them before the game, 200 seemed to be the par score. They only managed 103 for 9 in the 20. Everyone bowled well - but the standouts were Sutton, our big Aussie paceman, who took 2 for 8 off three overs, and Hogg, who was simply unplayable, swinging his way to 4 for 7 off four.

Chasing 104 should have been relatively straightforward. But, given the worst of possible starts by yours truly, we were skittled out for 54, of which only 39 came off the bat. Cannane was the only person to make double figures. Opening the bowling with the devastating Dushan (three overs, three runs, three wickets) was a Sri Lankan giant called Lankathilaka Sadun. He was too big for the official kit and so played in his civilian clothes, as if he'd just wandered in from the office, loosened his tie and marked his run-up.

Charlie Campbell shakes hands with Iceland's Abhishek Chauhan. Also visible in the photo are home side's  Chamley Fernando (keeper), Leslie Dcunha (clapping) and Lee Nelson

Charlie Campbell shakes hands with Iceland's Abhishek Chauhan. Also visible in the photo are home side's Chamley Fernando (keeper), Leslie Dcunha (clapping) and Lee Nelson © Anthony McGowan

It was pretty dispiriting. I suppose the obvious joy of the opposition should, if we'd been bigger people, have given us some pleasure. They needed this more than us. Iceland is a sports-mad country, but cricket barely even registers. The big games are football (of course) and handball. After that, skiing, schlepping around the countryside, and seal-clubbing all compete for attention. Okay, kidding about the seal-clubbing - though I was rather disconcerted when, at a meal later in the stay, we were served a starter of medium-rare seal steaks.

But it was hard not to warm to our opponents. They were friendly, happy, determined to do well both at cricket, and at the even trickier job of becoming Icelandic. Dushan, the devastating left-armer, and his allrounder brother Lakmal both worked for a bakery. Others worked in hotels. Jakob Robertson, the one native Icelander, was in forestry. Dennis Gamblen, an Englishman, was an engineer in the big chocolate factory, churning out, among other things, the Toffee Crisps that, thanks to his generous donation, were to form a major part of our diet while we were in the country.

I asked a couple of the players about life in Iceland. Although living costs are stupendously expensive, wages are high. The guys working in what we tend to think of as relatively low-paid employment - hotel and bar work - earned enough to get by. They were happy, but also a little guarded. Iceland is a long way culturally and geographically from Colombo or Mumbai. Wandering around the great Asian cities, you find yourself confronted with life in all its chaos and energy, its colour, its joy, its misery. In Iceland, the climate dictates that life happens behind walls, away from the cold wind and the prying eye. It must be hard not to feel excluded, to be forever on the wrong side of one of those closed doors. Perhaps the nearest thing I got to a revelation came when I asked one of the team how he found the natives. "Very good people," he said. And then, after a short pause, that may or may not have been significant, "when you get to know them".

Being English, we looked to alcohol to ease the pain of our first defeat. The night was a late one. At some stage we caught that glimpse of the Northern Lights. It was early in the year, and we were in town, so the glory of it was muted, but there it was. It seems in all the shared rooms, there was always one person snoring, and two lying awake listening to it. At breakfast the next morning much of the talk was about who was the champion snorer. "He sounds like a tiger eating an elephant"; "It's like listening to a toothless man eat porridge, forever"; "How does his wife stand it?" "She doesn't: she's left him."

John Sutton, Steve Cannane, Anthony McGowan and Sebastian Faulks take a hike

John Sutton, Steve Cannane, Anthony McGowan and Sebastian Faulks take a hike © Sadie Holland

We were determined to put up a better showing for the next confrontation. We warmed up properly before the game - if by warming up properly you mean taking long-range shots at the international-quality football nets, and wolfing the free Toffee Crisp bars. It was to no avail. Our bowling was even better. With Hogg, Campbell, Eaden, McGann and Sutton all hard to get away, they ended on 79 for 6. Surely well within our range? We were bowled out for 67. Our last three men were all run out for 0. It's fair to say that heads dropped.

We had a couple of hours off, so I decided to go for a solitary walk into town. Reykjavík is quite pretty. It's on a small, very human scale. You can stroll around the whole place in a couple of hours. Had I been in a happier mood, I'd have enjoyed its neatness and charm more. But I was filled with the sadness of underperformance. My job had been to get the side off to a decent start, and I'd failed. The totals we'd been chasing were so modest, even a 20 from me would have made the difference. I was too old. I wasn't good enough. Two games in two days (with the third to follow) had taken it out of me. My knees and ankles ached. Actually, all of me ached - it was just that the knee and ankle pain stood out, like the jagged rocks lining the harbour.

My despondency was all somehow accentuated by what happened next. As I limped and stumped along the coastal path, I saw a vision of collective athletic perfection coming towards me. The Iceland football team were due to play the Ukrainians in a World Cup qualifier the next day, and these were the visitors in all their magnificence. They jogged past me, some smiling, some sternly aloof. They looked like they were carved out of blocks of tungsten. They all towered above me, and exuded such health and vigour, such a sense of physical perfection, that it was impossible not to feel oneself shrinking and shrivelling in their presence.

A little further along the path I came across a pebbly section of the beach. The locals had turned this into an open-air gallery of rock sculpture. Stones of various shapes and sizes were carefully arranged one on top of the other, in patterns simple or complex, so they looked like hundreds of little rock people emerging from the scree. I've seen this sort of thing before, in the wilds of Canada, or in the Lake District. It's become a thing - a way people make their mark in the world, a kind of non-destructive, arty graffiti. Kind of annoying, if you ask me. I'd never seen so many. I remembered reading about how it's done. The teetering pebbles seem to defy gravity, but the trick is to find stones with three projecting imperfections, however small, which can then be used as a tripod. If the stone has no natural projections, you can use three grains of sand. On such little things the whole edifice stands. I sought some metaphorical significance in the rock sculptures. Those seemingly insignificant grains of sand that made the whole thing work. Perhaps I couldn't be one of the big rocks at the bottom, or one of the flamboyantly balanced pebbles, but I could be a grain of sand, small, easily ignored, yet crucial...

Local journalist Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir bats against the Authors during the demonstration match

Local journalist Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir bats against the Authors during the demonstration match © John Sutton

I trudged my way back to the stadium. It wasn't my job to do speeches. I just tried to look like I was enjoying myself. The Halldór Laxness Trophy might be gone, but there was still a game to win.

This time we batted first. I managed a reasonably brisk 12, which felt like riches after the poverty of the first two games. Everyone chipped in. Matt Thacker hit a not entirely sober 26. We ended on a competitive 122. And then we bowled and fielded as well as we could. They were always in with a chance, especially when one of their Aussies, Lee Nelson, the Head Clown (seriously) at the Icelandic State Circus, was bludgeoning his way to 32. But Hogg, again, was superb. Holland was niggardly. Our skipper captained with aplomb and panache. There was great drama in the penultimate over when Derick Deonarain blasted three balls up into the roof, where they clanged off the ducting. Two of them would have been six, but the indoor rules meant they were called dead. Going into the last over, they were nine down, with seven needed to win. Tom Eadon bowled an astonishing maiden. The game was won, pride was salvaged. The night that followed is lost to memory. But logic suggests that it was a good one.

The next day we played a demonstration game with some of the Icelandic team, and a smattering of curious locals, on a rough field splattered with goose excrement. It made both the TV stations. The presence of the British ambassador (a decent bat, it turned out) helped. It seemed particularly popular with the local women. They were as fearless as shield-maidens. I suggest that if cricket has a future in Iceland, it may be the women who lead the way. But they'll need a better pitch.

Our last day was devoted to sightseeing, under the expert guidance of Kit Harris, who had also bowled some cunning offbreaks for the Icelanders. At last the sun shone, and the waterfalls and volcanoes and hot springs and geysers were shown off to their best, under cobalt skies. Good cricket weather, actually.

Iceland Cricket is trying to raise funds for cricket equipment here. It is now arranging fixtures for 2018. To enquire about bringing your team to Iceland, please contact kit@nextstopiceland.com.

Anthony McGowan writes novels for adults, teenagers and younger children. He is a keen but ungifted member of the Authors XI cricket team

 

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