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Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy Bluffer’s Guide

Last weekend I played host to a particularly friendly cricket match – by which I mean that both teams had no clue what they were doing.

The opposition, Rain Men, were captained by my friend and usual team-mate Simon, whose excuse was that he’d only played the game 263 times previously. The other captain was, er, me.

I staffed it out (to my younger and more-gifted brother, specifically). For Simon’s part, I gather he was cruelly sent a copy of Mike Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy. But what we could really both have used, perhaps, was the Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket.

‘Only a fool will start bluffing without a basic knowledge of how to play the game,’ say James Trollope and Nick Yapp, authors of this revised and updated 126 pages of ‘instant wit and wisdom’™.

But as anyone who has ever even heard of cricket is aware, there is nothing remotely basic about it, a sport so intellectually and emotionally discombobulating – not to say physically demanding – that players have to stop repeatedly for food and, at the highest levels of the game, sleep. The laws of cricket, per se, may only take up 30 pages, but they are mostly small print. (‘You’d be better off learning irregular verbs in Serbo-Croat.’) So, pretty soon, we are clarifying vital minutiae such as the Duckworth Lewis Method (‘not a form of birth control’), how you should never bluff around a man holding a scorebook, and why no-one ever thinks he’s caught a ‘dolly’.

All these things – it goes without saying – are entirely uproarious for those who’ve actually played some cricket. (Americans need not write in.)

Of course, a lot of rubbish is talked around and indeed within the boundary of a cricket match, not least because there is so much time available, especially when – hypothetically speaking – one has been sent back to the dressing room by an unplayable left-arm inswinging first-ball yorker. And as even the most otherworldly amateur cricketing gentleman will confirm, there is no surer test of one’s relationship than bringing an uninitiated girlfriend along to a full day’s village cricket. On this, readers may wish to take with a pinch of salt the suggestion that ‘you might be surprised (and relieved) to discover that a lot of talk at a cricket match doesn’t actually involve cricket.’ And only a certifiable lunatic would repeat within earshot the opinion that ‘rather like the offside rule in football, nobody is quite sure how [the lbw ‘rule’] works.’

But for those plucky chaps (and chapesses) brave enough to want to hold their own on or near the field of glory, there are sub-sections on ‘bodyline’, Test Match Special, and the importance of ‘the protection’; tips on what to say about the national side (‘Pretending to be an Englishman if you’re actually a South African is bluffing of the highest order’); mini-biographies of the great and good (incl. Fuller Pilch, 1803–1870, who played, cut grass, and tended bar for what is now my village club); and a glossary of Johnsonian-type definitions (‘Beamer: … Bowlers always pretend they didn’t mean to’). There’s even – gasp – a bit on women’s cricket.

Still, ‘there’s no point in pretending that you know everything about cricket – nobody does’ (Trollope and Yapp have not met Marcus Berkmann, obviously…). But having riffled – and/or ROFLd – through their waggish pages, you could at least consider yourself ‘a bona fide expert in the art of bluffing about the world’s most puzzling and incomprehensible game’.

A word of warning, though: ‘An extreme bluffer may even take the dangerous step of accepting an invitation to play. This is not recommended.’

Witty, mischievous, and above all thoroughly genial, The Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket is among Haynes Publishing’s (they of the car manuals) ‘refreshed’ line-up of 16 Bluffer’s Guides, spanning – and occasionally cross-referencing – such typical pre-, post- and even intra-prandial conversational ‘opportunities’ as fishing, beer, golf, cats, cycling, and management.

With the series now well into its sixth decade, discerning Oldie readers might also enjoy the classic Keith Hann volume on opera (Kiri Te Kanawa is related to Sir Arthur Sullivan, by adoption), William Hanson’s drippingly snotty guide to etiquette (please don’t stack the Sèvres china…), Susie Boniface’s implacable run-down of social media, and Jonathan Goodall and Harry Eyres on that holiest of all bullshitter’s – I, I… I mean ‘bluffer’s’ – holy grails: talking about (rather than simply getting on and drinking) wine.

There is, obviously, a bluff (a double-bluff?) inherent in the Bluffer’s Guides – which is that no-one’s ever going to come to these for explanations. The market, surely, is people who already understand a thing and would like some cheerful British humour on the subject. By way of Christmas presents, probably. This only works, of course, if the information in the books is broadly accurate. All the same, a good few authors bluff on their relative unfitness to write authoritatively about their chosen topics.

The latest in the series is The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit.

‘Keep calm and negotiate.’

‘Let’s hold another referendum on whether to hold another referendum.’

Possessors of strong views on the elephant in the room de nos jours will be pleased (or displeased…?) to find that Boris Starling’s primer tells you what to say – and with the aid of 54 footnotes, what is more – but it doesn’t tell you what to think. Starling’s back-page biog maintains ‘he determinedly keeps his own counsel about Brexit… refusing to be drawn on his views about something so fraught with imponderables’. (Elsewhere he claims he asked his editor to guess at his position on the matter.)

For the rest of us, though, on this, as on so many topics, would-be bluffers can console themselves with Starling’s fundamental theme: ‘Only one thing can be said with certainty about Brexit: nobody knows anything.’

The Bluffer’s Guides are (re)published today

For The Oldie, in a different edit

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