Drama and impact of cricket captured by Kia Oval’s first Poet-in-Residence

Award-winning poet Zaffar Kunial

The beauty and history of cricket – a game which has captivated the country this summer – will be captured in verse by the Kia Oval’s first Poet-in-Residence.

Award-winning poet Zaffar Kunial will record events at this week’s final Ashes test match. The life-long cricket fan grew up watching the sport and dreamed of becoming a professional player.

Zaffar’s residency is part of the Places of Poetry project, which aims to engage people of all ages and abilities to write poems about place, heritage and identity and then ‘pin’ them onto a digital map, where everyone can read them. An anthology of his cricket-themed poems – Six – has been published by Faber to coincide with his residency.

So far, over 4,500 poems have been posted by poets from across England and Wales as part of Places of Poetry. The digital map has been created to encourage people to think about the environment and history around them. The map consists of two layers: an artistic map, based on decorative seventeenth-century county maps, and a second layer of Ordnance Survey data, allowing users to zoom in to a high level of detail.

Zaffar grew up near the Edgbaston cricket ground and would watch matches every summer, often on his own but also with a Walkman and cassette so he could listen to music, usually the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. His anthology describes his most memorable cricket memories, from Imran Khan captaining his first Test match, or a shy encounter with Brian Johnston. The poems describe Zaffar’s trials for Warwickshire, after which he gave up playing. He writes how he “took no wickets while the coach stood in my net” during his “second and final” trial when his “bat felt as heavy as England”.

Zaffar said: “Writing about cricket and being poet in residence at The Oval feels like a way of bridging a former life with my current life. I was a cricket-obsessed child who taught himself to bowl leg-spin from a book by Abdul Qadir, and had trials at junior level for Warwickshire and hoped eventually to play for England. I’m fascinated by how writing about this sport I thought I had given up awakens muscle-memories of playing and watching. I feel like I’m on home ground with this commission.”

In one poem Zaffar describes himself as a boy, looking for a cricket ball beyond the boundary, in brambles – in “a shady fingernail of forest”. Another ends with him looking at the blue sky above a tree he used to climb in his back garden, imagining that the old Forest of Arden still has an impact on the area.

Zaffar want to the same school as the England cricketer Moeen Ali, and in one poem he reflects on this, and this history he may have on “grounds I’ve not played on”.

Places of Poetry is led by broadcaster and poet Paul Farley and University of Exeter academic Professor Andrew McRae.

Professor McRae, who is a keen fan of the Australian cricket team, said: “We hope the map will inspire people to write, whatever their age or experience, and fill the map with thousands of new poems about places that mean something to them.

“The aim is to encourage people to think about heritage from different angles, such as environmental, industrial, religious, cultural or sporting. We want to celebrate the diversity, history and character of the places around us.”

Zaffar Kunial was born in Birmingham and lives in Hebden Bridge. His debut collection, Us (2018), was shortlisted for a number of prizes, including the Costa Book Award for Poetry and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Since his first public reading, of ‘Hill Speak’ at the 2011 National Poetry Competition Awards, Kunial has spoken at various literature festivals and in Programmes for BBC Radio.

The Places of Poetry project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, and is made possible by partnerships with the Ordnance Survey, The Poetry Society and National Poetry Day.

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