A motivation for cricket

Opinions on cricket are not hard to come by. That it’s a torturously complicated sport with rules about rules about rules, just for the pleasure of the ritual. Or it’s terribly boring, nothing ever happens and there’s nothing to watch. And the crowd consists of a bunch of old men who natter on about the iniquities of the estate taxes while waxing their moustaches.

This article is for those who want to learn more about cricket. More than that: it’s for those who are curious if there are any good reasons why they should want to learn more about cricket. I will use baseball as a reference point for some of the rules, but I hope it will be a useful read even if you don’t know any baseball.

I think most of these misconceptions are false, but I did come to realize while writing this that there are genuine reasons for a newcomer to cricket to be baffled by it. These reasons are not difficult to overcome, but they involve questions that rarely get formulated, and that more experienced fans don’t realize needed answering.

SO WHAT ARE THE RULES OF CRICKET?

This is the boring part.  Feel free to hop over to an explanation of the rules of cricket, and how to understand the scores, in a separate post.

OK, NOW I KNOW THE RULES AND WHAT THE NUMBERS MEAN.

Good.

BUT I STILL HAVE NO IDEA WHY CRICKET’S INTERESTING.

Yes. That’s the fun part to talk about.

WELL, GET ON THEN.

Do you know what the “pathetic fallacy” is?

Assume you’re a writer. Further assume you’re not a very good writer. Your protagonist has just travelled forty miles on the back of an irritable and flatulent donkey to his lady love’s house; but she had believed that he had been devoured by rabid gerbils and has already married the antagonist. The protagonist has arrived too late and is outside her house on the lawn, in the dark. Through the window he is staring at her dancing the rhumba with the dastardly smirking villain.

What’s the weather?

You know what the weather is. It’s raining hard on the protagonist, with rivulets running down the back of his neck, and maybe some lightning so that in the intermittent flashes of light you can see his tears mixing with the rain.

The “pathetic fallacy” is the tendency of the weather in fiction and movies to magically conform to the mood of the character we’re following.

ARE YOU SERIOUS?

I’m getting to the cricket. There’s an equivalent of the pathetic fallacy in sports, which is to make a connection between a sportsman’s style of play and his or her character. Let’s call it the “athletic analogy”.

This usually is just lazy reporting coupled with the natural tendency of humans to see patterns in hindsight. For the most part, there’s really no connection. Shaquille O’Neal played a decidedly overwhelming power game but there’s no reason to believe he was more aggressive than most other players. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had rather similar styles of play, but were very different characters.

In my opinion, cricket (and especially batting) draws out the essence of the man and spreads it flat and pins it out on the field of play like a butterfly on display, better than any other sport I know. There’s David Gower’s casual elegance; Sunil Gavaskar’s tenacious mix of defense and attack; Viv Richard’s swagger. It’s not a perfect correlation by any means, but I maintain that it’s stronger than most any other sport.

The reason for this is that cricket provides choices. Remember that it’s a batsman-dominated sport. That means the batter does not just have to do what they *can* do, they can try what they *want* to do.

Assume the bowler has bowled a bouncer at you: this means a delivery that is purposely bowled so that it bounces off the pitch and comes straight at your throat. You can duck — this delivery is definitely not going to hit the stumps! If you do this, the bowler is going to stare at you, make you think you’ve backed down. Can you stare back at him and not get baited or intimidated? Or you can choose to hit it. Because of the nature of the delivery, any shot you make is likely to be in the air, and there’s probably a fielder positioned just to get you out if you judge the shot wrong; but you’ve taken the bowler’s aggression and counterpunched. What do you do?

But: that was just one ball. Don’t expect too much revelation of character from a single choice. Cricket probes deeper into the psyche than that.

You’re an Australian playing in India. It’s a hard fought series, and who knows who’s pulling their nose in front? The crowd’s roaring, 50,000 strong. The Indian spin bowlers are operating — these are bowlers that bowl slowly, but move the ball off the pitch more. The extra time you get to deal with them does funny things to your mind; you can’t run on reflexes any more. The conscious part of your brain has to focus and you have to choose to deal with the delivery perfectly. Then you have to do it again.

Have I mentioned that the temperature is about 105 degrees Fahrenheit?

If you’re Dean Jones, you have to do this for eight straight hours. You’re dehydrated. During breaks in play, you’re vomiting and you’ve lost control of your bladder. You keep doing it, because the team needs it.

I don’t mean that cricket is the most dangerous sport in the world, and I’m glad it’s not. But that’s where the force of character comes in. The imminent threat of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johson said, and the threat of driving into a wall at 300 kph will keep an F1 driver focused on the task at hand. Dean Jones didn’t have that to keep him going; in fact, a little slip, one ball slightly misjudged and he could go back and go to the hospital (where he finally ended up on IVs) and no one would blame him. He didn’t just have to keep going, he had to *choose* to keep going.

Cricket gives you lots of opportunities to choose not to accept responsibility. Fazal Mahmood bowled 500 deliveries in an innings, because the team needed him to. Fielders get the privilege of taking up positions just a few yards from a very large bat and a very hard ball, not because someone has to field there, but because the captain wants someone to field there. You can be the last batsman with a ridiculously large number of runs left to get and none of your partners lasting long, and you have to choose whether to set yourself up for failure by scrapping for every run or acknowledge the reality of the situation and let yourself down easily.

Some take the hard choices under pressure, while others shy away from the pressure. Some don’t feel any pressure at all and keep stepping lightly, while others accept the pressure but groan under the burden. And cricket lets you watch this unfold from the comfort of your living room.

A LITTLE MELODRAMATIC, ARE WE?

Well, you’re still reading.

BUT HOW ABOUT THE ACTUAL ACTION ON THE FIELD?

What do we want from sports?

It’s easy to answer that we like to watch superlative athleticism — strength and speed. There’s a flaw in that argument, though. How popular are weightlifting or sprinting as spectator sports?

I think what we really want is transcendance. Not a tough ask, is it? We love strength, but here’s the paradox, at the same time we want exquisite control. We want split second reflexes, but at the same time, we want creativity. In other words, we want Michael Jordan. Sports that don’t have this tension between different poles aren’t as interesting, at least to me — like weightlifting and sprinting.

Now watch the fast bowler. He starts at an unthreatening amble, but now he accelerates. As he reaches the end, his entire body coils like a spring, the ball in one hand, the other hand pivoting furiously as a dynamic counterweight. Now the denouement and all the work in the runup and the coiling pays off — the entire body takes part in an explosive unfolding and we’re done.

At the other end, the batsman waits. The best analogy I have for batting in cricket is bullfighting (without the slaughter). There’s the ball, and it’s vicious and it’s charging. The batsman can laugh and play with the ball as with a soap bubble; or he can dispatch it; or decide to tire out the bull and grind him down, waiting for a moment he can make his own. And the spectator gets to sit down and see what works and who wins.

ANY OTHER REASONS TO LOVE CRICKET?

Here’s one, and I think it’s a big one. Cricket is a game kids play.

We tend to forget this, that the purpose of a sport is to be played. Especially by kids. And especially as non-organized games. It’s not a reality show put on by millionaires to be watched by a TV audience for the benefit of advertisers.

So go to small-town Australia, the beaches of Jamaica, the slums of Karachi, the refugee camps of Afghanistan. Come, indeed, to where I grew up in Mumbai — here’s our little spot, a precious strip of concrete a few yards wide between two buildings. That, over there, is the window we’d end up breaking every year. If you hit it, you got two runs but were automatically out. When we broke it, the shards went into the house and took hours to clean up, but the owners never tried to stop us from playing. They knew.
_________
POSTSCRIPT
Some randomly selected videos to watch you might enjoy. These were selected in five minutes, and I’m sure there are much better out there (feel free to suggest some yourselves!).

Here’s some video to watch of a great fast bowler. Watch the action, a combination of strength, grace and control.

This is the “ball of the century”, bowled by the famous spinner Shane Warne. Watch as the ball veers to the right in the air, then spits off the pitch as it bounces.

This is a song written about that ball!

Some shots by Sachin Tendulkar. Watch how batting involves the whole body. The feet dance around, the hands direct the shot, the body provides power and the head remains still.

A collection of great catches by wicketkeepers.

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2 Responses to A motivation for cricket

  1. Samir Chopra says:

    A very interesting post. I think focusing on choice is a good move, though some aspects of it will be found in other sports, making cricket less unique. The real uniqueness lies in batting choices, I think; you rightly begin with this notion. There are more choices for the batter for each delivery and thus more possible outcomes etc.

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