On November 2, 2008 ESPN featured a special sports capsule on cricket, a 20/20 (twenty overs per side; six balls or pitches per over) match between the West Indies Stanford Superstars (named for a Texas billionaire sponsor) and the English national team. For years cricket has been a popular sport in several parts of the world; countries with national teams include Australia, Bangladesh, England, Ireland, India, Kenya, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and Zimbabwe. Even the U.S. has a national team, a fact known only to cricket aficionados.
Ever since I came to this country I have had to endure the jibes of friends and acquaintances about my passion for cricket. They can’t understand how anyone can love a game that is played over five days (Test cricket, the traditional game, not the 20/20 version) and often ends in a draw; in fact, they think me insane at my suggestion that a draw can be a more thrilling contest than a victory, as one side strives to thwart the blood-scenting, victory-seeking efforts of its rival!
What lurks in the American psyche that prevents us from endorsing anything not “invented” here? I suppose colonialism has much to do with it—the U.S. gained Independence before the British could bring over new games and sports, as they did in their other dominions. Soccer, the world sport, has finally found a foothold in the U.S. (thanks largely to a growing Hispanic and Asian population, whose influx has made this country a quasi colony), but as a spectator sport it still cannot compete with football, baseball, and basketball, despite the popularity of organized soccer and the integral place of “soccer moms” in our political and cultural lexicon! Of course, one rarely sees a pick-up game of soccer!
American professional sports are confined, for the most part, to national leagues but we think nothing of referring to league winners as “world champions.” Cricket, like soccer, is played in international arenas (in addition to national leagues); professional clubs routinely release players to their respective countries. India and Pakistan, for instance, meet often on the cricket pitch despite border disputes, escalating political tensions, and arms proliferation; their cricketers share tips, chats off the field, and the easy camaraderie born of mutual respect and admiration, despite their fierce on-field rivalry. In fact, at one point it appeared that rapprochement between these two nations was possible only on the cricket field.
Test Cricket is considered a “gentleman’s game,” played in white trousers (flannel in cold climes) and shirts (sometimes with sweaters), with short breaks for a drinks cart to roll out on the field and longer recesses as players leave the field for lunch and tea. From its origins among the tea-drinking, politely-applauding elite in England cricket has been adopted by the raucous, Bollywood song-chanting millions of Asia, the beer-guzzling surfers of Australia, and the reggae rhythms of the Caribbean where they once wrote a calypso to an Indian batsman who captured their imagination with his magnificent performances against their own team. On its journey to worldwide popularity and huge profits, and despite its “genteel” design cricket also suffers the fates of all other professional sports—match-fixings, boorish and racist behavior on and off the field, drug scandals, and shameless displays of partisanship; in other words, it has all the drama of American sports. It is a game of huge scores, often in excess of 1000 runs per match, moments of high pressure and soporific lulls, with national pride on the line.
Much has been made about the kinship between cricket and baseball. Anyone who has watched or played both games knows, however, that they are very different, except for one vital ingredient—for all its home runs and triples and spectacular put-outs, the essential struggle in baseball is the mind game between a batter and pitcher. The real tension lies in the subtly fluctuating velocities of pitches and the second-guessing of location framed by the ubiquitous control of the umpire. Cricket is similar in that respect, with the added elements of shifting field placements as fielders are moved around depending on the tendencies of the batsman (left or right-handed with a preference for hitting the ball to certain parts of the field) and bowler (fast, medium pace, or slow spin). The captain on the field of cricket thus plays a critical role in switching bowlers and fielders. American sports are controlled from the sidelines or the dugout.
Perhaps the cultural divide against cricket in this country has to do with our national character, in particular our impatience with anything that develops slowly. Baseball has often been criticized for being sluggish—batters stepping out of the box, pitchers shaking off signs, constant pick-off attempts, and so on. Every year MLB seeks new rules to speed up the game whose fan base has deteriorated over the last few decades. No-one seems to care that speed of play is merely an illusion in American football, with its interminable timeouts, play-calling, and standing around. Stop watches have easily discovered that the ball is “in play” for a mere 12 to 15 minutes!
Maybe countries with ancient cultures find cricket attractive. Where time often stands still and a match can last five days; in countries filled with so many yesterdays that today is almost dispensable and we can return tomorrow to finish it; or the day after, or the ones after that as well. It’s a game that may end in a draw, with neither side winning (remember the baseball furor a few years ago when the Commissioner declared an All-Star game a tie? And this was just an exhibition game which, unlike now, didn’t have any consequences on the season). But that doesn’t clarify everything; it doesn’t account for the popularity of cricket in relatively newer cultures like Australia and South Africa beyond the obvious adherence to a colonial British past!
Is it possible that despite vast cultural differences there may be more in common between the sports than I imagined, something embedded in their intrinsic structures not obviously apprehended nor readily explained? To understand that I needed a greater understanding of America; I had to lift the superficial layers draped over my image of this country and investigate the heart of it. Is it a stretch to suggest that a 5-day match can flourish only in a culture where Time is not of the essence? Perhaps the collective unconscious in ancient cultures, having been around for centuries, offers a more friendly perspective of time; which doesn’t explain Australia until one remembers its easy-going, almost laissez faire national character. For us Americans, Time is an opponent to be chopped into pieces and controlled, with every minute accounted for and filled. It is no accident that we have the least national holidays of any country, less vacation time than most, and are constantly fiddling with Daylight Savings Time like children afraid of the dark. In such a culture, the idea of a 5-day match is anathema. In fact, not so long ago a cricket Test match even included a Rest Day, God forbid!
The future of cricket, however, is poised for a breakthrough with the advent of the 20/20 matches, which take less than two hours to play (shorter than baseball) and cannot end in a draw. The move to entice the short-attention-span modern world began a few years ago with the one-day 50-over version of the game that abandoned whites for colorful uniforms and had purists in a tizzy. This latest edition may doom the Test Match to extinction, but will grow the game exponentially. And once Americans discover the glories of cricket how can they resist the colorful field positions—Short Leg, Fine Leg, and Deep Fine Leg, Gully, Slips, Cover and Extra Cover, Point, Silly Point, Silly Mid-On, Mid-Off, Long-Off, Mid-Wicket, and Third Man? Not to mention the “pitches”—Bouncers, Beamers, Flippers, Googlies, Drifters, Leg Breaks, Off Breaks, Wrong ‘uns, and Doosras; and the shots a batsman plays—Long Hops, Cover Drives, Square Drives, Straight Drives, Sweeps, Reverse Sweeps, On Drives, Off Drives, Hooks, Pulls, Glances, Late Cuts, Cuts, played off the front and back foot! Or that most controversial of umpire calls—the Leg Before Wicket?
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