Why I love cricket – A long slow post

Souvenir from the first Test match I attended*

(*I do have the original brochure, which I photographed for this post. But it’s not the one I left the ground with in 1966. I acquired this one at a second-hand at a book fair decades later.)

1. Introduction

I love cricket.

I went to my first Test match fifty-five years ago today. And that’s when I fell in love with cricket, and in particular Test cricket.

I was taken by my father to watch my first-ever Test match. It probably helped that it was at Eden Gardens, one of the greatest Test venues in the world. It probably helped that the Indian team was captained by Mansoor Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi (Junior). It probably helped that the visiting team was managed by Frank Worrell (who, sadly, was diagnosed with leukaemia while on tour and died soon after), captained by Gary Sobers, included Conrad Hunte (who played golf with my father and Sobers during that tour) and Rohan Kanhai and the debutant Clive Lloyd and Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith and Seymour Nurse and Lance Gibbs and a host of others. It probably helped that the Indian team included ML Jaisimha and Abbas Ali Baig and Rusi Surti and Bishan Bedi and Srinivasa Venkataraghavan (who, after a long and illustrious bowling career, became a world-renowned umpire) and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and another host of others.

The Nawab of Pataudi, Jr, with his wife Sharmila Tagore. Photo credits Saba Pataudi Instagram

It probably helped that the second day’s play was an absolute riot. Literally. I had just turned 9 the previous month. I could never forget that day.

That Test made sure I fell in love with cricket. India lost. I watched India play many times at Eden Gardens, saw many great cricketers in action; but I never saw India win at Eden Gardens.

I heard India win a few times. Radio commentary was a lovesome thing, God wot.

I watched India win for the first time in 1981. I think it was the Bombay Test, when England were visiting. When I say I “watched” India win, I may be accused of stretching the truth. But I stand by my words. I watched India win. On Ceefax. Oh the joy and the agony, when you knew something had happened because the page didn’t refresh, and you knew that someone somewhere was about to type letters and numbers that had such power over you. A wicket? A boundary? An appeal not given? Something ominous, something of import.

An aside. Some years ago, the New York Times carried a piece about petty crimes in London, generating a Twitter storm. I had the chance to remind people about the correct way to watch cricket. Here’s an extract from the piece.

Yes, I love cricket. All forms of cricket, but with the clear understanding that the essence of cricket is encapsulated in a proper Test match. During my lifetime I have watched the emergence of the 60 over game, the 50 over game, the 20 over game, and more recently “The Hundred”. (I shall resist the temptation to say any more about the last in that list. At least for now).

I’m not legalistic about the five-day game per se. In fact this year I went to the “6th day” of a Test match, the “reserve day” set aside for the World Test Championship Final. And yes, I watched India lose. New Zealand were worthy champions.

When I started watching cricket, Test matches were played over six days, there was a rest day (usually between the third and fourth days), and it was normal to go to the match on the rest day to watch the teams practising and to get closer to the action, get autographs, meet friends and generally have a good time.

Which brings me to one of the points of this post.

2. Cricket as a social object

Cricket is more than just a sport. It’s a social object par excellence. (My thanks to Jyri Engestrom and Hugh MacLeod for introducing me to the term, and letting me discover Durkheim et al as a result)

Say you’re lucky enough to be watching some tennis at Centre Court, Wimbledon. It’s a game that tends to be played in what my teachers used to call pin-drop silence. Shhhh. Quiet please. Murmurs of applause between rallies acceptable. Occasionally, appreciative roars. Shouting a player’s name out loud? Not really, though it does happen. You’ll definitely get a “look” from everyone for that. You’re barely able to move. You shouldn’t really be talking, not even to your companion. The only sounds allowed are the grunts of the players and the thud of the ball, and even then at least one of those sounds is “new”… there was no grunting at South Club in the late 1960s when I saw India play Australia in what was then the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup, a final of sorts. Yes, they lost. I must be a real Jonah. But then I was at Tunbridge Wells in 1983, when India played Zimbabwe. Hmmm.

Snooker and billiards are also pin-drop silence sports. I love watching tennis; I’ve enjoyed watching billiards live; though I’ve never been to a snooker tournament, I could make myself, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it. But it’s not the same as watching cricket.

At football, it’s hard to carry on a conversation for the exact opposite reason. You can’t hear yourself think. So you sing along with the club songs, question the parentage of the officials, and, occasionally, exchange very brief words and phrases with the people you’ve come with. You do get a twenty minute break in between, but that tends to get frittered away queueing for the loos or bar or something. It’s not the same as watching cricket.

Someone said to me that football is a game for gentlemen played by louts, and that rugby is a game for louts played by gentlemen. When it comes to watching the game, they have similar characteristics: lots of noise, lots of singing, lots of drinking (at least before and after — it’s not always possible during). Hard to have a conversation while the match is on. It’s not the same as watching cricket.

Cricket is unusual to the extent that it’s all right to chat to your friends during the match rather than principally before and after. Silence is not expected. And you can hear yourself think. That’s the first difference.

There are many more. It is normal and expected at a cricket match that you meet for breakfast before the match – I’m partial to finding the best bacon sarnie at the ground nowadays – but when I was at Eden Gardens it used to be all about finding the “Nescoffee” stall and having some samosas. When in Rome.

It is normal and expected that you take a break for lunch, and another for tea, as part of your day’s entertainment. In which other sport are there scheduled stops for food? Not just one, but two. During the match. During every day of the match. And not counting the parentheses of breakfast and dinner that bracket each day’s play.

(By the way, I don’t count the “Dinner” break that shows up in Pink Ball matches. In order to count Dinner as a formal break, I have to recognise the existence of the Pink Ball, which I have yet to do. My Pink Ball thoughts are kept in the same drawer as my Coloured Pajamas thoughts and my Hundred thoughts. There is no handle to that drawer. The drawer above it has Duckworth-Lewis and Decision Review. I have to treat that drawer with great care, making sure I have my blood pressure pills and GTN spray handy before ever venturing close. Some things are sent to try us).

It is normal and expected that you punctuate your day with breaks for food during a Test match. You can bring food from home, buy a hamper at the ground, queue up at one or more of the wonderful stalls, go and sit down at one of the posh restaurants, leave the ground and go to the pub and come back, any and all of the above. Watching cricket is essentially a culinary experience if you are so inclined. That’s the second difference.

The socialising doesn’t just happen within your own group/circle/clique. Again, because it’s possible to hear others around you, it’s quite normal for people to talk to each other beyond your normal circle, beyond the group you came with. This odd and unusual behaviour, so very at odds with the “look deep into the newspaper and avoid eye contact with anyone else at all costs” technique perfected on public transport in the UK. Talk to the person next to you? Heaven forfend.

This social transgression is also part and parcel of being at a Test match. It tends to happen for three reasons.

One, people around you want to know what you’re eating and where you got it from. A very understandable curiosity, one that is born of the necessity to be better informed — for the next day — so that you can beat the queues and eat the junk food you really want rather than the junk food that happened to be available.

Two, people want to know what just happened. It is natural and normal to miss the action. Ninety overs is a long time, every day. (Assuming of course you get to the ninety overs. I’m less than impressed with recent trends in this respect). Not much happens in a day, even with 540 balls bowled. At best you’ll see ten or fifteen wickets/near wickets and maybe thirty or forty boundaries/near boundaries. Forty or fifty “events”. Spread over six hours. One every ten minutes on average, if that. And it could happen at the very time you went to the loo, got a cuppa, queued up for a snack, whatever. So it’s normal to ask what happened. Nowadays, with big screens and action replays and DRS and all that, some of the magic of not knowing what happened is lost. But there’s a replacement, the opportunity to argue about the pros and cons of DRS. Again, I shall carefully bite my tongue and say no more at this stage.

The commonest reason for missing some of the play? Nodding off to sleep. Cricket is wonderful for that. Ever since I was a child, I’ve conjured up images of moustachioed majors snoring gently, the foliage on their upper lips gently wafting in the breeze from their nostrils, while watching the cricket. Maybe I read too much PG Wodehouse as a child. But one thing’s for sure. People do fall asleep at the cricket. It is natural. It is normal. And it is expected.

Three, people transgress and start talking to strangers because of a “derivative”social object. Statistics. The game is chock-full of data about the game. There is no true equivalent of the collecting frenzy for the annual Wisden in any other sport; there is no true equivalent of the Aladdin’s Cave of data that is cricinfo, especially the statistics sections. Football may have its Playfair and its Opta, golf may have its plethora of numbers about drive lengths and sand saves and fairways hit, American football and basketball and baseball all have their number fiends, but they don’t come into the same county as cricket. Not even close. More on that later, as I describe the Road to 229.

3. Cricket’s unexpected inclusiveness

Photo copyright @LIFE, accessed via @Indiahistorypics on Twitter

It’s very easy to think of cricket as an exclusive sport. And at some level it is, if what you’re talking about is playing at Lords (or Eden Gardens or MCG), wearing pristine whites and with your country’s cap on your head. Fair enough.

But that’s not the kind of exclusiveness I was talking about.

When I was growing up in Calcutta, I saw people playing cricket everywhere. Much of it was on the maidan (often referred to as the city’s lung), a broad expanse of green that I spent a lot of time on and around. (For those who are interested in such things, the maidan is about 988 acres, as compared to the 843 acres of New York’s Central Park, or the 350 acres of London’s Hyde Park. The Oval Maidan in Churchgate, Mumbai, which is probably the densest cricket-playing area I’ve encountered, is only 22 acres).

If there wasn’t a patch of green to play on, any road would do. Stumps were often made of a column of bricks, single-brick width. Traffic would stop for the cricket, if it was an important neighbourhood match. Like the internet, the cars would route around obstacles, never interfering with the field of play.

If there wasn’t a suitable segment of road to play on, any concrete patch would do. Car parks. Back yards. Wherever.

Can’t drive your stumps in? Use the tower of bricks. No bricks available? No space anyway? Draw the stumps on the wall.

There was always something that resembled a cricket bat, though it was unlikely to have the wood or the splice of a “proper” bat. The balls were usually tennis balls, though I’m convinced someone had come up with red cricket-ball-like tennis balls just for Indian children. They didn’t have a classic seam, but for sure they could be made to spin.

If you didn’t have room to play outside, you played inside. And caused havoc with the furniture and fittings of the house. (If I had a dollar for the number of chandeliers that must have fallen prey to indoor cricket in houses all over India…).

If you didn’t even have enough room for that, you played “French cricket”, where you stood with your bat in the centre of a circle while everyone else bowled at you — by flinging the ball at your legs as hard as they could — one “bowler” at a time, varying the angle of attack across the 360 degrees — and you could be out caught (as normal) or bowled (when the ball hit your legs).

If you didn’t have room for that either, you played “book cricket”. You opened a book at random, and the page number determined what happened. The 0-1 page was a wicket; the 2-3 page was a single; the 4-5 page was a boundary; the 6-7 page was a six; the 8-9 page was a dot ball. Sometimes we had other rules to determine “how out” after a 0-1 page. You get my drift.

The point I’m trying to make is that there were no barriers to entry to playing cricket, and that it was played in every way possible: at home sitting down with a pair of books, indoors in a small group with the batter in the middle, in the living room, in a car park, on the street, in a playground, on open green spaces and, where possible, on proper cricket pitches and at proper cricket grounds.

When I was introduced to cricket, I had no idea where Lords was, but I found out soon enough. And soon I knew my Pavilion End from my Nursery End. Finding out about things cricket only required you to know someone who knew a bit, and to have access to a radio.

When I was young, I could always hear what was going on at a Test match, even if I couldn’t see what was happening. If there was a match on, someone would have the commentary on the radio, and it was considered quite acceptable to stop, listen for a while, and then to move on to the next “commentary stop”. When people started carrying “transistor radios” this public facility became wireless, portable and ubiquitous. On a bus, on the train, on the pavement, everywhere. AirBuds hadn’t been invented as yet. Your personal radio was public property when it came to the cricket.

4. The death of Test cricket

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been hearing about the death of Test cricket. I am reassured by the knowledge that it died in 1882, when only two countries played Test cricket, and the foundation of the Ashes was set then. It seems to be doing remarkably well since, all things considered. (Incidentally, try naming the two countries that first played an “international” cricket match, as distinct and different from the two countries that first played a Test match. In fact, try and name just one of the two countries. Then google the answer. You’re in for a surprise).

I used to wonder about the impact of the limited-overs games on the longer-form game, but, having watched that impact over the past fifty years or so, I’m relaxed about the shorter-format variants in the main. (With one exception, the Hundred, which I continue to loathe).

Games like cricket are organic, they evolve, they mutate, they adapt, they adjust. Cricket’s been around for over four hundred years, so we should all expect some change. And continuous change at that. Change itself is not the issue.

Without the shorter-format developments, we may still have seen the development of techniques like the ramp shot, the reverse sweep, hitting with hands switched, relay fielding, “death bowling” and suchlike. All these new techniques have enriched all forms of cricket, not just the format they originated in. Long may this trend continue.

Do I think there is too much cricket on? Possibly. But, over time, that market will correct itself, in a Yogi Berra kind of way. People will limit the time they spend watching cricket, and somewhere a butterfly will flap its wings.

Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.

Do I think limited-overs games have deleterious impacts on the longer-format game? Possibly. I tend to think that modern bowlers just don’t bowl at the stumps enough, trying to get that all-powerful dot ball. There are constraints to try and correct this, in terms of the “wide” rule. But in general I feel that bowlers now try and tempt the batters to play at balls that won’t hit the stumps, bowling on the fifth or sixth stump and hoping it doesn’t become a wide. Only a feeling, not based on enough evidence to be anything more than that.

Do I think DRS could kill Test cricket, and potentially all of cricket with it? Possibly. I think it’s the biggest threat to cricket as I know it. I hope it won’t succeed in killing it. But why do I think it even could?

5. Not cricket

Cricket is more than just a game, more than just a sport, more than just an incredibly inclusive social object, more than just the passion of millions all over the world.

It’s a way of thinking, an essence. Let me change sports for a minute. One of the reasons I love golf is the treatment of solitary golfers on the course.

A single player has no standing and should give way to a match of any kind,” …

One of the essences of cricket is the very idea of “not cricket”.

Something that’s not done. Not to be tolerated in polite society. Not for the clubbable. Whatever.

Cricket is about a set of values.

The epitome of cricket to me is when a batsman walks, despite not being given out by the umpire, because he knows he hit the ball; when a fielder signals he didn’t catch the ball cleanly, even though he may be the only person on the field with that knowledge; when a fielder signals a boundary, even though there was some doubt as to whether he touched the ropes.

All this is about the spirit of the game. It has nothing to do with the letter of the law. Why listen to me? Go watch Brian Lara on the topic. In fact, watch the whole of his lecture from over four years ago.

I remember, many years ago, there was a story about Gundappa Viswanath. He’d made over 600 runs in his previous 8 innings. He went out to bat. And he was out for zero. Came back to the pavilion. Asked by a journalist “what happened” he said “the ball deserved it”.

Walking is about doing the right thing. Not claiming a catch you didn’t take cleanly is about doing the right thing. Not appealing ad nauseam in order to put pressure on the umpire is about doing the right thing.

Cricket is a way of life. A way of life where children can be taught to do the right thing. If the nature of competition changes from that, driven by commercial interests, if winning becomes more important than doing the right thing, then perhaps it’s time for Test cricket to die. After all, it will only be a matter of time before it becomes impossible to distinguish cricket from WWE. And WWE has been evolving for years to become what it is.

The way DRS is implemented, the way DRS is evolving, I worry about the future of the game. I cannot abide by Umpire’s Call, there isn’t the time or space for me to vent my spleen on that particular topic here. Weaknesses in ball tracking don’t really get discussed in the open. Apparent innovations like Hotspot and Snickometer get brought in and out willy-nilly, and I have to watch batsmen given out for a snick when there is a clear gap between bat and ball, without any consideration that the sound picked up may be from bat hitting pad or similar.

From my viewpoint, there is neither true openness nor adequate transparency in the design, architecture, selection and implementation of the technologies involved. I won’t even bring up the issue of the completeness of the “training datasets” because I should really watch my blood pressure before doing that.

I have seen batsman stay at the crease after the most glaring errors by umpires … because the fielding team didn’t have any reviews left. God help me. If that is what cricket has come to, then I’m happy to stop watching the game. This, from someone who watched twenty days of Test cricket this past year, including two whole days of “rain stopped play”. (In similar vein, I shall leave my frustrations with The Hundred for another day, perhaps never. When it comes to the Hundred, never is a good word as far as I am concerned).

6. A numbers game

Lily, our cat, looks at the segment of cricket scoreboard on permanent display in our garden

Sometime in the next week or two I shall write more about the number 229 in Test cricket. For now, here’s a teaser.

Imagine the world of Test cricket to be an interminable bingo session. You have a bingo card in your hand. The current version of the card has all the numbers from 0 (the smallest number any batsman has ever scored) to 400 (the largest). In less than an hour, Test number 2444 is due to start at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand, between the host nation and Bangladesh, a country that bordered the state of my birth, West Bengal.

Every time a batsman completes his innings, you can scratch the number off your card.

229 is the smallest number that hasn’t been scratched off yet. Some batsman or the other has landed on every number below 229 already, and many beyond it. Until Vinod Kambli came along, the magic number used to be 224. On Monday 22nd February 1993, he took 224 and moved the magic number to 228.

Nearly a decade later, Herschelle Gibbs had other ideas and took that number off the board as well.

Since then, since that brilliant single-day double century of Gibbs, since 2nd January 2003, the number to hit has been 229. Many have hovered nearby, some have moved on, but no one has been able to stop there. Therein lies a story, a story I will write about in detail soon.

There are many many strands to write about when it comes to the numbers of cricket, a topic I’m entranced by. I shall be writing more and more about it in days to come, as I make use of relative quietness this New Year.

The statistics of cricket are part of what make cricket something very different from other sports.

7. Some conclusions

Cricket is more than just a game, a sport, a pastime; it is more than a wonderful social object, more than just a truly inclusive low-barrier-to-entry activity; it is a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of practising doing the right thing.

It is good to see the commercialisation of sport. It is right and proper that sportsmen and sportswomen get paid well for what they do (although I think we are still far from gender equality there). With the advent of greater commercial stakes comes an increasing sense of competition, where winning becomes more important than taking part. We see the impact of this in many sports: simulation, diving, pretend injuries, use of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, ball-tampering, various types of grunts and groans carefully timed, walking on your opponent’s path to the hole, stepping on to the pitch after you bowl, slowing the over rate down, challenges against authority on the pitch, time-wasting, concerted appeals, gaining instructions from the dressing room through coded signals, the list is long.

We’re not going to be able to stop people attempting to cheat. We’re not going to be able to keep adjusting the rules quickly enough to adapt to new forms of cheating. There will often be a time lag, regulation is often post-facto.

What we can do is to ensure it is against the spirit of the game. All the time.

Cricket epitomises that concept of spirit.

That’s where the importance of Test cricket comes in. It is the pinnacle of the sport, the peak to which the child on the street aspires. And we must make sure that what she aspires to has value, has values. That the game is inclusive, easily accessible, fair, open, affordable, in ways that no other sport can be.

A match spread over five days, sometimes more, that may not have a result. It could be a draw. It could be a win for either side. It could be that wondrous event, a tie, something that has happened only twice in 2443 instances.

Cricket, by its very nature, is not about winning or losing. It’s too important for that. The grassroots game, the regional/county/state game, the Test, all form part of a brilliant whole. A whole that is about playing the game. Doing the right thing.

Innovations can and will take place, in terms of techniques and tools and rules; new venues will be found; new formats designed; new times chosen; new ways to partake found.

But all these innovations have to be done while not losing the principles that make the game what it really is. What are those principles? We could spend a long time arguing about which particular angels were meant to dance on the heads of which pins, how many angels and pins should be involved, and so on. But that’s not the point.

The Victor Meldrew in me wants to be sure that coloured pajamas are kept away from the field of a Test match; under duress, has accepted the need for coloured stumps (though I still think that modern bails don’t behave as they should); has come to terms with numbers and names on the backs of cricketers in a Test match, albeit reluctantly; at least it makes one part of the game even more inclusive, which is a good thing. (But 5- and 10- ball overs? Give me a break).

Innovations should be additive to the core principles; unnecessary fiddling with the rules in order to maintain some benighted view of “intellectual property” are not additive.

I love the speed at which “batsman” is becoming “batter”. A sensible and worthwhile change. A change that will come into my parlance more and more as I learn to adapt. Which I will.

I love the idea of double-header games where the men’s and women’s games are held in close proximity in time and in the same space. It would be even better if tickets were sold only for the combined event, like the right to watch “a day of cricket at Lords” being equated to the right to “a day’s tennis at Centre Court”. It would be even better if the gender pay disparity issue is solved at speed, similar to what my erstwhile boss Marc Benioff did at Salesforce.

But 5- and 10- ball overs? Not changing ends at the end of each over? Nah. Not for me.

Cricket is about the right thing to do. Test cricket is the pinnacle of that essence.

Test cricket has seen off many challenges, and will see off many more. When I was young, I dreamt of going on a cruise to the Caribbean and catching all five days of every Test in an entire series there. The West Indian team were the team to aspire to in the 60s and 70s. Of course I was influenced by the first team I saw. And of course I loved the very idea of “calypso cricket”.

Not surprisingly, when the Indian team did their magic in the West Indies in 1970-71, and followed up with a win in England, my cup definitely did a lot of runneth-over-ing. (Though I still didn’t ever watch India win in India while I lived there).

Cricket teams and markets ebb and flow. Somehow we still have Test cricket, and every now and then I see a full crowd as well. The crowd matters. Crowds matter. If Covid-19 has taught us anything about sports, it is that crowds matter. I am lucky enough to be able to go to watch sports pretty much whenever I want, be it cricket or golf or football or tennis. Anything that makes it easier for more people to watch cricket “live” is a good thing.

Test cricket is still alive, sometimes because of innovations, sometimes despite them. I hope and pray it will continue to evolve and to thrive. In the meantime, we need to nourish it and protect it and support it. It’s not just a game.

Anything else is not cricket.

And on that note, happy new year.

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