Just Not Cricket

Shashi Tharoor drew the ire of New York Times readers when he wrote a column analyzing American disdain for cricket, concluding that "the notion that anyone would watch a game that, in its highest form, could take five days and still end in a draw provokes widespread disbelief among results-oriented Americans." A colonial game that dates back to the sixteenth century (and still uses terms like "silly point" and "fine leg" in all seriousness), cricket has evolved through the ages to make it less time-consuming and yes, more result-oriented. Unfortunately in its latest incarnation, the Twenty20, the game seems to have set back the evolutionary clock, reducing a once-elegant sport to a fast and furious version of itself that is played in an environment resembling a cross between a circus and a carnival.

There was a time (not so long ago) when cricket was all it took to attract spectators to stadiums, students to sick-days, and sponsors to television. Ever since the limited-overs version of the game was introduced in the late-sixties, a result was all but guaranteed at the end of the day, leading to the debut of the four-yearly World Cup tournament in 1975. However, as the public's attention span began to wither and wilt (no doubt conditioned by faster games like football and tennis), organisers flirted with the idea of 20-over matches that would produce a result in less than three hours.

By the time this abridged version of the game reached its adopted motherland, India, it had become a potent cocktail of cricket, Bollywood and celebrity shows geared towards prime-time television. The inaugural match of the current Indian Premier League (complete with high-stake contracts like its English namesake) was hosted in Bangalore and featured cheerleaders from America, stilt-walkers from Holland, stunt acrobats from Germany and laser operators from Malaysia. There must have been some irony in that the modern mecca of outsourcing had to fly in entertainers from different parts of the world to promote the tournament! While purists debate whether this entertainment package devalues the devotion of the cricket-watching public, there is no denying that many of these distractions (such as cheerleaders, or utsaah-utpaadak-pradarshak naari, a Hindi translation proposed by a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business) were unnecessary in a region where cricket-worship already borders on religious fanaticism. This is also symbolic of the transformation of the game at more fundamental levels-- firstly, teams in the league cut across national identities which is an experiment that has not been attempted in cricket outside of exhibition matches, and secondly, it demonstrates how British cultural influence on the game as played in India is gradually being replaced by American superficiality.

All this brouhaha makes one feel sorry for the late Kerry Packer whose World Series Cricket was often mocked as "pyjama cricket" for espousing colourful uniforms and day-and-night matches. In comparison to the indignity that is Twenty20, the World Series may be compared to a benign first circle of Dante's Inferno, and only time will tell whether the modern version of the game will gain as wide an acceptance as the Packer Circus eventually did.

If the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
Or if the batsman thinks he's bowled,
They know not, poor misguided souls,
They too shall perish unconsoled.
I am the batsman and the bat,
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch, and stumps, and all.
Andrew Lang, Brahma


Altamont said...

Very nice article; thoughtful and lucid as is expected of your posts. I agree with most of what you say but we can't overlook the benefits of the league version of sports either.

It provides an opportunity for those players whose chances of playing cricket are limited as their countries do not have competing national teams. It also provides an opportunity to those players whose positions in their national teams are uncertain because of superior alternatives.

I agree that this IPL seems too much of show than substance. I hope that, in the future, it will give a platform for many people to showcase their talents. However the increased commercialization of the game would continue - one only has to look at the English Premier Football League for example.

incogRito said...

Altamont, Your point is well taken. A tournament that expands the playing field to regions and countries not represented adequately is always welcome. Moreover, players from different countries rubbing shoulders in the same team may lead to reduced national jingoism in contested games like India vs Pakistan. I can only hope that the success of the league format does not weaken teamwork and camaraderie among our national players, as was observed with the Brazilian football team (comprising league stars in their own right) in the 2006 World Cup.