Cricket: A civilized and happy sport
What an everyman's sport Cricket has come to be! But who would have
thought I would live to see the day I would write these words, eating my
words of yore, 'Elitist sport, Cricket'?
Playing for Nalanda and Ananda, I enjoyed every bit of the game. As
opening fast bowler, or first change, I looked forward to sending my
zingers in the way of the batsmen. And as first slip, playing a
supporting role to the wicket-keeper, or as outfielder, it is with pride
pumping I would catch a ball, jumping or running, to the cheer of the
Out of league, however, once out of school, and particularly once out
of the country, it was with sadness, if not horror, I noted the
continuing interest of more and more schools pumping in money for the
game. Hand gloves, leg pads, ball guards, studded boots, caps, etc for
each player, and leather balls, bats and wickets for the team all had to
be imported. Here was a country struggling to feed its people, and in
the midst of many a crisis - political, economic, cultural. And it was
only the elitist schools, as the ones I went to, in the few cities, that
could afford to play cricket. And only the English-speaking class.
The man and woman on the street, speaking Sinhala or Tamil, could
only watch! All these were clearly, to me, counter-developmental for a
Arriving in Canada in 1967, the elitist nature of the game was
confirmed. Only at Upper Canada College, the elite private boys' school
for the royalty and the upper class, did I see cricket. Mind you, not
that it was not refreshing to see my beloved game in real time, after
spending three years in cricket-less US. Yet, I couldn't help noting
'Upper' Canada written all over!
Keeping the game alive
The game was elitist in another sense. It took too much time - two
full days for a school or club game. And a 'Test', internationally, up
to five full days. And only the leisurely class could afford the luxury
of such free time. While the West Indies did sport a team in my days, it
was primarily a white game - born in UK, and played in Australia,
waylaid in the West Indies.
Keeping the game alive in the Two-thirds world was, to me, thus an
attempt to keep the ex-colonized in a colonial mind-set. It was also to
undermine, if also to under-promote, the more affordable, and local,
games such as volleyball and soccer, and the Baseball-type chakgudu
played with a piece of stick instead of the bat (in Sri Lanka).
But, if that was how I felt about it all then, to wax poetic here a
What a pleasant surprise it was to see what a level field Cricket has
come to be, in a good five decades, during the time I was not looking.
Multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious, too, and no longer
elitist, it is now everyman's game.
Visiting Sri Lanka recently, e.g., what I saw is Cricket on the
beach, Cricket in the backyard, and metaphorically speaking, Cricket in
the air! Everybody is talking about it, and lunchtime is when everyone
comes to be glued to the TV, at home or a public place!
On the beach, a hunky young man chases a catch, while a few hundred
metres away, a little girl misses a ball at the batting end. A lean
child behind the wicket catches the ball, while at the other end,
another kid waits to send his next underarm skunker.
Leather ball gives way to a Tennis ball - yes, I remember this from
my Nalanda days, playing at Campbell place. The Tennis ball at the beach
now finds a way to the water, allowing a little bonus for the fielder -
a dip in the ocean, when others might even join in for a break from the
A team is no longer 11 a side, but whatever is available, including
this tourist walking the beach, stopping to catch a ball. A wicket is
whatever can be stuck in the sand. Where a standard bat is not
available, a midriff of a coconut leaf would do. A coconut husk, or a
slipper, or a shirt taken off in the hot sun, serves as the 'wicket' and
the crease on the other side from which an arm throws a ball at the
batsman. Bare feet are just fine; no studded shoes here please! Pads and
gloves get a break, too.
And so it is perhaps this flexibility of the game, then, that may
have come to catch everybody's imagination. Rich or poor, city or
village, school or neighbourhood, even a child can now enjoy the game.
It needs only two players - one to bowl, one to bat.
But even at competition level, Cricket seems to be a happy game.
There is laughter coming from a batsman, a smile from a bowler for just
missing the stumps, a pulling of the tongue of a fielder just getting to
his position, all this in World Cup competition. Far from personal
antagonisms, the game creates contexts for camaraderie. There is eg, the
camaraderie of the two batsmen walking towards each other at the end of
an over, or after a four or six to congratulate the other, to talk
strategy, or to seek comfort if not doing well at the crease. Indeed it
is not uncommon for a bowler to help a batsman (of the other team) get
on his feet, or a fellow fielder run to the aid of a teammate to console
a teammate just hit by a ball on the knee.
The happiness is also perhaps partly because every member of the team
can feel that he has an individual role to play, whatever position in
the team - bowler, batsman, fielder, wicket-keeper, for the success of
the team. On the ground, it would not be unusual for as many as eight of
the eleven members to be called on to bowl. Specially in the World Cup,
with no bowler allowed more than a max of 10 overs, there are 40 more to
go around. A good bowler can be a good batsman, too, with all players of
a team having the chance to bat. In a high scoring game, watching the
teammates play well more than compensates for not getting a batting
For a fielder, excitement may also be to make a catch - easy or hard,
throwing the ball at the stumps from a long distance, saving a boundary,
or ringing out a 'howzzat?' with hands up. All this is made even more
exciting with the introduction of Power Play when all but three fielders
are within an inner radius.
Limiting the number of overs to 50, and to a single day, the game
going into the night, can be said to make the game even more exciting,
for both teams. It is do or die!
Each player in Cricket can, then be said to gain his own happiness
throughout a game, through a participation that calls for variety, in
bowling, batting and fielding.
In a given over, or throughout a game, everyone in the fielding team
has the possibility of excelling as well in his role - as bowler,
wicket-keeper, slip, gully, on-or off-fielder, at square leg or fine
leg, etc., with an excellent piece of fielding or an excellent catch.
Even a missed catch receives the understanding of all but perhaps the
bowler. In batting, while the opening batsmen or the next few in the
line up may end up in a century partnership, the last man in may hit a
critical final four and bring victory to a team.
Unlike, e.g., in a game like Tennis, where the hallmark is a monotony
of a ball going back and forth, in cricket, there is much variety, for
all the players. The bowler sends down the ball, the batsman hits or
misses it, runs or stays put at crease, the ball is caught, chased or
picked up by the wicket-keeper. A bowler may be fast or slow, off-spin,
leg spin or googly, left arm or right arm, and bowl to the left of the
umpire or to the right.
The strokes available to make a batsman's life come alive are only
limited by the skill of the batsman. There is the straight drive, square
cut, square leg, slice, etc., or blocking, playing it safe. Excitement
may be scoring a six or a four, stealing a run when a quick decision has
to be made by both batsmen if there is enough time to get to the other
side beating a ball to the crease, or nay-naying the other batsman
already a quarter way on his way.
There are also many ways of getting out: bowled out when a stump or a
bail is hit, stumped if the batsman is away from the crease, tip catch
when the ball chips off the bat to a waiting wicketkeeper, run out if
the batsman just couldn't make it to the crease before a fielder touches
the stumps. Then there is the ubiquitous LBW - Leg Before Wicket,
challenging the Umpire's powers of observation and objectivity, called
on to judge the position of the ball (in relation to leg, middle or off
stump) and height, and the legs.
A gentlemanly sport, there is in Cricket no gruelling punishment to
any given player as in tennis, boxing or baseball. We may think of the
injury-generating ball-throwing of the star pitcher in Baseball or the
continuous hitting of the ball by the same two players against each
other for hours as in Tennis. No player going unscathed by a torn
ligament, a knee injury, arm or back injury. Retirement comes before
hitting the thirties. In ice-hockey, every player's intent has come to
be able to survive the game unhit by a raised hockey stick of a player
of the opposing team.
In Cricket, no given individual player is under constant pressure
throughout a game. A bowler bowls a mere six balls at one time, before
another bowler comes on, also for six balls. There is hardly any
repetitious use of limbs, and over long periods of time. Even though I
myself saw the end of my school Cricket career at Ananda thanks, but no
thanks, to a pain in the back, I may have been a rare specimen of the
game punishing player.
Age in Cricket begins to weigh in only much later. If a Cricket team
has young players in their prime youth of 20, a team may have 'grandpas'
of other games nearing 40. If they may be slow in chasing after a ball,
they could still bowl, bat or be on the infield, not requiring much
running. Sri Lanka's Muralitharan came to be hamstrung in the present
World series, but ended up getting four wickets!
While there is, then, no issue of age, injury or safety for most
members on the field, bringing safety to the batsman and the
wicket-keeper are the gloves, leg pads and ballguards for the groin area
(worn under the pants). Today this is strengthened by a metal facemask
and a plastic helmet. Most recently I was to note a hand-pad, too, on
batsmen, worn on the hand facing the bowler - left hand if a
right-handed batsman, and right hand if a left-handed one.
If safety brings the happiness of security, rendering the game
gentlemanly, too, Cricket also allows for an unabashed expression of
Freedom. The Captain is supreme on the field. There is no directing of
players by the Coach, from the breaches as in Tennis, if only through
covert signals, or coming right out into the field as in Baseball. Once
on the field, the Captain makes all the decisions.
If the Captain makes the decision for changing bowlers, the bowler
has his freedom, too - to move the fielders around, with the captain not
The batsman's freedom is to let go a ball past him without touching
it to play. Or he may bat from the crease or move forward to
second-guess the ball. Or even to stop the bowler by signalling he is
not yet ready to bat! Then there is the stroke-play, but also at times
unorthodox batting as when a ball on the right is just moved on to the
left by simply bringing the bat closer on the ground, in a manner
unexpected by the bowler or the fielders.
The fielders express their freedom by their level of readiness when a
bowler bowls, and deciding where to throw the ball once it is in hand.
In Cricket, there is also not the aggression of Ice-hockey, Baseball
or Tennis. While a bowler may pump a fist in getting a wicket, tamer is
it when it comes to batsmen. There is no showing off, a mere waving of a
bat or taking off the cap and / face guard, upon scoring 50 runs or a
century, to acknowledge cheers. Running between wickets goes on with no
fist pumping of Tennis or hand throwing of hockey or basketball. Even
batsmen have the comfort of knowing there are others to follow.
But if Cricket allows for individual excellence for players of both
teams, it is in every sense a team sport as well. As a team sport,
unless the ball hits the stumps, a bowler cannot be successful without a
sharp-eyed wicketkeeper or the quick and nimble-footed fielder. Except
with a four or six, a batsman cannot score without the other batsman
crossing the pitch and run to his end. If one bowler is getting
hammered, then another bowler is brought in to stem the tide. If a
batsman is struggling, the better batsman tries to make sure that he
faces the bowler, by stealing a run at the end of the over so he will
face the next bowler, too. A batsman bats for himself, yet works in
partnership with the other to help the other score as well so that
collectively the team benefits.
Civility is another feature that marks Cricket. Although there is the
occasional disobedience as by Australia's Captain Ponting in a recent
match, rarely is there an accosting of an umpire, as e.g., in Tennis.
While an umpire's decision may be appealed, technology has made it even
more civil, as in Tennis, too, of course, when a third Umpire has the
benefit of an electronic version of the play. The waterbreaks during a
game can be seen as a visible marker of such civility. To the extent
that it brings both individual and team happiness, individual
animosities absent, the game may even be called an exercise in humility!
Watching the game on the tube, what I see also is a gentle sport. It
was a long time ago that I watched a gory Spanish bull-fighting, and not
since the time of Muhammed Ali have I been able to stomach the violence
that goes in the name of sport in a square ring. Ice hockey in Canada or
the US sends me for cover for its roughness, if not the violent
inter-player attitudes if not the stick-raisings hurting players.
If for its variety, flexibility, expression of freedom, opportunity,
etc., Cricket brings happiness to its players, so does it for the
audience, too. In Tennis, fans must be quiet as a mouse during play; but
in cricket, any time is party time for the spectators. And, in the
context of Asia, the duration of the game is also carnival time, when
enthusiasts come attired, faces painted, and carry the national flag or
a banner or a word of praise or hope. Here is a typical one I saw: "God
is great. In the last 20 years, he has the name of Tendulkar!" Nobody
seemed offended. A Cricket match, of the World Cup level at least, seems
to be a family affair as well, when parents come with their children, in
the assurance that the game itself, in its civility, may provide a good
role model. There is none of the violence as, e.g., in hockey, the
children are exposed to.
So it is that I now have to eat my words of Cricket being an elitist
game. Mea culpa!
It is also nice to see how the game has provided employment
opportunities to the young and eager. Cricket is also, at least judging
from my experience in Sri Lanka, a foreign exchange bonanza for the host
countries, as expatriates purchase their tickets online, make hotel
reservations and plan family visits way ahead of time.
Long live Cricket!
The writer is a novelist, poet and scholar. Prof Suwanda Sugunasiri
played school cricket for both Nalanda and Ananda Colleges in the 1950s