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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 onlookers.

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 post-colonial country.

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 bit,

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!

Competition level

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 game.

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.

Power play

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 chance.

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.

Umpire's powers

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.

Batsman's freedom

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!

Changing bowlers

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 interfering.

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.

Gentle sport

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

 

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