Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Defense of Cricket

I fully understand that sense of confusion upon first encountering the world of cricket. While I lived in North America, and even in Japan, cricket seemed no more than a quaint, laughable neurosis of the few Australians, New Zealanders, and South Asians that I knew. But then I moved to the Middle East.

Though the Middle East in and of itself is not a hotbed for cricket, the place is overflowing with South Asians, Australians, South Africans, and Brits. Because of this, cricket has a prominent place on television. When the WCC was on, it actually was televised…around the world, sans-North America, to over two billion people, on Fox Sports no less. During the WCC, in which a semi-truncated form of the game, ODI, was played, I found myself inexplicably, yet inexorably pulled into a love of and admiration for the game. Then, a few months later, when the latest form of cricket debuted, Twenty20, in which a game lasts for just about as long as the average baseball game, I was hooked. Utterly and absolutely.

I know and love baseball, and have all my life. I started young, playing t-ball, graduating to pee-wee, through to hardball and softball in high school, and then shifting to slo-pitch during my decadent years at university. I have played the game in one form or another all my life. In every sense, baseball is the sport that for me is not only infused in memory, but becomes memory itself for those brief hours when I am out on the diamond.

When I lived in Japan, their love of baseball, even though at the time it was being threatened by a new found passion for soccer, was exhilarating. Indeed, the way the sport was played, and the way in which the fans went about watching a game had something about it that my experiences watching professional baseball in North America never had - the sense of being at home. What do I mean by this? Well, if you have ever seem the film Mr. Baseball, with Tom Selleck, cliche ridden as it is, it still evokes, in small moments, they way the average fan acts and behaves at a game. From slurping down ramen and having a beir-u (beer) or some sho-chu (think Vodka for Koreans), there is little sense that they are in an alien environment, removed from everyday life. In many ways sitting down to watch the Yomiuri Giants take apart the Hiroshima Carp (Lovely name for a team), is like sitting down on a lawn chair watching your buddy’s team play in the local beer league. There is a sense of relaxation, an absence of overt commercialization, and a lack of distance between the fans and the players that so marks professional baseball in North America. Seriously…when the New York Yankees paid more for one baseball player than it would cost to fund five thousand full four year scholarships to Ivy League schools, you can hardly picture yourself standing beside the average multi-millionaire MLB player, talking about the weather.

Cricket, like Japanese baseball and the local beer league, offers the fan that same sense of being at home. Whether you are watching a test match, which can take days, an ODI match, which takes about six to eight hours, or a Twenty20 match, which might last from two to three hours, there is a greater sense of connection between the fans and the players. The players themselves cannot help but be more human, frail and fallible in the eyes of cricket fans than ever a professional MLB player could be. The same goes for the local beer league. As good as Jim or Bob is at the game, you still remember that he picks up your garbage every Tuesday morning. In Japan, the nature of the society itself precludes the possibility that even the best baseball players would hold themselves above and dissociated from the common man. Yet that same sense of commonality, of being on the same level, just doesn’t exist in Major League Baseball. Part of reason for this, from what I have seen, comes about from the structure of the game itself

In baseball, if the best, highest paid, most dominating player steps up to the plate at the beginning of the game, and messes up, it really is no big deal. What if Barry Bonds strikes out in the first inning? So what? No problem. He’s potentially got eight more chances to launch something into orbit. But in cricket, when that Barry Bonds-esque, team carrying, win-loss deciding player steps up to the wicket, and he messes up, that’s it. It’s over. For him, and sometimes for his team. And when these Bonds-esque players do stand up, for every time they rise to the occasion and crush out a hundred runs straight, there are five times to that one when they go down in ignominy. If you were to analyze the greatest baseball players in history, and eliminate every statistic after their first out in every game they played, I am quite sure that the results would be more than startling.

The mind has the tendency to obfuscate failure, to fuzz out inconvenient truths, and focus on that one home run in the sixth inning that decided the game one time, when it really counted. What if that run in the sixth inning never had a chance to happen? How would we regard our best baseball players then? What would have happened to all those baseball movies where the hero fails and fails again, but in the last moment, in the bottom of the ninth, finds redemption in the form of a fastball making a swift exit over the fence? Indeed that Conradian, redemptive narrative can be found in every corner of the sport, from the player’s thought that no matter what happens, in the next inning they can turn things around, to the fan’s sure knowledge that when their team is at bat again, the tables will be turned. It is the narrative that has defined the rise, fall, and rise of the American republic, and the advance of American power and hegemony.

When the nation was torn asunder through civil war, it yet rose again, the same as before, but stronger. When the economy was ravaged by the great depression, the nation pulled itself up by virtue of the greatest do-over in history. Redemption is an absolutely intrinsic part of the American story. Few, if any, countries have done this or have had the chance to. Most are lost, or suffer irreversible change when catastrophe strikes. How many republics has France had by now? In the past hundred years and a bit, Germany has had a Reich or three, a divorce, a reunification, and an irrevocable scouring of their national history and narrative. Japan, once the proudest, most warlike nation on earth, sure of its path to power by virtue of divine providence, became a nation of craven pacifists, simultaneously beholden to tradition and modernity, and an overwhelming powerlessness to step up and become a presence on the international stage. Unlike the United States, these nations never had a do-over, they were told to play a new game, by new rules. For these nations, and for those who play cricket, there is no next chance. But not for the United States, and not for baseball. For them, there is always a next chance. It’s the essence of American exceptionalism. But if there was no next chance, what would happen then?

If there were no second chances in baseball, would the top ten players in the country still collectively be worth more than $1.5 billion dollars? Would they seem as superhuman, as ethereally distant and different from everyday mortals as to almost seem to be a different form of life in and of themselves? Or would they be more human, frail and fallible? Would they seem to be more like us? Would they be mere humans?

Though I seem to be disparaging baseball, do remember that I love the game, have played it all my life, and will continue to play until I have to be pushed around the bases in a wheelchair. Yet, as Joseph O’Neil points out in his lovely paean to C.L.R. James, a sport can also represent a discourse about politics and society. Baseball truly does represent the American discourse, from the head on nature of the game, which is like the straightforward attack and defense of chess to cricket’s more subtly strategic Go-like nature. In that vein you can also find American football, and basketball, with a constant give and take, and switching of sides. In baseball there is usually a chance to try again, and again, and again. In cricket, by contrast, there is not.

In cricket, when your team is up to bat, you have that one chance. And while the going may seem good for a while, just like the British Empire, things can change when it’s the other team’s turn. From then on you are not trying to win, so much as trying to not lose. And with every setback, and every ball past the boundary, you see the eternal glory of the afternoon slipping away into the distance. And it is not coming back. There is no next chance. There is no do-over; just fate, the crushing weight of history, and the chance for a new narrative. This was the case when dark horse India defeated England in the 1983 world cup. Or, more recently, when MS Dhoni, a second rate nobody who, in the wake of India’s crushing failure at the 2007 World Cup of Cricket, was sent to captain the Indian squad at the first Twenty20 World Cup. He was sent almost as an afterthought, but this second rate nobody pulled off one of the greatest modern feats of sports leadership. He led India to victory, overcoming an Australian team who, in the world of cricket, were dominating in a way the New York Yankees could only dream of. On that day a new cricket narrative was born, and a billion Indians embraced a new national hero. Not because he or the team had a lucky break or did one thing right, but because they did everything right. Not because they stepped up to the wicket one last time, but because they stepped up to the wicket and did it right, the first time. Baseball, like the American consciousness, is forgiving. And the fame, while bright, is short lived ephemeral. But in cricket, when you are made immortal by virtue of your efforts on the field, your fame lives on.

Oh, and there are also some wicked fast bowlers. Forget Randy Johnson, because when you see Lasith Malinga fly across the pitch like an insane banshee, there just ain’t no going back.

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