Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Pitch Awaits

As a Canadian, there are certain sports allegiances that are not only expected, but required as a condition of continued citizenship. Even if you're not a fan of the CFL, if you're asked whether you're a fan, the minimum response required is a firm, approving nod followed by a "you bet." If the question is "do you like hockey?," it's proper form to respond by asking the questioner if the feel okay, or need to lie down for a but. I mean, we're talking hockey, okay? Do you like hockey?" Pfft. What kind of question is that?

But when it comes to other sports, Canadian associations and allegiances fade into the background, and old ethnic remembrances move to the fore. Are we talking soccer? Rugby? Kabaddi? Baseball? Each major sport can call upon a dedicated and fervent subset of society, displaying a passion for their game that you may not have realized they felt. Encountering that passion in its raw, undiluted form can be a real eye opener. In 2006 this happened to me. I had moved to Dubai, just in time to catch the Cricket World Cup taking place in the West Indies.

In the past when I had thought of cricket, if I had thought about it at all, it was as part of a punchline involving words like 'eternity' or how a 'century' didn't refer to runs, but to the length of the average match. In university I knew cricket in two forms, test cricket, which is the three to five day affair where two teams finish "a" game or match. The other is annoyance cricket, usually played by South Asian students at my old university, in large open foyers almost always inconveniently packed with people. After more than a few close calls, where a "ball" (felt more like a rock to me, then) would nearly take off my head, I decided to take the matter up with higher authorities.

At that time I was heading up my college's athletics council, and was part of the campus wide intra-mural sports body. I began advocating that cricket be added to the intramural sports list, even if only because a third or more of our students seemed to hail from India or Pakistan. Absolutely sure that I had a winner, it was a surprise to me when that suggestion went over like a dirt pancake. A few of the football players on the council acted like I'd asked everyone to apply for Chinese citizenship. That nearly two billion people are nuts about cricket didn't seem to register, for as they said "That's a stupid idea. Nobody likes cricket."

And so the matter dropped, and I forgot about the whole thing, except when a near miss/death experience would act as a subtle reminder. But in 2006, when I moved to Dubai where 90% of the expat community lives, eats, and breathes cricket, it was hard not to get sucked in. It was the ICC World Cup of Cricket, and a host of nations around the world were there, including Canada, who managed to embarrass in ways I never thought imaginable in sports. Watching them play cured me of nationalist favoritism, and so I became a fan of Sri Lanka. I'd have chosen India, but since I lived with Indians and was always surrounded by them, I needed something to set me apart, and cheering for Pakistan in a room full of Indians was, is, and probably always will be the surest path to a broken nose there is. So that's why I chose Sri Lanka, that and the fact that the Sri Lankan team was actually exciting, in a way I had never seen a baseball team be exciting.

Still, for all the enthusiasm I started to show, my overall love of the game was lukewarm at best. The ICC World Cup plays a form of cricket called "ODI" which stands for "one day international." The games don't actually take a whole day to play, just six or seven hours. Which is actually an improvement over the days long test matches. But three days, or even six hours, is far too long to sustain a real feeling of excitement and engagement. I had gotten a taste of cricket, and I liked it when the game flowed, but more often than not watching was an awful drudge.

But then something happened. The first 20/20 World Cup aired, and my eyes were opened. There, in front of me, I beheld a form of the game that had it all. Passion, skill, ferocity, and most importantly, brevity. Each team had a very limited chance to stack up some runs, so every little mistake counted. Games took as little as two hours to play, just like a baseball game. When India won that first cup, I was right there cheering Ms Dhoni, the captain of the Indian team. I didn't care, because I was having so much fun.

Not long afterwards the IPL, Indian Premiere League, started, and brought cricket to an entirely new level. One of the biggest problems with cricket is the nationalist aspect of the game. Teams represent countries, and matches come often resemble war by proxy depending on who is playing. But this IPL deal, they went all out and splashed money around like nobody's business, snapping up the best players from around the world, and mixing them together on different teams.

That first IPL was incredible. With the exception of a few NHL playoff seasons, one in particular in the 90's when the Maple Leafs played the most epic seven game series against St. Louis that had ever been played (where they were screwed by Cujo for the first, but not the last time), I had never felt this level of engagement or involvement in any season or tournament. But I couldn't help it with the IPL thing. Every game was a barn burner, the rich and powerful were humbled beyond compare, the dismissed and humble stepped about like giants, crushing everything in their wake. That first tournament was epic, the memory of which will probably remain with me for a long, long time.

Now, in a couple days, the second IPL will begin. My expectations are high, too high, which will probably guarantee disappointment, but I'm not worried about that. I prefer to hold out hope that the magic will come again.

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