Cricket and politics

Superb headline in DNA:

Imran Khan attacks President Musharraf for World Cup debacle.

Right. And the economy and terrorism are Inzamam-ul-Haq’s fault, and democracy in Pakistan has been subverted by Younis Khan. Savage delight flows from the barrel of a gun.

By the way, won’t the Pakistan-Zimbabwe encounter tomorrow be the only one in the tournament between two countries led by dictators?

Ireland and Bangladesh shake it up

Update (March 19): Bob Woolmer is dead. For anyone involved with cricket, this is shattering news. It puts the word ‘tragedy’, so loosely used sometimes with reference to mere cricket matches, in perspective. It will be hard to enjoy the cricket in the World Cup now. (Original post below. News via email from reader Jayakamal Balasubramani.)

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

I’ve been up all night watching cricket, as I’m sure have many of you, and I can’t remember watching such a stirring day’s cricket. In one match, Ireland knocked Pakistan out of the World Cup on St Patrick’s day; in another, Bangladesh beat India with a superlative performance. Minnows or sharks?

I was particularly impressed by Bangladesh. All their past upsets have been caused by the side opposite them getting a bit complacent, and the wins have seemed like flukes, a judgement backed up by how rare those wins have been. But today they outplayed India in every department of the game: their bowling was exceptional, their fielding was the sharpest of the subcontinental teams, and their batting was positive and purposeful. They didn’t look like a weaker team playing out of their skins, but like one that belonged at this level. What was most remarkable was that many of them, including their three half-centurions today (1, 2, 3), are teenagers.

Bangladesh’s age-group cricket is exceptionally well-organised, and they seem to be getting the fruits of that now. Besides Habibul Bashar, whose captaincy has actually been lacklustre, and Mohammad Rafique, all their key players are young: Mashrafe Mortaza looks a positive veteran at 23. Their coach, Dav Whatmore, has surely had a lot to do with making them believe in themselves and concentrate in doing the basics well. He coached Sri Lanka when they were considered a second-rung side, and took them to a World Cup win. I’d keep a close eye on Bangladesh in 2011. (Or even 2007? Who knows? Remember 1983?)

And what about India then? Well, we can still make it through by winning the next two games comprehensively, and this rough start might just have been immensely valuable in making the side play with greater intensity, as happened to Pakistan in 1992. But Sri Lanka’s a fine team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to stop us. That will be the end of Greg Chappell as Indian coach, of course, though I feel much more sorry for Bob Woolmer, a fine coach who was always working against the odds within the Pakistan system. And consider the irony that he recently wrote the following words:

Ireland, in particular, have shown a rapid improvement, captained by an Australian, Trent Johnston, a medium-fast seamer and, with a number of players who have county experience in England, they have a very good team. Any side underestimating them will be doing themselves few favours.

Ah well, what to say now?

By the way, Comments are open on this post, feel free to express your feelings about these two games. Did India screw up or did Bangladesh just play too well? Will India qualify? What do you feel about Pakistan’s early exit?

On chasing low totals in cricket

Yesterday, when I was re-reading C Northcote Parkinson’s excellent book, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, while researching my column for Mint, it struck me that the central insight of the book applies beautifully to cricket. The insight is this:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Now, when teams chase low totals in one-day matches, the way they chase the target changes entirely from the norm. A team that would normally chase 250 easily approaches 180 differently. The tempo of their batting adjusts itself to the low target, and while they might normally look to reach the 180 mark by the 40th over, the task expands itself “to fill the time available for its completion.”

And if that new tempo is an unnatural one for the side, it might just backfire on them, and they might lose. This is why it now strikes me that India might have been lucky to get dismissed for 183 in the 1983 World Cup final. Had we made 250, we might have lost.

Do note that this doesn’t mean that teams should deliberately make low scores. That’s pushing it!

Cricket and the West Indies

It finds them a bond where otherwise there is sea.

So writes my friend Rahul Bhattacharya, India’s best cricket writer by far, in his terrific piece, “Rally round the West Indies”.

As much as the next two months will showcase some great cricket, there will also be lots of great cricket writing on offer. Don’t look at the Indian broadsheets for that—they will make mediocrity seem like a standard to aspire to. Cricinfo, where once I worked, will have some excellent stuff amidst much ordinary writing, as will the British and Australian papers. Now is when the cricket writers will strut.

Not moi! I’m so happy to just be able to watch, without the pressure of having to write, when much of the romance is sucked out by the need to find words for it. Joy.

Also read: Sambit Bal’s piece, “Let the games begin.”

Television and cricket

This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”

Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.

Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.

But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.

Broadcasters have also started treating cricket less as a sport and more as entertainment. In the breaks during a game, there is less analysis and more tamasha. So when, during a tea-break, we expect cogent commentary about the pitched battle on the field during the last session, we get the Shaz and Waz show, with impromptu beauty contest thrown in. “The voting is still on,” says Shaz. “Pinky is ahead of Minky. SMS now!” Cut to close-up of cleavage. And the cricket: yes, there’s also cricket. Damn.

It is believed that this is what the people want, but is that true? There is no feedback mechanism from the market to indicate that. When a channel broadcasts a game of cricket, it has an effective monopoly on that match: once it has acquired the telecast rights, no one else can show it, and the fan has to stay with them. In the absence of competition in terms of broadcast quality, there is no way for people to indicate when they don’t like a feature on the show. They will watch the World Cup regardless of whether there is statistical analysis in the breaks or Mandira Bedi in noodlestraps.

But maybe that is, indeed, what viewers want. Glamour brings in the column inches and attention. Controvery brings in the eyeballs in an era when people are so jaded that they want sensation, action, fighting. Over the next couple of months, expect some rivetting cricket in the World Cup. Also expect some pretty faces on television, and Extraa Innings with 816 ‘A’s at the end of extraaa. There will be the Match Ka Mujrim type of shows on the news channels, picking villains for the Bollywood drama the game has become. There will be debates about Ganguly, debates about Tendulkar, debates about Dravid and Chappell. There will be jingoism, there will be hyperbole, there will be crass sensationalism, but there will be cricket as well. That’s all we really want, the 22 men in pajamas battling it out on the field with bat and ball. Isn’t it?

China, Taiwan and the Cricket World Cup

What does the cricket World Cup have to do with China and Taiwan, you may ask? Plenty. Sam Sheringham reports on Bloomberg:

More than 8,000 miles from Beijing, Chinese workers are putting the finishing touches on stadiums for a sport they’ve never played.

Living in temporary plastic huts and taking a single day off each month, about 1,000 employees of state-owned Chinese companies have sweated away the past year on the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Antigua and Grenada as the West Indies prepare to host the Cricket World Cup, the game’s premier international event.

Their presence has more to do with China’s drive to isolate Taiwan, the democracy it considers a breakaway province, than with what the Chinese call shen shi yun dong, or “the noble game.’’ China is using its economic might to break alliances Taiwan forged in the Caribbean to counter its status as a diplomatic outcast.

Later in the piece Winston Baldwin Spencer, the prime minister of Antigua & Barbuda, is quoted as confessing, “They knew we didn’t have the money. If we didn’t have the Chinese workers we wouldn’t have been able to complete the stadium.”

I knew geopolitics and sport often collided, but I never imagined that China could use cricket to isolate Taiwan. I just hope the sport doesn’t get into any more crosshairs now. How disastrous it would be if Islamic terrorists were to chose a cricketing stage to make a political statement.

(Link via email from Nitin Pai.)

Greg Chappell and the Bong Bombshell

Greg Chappell walks into his hotel room after a hard day’s play. To his immense surprise, there is a Bong bombshell on his bed, in an elegant tanter sari. She smiles at him, raises one eyebrow seductively, and lets her palloo drop.

Chappell: My goodness, what is this? Who are you?

Bombshell: Greg-da, I’m a huge fan of yours, and I’ve come to express my admiration for your sexy, ahem, coaching!

Chappell: Take off your sari immediately!

Bombshell: What, so fast? I thought you were into ‘process’ and all.

Astrologers, dead men and the World Cup

given their predictions for the World Cup. Daruwalla says:

In 1983, the combination in the Indian team was that of Capricorn (Kapil Dev), Cancer (Sunil Gavaskar) and Libra (Mohinder Amarnath), which worked wonders. Even this time, captain Rahul Dravid (Capricorn), Sourav Ganguly (Cancerian) and Virender Sehwag (Libran), may repeat the success story.

With 15 guys in each squad, you can probably get any combination of sun signs that you desire, and it is not unlikely that all the squads may contain a Capricorn, Cancer and Libra. Note that both gentlemen are being cautious, though Jumaaaaaaani more or less counts Australia out of the running. No matter what happens, though, I’m sure believers will note only the parts of their prediction where they seemed to have got it right. Always, the confirmation bias.

(Some earlier posts on astrology etc: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19.)

My take on the World Cup: After a close perusal of some fine coffee beans (followed by their consumption, as is necessary for the ritual to be successful), I have come to the conclusion that my earlier post on this subject, written months ago, was somewhat off target. To my list of seven favourites, I add an eighth: New Zealand. I don’t think I can get any more precise than that.

Do we really love cricket?

A version of my story below was published today in Mint.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it?

The historian Ram Guha once compared cricket in India to football in Brazil. It is easy to disagree with that, but hard to figure out which hairs to split. On one hand, cricket in India is surely followed more fervently, with temples made for some cricketers, with an obsessive passion that Brazilians, for all their lust for football, surely can’t match. People have even speculated, not entirely flippantly, on the economic impact cricket has on India because so many people stop working when a cricket match is on.

On the other hand, football matches between minor club teams in Brazil can attract tens of thousands of spectators, while Ranji Trophy games in India generally draw so few people that you could fit them all in a bus. Much of the following of the game in India revolves around celebrities, with few fans concerned about the nuances of the game.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it? Do Indians really love cricket? It is futile to generalise about an entire country – each individual has his own relationship with the game – but certain patterns of love and longing for cricket run through the country. And outside it.

*  *  *

People who are cynical about long-distance relationships know nothing of cricket and Indians. Non-resident Indians around the world pine for cricket as if their lover is an ocean away, and go to insane lengths to stay in touch. Prem Panicker, a legend among NRIs for his cricket writing for Rediff, once told me about a bunch of US-based Indians who, visiting India, dropped in to his office to chat with his team. This was a decade ago, and Rediff had just finished doing ball-by-ball commentary of the 1996 World Cup, and were wondering if such effort was worth it. “We wrote more than 60,000 words over eight hours during a day’s play,” Panicker told me. “We were wondering if anyone actually read that much.”

These kids did. They described to him how six of them would gather at one of their places, and they would follow the game in batches of three. One batch would sleep while the other half would ‘watch’ the game via the ball-by-ball commentary, refreshing the screen ferociously. Then, at the innings break, they’d wake the other batch up, brief them on what had happened, and go off to sleep. The other three would then take over. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. All night.

Panicker said that this story was an eye-opener for him, as he realised how much cricket meant to these kids. “All of us like the game,” he said to me, “but this was like an obsession.”

*  *  *

If you love cricket, really really love cricket, watching it on television just won’t do: you have to go to the ground once in a while. Being at the ground is not just about ambience and being part of the event and so on: it’s about seeing the bits of the game that television cannot show you, the big picture instead of selected little details, the thousand dramas that the cameras don’t capture, the ebb and flow, and not overs punctuated by commercial breaks. You see subtle changes in field placings,  and the way batsmen react to them. You notice the way fielders walk or strut or bite their nails, and how they interact between overs. Every ball has a back story, and you get a lot more of the context at the ground – even if you’re sitting at square leg and can’t see the ball swing.

And what love it takes to watch cricket in India! Cricket stadiums here, with a couple of notable exceptions, are monstrously uncomfortable at best and torture chambers at worst. Spectators spend their entire day sitting on damaged wooden benches or stone slaps, often under the direct gaze of the sun. Some grounds do not allow them to even carry water inside. Toilets are pathetic, often messy and lacking running water.

In many other countries, such as Australia or South Africa, watching cricket at the ground is a pleasure in itself: you hang out with friends, maybe get a tan, maybe spread out a rug and enjoy a beer or two, listen to some music that’s playing in the stands or, during breaks, on the PA. The cricket is just one part of the event. But in India, everything apart from the cricket is excruciating. What else but an unrelenting love for cricket can then drive people to the grounds?

*  *  *

But sometimes even love has limits, and can be harshly tested. As our lovers sit and sit and sit, slowly being cooked in the sun, the discomfort in their backsides often reaches their heads. And when the cricket is also not to their satisfaction, they can get violent. It is no surprise to me that the Indian venue most famous for its crowd disturbances is also one of the most uncomfortable: Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Part of the blame for that has to fall on the stadium itself.

But not all of it.

*  *  *

Are those who throw Bisleri bottles or other projectiles onto the field expressing some kind of love? In my view: No. It is like throwing acid on someone who has rejected you and saying, “Ah but this is an indication of the depth of my desire.” Those who talk about the passion Indians feel for cricket often refer to public displays of it that are not a sign of love, but something more perverse.

Cricket in India, sadly, is tied up with nationalism. This is a product of our past: for the first few decades of our independence, there was nothing at which an Indian could point and say, “Ah, India dominates in that, it can show the rest of the world how it’s done.” Cricket, for what its worth, turned out to be something we weren’t too bad at. (Leave aside the inconvenient fact of how few countries play cricket.)

In the 1970s, for example, we may not have had a bustling economy and world-famous Indians, but we did have Sunil Gavaskar. Some years after that, we won the World Cup! For a country with such an inferiority complex about firangs, one that we are only now getting over, that was huge. Popular emotions over India-Pakistan matches are the stuff of cliché now, and there could be no worse expression of nationalistic pride. The ‘Pakraman’ branding when India resumed cricket against Pakistan; the jingoism whipped up by a shameless press because they know there is a market for it; the MPs raising questions about cricket in parliament; the mobs burning effigies and stoning players’ houses – all that isn’t love, its acid.

*  *  *

And the media cannot separate nation from cricket either. Some of our best writers still talk of our players being symbols of a newly assertive India, of how the journey of the cricket team mirrors the rise of our nation, and other such impressive-sounding rubbish. Listen, Sourav Ganguly took off his shirt at Lord’s and waved it around because he was a wonderfully spirited and passionate individual expressing his joy at the moment. There was no national or post-colonial significance to that. Enough half-baked analysis!

*  *  *

There are really two crickets: there’s cricket the sport, and there’s cricket the entertainment. As a sport, there is much to love in it: the length of a cricket match and the vast number of variables involved make it highly nuanced. It is like a play with many acts that makes most other sports seem like hurried vignettes. There is epic drama, with scope enough for Machiaveli, Mephistopheles and Sun Tzu to display their wares. There is space to think and evaluate options – a ball is bowled, then the universe stops and rewires itself, then rinse and repeat – and the true cricket lover is never short of things to immerse himself in. Surges of adrenalin can alternate with meditative thinking on the game. Even seemingly boring passages of play – batsmen letting balls go by, a spinner bowling six maiden overs in a row – is filled with action in the mind of the cricket lover.

Plenty of Indians love cricket the sport. They note the delicate shifts in a bowler’s follow-through that cause him to lose his ability to reverse-swing the ball, they are experts on seam position, and they notice when a batsman’s propensity to inside-edge the ball on to his stumps increases because of an unconscious change in his backlift. But there are also other Indians who yawn or boo at times of the most intricately contructed drama. They want fours and sixes and wickets and action and shots of women in the crowd. They want to be entertained.

Many more Indians care for cricket the entertainment than cricket the sport. For them, cricket is like another Salman Khan film, only with Yuvraj Singh as the star. Will he hammer the bad guys? Will he be the hero, or will they let them down? Will he be paisa wasool?

It is they who make cricket such big business in India. Cricket as sport is a niche pursuit for aficionados. Cricket as entertainment is a mainstream moneyspinner. Getting Mandira Bedi and Rohit Roy to do a cricket show makes perfect sense in those terms, however much they make purists like me cringe. Their ignorance of the sport is entirely besides the point, because who cares about the sport anyway? Audiences want action, excitement and eye candy.

This is why so much coverage of the game is hyperbolic, designed to keep viewers perpetually excited. That is why most commentators are ex-cricketers, hired for being familiar to a celebrity-obsessed audience, and rarely for the insights they offer. Tamasha rules, entertainment rules. Will the sport survive?

*  *  *

Two decades ago, when I was a boy, there weren’t too many ways for most Indians to entertain themselves. There was Bollywood. And there was cricket. The opportunity cost for watching a game of cricket wasn’t much: what else would you do in its place anyway? That has changed.

Since India began liberalising 16 years ago, a burgeoning middle class has found itself with many other ways of spending its time. As India has opened up to the world, hazaar things have flooded in from outside, competing with cricket for our attention. There is much more on TV to watch, there is the internet with all its riches, there are many more nifty places to hang out at: who’s got time for bat and ball?

Indeed, this is one reason India’s big cities – in particular, Mumbai – no longer churn out top cricketers like they used to. Kids in big cities find a lot else to do with their time, and many career opportunities that are far more lucrative than the risk that taking up cricket involves. At the same time, the smaller towns have developed fast enough for opportunities to play cricket to grow, but small-town kids don’t yet have so many options of timepass to compete with cricket. That is why so many new-generation India cricketers are from the smaller towns – Dhoni, Pathan, Munaf, Raina, and so on.

But as time goes by, and India develops, that will change. As globalisation proceeds, cricket will be competing with more and more alternatives for a potential fan’s time. And consider this: what is called the shorter form of the game takes up a full working day. No longer insulated from competition, can cricket retain its following as the years go by? Will Indians still have time for the game ten years from now?

Reason says it won’t. But what does love know of reason?