To continue the sports theme that started with yesterday’s piece on football, my inspiration for today comes from the Ashes Test cricket series that started overnight (UK time) in Australia. Cricket tends to elicit a ‘marmite’ response – people either think it’s the greatest thing ever, or they simply don’t understand it at all
There is something wonderfully idiosyncratic about a sport, the pinnacle of which involves matches played over five days and that frequently end without achieving a positive result. In a world where sport is becoming ever more sensational, and where artificial drama is created to resolve stalemates (eg the penalty shoot-out in football), and where even cricket is becoming something of a circus (cf. the recent one day series between India and Australia where fielders seemed to spend more time fetching the ball back from the stands than actually making a difference on the field), it is reassuring to find that Test cricket retains an appeal for those who prefer their sport to contain elements of philosophy, psychology, and dogged determination, rather than one-dimensional displays of physical prowess
The point of Test match cricket is that it is the closest that any sporting contest comes to imitating life. Let me explain. It starts at 11am each morning – a civilised launch time for any really meaningful endeavour, coming as it does exactly two hours before any right-thinking person elects to stop for lunch. The pace of the match is largely determined by the amount of time that it takes the bowlers to get to the end of their run-ups, stop, shine the ball on their (to start with) white trousers, and then run up to the wicket and deliver the ball at about 80mph towards the batsman. This happens six times from one end of the pitch (an over) and then begins again once everybody else is in position, from the other end. In theory, the fielding side is supposed to complete 90 such overs in a typical day’s Test cricket. This is the productivity target that has been set down by the International Cricket Council. However, as in life so in cricket, productivity targets are there simply to provide a gauge against which players can judge their success in ‘sticking it to the management’. Consequently, whilst play is designed to finish each day at 6pm, most international cricket sides have long since realised that rushing around to meet the overs target while the sun is at its highest point, is madness. Consequently, they condition themselves to playing more slowly in the afternoon and staying on a bit longer to complete the day’s quota at the end of the day (when it’s cooler), thus also reducing the gap between the end of play and the arrival of an acceptable time to arrive in the bar for post-play refreshments (sadly – in my opinion – rarely of the alcoholic variety these days). There is no doubt that this practice has its roots absolutely in the behaviour of workers around the world, whose motivation is to behave in a way that is subversive enough to demonstrate their independence, whilst being compliant enough to avoid serious sanction
Fielding positions are themselves a great source of mystery and confusion to the uninitiated follower of cricket. Silly mid off becomes silly mid on depending on whether the batsman is right or left handed; and when straight midwicket, wide mid on and ‘cow corner’ can all mean basically the same thing, I have some sympathy with those who struggle. There are helpful diagrams available to provide some clarity for those new to the game
Unfortunately, this one (courtesy of Robin Flavell) isn’t one of them – but it’s very funny! Again, the point is that the complexity of the fielding positions, and the agonised deliberation that bowlers, captains and ‘senior players’ devote to the decision on whether or not to move wide fourth slip to narrow gulley (ask a cricket-loving friend if you miss the subtlety of this), is all designed to make it appear that the whole thing is much more difficult than it actually is. It’s the equivalent of the plumber or mechanic who manically sucks air in through his teeth whilst muttering darkly about flanges and one-eighth gauge washers – when all you really need is for someone to fix the tap or change the oil
Ultimately, then, those who don’t ‘get’ cricket are missing out because they aren’t watching it in the right frame of mind. Look beyond the superficiality of the sporting contest and see instead the subversive behaviours and the unionised practices at play, and suddenly it all becomes so much more entertaining. Nobody who enjoys cricket does so from a position of naive optimism – that way lies despair! You have to adopt the attitude of the knowing cynic, always assuming that victory is about to be snatched from your grasp by the weather, a bum umpiring decision, bad light, or an unlikely tenth wicket stand. As somebody who I used to play cricket with was very fond of saying : “We’ve lost from better positions then this”
He got cricket.