The joys and sorrows of a ‘cricket tragic’

The truly obsessed know the game, the folklore, the scandals and the statistics

Updated - April 26, 2017 11:34 am IST

Published - April 25, 2017 07:36 pm IST

99.94 - Bradman's average. Also a popular choice for an ATM pin

99.94 - Bradman's average. Also a popular choice for an ATM pin

In a moment of epiphany long ago, I understood why it is not possible to explain cricket to someone who is above a certain age. Cricket obsession must start early, as I discovered while explaining the difference between finger spin and wrist spin to my wife recently.

It is easy to describe tennis or soccer or table tennis to someone who has never played the game or even seen one being played. But cricket? It needs a two-pronged approach, best attempted before the age of, say, 18.

The degree of difficulty increases manifold with every passing year thereafter; to get someone obsessed with cricket after the age of 40 is near impossible. Those who come into it late don’t have enough years left to understand the nuances and tend to be guided by television rather than lived experience.

Two-pronged approach

The first prong of this two-pronged approach takes care of the physical aspects — starting with how someone uses a piece of wood to strike a ball of leather hurled at some pace — and moving on to the equipment, which is easily explained too. In the hierarchy of explanations, the next step might be the difference between a right-hander and left-hander, a spinner and a fast bowler, and so on.

The second prong is more difficult unless you have started absorbing its essence from a very young age. This comprises the folklore, of what W.G. Grace said when he was dismissed clean bowled (“people have come to see me bat, not you bowl”), or who Sachin Tendulkar’s boyhood hero was (John McEnroe) or which one of Garry Sobers’s six sixes landed on the road (and what happened subsequently).

Beauty of numbers

The truly obsessed know the game, the folklore, the scandals and the statistics. His ATM PIN is usually 1990 (19 for 90, Jim Laker’s figures at the Oval Test, still a world record), 9994 (Don Bradman’s Test average), 4204(number of first class wickets Wilfred Rhodes claimed)…you get the idea. When he sees a vehicle with the number 337 passing by, his mind goes to Hanif Mohammed and the longest innings in Test cricket.

This is not a game, it is an automatic reflex. The Australian writer Gideon Haigh has a delightful story of landing in Sydney and taking a cab that accidentally drove away with his luggage. He remembered the number — 905, Walter Hammond’s aggregate against Australia in the 1928-29 series — and was able to tell the cab company that. He saw no harm in giving additional information too: “at an average of 113 .12,” thus causing some confusion. It may have been a problem, admits Haigh, if the cab number had been 904 or 906.

Most numbers can be converted into something significant cricket-wise. Take a random number: 2167. The first half is the Bishan Bedi’s age in the year of the second half, 67.

Statistics are the easy part of the second prong. Cricket, unlike most other sports is also tied up with class and race, colonialism and nationalism. It is no exaggeration to say that to really understand Ravi Ashwin’s bowling it might be useful to have a Venn diagram of these aspects in mind.

Cricket both endorsed class in its early years, and helped dissolve it in later years. It was the sport of the privileged (at least batting was) in both England and India, and a path to privilege in both these countries. For the royalty of the past, there is the corporate house of today, privileging the cricketer above the badminton or kabaddi player.

Genesis of the term

I was recently invited to a friend’s place — he is a ‘cricket tragic’ like myself — so we could get the “cricket out of the way” before our wives joined us at a later date! The former Australian Prime Minister John Howard was a ‘cricket tragic’ — the term was apparently coined by Mark Taylor, but it seems to be of an earlier provenance. It describes the kind of people we are talking about — the kind which will postpone a wedding to be able to take in a match, and rues that a similar thing can’t be done with funerals.

To explain wrist spin or left arm spin, therefore, is both simple and complicated. To start at the beginning is impossible, to merely state the physical description makes it incomplete.

It was said of George Orwell that he could not blow his nose into a handkerchief without expounding on the economic problems of the English working classes. It is the same with spin bowling for me. And for all those other ‘tragics’ who see in the game not merely an expression of others’ physicality, but our own mental make-up.

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