It has been almost a year since I watched cricket live, and it feels strange. Not just international cricket but First Class, club, even the Sunday knockabout in the neighbourhood. The pandemic has done worse things than shut the door on what some see as an indulgence anyway. Yet no one voluntarily gives it up. Either the playing of it or the watching.
Cricket-watching is not just about watching cricket. You can decide whether you want it to be an individual sport, sitting by yourself in a stadium, thinking, planning, spending quality time with yourself, taking comfort in the feeling of being alone in a crowd. Digression and diversion are built into the aesthetics of cricket.
Or you might prefer the team game, allowing yourself to be carried away by the energy of the crowd and revelling in a shared experience. Some people knit, some walk around looking for food or (when abroad) a drink. Or a chance meeting with Michael Holding taking a break from the commentary box.
Cricket-watching is also about spending time with former players and potential stars, the past and the future in a continuum through the present. It is about nostalgia, and the elegiac which is never far from any discussion.
Yesterday was always better than today. Many will recognise this sentiment about today’s game where a “hard utilitarianism and commercialisation have far too long controlled it.” But that was written well over a hundred years ago by the essayist E.V. Lucas.
And the arguments. Always the arguments. Not about the DRS or dodgy catches, but about who was better than whom, who should have played for India but didn’t and vice versa. A retired player gets better every year with every stroke he doesn’t play or ball he doesn’t bowl — the past is frozen in the mind on a period when a player was at his best (or worst).
In Breath of Sadness , sportswriter Ian Ridley’s poignant book about watching cricket following the death of his wife, he says, “Cricket didn’t talk back to me and it didn’t offer advice, it didn’t tell me what to do nor how to feel, like a best friend, it was just there for me, willing to embrace me and allow me to just be, whatever mood I was in.” You choose how you want the game to treat you, and it always obliges. Without judging you.
The playwright, Nobel laureate and cricket obsessive Harold Pinter once pointed out, “Drama happens in big cricket matches. But also in small cricket matches. When we play, my club, each thing that happens is dramatic: the gasps that follow a miss at slip, the anger of an lbw decision that is turned down. It is the same thing wherever you play, really.” This is an insight most fans don’t get.
Every club player is capable of playing that one special stroke or bowling that one stunning delivery once or twice in a career. The top players have such moments closer together — perhaps in the same over. A report of a Viv Richards double century began with, “Richards got his eye in with the kind of strokes an average batsman never gets to play in a lifetime.” It said more than his biographies did.
No substitute for the real thing
And now it’s been a year. It’s like admitting that I haven’t had a bath or eaten for that long. The lay-off has merely reconfirmed something I have always believed: television is no substitute for the real thing.
Sure, there’s slow motion replay, and fake sounds from a fake crowd. But notice how often the camera turns away discreetly when Virat Kohli begins to argue with an umpire or tells an opposition player just where he gets off? Kohli is not camera-shy but cameras turn Kohli-shy when the skipper threatens to cross a line. Technology doesn’t give you the whole picture, just what the authorities want you to see.
I spent a large part of my growing years following my hero Gundappa Viswanath around the city at league matches. He did to local bowlers what he had done to Andy Roberts and Dennis Lillee and Derek Underwood. The local bowlers didn’t seem to mind, many thought it was an honour.
More relaxed then
Test cricketers turned out for their clubs, and were more relaxed then, happy to speak to fans, and seldom rude. In any case, Bengaluru was a small city, and you always knew someone who knew an international player and was willing to make the introduction.
Missing a year of cricket-watching has reminded me of the kind of cricket-watching I miss too.
Cricket has been at the forefront of my life: watching it, playing it, writing about it. No single view speaks for the sport. And that’s its beauty.