Why We Watch Cricket

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

When play started on the fourth day of the second Test between England and Australia at Edgbaston in 2005, the match situation was not what you would call finely balanced. Australia, set 282 to win, were 175 for eight. Tail-enders Shane Warne and Brett Lee were batting, with only last man Mike Kasprowicz to come.

The match could, literally, have been all over in two balls. Yet a substantial crowd turned up to watch; indeed, before long there was more or less a full house. By definition most of them must have been English and, somewhat paradoxically, they must have been hoping that the entertainment would be over as soon as possible.

In the event, of course, the game went down to the wire, England winning by two runs. The game was one of the most exciting Test matches of all time. The victory was special because, although they had lost the first Test at Lord’s, there was a perception that Michael Vaughan’s England side was ready to give Ricky Ponting’s Australians a run for their money. They did indeed regain the Ashes.

The last day of the series, the fifth at The Oval, was very different in tone from the fourth at Edgbaston – England were batting to save the game – but they did have one thing in common. A large number of the predominantly home crowd would have welcomed play being curtailed, at The Oval by rain, to help ensure the draw.

At any sporting event a lot – most? –all? Of the people watching will be there because they want “their” team , or their favourite player, or the horse they backed, to win. Naturally there are always going to be a few neutral observers but it is in the nature of sport that even the most objective of bystanders is likely to be swept along in one direction or another.

Cricket is unusual in a number of respects. The thing which marks it out from most other sports is that, at the professional and international level it has three different formats, each recognisably the same game but also quite distinct from one another.

There is no doubt that the most popular form of the game is T20. You are guaranteed a result in little more than three hours, and lots of fours and sixes. There are tactical niceties for those interested in such things. Every ball is an event. Fifty over cricket, particularly since the rule re-vamp after the last World Cup, offers much, or at least some, of the same : in particular, weather permitting , you get a result in one day.

Test cricket is different. Time is the thing. Lots of people love going to the first day of a Test match. Ninety thousand will regularly turn up at Melbourne on Boxing Day. There is a special frisson about the first day of a Lord’s Test. But nobody expects to see a result.

For wrist spin in the modern era the outstanding exponents have been Abdul Qadir and Shane Warne. Qadir was a wizard; he had all the variations. But Warne was the master; he thought batsmen out. He was fascinating to watch.

In tennis, a grand slam takes a fortnight, not just five days. Likewise with a golf major. But that’s a bit different. If you spend a day at Wimbledon you will see one or more complete matches. They may or may not have an impact on the championship but that is not the point. If you follow a particular flight for a day at St Andrew’s you will watch a complete, as it were self-contained, contest. If you spend a day at a Test match, on the other hand, you have no idea what might be in store. You might have the chance to see thirteen different batsmen, or more; but you might just see two.

The other characteristic that distinguishes cricket from most other games is that, although it is a team sport – eleven against eleven – its constant, central element is an individual, almost gladiatorial, struggle between batsman and bowler. Thus it is that many of the crowd will not only be supporting one team or the other, but will be very keen to watch a particular player. Here again it doesn’t always work out that way in a Test match. If you spend a day at Wimbledon intending to watch Roger Federer play, that, barring weather or injury, is what you will do: you will watch Federer play.

He might not win – you can’t have everything – but at the worst you will be able to watch him on court for a reasonable period of time, doing what he does best, even if, on the day in question, he happens not to do it particularly well. But Test cricket is different. If you go to Lord’s to watch Joe Root bat, you might be lucky, but you might not. England might spend the day in the field; you can watch your hero all day, standing at second slip and waving his arms around, directing the fielders. Even if England are batting he might be out first ball.

As with all sports, whether team or individual, it is the players’ personal skills that give the game real spectator appeal. In special cases this can be taken to an extreme level. This was the case with cricket’s two most iconic figures, Don Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar. People would go to watch them bat and, once they were out, they would leave. Nothing else mattered.

Watching batsmen appeals partly from a purely aesthetic point of view and partly because cricket is so revelatory of character and personality. There really are all sorts and conditions of batsmen. There is the languid elegance of David Gower, the studious determination of Sunil Gavaskar, the bullying pragmatism of Graeme Smith, the strangely balletic lumbering of Inzamam-ul-Haq. They are all doing the same thing: trying to hit a ball with a bit of wood. But they find wonderfully different ways of doing it.

With bowlers it’s a bit different. So often in one day cricket they seem to be cannon fodder. But there are two types of bowler that will excite any crowd, partly because of their rarity – genuinely fast bowlers, and wrist spinners. In the recent past the South African Dale Steyn has been the most skilful and successful fast bowler around. But the most exhilarating, on his day, was the Australian left armer Mitchell Johnson. No one who saw his demolition of Alastair Cook’s stumps at the Adelaide Oval in December 2013 is likely to forget it.

For wrist spin in the modern era the outstanding exponents have been Abdul Qadir and Shane Warne. Qadir was a wizard; he had all the variations. But Warne was the master; he thought batsmen out. He was fascinating to watch. The walk towards the crease, leading to a three or four pace run; the pivot and the powerful turn of shoulder and wrist as the ball was released – even in a still photograph you can almost hear it fizzing in the air; the drift and the dip, the precision landing, the turn and the bounce; the befuddled face of a defeated batsman. And all of it repeated endlessly, over after over.

Gideon Haigh once asked Warne what he missed most during his year-long drugs ban from cricket. Haigh was expecting a facile response like “hanging out with my mates”. In fact, Warne said he missed turning up for a day’s play and simply having no idea what was going to happen. It is a bit like that for us spectators too. Of course, all sport is unpredictable: otherwise, what’s the point? But cricket, especially five day cricket, with its tantalising equation of runs, wickets, weather and time, and the infinite scope that that time gives for ebb and flow, can be peculiarly hard to call. Not infrequently a match can enter its final stages with all four results possible. Even in a five day match, “every ball is an event” , and it might be a critical one.

In “A Beautiful Game” Mark Nicholas tells a great story about an incident in a county game between Hampshire and Somerset. Viv Richards was batting, and facing the great West Indies and Hampshire fast bowler Malcolm Marshall. In the middle of an over Richards suddenly left the crease and ran off towards the sight screen at the bowler’s end. Just to the right of the sight screen a male spectator was sitting reading his newspaper. Richards loudly berated him for not paying attention to the top class entertainment being provided in the middle, before going back to resume his innings.

To be fair to the gentleman in question, a day at the cricket is a fairly significant commitment. Even the keenest devotee is likely to miss the occasional ball. There are longueurs, particularly between balls when a fast bowler is on. There is the break at the end of an over, when in a pleasingly geometric ritual, wicket keeper and slips trot to the other end, and the other fielders and the umpires change position. All this takes a little while. And one can just get distracted. Another glass, or a cup of tea; a chat about this and that; focussing the binoculars on that attractive figure in the Grand Stand. It’s actually quite easy to miss something. You hear the roar and see the batsman tuck his bat under his arm and walk. For the brilliant catch, you are dependent on the replay on the big screen.

Among the natural breaks is the fall of a wicket. A wicket is always a major spectacle. But you also want to see the victim departing to the pavilion, and to celebrate or commiserate as the case may be. And you want to see his successor coming out. For some, Richards in particular, the walk to the crease was part of the drama.

And after the match, or the day, there are the memories and the conversations and the reports. Some other sports have produced fine literature – boxing and horse-racing stand out – but few games seem to lend themselves to fine writing in the way cricket has always done. And then there is the talk.

Andrew Lang put it best. “There is no talk, none so witty and brilliant. That is so good as cricket talk, when memory sharpens memory, and the dead live again – and the old happy days of burned-out Junes revive. ”

Of course, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There is a story of Groucho Marx being invited to watch a match at Lord’s. After sitting attentively for forty minutes or so the fabled comic turned to his host with a quizzical expression on his face.

“When do they start ? “

Bill Ricquier, 19/08/2017

This article was published in Scoreline Asia: https://scoreline.asia/why-we-watch-cricket/

Shane Warne bowling to Ian Bell in the 2006-07 Ashes in Brisbane. Image released into the public domain  by  Moonlight Mile at English Wikipedia

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