Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Battin' for Sachin

 One of cricket’s myriad sins (in the eyes of some but perhaps when all is said and done not so many in poetry's equally arcane fraternity) is that the gentle game is a lingering ghost of British Imperialism played almost exclusively in and between former colonies such as my own, and whose passionate embrace of this "chess on grass" appears to outsiders to have blinded one quarter of the world to an endless trespass of former masters.

I have watched a horse beaten as a child and thus can do no more than to remind those who may have forgotten that 1975 is in the past, not the future. 

In Australia (least set-upon because most seasonally prized of Britain's former colonies), cricket, most mellifluous of ball games, has been for some time now inextricably linked to a peculiar form of nostalgia rooted in the early decades of last century - that apparent “Golden Age” of ANZACS, Phar Lap, the “fair go” and, of course, the “Don” whose almost perfect batting average of 99.94 has served as the Post Office Box number of our national broadcaster ever since. The bastard son done good.

In India, home of the greatest batsman since Don Bradman and subject of this piece, cricket evokes little if any such cloying nostalgia, but on the contrary appears to serve as a conduit for the future hopes and aspirations of 1.2 billion people. I don’t believe for a second that every single one of those 1.2 billion has a passionate love of the game, but if the current reaction to the Indian team’s dramatic form slump is any indication, cricket carries a weight of expectation in that country that at times threatens to break it. 

Until the relatively recent advent of 20-over cricket (the game is now played in three official formats, perhaps a unique situation in ball sports), world cricket was often (and with some justification) labelled the most “state-centric” of sports, for it is only at the international level that the game has attracted more than peripheral attention. 

To passionate participants and followers of the game in regions as diverse as Afghanistan and Denmark,  such breezy summations of their part in this strange little community of world cricket may seem a little unjust, but the fact remains that until 2005 the greatest draw card in world cricket was the hard-fought contest between national teams, only ten of which have achieved Test-playing status to the present day. That the 20-over format has shifted this focus back to the club level (albeit at this stage moneyed franchises) has been a priceless innovation in this blogger’s opinion.

The career of Sachin Tendulkar, remarkable in merely statistical terms alone, is equally remarkable in that it has spanned a dramatic era of change in what many still regard as a static game, from 1988 until the present day. There can be few other elite athletes in any sport of any era who have performed at such a consistently high level for so long. But more than this, there can be few who have shouldered the weight of expectation of so many people at a pivotal moment in their history with such dignity, forthrightness, intelligence, and humility. Indeed, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama chuckled characteristically after watching Sachin caress the ball around a tiny ground in the Himalayan foothills: “I think if the Buddha ever played a game it would probably be cricket”.

A well-worn argument against cricket is that it encapsulates a certain stultified “Englishness”, in other words that it eschews physical confrontation and speedy resolution for the maintenance of a code of conduct that lays emphasis on how the game is played rather than the result. That it benefits no-one but those who can participate or who can afford the time to watch. A fruitless, vaguely sinister leisure.

Sounds like poetry.

Doubtless such values were the prevailing ethos for a certain period in the late 19th century (when European Imperialism and rules of engagement were at their height and the first Test Match was being nutted out in Melbourne), but the reality is, as always, a little more grubby. For most of its long long history, cricket has been played in a rather more mercantile spirit. In fact, the strict demarcation between “Gentleman” and “Professional” players right up until the 1950’s (in English cricket at least) suggests that the Test cricket innovation of 1877 may have been a last vain attempt to purge the game of some of its more nefarious elements. 

However, it didn’t take long for people (nefarious or otherwise) to realise that a game that can last 5 days (or at times in its long history as many as 10!), and still offer no result, must be serving up the inveterate gambler even more opportunities to stake a wager.

Bookies, both then and now, have almost brought the game to its knees, drawn by the explosive nature of the game, albeit toward the bottom end. How many runs will be scored in the first over? How many times will the wind blow off the umpire’s hat before tea? How many times will that brilliant young Pakistani bowler with his whole (now ruined) life ahead of him bowl a no-ball in a session at Lords?

Sachin Tendulkar, “The Little Master”, despite the pressure placed on him by the Mumbai bookies early in his career, has not only risen above such viscera, but seems to dwell in a completely different universe ruled by the admittedly complex yet insuperably fair laws of cricket. To see him interviewed is to see cricket light up his face. He is cricket both as it has been and as it is becoming. What the game will be, what India will be, without him is beyond even this humble blogger to foresee. Other than to say that we are all the richer, whether a follower of the odd little arcane game or not, for having had him pass through this increasingly crowded, frenetic world with us.

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