Notes from Silly Mid-On

History and the Moment in Cricket
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Image via Wikimedia Commons

It’s around this time of year that last baseball season becomes part of history. Individual acts and characters stand apart from a fading background of divisional standings and win-loss ratios; memory fixes hero and goat alike in its preserving amber. The stats are all gathered in; Bill James can explain why everything was inevitable; and Red Sox fans of my vintage can permit themselves, once again, to hope.

This is not how it usually feels at a 3–2 count with two out and a man on second—and perhaps baseball’s chief fault as collective work of art is that history and the moment exist too far apart: it is only in retrospect, in the off-season, that we see those nail-biting or exulting minutes as part of a stately cavalcade—Baseball—marching inexorably into the past. If we could only keep the instant and the eternal before our eyes at once, we might perhaps look on the game, on life, with the calm unflustered wisdom of a Buddha, or at least a LaRussa.

Actually, there is a sport that manages to combine the immediate and the unending in a single experience; that sport is Test cricket.  As you may know, a Test match lasts five days, each beginning soon after breakfast and extending until the grandstand shadows creep across the middle of the ground. Appropriately for what was (is still) a village game, cricket is not over-encumbered with rules. There are no balls and strikes, no foul territory, no injunction against hitting the batter—all of which mean that a batsman might easily face four hundred balls in the course of a single at-bat, each bowled at him with the subtle deception of a tennis volley and the raw aggression of gladiatorial combat.

Outs are hard to get, so bowlers successively probe the known weaknesses of batsmen, trying out every permitted variable: placing the ball in the notorious “corridor of uncertainty,” searching for unexpected spin or bounce, aiming at developing cracks in the ground, exploiting swerving air currents from evaporating dew… or putting the fear of God into them with sharply rearing beamers straight at their chins.

Violent moments; inspired sequences; long, contemplative sessions as advantage sways back and forth: each Test match is like a whole season. Players can go through completed streaks and slumps without leaving the field. Accidents change the scorecard, but character, too—doggedness, adaptability, deviousness—shapes the result.  Test matches are played by national teams, and despite the globetrotting careers of most professional cricketers, national qualities tends to come out: the relentless hustle of Australians, the warrior-individualism of West Indians; the improvised, fragile teamwork of the English. By the end of a match, we feel we know the players not just as practitioners of the game but as men. No fault can remain unrevealed; there is a reason it’s called a Test.

This means that spectators experience the match on several levels, each with its own timescale. There are the perfect instants: the flashing drive or spectacular clean-bowl, stumps cartwheeling over the turf; seasoned cricket fans have a knack of looking up from their newspapers just before these things happen. There are the broad currents of play: the constant recalculation of runs to be made or wickets taken in order to secure a result; cricket is good for mental long division. There is the assessment of each player on this particular day in his long career, searching for signs of breakthrough or decline. And, hotly discussed at every ground from Trinidad to Trincomalee, there is the question of how today’s performance would have stacked up had So-and-so still been playing.

The annals of the game, recorded in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, its statistical compendium, go back two hundred and fifty years. The spectators’ collective memory therefore instantly populates the field with recent stars and heroes long dead: ferocious Malcolm Marshall, whose very name put batsmen in a mucksweat; Ranjitsinhji, Maharajah Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, airy artist of stroke-play; C.B. Fry, captain of Hampshire and nearly King of Albania; Dr. W.G. Grace, vast, bearded Hercules of nineteenth-century cricket; and on further back to the Great Mynn, Black Bess of the Mint, and Old Wat (a dog), who, with his master Mr. Trumper, defeated Two Gentlemen of Middlesex by a score of 7 runs to 6… on a distant hillside, long, long ago.

The weathervane at Lord’s Cricket Ground, Mecca of the sport, shows the familiar old fellow with the scythe and hourglass removing the bails from the stumps to end a day’s play. Yet, we initiates know, the greater game goes on. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all her sons away—but in cricket they live again, linking the mortal and the eternal.

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Good to see some coverage, albeit short, for one of the world's most popular sports (even if that is only true courtesy of its religious following in the subcontinent). Being played over such a long period of time, and being so subject to the weather and the environment make a fascinating sport, and it also possesses probably the greatest statistical outlier in all of sports, in Bradman's batting average.

This is an interesting time for cricket: I'd love to see the Classical's take on, e.g. the rise of short-form cricket, or the chucking issue, or the shift in the game's administration to the subcontinent.