Understanding Test Cricket
Russell Degnan

Can any sport inspire such divergent views on its relevant merits than that of cricket. Its lovers are inspired to write long and often highly literate essays on the merits of different players and different matches; to watch patiently for whole days at a time, and then retire to discuss it for longer still; and to suffer the slings and arrows of those who don't share their little obsession.

For its haters refuse to stay silent, writing to the newspaper to pronounce that they neither like nor understand the game, as if such ignorance were a virtue; to describe it as slow and boring to any willing to listen and the many willing to agree.

Or they say that they "don't mind the one dayers", as if that would only condemn them to the fourth or fifth circle of hell when judgement day comes, but rather missing the point completely. One day cricket is boring, it is predictable, tedious and rarely shows any of the features that connoisseurs look for in a test match. If you want action, watch football in almost any of its varieties. That has all the action you could want, and is substantially shorter as well, thus saving part of your day for a more productive activity.

The reasons you should watch cricket are more subtle, they reward time spent watching carefully and thinking. Because test cricket is like a novel, where other sports (with the possible exception of cycling) are not.

Football is an essay, English a polemic, Italian on existentialism; golf is a poem, normally on personal torment; tennis, a theatrical performance; one-dayers, short stories, mostly of the pulp romance variety and mostly forgettable.

But test cricket is longer, slower; and more fascinating for it. Like the average delivery, stripped of their context most passages in a novel are meaningless. What matters is not what is happening, but how it relates to the motivations and history if the character. It builds, one to the next, sometimes exciting, sometimes just building. Take this, from War and Peace:

In the beginning of the winter of 1805-6 Pierre received one of Anna Pavlovna's usual pink notes with an invitation to which was added: "You will find the beautiful Helene here, whom it is always delightful to see."

It is nothing more nor less than an invitation in terms of action, but in the broader scheme of things it is the prelude to Pierre's marriage to Helene. It is the cricketing equivalent of a bowling change; of Warne entering the attack to try and do what he does best -- namely dismiss batsmen. Thus, when a few paragraphs later Helene casts her own spell on Pierre we can see another similarity:

He half rose, meaning to go round, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox, passing it across Helene's back. Helene stooped forward to make room, and looked round with a smile. She was, as always at evening parties, wearing a dress such as was then fashionable, cut very low at front and back. Her bust, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to him that his shortsighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders, so near to his lips that he need only have bent his head a little to have touched them. He was conscious of the warmth of her body, the scent of perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she moved. He did not see her marble beauty forming a complete whole with her dress, but all the charm of her body only covered by her garments. And having once seen this he could not help being aware it, just as we cannot renew an illusion we have once seen through.

This is action, a change in the way Pierre sees the world. It is Warne spinning one past the edge of the batsman. Of confidence departing and doubt creeping in. Of something that Tolstoy's next two paragraphs can easily demonstrate, with a few minor edits:

"So you have never noticed before how good I am?" Warne seemed to say. "You had not noticed that I am a bowler? Yes, I am a bowler who can dismiss anyone--you too," said his glance. And at that moment Ian Bell felt that Warne not only could, but must, take his wicket, and that it could not be otherwise.

He knew this at that moment as surely as if he had been walking back to the pavilion. How and when this would be he did not know, he did not even know if it would be a good thing (he even felt, he knew not why, that it would be a bad thing), but he knew it would happen.

The problem for people who don't understand cricket is that they really don't understand cricket. They see silly men dressed in white running around a field: characters speaking in pompous Victorian language. We see best laid plans, Shakespearean tragedy, heroism and psychological torment. Alas, 'tis their problem, nay ours.

Cricket - Articles 8th October, 2005 21:06:21   [#] [6 comments]