Cricket is a strange game. Even those of us that follow it will agree on that.
To an outsider, the rules appear to be deliberately complicated, almost absurd. And for a ‘sport’, it is played at a ridiculously pedestrian pace, stopping for lunch and tea, and, in the case of a test match, lasting up to five days. And even then the result may just be a draw. And then there is the obsession with statistics.
Of course, all of that is part of the attraction of the game, although I doubt that I could convince any non-believer of the fact.
Us believers like to think that it is the most civilised game in the universe.
I can start up a conversation about cricket with someone from, say, India or New Zealand, and we will generally be enthusiastic and polite about the other person’s team. Would the same happen if a football supporter met a supporter from another country? I concede that it might, but I do suspect that there would be a lot more tension, a lot less generosity of spirit. At a cricket match, rival supporters mingle freely as they watch the game, and crowd trouble and violence is virtually unheard of. Even during matches between fierce rivals such as Australia and England, or India and Pakistan, it is not necessary to segregate the rival supporters (at least, I am unaware of it ever happening, and it would be most unusual if it did).
On my first long visit to India, I soon came to realise the importance that cricket held there.
Everybody follows the cricket in India, and everywhere that I went, somebody was playing cricket. Beside the dusty river bed in front of my guest house in Bodhgaya, each afternoon a host of children of all ages, from youngsters of five or six to almost adults, formed into two teams, and a serious game of cricket would then ensue; the fast bowlers steaming in towards the water buffalo end, the spinners employing their guile where the pigs had roughed up the pitch around leg stump. They never missed an afternoon.
Towards the end of my stay in Bodhgaya, I went to change some money at the bank. After the usual round of form-filling and waiting, I finally sat in front of the desk of a severe and tight-lipped bank official. He curtly asked me a few questions as he read my forms and looked through my passport. Then his demeanour suddenly changed.
‘Sussex? Sussex won the Championship last year. Do you watch them?’
‘No, Tonbridge is in Kent.’ I replied. ‘I follow Kent.’
We then happily chatted cricket for five or ten minutes until he sighed, looked at his watch and waved me to another counter where I would collect my money.
‘Enjoy your stay in India.’ he smiled.
After this, I travelled up to Darjeeling. Darjeeling is built on a steep hill, and the majority of its roads snake along and up and down hillsides with steep drops below. In many places children would set up games of cricket, skilfully avoiding the ‘six and out’ hit into the adjacent chasm. Even in the middle of markets, one had to squeeze past keen games of cricket being played amongst the stalls. Occasionally a tennis ball would ping off a bat towards me, followed by a cry of ‘Catch it!’
Many other times in India, I have often found that conversations I have been having just naturally turn to the cricket after the other, less important, things have been dealt with. And every time I return to India, there is no sign of this enthusiasm diminishing.
The photograph at the top of this post is of the Maidan in Kolkata, on a Sunday morning. As I walked along, there must have been dozens of games of cricket going on. Some were being played by sides all in their best whites and shiny new kit, some by sides in old clothes, with maybe only half a dozen players a side, playing with a scuffed old ball and battered bats. All were deadly serious.
I’d love to hear your views on this.