SportingLife

A day of cricket viewing renews old ties with a childhood game

In the preface to Alex Bellos' book, Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life, the bearded philosopher Socrates wrote: "Football is a sport made from spontaneity and discernment, luxury and freedom, and one that, I believe, is part of our most primitive genome, like dance."

Of course, Americans might say this about baseball, Kiwis about rugby, Canadians about ice hockey. A sport engraved into our childhood; a sport that's not an addiction but a companion; a sport whose rhythms and pauses are like a dance for us.

Ask yourself then, why you love football? Or tennis?

It's almost a mysterious connection, which other people will not always get. What do you people see in cricket, my Singaporean friends ask me. I can't explain, except point to days like Tuesday when Australia and India wrestle beautifully and appallingly in Bengaluru.

This is the cricket person's dance. The Test match day. A slow dance where the partners - batsman and bowler - don't touch or even like each other much. Test cricket - five days - is too long they say for an Instagram world, but mocking it is like kicking Leo Tolstoy out of a public library because War and Peace is 587,287 words. Not all of us have short attention spans.


India captain Virat Kohli (third from left) celebrates with team-mates after their 75-run victory in the second Test against Australia in Bengaluru. The four-match series between the world's top two sides is level at 1-1. PHOTO: REUTERS

Modern sport must offer instant gratification but Tuesday's cricket is a gradual thriller. There is the anticipation, the nail-chewing, the scoreboard watching, the resignation, the disguised panic, the dry mouth. It is draining. For the players, too.

In tennis we want a shot clock when Rafael Nadal plays, but time - slowly ticking, slowly running out - gives cricket a tension, it brings a psychological weight. A ball is bowled, a debate, a tactic change, and fielders crowd batsmen like striking workers cornering a manager.

Australia are chasing 188 to win, India are trying to stop Australia. In Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's tale of an American town and its high school football team, he writes about a player: "The game had a funny hold on him. The elemental savagery of it appealed to him." Cricket has its own inhumanity, for the football player can miss but the batsman really can't. Under his helmet we cannot see the furrows of his stress.

The best sport is uneven, bouts of quiet, then eruption. Like circling boxers, first tentative jabs, then suddenly a left hook. In this match Australia lose four wickets for seven runs and then six for 11; India lose five for 15 and then four for eight. Each team, at times, is as brittle as a Trump accusation.

Australia won the first Test and suffer from a chronic case of tenacity. India have been on the canvas but are now bravely finding their feet in the familiar dust. Captain Virat Kohli has a sailor's vocabulary but the vanity of a great player.

The ball bounces and snorts, it hisses and skids. I've taken the day off for this, my TV volume high for all dance needs music. Oiiii, go the fielders as the ball hits a pad. Ahhhh. Ohhh. They appeal to umpires, gods, themselves. Batsmen fidget and tug and then scuff at the dirt as if trying to dig a small battlefield trench.

Tennis watching is concentrated, cricket viewing allows you to roam to a bookshelf and tug out a copy of Roger Kahn's memoir on baseball, The Boys of Summer. Sport, irrespective of which one you prefer, is the cord tying us to our younger selves and perfect days.

As Kahn writes: "In the dead sunlight of a forgotten spring the major leaguers were trim, graceful and effortless. They might even have been gods for these seemed true Olympians to a boy who wanted to become a man and who sensed that it was an exalted manly thing to catch a ball with one hand thrust across your body and make a crowd leap to its feet and cheer."

On the screen there is temporary quiet. In tennis we want a shot clock when Rafael Nadal plays, but time - slowly ticking, slowly running out - gives cricket a tension, it brings a psychological weight. A ball is bowled, a debate, a tactic change, and fielders crowd batsmen like striking workers cornering a manager. There is spirit, spittle and spite.

There is abuse and snarls and no one cares if cameras watch or microphones listen to this ugliness. One team cannot be part of a great contest without the other, but they forget to thank each other. High testosterone lowers IQ and they play like men but act like boys and are too self-obsessed to appreciate that the controversy they create only obscures the fine skill they parade.

Meanwhile, over after over, technique is tested and also temperament. The desperation to hit a four or take a wicket is almost aching. Sport asks from the young what is a virtue of the old: patience.

The day is split into three, two-hour sessions which feels like the acts of a drama or a series of edgy novellas. It is a long day of emotion and nerves are as taut as prison wire. Can tension be excruciating and exquisite all at once? Yes. The better team win and here it is India. It is almost exactly the 140th anniversary of the first Test match in 1877. The game survives.

I turn off my TV after the game because this time I didn't want to hear any talking. No cliches, no accusations, nothing. I had already got what we all need, a day of uninterrupted kinship between game and watcher. My dance was done.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2017, with the headline 'A day of cricket viewing renews old ties with a childhood game'. Print Edition | Subscribe