A Game on Life Support

I can barely stand to listen to the news these days , a sentiment that many of us agree with, no doubt. I can neither tolerate the bellicosity of right wing talk radio nor the we are so much better than the other side smug elitism of public radio. That is not to say that I believe this “both sides are to blame” nonsense though. Plus these aren’t exactly peachy times for a liberal left of center listener like me. So I do what every responsible citizen would do in such a situation: disengage. Disengage and let someone else figure it out while I bitch and moan about how bad things are. Which means I listen to a lot of sports radio while in the car or traveling. I oftentimes hear the hosts on the radio station I listen to discussing how some baseball games are so long and something needs to be done about it if the game is to sustain the viewership and patronage of younger viewers. Which brings me to the topic of this post: Test cricket.

The Indian born Chief Executive of Microsoft, when asked by an interviewer how he would explain cricket to an American had one word: Impossible. He added, in the same interview, that his most valuable possession is a cricket bat signed by the great Sachin Tendulkar. More on that later. His comment regarding the impossibility of explaining the sport of cricket (and especially Test cricket) to Americans has nothing to do with the average American’s ability to understand the game and has everything to do with what an anachronism Test cricket is in this day and age. Players step out in spotless whites like they did over two hundred years ago, there are breaks for lunch and breaks for high tea and the game is played over five days; sometimes with no result. Right. With no result. High Tea aren’t exactly the words that come to mind while trying to conjure up in one’s imagination an exciting and absorbing sport. In fact just typing the words high tea feels like I’ve been transported to the Victorian era. Yet here I was, up at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning glued to my computer screen watching India play England in a test match. There is a certain love for a game that one grew up watching and the team one grew up rooting for that no other game or team can replace I suppose. Or I’m just a sports fan with way too much time on my hands. Time that could be put to better use elsewhere.  For someone with not one athletic bone in his body I watch way too much sports. The ratio of time spent watching sports to time spent playing sports is heavily skewed in favor of the number left of the colon, or the numerator, if you would.  I love the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Mavericks and heck I’ll even jump on the bandwagon when the Texas Rangers are in a pennant race or in the playoffs. Baseball. A game I don’t even understand fully. The first time I went to a baseball game with some coworkers I actually asked one of them when halftime was.

But nothing quite compares to the joy that accompanies the Indian national cricket team’s victories. Anybody that has been to Indian subcontinent, has an Indian or a Pakistani friend or has generally spent a few days with anyone from the subcontinent knows that the game is a religion in India. A Malayalam poet named C.P. Surendran once wrote, describing the love and passion Indian people have for cricket and one gentleman particularly : “Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena.” Enough has been said about society’s tendency to overvalue sports and Indians’ penchant for deifying cricket stars and this one in particular so I’ll spare the reader that lecture. Suffice to say that there has likely never been a sports figure more revered in the history of all sport. The Indian team’s victories are especially sweet for me when India beats England. Something about sticking it to the former colonial masters in the game they taught us to play is gratifying like few other things are for me.

I am, in a sense different from the average Indian cricket fan that a win over the arch rivals west of India’s disputed border is less satisfying to me than a victory against England.  The writer Wright Thompson, describing the India — Pakistan rivalry wrote “Its just like Auburn vs Alabama.” Yes, he added “just like that, except for the constant threat of nuclear holocaust.” Yes, it is India — Pakistan, not Pakistan — India, and yes it matters just like it is Texas — OU and not OU — Texas. But as I grow older I find myself becoming less partisan and more of a fan of the game itself than individuals or teams. Finally, after thirty something years of watching cricket and sports in general, I understand the cliche that no individual is bigger than the game.
No other game that I know of on the planet has different formats played over different time spans, save the sport of running. In any case, no other sport that involves bat and ball is played in three formats. Yet, as most intelligent commentators and former players would tell you, Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game requiring the endurance, patience and fitness levels that if a team wants to compete at that level, can be in the very least, daunting. Don’t let the portly cricketers from the past — a famous former cricketer from Sri Lanka comes immediately to mind — let you belie the fitness levels the longest format of the game demands. I’m also old school in that club cricket, of the type most popular with the youth of today, has no appeal for me. I watch all formats of the game but I’m only emotionally invested in the fortunes of the Indian national cricket team. In fact the only times this grown ass man can recall having shed shed tears over sports is twice: Once when India failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2007–2008 World Cup Not Test cricket or the shortest format but a third format that is played over a whole day. Take that basketball! and once when the great Sachin Tendulkar retired from the sport.

To say that the game is struggling would be an understatement. I don’t know of any other game that is played to empty stands and still manages to survive. The shorter more “exciting” formats of the game sustain Test cricket and they allow the lesser teams to be competitive. I oftentimes wonder how many kids in the subcontinent under the age of twenty five really care about and answer it myself. Not many. And as the history of boxing shows, a game that cannot sustain the interest of the younger generations cannot survive. But I don’t know what the solution is. A game played over five days is more suited to 1818 not 2018. The stodgy powers that be running the sport are finally waking up to the reality that something needs to be done if the game is to survive. That includes trying some innovative things like day night (pink ball) Test cricket. Yes, there’s red ball cricket, white ball cricket and now, pink ball cricket. There was a child in the stands holding a sign, clearly written by an adult, which read: “KEEP TEST CRICKET ALIVE FOR THE NEXT GENERATION.”
Amen to that. The game is on life support and this fan hopes it survives. Now excuse me as I go back to doing what every concerned and responsible patron of the game would do. Sit around and mope about the future of the game.

Thanks for indulging me and reading.

Lakshman Hariharan
08/04/2018 Prosper, TX.

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