Where’s Your Spirit?

John Stern, editor for the Wisden Cricketer, the premier cricket magazine around, just published an absolutely horrible article that reads like it was written in about 4 minutes. That’s all very good for a blog post — as this one is — but he even dispenses with silly formalities like coherence and, um, a point. And that just won’t do.

Stern’s subject is cricket’s spirit: what it is, and whether it’s still relevant. First, he argues that sportsmanship does not define cricket; the game’s essence does not precede its experience. That’s a fair enough, if unilluminating, point. After all, we do not watch matches to see grown men shaking hands and drinking tea (though I do enjoy the two Test captains in the center for the toss, dressed up in their blazers and baggy caps).

But then, Stern turns around and says that spirit actually still matters, even if its content depends on some relativistic perspective:

There is plenty of room for extreme competitiveness, fruity back-chat, and even the intelligent end of the sledging spectrum without turning the game into an expression of orchestrated malevolence.

So, play the game as hard as you want, just do not cross the line. But isn’t that what’s at issue here? Stern has nothing to add to this debate other than to say that there is, in fact, something to debate. Of course, no one thinks that there’s a mathematical formula for these things. Why does one batsman’s stare become another’s dissent? Why does one bowler’s sledge become another’s ban? Stern muddies the water even more when he ends the article, concluding that too much fun (in the upcoming IPL) won’t be sustainable, but too little (as in the Australia-India Test series) won’t work either.

So, John, just how much are we allowed to smile here? For the record, I disagree: I think the game’s focus on stodgy good behavior forms a crucial part of its fun and glee. Very few other sports take the time to include protections for umpires and other players from verbal abuse, and that’s largely because cricket was never intended for the day-night, high-pressure context it currently exists in. It was meant for characters and character; the gentle rhythms of a passed era that treasured time and length over efficiency and industrialization. Don’t get all worked up about something; there’s over 100 overs left to bat out, laddie.

That’s not to say, to be sure, that Twenty20 isn’t “cricket.” It is, just as — and on this, Stern is correct — cricket in Bombay’s alleys is. Most people insist that Test cricket is the game’s purest paradigm and Twenty20 some awful Frankenstein, but this binary doesn’t hold up.

As I said, there’s something silly about cricket and its traditions and its lingo. For many of us, moreover, cricket is a ramshackle affair, where chairs substitute stumps, and hard cement roads make do for pitches. Boundaries are formed by gates and walls, not ropes, and the umpire is anyone who isn’t batting. And Twenty20 fits right in here: at its most basic level, Twenty20 is the every exuberant schoolboy’s revenge against the big boys who wouldn’t let him into the cricket club.

In other words, don’t confuse cricket’s traditions with inflexible rules and structure. The rules for good behavior exist to promote a non-competitive space, and that works just as well in Test cricket as it does in the quick, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Twenty20 version. Enjoy.

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