What is Cricket’s Shibboleth?

From the Bible (and, more famously(?), The West Wing):

“All right, say ‘Shibboleth.'” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.

There have been a few articles lately testing the cricket bona fides of fans in Afghanistan and India-Pakistan. One NPR reporter roamed around Kabul giving people watching Afganistan’s first game some shibboleths:

EEVES: Vegetable seller Zabih Ullah is sitting, legs crossed, on a rug, gazing up at the TV, trying to figure out what is going on. Do you know what a googly is?


Jarrod Kimber did something similar:

She doesn’t know about Mohit Sharma’s late call-up or why Umar Akmal is keeping . She doesn’t know any of the players. She doesn’t need to. For her – for many, in fact – this isn’t about the players. After the game, she won’t be starting Facebook memes about Suresh Raina or RTing funny photos of Pakistanis. She will just be happy or sad.

I don’t think this theme is malicious, even if it’s mildly condescending (and just to return the favor: I would have asked if the guy knew what a doosra was, since that’s been far more essential to the game in the last decade than the googly). The larger point–which I think is missed by a lot of media outlets–is that you can enjoy cricket without knowing all the rules. As I’ve said many times before, cricket really isn’t that complicated, and people (including, er, Barack Obama) who say they can’t understand it are basically saying, nicely, “This game just doesn’t seem interesting enough.” 

Because, honestly, every game–bar, maybe, sprinting–can be as complicated as you want. American football? Talk to me about Deflate-gate and the Ideal Gas Law. Football? Talk to me about endless attack formations and passes and off-side. I imagine that fans of any game make a decision about how much they want to “get into it”; otherwise, they’re very happy to enjoy the “whoosh” of a sporting event. So don’t tell me that you’d really like cricket “if only you could understand it,” because, really, it’s not that hard.

I go back and forth about cricket loyalty tests. I think the IPL organizers know that most young upper-middle class men in urban India don’t have many social outlets, and spending a few hours drinking, dancing, and ogling at cheerleaders is a grand ol’ time. The cricket, in this case, is just part of a larger spectacle. I think a lot of this also happens, as Kimber pointed out, in big India games–the quality of the cricket is a smaller point in a much larger narrative.

All of this seems, at least to someone who has taken a fair amount of time to try to understand the subtleties of the game, a bit disappointing. It also has some serious consequences for the game, as it could bend the aesthetics of the game to please the janata (namely, with smaller boundaries and stupid fielding rules).

On the other hand: PEOPLE IN AFGHANISTAN ARE WATCHING CRICKET. So, yes, I’m torn.

Extra Credit: What’s the ideal cricket shibboleth?



2 thoughts on “What is Cricket’s Shibboleth?

  1. Gareth says:

    The googly question is misleading too – I suspect half of the cricketers here in NZ couldn’t tell you exactly what one is… let alone have faced one! And you’re right about it’s lack of prominence in the current game – potentially better to ask about something like the ‘Dilshan Scoop’. 🙂

    I heard this interesting piece on BBC World Service the other day, about cricket in China. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02jrhgc)… one of the issues they have is translatable ideas for rather fundamental concepts like ‘On’ and ‘Off’ side (let alone what you’d call the delivery known by the rest of the world as a ‘chinaman’).

    So the shibboleth also has to take into account language nuances of meaning. too.

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