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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?



Programming Note

To my ten (or so) readers: I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for nearly a month now, but major life changes are underway. I’ll get back into blogging soon, promise.

Why Spot-Fixing Offends

When a spot-fixing scandal emerges (and it seems to happen with an increasing frequency lately), cricket fans turn to their ethics textbooks. Is there a moral distinction between throwing a game (“match-fixing”) and throwing a wide, no-ball, or a given number of runs (“spot-fixing”)? If spot-fixing aims to ‘fix’ such small, mundane events, is there really cause for life-bans or moral opprobrium? This was the source of the argument between Harsha Bhogle, who pointed out the degree-of-difference on Twitter, and Dale Steyn, who replied that stealing a dollar or a bank still amounts to stealing.

I’m not that invested in this discussion because spot-fixing offends me for another reason. Cricket is now a modern game, which means that we have professional athletes who make a difficult bargain: In return for two to three decades of hard work, many injuries, and terrible odds for national selection, we offer them (a small group of them, anyway) money, fame, and the chance to be part of a country’s biggest moments. The money comes from the fans (mostly from their televisions), and advertisers. Policing these new commercial boundaries is difficult and often incoherent: We are willing to accept loud, incessant ads between overs, but we’re uneasy about inserting them into the game (“Karbon Kamaal catch,” “Yes Bank Maximum,” etc.). We’re still not sure how we feel about a player abandoning his country’s Test side for a made-up IPL franchise, but we’re extremely uneasy about an Indian team that either hides or misdiagnoses injuries for fear it may hurt a player’s chance to play in the IPL. We also understand the need for sponsors, but we’re not happy to see one of them own both an IPL franchise and head the organization that owns the IPL and the Indian national team.

So now we have spot-fixing, which offends me because it basically abolishes these commercial-athlete boundaries (however made up they may seem). In essence, a bookie turns an athlete into a private employee and asks him to do his bidding over the most trite affairs — Place your towel into your pants! Shake your wristband! Give me a no-ball! The player becomes a financial product — a secret investment akin to an insider trading scheme. What’s forgotten is that a player (presumably) worked hard to reach his particular level, and his skills are now not subject to chance or fate or another player’s abilities, but to some shady operator at the end of a cellphone. What’s also forgotten, of course, is that a fan fully expects to see these skills. To watch the best do their best — that’s what a spectator can reasonably ask for.

Spot-fixing enrages me because it makes explicit what I’d prefer to repress. I know that cricket is a commercial game now, just as another modern sport is, and that it has been so for a long, long time. But I still prefer not to think of the game as a series of financial transactions, even though increasingly, the money equation seems to determine what we watch on our screens. We’ve made all sorts of bargains ourselves, as my second paragraph indicates, that we forget how much we have given away. The real difference here isn’t match-fixing v. spot-fixing; it is trying to place spot-fixing on a spectrum that now includes sponsorship, ads, conflicts-of-interests, and bad faith

Have You Ever Watched A Test All The Way Through?

A hypothetical: Let’s say you’re either unemployed or wealthy enough that you don’t have to work. And then, let’s say there’s a Test match between reasonably interesting teams (like India and Australia). Assume there are no competing demands on your time. Would you really sit through all 30 hours of cricket?

I’m thinking about this because Gavaskar and Bhogle were talking recently about how scintillating the Chennai Test was — more than 1,200 runs scored, some 30-odd wickets, and an innings (from Dhoni) that will likely go down in the history books. And yet, even during that supposedly amazing Test, there were long stretches of nothing happening. Take, for example, the very end, when Sachin Tendulkar hit two consecutive sixes and then decided to play a maiden over with only one run left to win. As I watched, I thought about the absurdity of the situation: India, with eight wickets and all of time available, keeping everyone waiting.

The cricket fan’s standard defense against the “nothing ever happens in Test cricket” critique is to say, “Well, are you really sure nothing’s happening?” On Day 2 of the the second Test, Pujara and Vijay batted an entire session and scored a handful of runs — something like less than two runs an over. To the untrained eye, this was cricket at its worst — two very capable batsmen tiring out mildly competent bowling. But a cricket fan would say the pair was in reality setting up the rest of the day, particularly the post-Tea session, when they plundered their way to five runs an over.

Perhaps, but confess, all ye fans: Did you watch the morning session through without getting bored? Or did you do as I do — put the cricket in the background, browse the Internet, and occasionally check in with the game?


The Unfortunate Return of Harbhajan

Why is it that the certain Indian players you wish would make a comeback — Mohammed Kaif, anyone? Anyone? — never get a look-in, but Harbhajan Singh forever returns, like a bad rash? I don’t mean to begrudge another man’s success; obviously, taking four wickets on a comeback match is an ideal storyline (spoiled only slightly by the fact that the wickets in question were English, never the best players of spin). Indian fans, I suspect, will always have a special place for Harbhajan thanks to his Eden Garden heroics all those years ago. He is a charming rogue, and because he performs at just the right moments, he leaves a more indelible mark on our memory than the consistent, boring, two-wicket-a-match types.

But, but, but! We never questioned Harbhajan’s ability to seize the big moment. Like Freddie Flintoff, he is a Big Moment Man: when the plot calls for a twist, he will provide it. No, what remains to be seen is whether Harbhajan will turn into the lifeless, risk-averse, boring bowler once the spotlight turns away and the pressure recedes. On the other hand, could a better, threatening R. Ashwin lead to a better, more hungry Harbhajan? Has what Harbhajan needed all these years is a little competition for his place in the team? Can our stage accomodate two leading roles?

They Don’t Play Cricket Like They Used To

My father was complaining the other day about the state of hockey. He grew up in India in the 1950s, when the Indian hockey team was basically killing it. But when he tuned in this Olympics, he found the game lacking — it didn’t have the same flair and dribbling feats he remembered from back in the day. (And, of course, this year, the Indian team lost all its matches.) His basic theory: the surface was just too fast. The aesthetics are all wrong now.

I don’t know enough about hockey, so I want to ask all the old folk who read this blog: Are there particular cricket traditions, or styles, or techniques that you miss? My memory about cricket extends back until 1996 (with important gaps in between), so I don’t have what a social scientist might call “institutional memory.” I began watching with Jayasuriya’s lot, so I’ve always assumed that it’s completely natural to hit like mad in the first 15 overs of a game. What was it like before? Did you prefer it? Or: You know how commentators occasionally grumble about the fielding practices of “modern captains”? What is it that they say — something about third man? Or a fourth slip? Are there field placements people miss?

SUB-QUESTION: Can anyone name a technological change that has also changed the style of play in cricket? E.g., swimsuits faster than human skin = records tumble; grass courts slow down = longer rallies at Wimbledon; tennis rackets get better = fewer serve and volleys; hockey drops grass fields = the end of Indian hockey.

Cricket examples?

What Can India Hope To Achieve Over The Next Year?

Am I wrong, or is the coming year of the Indian cricket the most low-stakes season ever?A tour of Sri Lanka, another one for the World T20 Cup, then some home series against Pakistan, England and New Zealand. I know that some await the English to inflict some amount of revenge, but that doesn’t really make it exciting for me (winning four Tests in England — now, that, I’d pay to see).

2011-2012 was presented as the Cricket Year to End All Years. You had the World Cup, the tours of South Africa and England and Australia, Tendulkar’s 100 100s, and the possible retirement of some of the greatest batsmen the game has ever seen. But was it good for you? Will you be telling the young ‘uns years from now about the year that was? Yes, I remember where I was when Dhoni hit that winning six, but I also know where I was when India were beaten during almost every session of eight consecutive overseas Tests. 2011 is going to be like some awful historical trauma: we will self-edit, re-imagine, selectively forget, and pick out only the uplifting parts.

If I were drafting the narrative, I’d say that this season is Year Zero: The Beginning of the Future. Tendulkar and Laxman are not long for this world by now, so we have the chance to watch some new legends being born. We’ve had some false starts over the past decade — Sharma, Raina, Ishant, Sreesanth — but now, there’s an urgency (anxiety?) attached to the question. Who will fill our television screens for the next decade?

All right, then. Let’s begin: Act 1, characters enter.

What Part of IPL’s Governance Bothers You The Most?

Pick all that apply (and add more in the comments):

1. That BCCI honchos can own stakes in IPL franchises. This means that the league’s regulator may have a conflict of interest when a particular franchise ends up in a soup. (For more, google “N. Srinivasan” and “Chennai Super Kings.”)

2. That the salary cap may not actually exist. The idea was a noble one: prevent some franchises from out-spending others for better talent. But it seems some players may be getting some cash under the table, or other perks not included in the bottom line.

3. The “secret auction tie-breaker” thing. Whatever that is.

4. That there isn’t a program in place to mentor young cricketers who are exposed to fame, fortune and cheerleaders before they may be ready for it.

5. The knowledge that your passion for cricket is being used to enrich the elite of India’s new Gilded Age (Mallya, Reddy, Nita Ambani), who will likely do more to damage the country than anything else in the coming years.

6. The notorious after-match parties.

7. Other: Please explain.

We Can Be Twenty20 Heroes, Just For One Day

I asked this question on Twitter, and I’d like some discussion: Is T20 creating too many heroes? Over the past month, we’ve seen some incredibly cricketing feats — Dwayne Smith, 14 off 3; Dwayne Bravo; 5 off 1; De Villiers 1000 off 1 (sort of). These are amazing moments to behold, but how do they compare to the achievements we usually celebrate in the longer formats of the game? For example, would you give more credit to a Shiv Chanderpaul batting the whole day, or an Anil Kumble batting with broken jaw, than to a batsman chasing an implausible target in the final over? Are we seeing the cheapening of achievement in cricket?

The final-over heroics we have seen reveals to what extent norms/traditions/psychology rules sporting behavior. Climbing asking rates were once seen as fatal to a chase; anything above eight an over was enough to doom the whole enterprise. The pressure of the chase would force errors and a heap of wickets. No longer: IPL batsmen now believe that anything is possible in the final overs of a game (possibly because the death-bowling has been so utterly terrible). The smart batsmen realize that there just isn’t enough time in the IPL to regress to the mean; if you have enough courage and reasonable eyesight, chances are the night will belong to you — all you need to deliver is a quick 20 runs, in one game, against one bowler.

But this heroism — if it can be called that — reminds me more of playground cricket, where records fall fast and memories are short. Who can remember who did what last week? Who can know which no-name player will have his inevitable day under the light towers? In other words: who cares about the Lord’s honors boards when you can rule the roller coaster just for one day?

Is Cricket Caught In A Vicious Inflation Spiral?

The other day, Harsha Bhogle tweeted that the incredible run chases of IPL 5 — wherein batsmen have successfully stared down required run rates above 15 in the last 5 overs — shows that the asking rate doesn’t mean much anymore. This put me in mind of a recent Economist article decrying “pan-flation“:

Take the grossly underreported problem of “size inflation”, where clothes of any particular labelled size have steadily expanded over time…A five-star hotel used to mean the ultimate in luxury, but now six- and seven-star resorts are popping up as new hotels award themselves inflated ratings as a marketing tool….One example is grade inflation, the tendency for comparable academic performance to be awarded higher grades over time.

The basic currency of cricket is runs. Not long ago, a score of 250 would have bought you a more than reasonable shot at victory; now, anything below 280 or 290 is considered iffy. Like inflation in the economy, run-flation affects expectations, which explains why batsmen now see the sky as the limit in the final overs. But what are the dangers in such a trend? Will there be a “devaluation” of cricket if strike rates continue to rise? Or will we see a “new normal” so that only a certain type of batsman — Yusuf Pathan, Sehwag, Pollard — begin to corner the market?