An old-fashioned look at cricket

In IPL there is a stunning excess of money. A Polly Umrigar earning `25 a day would be awed not by scores but by the financial returns

Years ago, the psychologist Ashis Nandy observed that cricket as a game was an Indian invention accidentally discovered by the English. There was something about cricket that made it a national obsession. It was not just a sport but a way of life. Like Hinduism, cricket was a framework of values. However, IPL-5 as an event has caused ripples about the nature of cricket that I want to explore.

Cricket as a style was defined by five things. First, the framework of values defined by a colonial connection. Cricket, like English, was a game the colonies took over and recolonised. A Ranjit Singhi, a Learie Constantine, a Nawab of Pataudi showed the white men how to behave. Whether it was Bodyline or racism, cricket was a reminder that the colonies understood the ritual of fairness better than the white man. But beyond politics, cricket was a culture. It was a leisurely sport. Cricket, like an Indian marriage, went on for days. As a reluctant Wodehouse would say, speed was not of the essence. It had its excitements but they were few and far between, like fishing. Cricket was almost like table manners. Form was as rigorous as content.
Third, cricket was a form of storytelling, a narrative art, oral in its folklore but preserved by pundits. The commentary was a conversational style. Cricket commentaries were so paradigmatic that they became a model for describing funerals, even state events. The radio commentaries of Republic Day or state funerals sounded like a slow, sonorous cricket game.
Also, one had to pass the literacy test of Neville Cardus, C.L.R. James, Jack Fingleton, Norman Yardley, S.K. Gurunathan. These writers defined cricket as a code of chivalry, an aristocratic style, a collection of rituals.
Cricket was a game fought between nations or clubs. The club provided the framework of leisure, a sense of local loyalty, but it is the battle of nations that made cricket a continuation, a sublimation of war by other means. However, what marked such ritual battles was not the blood thirstiness of the combatants but that of the participants.
Cricket allowed for battles between India-Pakistan, Australia-England, West Indies and England which provided a sublimated idea of war. But it was war in an antiquated sense, not the pitiless modern war but the old rituals of chivalry and fair play where one appreciated rival skill and competence.
Cricket was also a culture of memory, a collection of rituals and habits that one could not do without. How else can one explain the fact that there are over 600 cricket clubs just around Berkeley? Every shade of the Commonwealth is out there on Sunday, proving that the Commonwealth of Cricket is alive and well in America. I remember a story a friend of mine told me. He played a weekend match with a team all from one family. Three generations had united in the USA after partition broke them apart. The grandfather had forged the team as a statement — Cricket against the Partition.
There have been frequent threats to this vision of cricket. One can think of the Bodyline series where a certain sense of fair play was undermined. There has been the ill-fated Packer series, a loud mouthed-ancestor of the current IPL. But there’s been nothing like the IPL to threaten the standard definition of the game. What did IPL change and what has five rounds of IPL done to cricket?
First is the sheer obscenity of money. There is a stunning excess of it. A Polly Umrigar earning `25 a day would be awed not by IPL scores but by the financial returns. Money and speed altered cricket. The idea of the auction somehow signalled the commodification of the game. Players were seen as a form of risk capital. Second, the shrinking of the game created a new format, demanded a new sense of speed, of athleticism.
Cricket, as a spectacle, is different. The rituals are no longer a part of the game. They are add-ons from recitation of poems to cheerleaders. Cricket is now hyphenated with Bollywood. By merging the two industries, we have contaminated two great myths. Watching Preity Zinta rush into the field or Shilpa Shetty swaying her hips makes one feel the sport is not so sublime. One must add that draping a sari around cheerleaders will hardly protect Indian values. It reminds one of the Victorian habit of covering the long legs of tables.
The audience is hyperactive long before the game begins. Hype has replaced the typical understatement. The IPL is a media creation, part of the new instant cultures where memory, excitement and folklore are instant creations. There is no place for boredom or slowness, which had a vintage quality.
Beyond speed, there is a charge in narrative. The cricket commentator was a statesman like character, half judge and half referee, a custodian of rules and memories. Language was critical. English commentaries were as correct as the Oxford English Dictionary. Today, a Sidhu with his malapropisms feels intrusive. Watch Harsha Bhogle and Sidhu together. It is a jugal-bandhi that can never work. Sidhu in threatening language makes cricket a tabloid sport.
As an old fashioned person, I miss my vintage cricket. I need nuance, a variation of time, and I miss this at IPL. Watching IPL, I feel that I am watching a speeded up summary of a longer game. I wish some entrepreneur would start a renewal of the five-day game. Till then, I shall be up every evening watching IPL-5, 6 and 7. Cricket is dead. Long live cricket!

The writer is a social science nomad

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