Friday, March 09, 2007

In Praise of Cricket!

Editor's note:: Tunku Varadarajan, one of the finest contemporary journalists, wrote this for Wall Street Journal.
By Tunku Varadarajan
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
It is a source of immense chagrin to those of us who love the game--and there are few games on earth that are loved with as much fidelity, and gusto--that cricket isdisparaged in America as a languorous pastime conducted between breaks for tea by men who utter such daffy things as "sticky wicket, old chap."
I make no apologies for saying this, but such views of the game are just not cricket; and I'm determined to make my case by inviting readers actually to watch the game.
The International Cricket Council's 2007 Cricket World Cup begins next week--onTuesday, when the West Indies, the tournament's host, takes on Pakistan--and will conclude on April 28, when the final is played in Bridgetown, Barbados,with India thrashing Australia. (OK, that last bit is pure fantasy--as is any thought of physically attending the match, unless as a guest of the Barbadianprime minister: There isn't a room to spare on the island in the days precedingthe final, and cricket fans are being billeted on cruise ships anchored offshorefor want of terrestrial accommodation.)
But you can watch this match--and the others preceding it--on your PC, assuming a high-speed Internet connection. Bewarned, however: The relevant picture stream does not work on Macs, and if thereever was a reason not to buy a Mac, I have found it. Sorry, Steve. (One wonders, with all the Indian geeks at Apple--cricket-watchers to a man--why they have notaddressed this particular shortcoming.)
Given that the time differences between the U.S. and the various Caribbean islands are never greater than four hours, you can actually watch this World Cup in real time without the need--as arose with previous World Cups, held in India or Australia--to wake up while thosearound you slumber.
All you must do is log on to (a Web site namedafter the splendid and resilient wood from which all cricket bats are made) andpurchase a package of 51 matches for $199.95--a cost of under $4 per match. Whenyou consider that each match lasts about seven hours, that's a lot of sticky wicket for your buck.In the inaugural cricket World Cup--played in England, in1975--there were only eight teams, and the tournament was over in the blink ofan eye.
This year, there are 16 teams, the trend over the past few tournamentsbeing a sort of match-inflation to feed the Gargantua of global TV: This hasmeant the inclusion of such cricketing minnows as Ireland and Bermuda, Canadaand the Netherlands, and many more uncompetitive matches than there used to be.
Australia versus the Netherlands at cricket, or India versus Bermuda, is akin towatching Germany take on the Faroe Islands at soccer.
But when the Big Boysplay--when Pakistan meets South Africa or Australia takes on New Zealand--onegets a whiff of the cordite almost instantly.
Cricket then takes on the aspectwith which the game's devotees are familiar, and Americans, alas, sounfamiliar--that of a virile, even brutal game in which a rock-hard ball isbowled at speeds that can approach 100 miles per hour at batsmen who stand nomore than 22 yards away.
No wonder there are leg pads, helmets and (the thing nobatsman would dare take the field without) testicular guards. There could be fewless romantic ways to die--and few more painful--than to be hit amidships,without protection, by a cricket ball.
Unlike baseball's leather-palmedcatchers and fielders, players who patrol a cricket field must collect or catchthe ball with bare hands.
Scorching hits must be stopped with a wall of nothingmore than flesh, bone and epidermis, and fingers are often broken, and webbingsplit, in the process.
This is not to belittle baseball, of course, whosefielders can be breathtaking and beautifully clinical; but there is an almostprimitive grace to the unadorned way in which the ball is fielded that setscricket on a higher plane, as a game, than its American cousin.
Who will winthis World Cup? A month ago, only a simpleton would have bet on a team otherthan Australia, which has taken--in the past five years--to finishing off itsfoes as if at a turkey shoot on the road to Basra (first Gulf War, not second).
Yet for reasons known only to the cricketing gods, Australia's form hascollapsed in the weeks leading up to the Cup, and other teams--South Africa,India, even normally hangdog England--have scented the perfume of possibility,giving the impression that this might be the most unpredictable of all ofcricket's World Cups.The best result for cricket would be for the hosts towin.
If a certain amount of romance has gone out of the game these past fewyears, it is because cricketing luster has departed from the West Indies--a teammade up of countries such as Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana andAntigua, that weld together as one on the cricket field (and on the cricketfield alone). The West Indies was once to cricket what Brazil was (and some saystill is) to soccer: unbeatable, but digestibly so to neutrals, on account ofthe grace, skill and élan of their play.
For too long now has cricket beendominated by Australia's unyielding and highly tactical aggression. It does notplay an ugly game, but its methods and mien are seldom beautiful.
Australia'scricketers care not whether they are loved, except by their own fans, who,having drunk deeply of the same cultural cup as their cricketers, celebratehardnosed methods.
But if there's one good thing that might come out of anAussie victory, it would be this: Americans might understand, at long last, thatcricket isn't played by a bunch of petunias.

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