Sunday, March 23, 2003

Here in India, the only thing that matches the near blanket news coverage of Iraq is the coverage of the Indian cricket team, which has advanced to the finals in the Cricket World Cup in South Africa. It was only when the war actually started that the newspapers replaced cricket headlines with new of Iraq; even in the alleyways where the sadhus (holymen) of Rishikesh gather, transistor radios blare match updates and play-by-play. I wrote the following last week, but the timing was wrong for placing it in a US pub, but I still think it's worth a read:

With all apologies to Robin Williams, cricket is not merely baseball on Valium, as he not so famously observed.

As an itinerant New Yorker – for the time being relocated to the Indian Himalayas – prone to annoying my neighbors back home in Texas by trotting out my Yankees cap each October, I feel pretty secure contradicting the San Francisco funnyman. I consider his crack approximately the same as judging a great novel, such as War and Peace, against a magazine feature. Would you say Tolstoy is merely Seymour Hersh on Quaaludes? I didn’t think so. Similarly, although baseball can be a little slow to unfold at times, cricket strikes me as a game with all the subtleties and nuances that come from Art. Moreover, my sincerest apologies to the MLB, but even with the proliferation of foreign-born players and the potential inclusion of an occasional team from Canada, how can the so-called World Series hope to compete on a global scale with the World Cup of Cricket, which concludes on March 23, 2003?

Like that other oft-ignored World Cup, soccer, cricket’s international championship takes place every four years and has done so without attracting much interest stateside since 1975. As with soccer or professional cycling, it’s time for a change; although the development of a world-beating US team may be sometime in the offing, there’s never been a better time to take stock of what cricket has to offer. Thanks to major corporate sponsorship and its broad multicultural appeal, the sport currently has all the trappings of international athletics, right down to drug scandals and nationalistic boycotts. To wit, on the eve of World Cup 2003, being co-hosted by Zimbabwe and South Africa, Australian great Shane Warne was accused of doping and eliminated from his club’s roster thanks to trace diuretics in his urine. Warne claimed that he took the diuretics on advice of his mother, who was concerned about his looking “bloated” during various television appearances. Um… yeah, right. Whatever.

Then, in a SNAFU that didn’t quite capture the press’ imagination the same way, England, progenitor of the sport, claiming it was worried about player security but sending an unequivocal political message to the anti-White rulers of Zimbabwe, refused to face the co-host on its native soil. In turn, England didn’t make it to the second round of match play, while Zimbabwe went through – only to be eliminated last week from the coming quarterfinals. That may not strike you as poetic justice, but it’s a prosaic enough outcome to such political grandstanding for my taste.

Truth be told, the World Cup 2003 has involved enough socio-political intrigue lately to attract the attention of the sports enthusiasts running Wall Street Journal, which dedicated plenty of ink to the Pakistan-India match played two Saturday’s ago. Consider if you will: Two neighbors both formerly colonized by Britain so irreparably damaged socially and psychologically by the tragedy of Partition half a century ago that they will not even deign to visit each other’s stadiums – its as unthinkable as a Israel-Pakistan soccer match. Finally, after years apart, they chance to meet on the bloodstained soil of South Africa, the same nation where India’s national hero, the most famous pacifist of all time, a young attorney named Mohandas Gandhi got his start.

To the shame of its homeland, Pakistan lost to India in a tense match that ran to over 500 points combined, then lost its next match and was banished from the cup. In turn, while the team prostrated itself to its citizen supporters, Pakistani authorities announced they would investigate the reason for this failure. (“Hey, while you’re at it, we’re looking for this guy named Osama bin Laden….”) What drama! You could write a book on the meaning of this one match, and op-ed writers in India and abroad almost have. Given this late-breaking history – and the fact that the baseball season really won’t heat up until the All-Star break sometime in July – can you afford to ignore the coming drama?

When India finally piled on enough runs to beat the Pakistan squad, New Delhi, where I was visiting at the time, erupted in a burst of fireworks that puts all our national holidays combined to shame. The Indian team, which had entered the World Cup on an extended slide, in turn was hailed as national heroes and today looks to be headed for a definite appearance in the final. The Boys in Blue – as they are known – enjoying hefty support from PepsiCo, and featuring the greatest player of his generation, the Michael Jordan of cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, are ready to take their place on center stage later this month. So, I have but one further question for Mr. Williams: Can a billion-plus cricket fans be wrong?

If you think so, I dare you to tell ‘em. Me? You’ll find me tuning in to the local broadcast on the Sony Max channel, Kingfisher beer close at hand. And if you consider yourself a global citizen or aspire to be one, I suggest that you find out where you can check out the game – it’s bound to be on somewhere in Brooklyn, not to mention Dallas, Los Angeles, or any number of other cities with significant Indo-American populations.

Sure, cricket pitchers are called “bowlers” and the bat looks like a paddle leftover from the set of “Animal House.” But it’s no more exotic than Lebanese food, really. On the upside, the one-day matches that make up World Cup games (as opposed to the five-day matches that include tea breaks, nap time lunch and crumpets) leave enough time to puzzle out the rules. But some basics to get you started, regardless: Each team fields a team of eleven players, usually seven batting specialists, and four bowlers, or spinners, upon whom the team relies for most of its pitching; each batter must protect the wicket, which are those funny sticks standing behind the batter; the teams bat in order, first one, then the other, for a duration of at least a couple of hours, until each player on a side has had a chance to bat or is gotten out; after an indeterminate time, the game comes to an end.

As noted, the literate pace of the game provides plenty of time to learn the rules – and to contemplate the rise and fall of various colonial powers, something worth considering the next time you debate White House policy on the Middle East. Ask anybody who saw the 4-hour, Oscar-nominated Indian film “Lagaan” if you doubt this assessment.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that cricket is a white man’s game anymore. Notwithstanding racial overtones in the current World Cup, since the tournament got its start back in 1975, it has been as much a game for players of color as it has anybody else’s. (Sorry for the PC-speak, but I don't know how else to say it.) In fact, the West Indies won the first two cups, and while Australia and New Zealand have both come on strong in recent years, England itself is currently captained – albeit unsuccessfully, having been knocked out in part thanks to their boycott of the Zimbabwe match – by the Indian-born Nasser Hussein, who was raised in London.

If the favorites go through, which seems more than likely from where I’m sitting, then India, will take on reigning tournament favorites Australia, who even without the tainted Warne have looked unstoppable to this point. But India has played the spoiler before, toppling England on its way to beating the West Indies in World Cup 1983, some 20 years ago. Given the span of the sport, it’s also worth pointing out that Australia was no mere colony but actually a penal colony, which adds to the already kaleidoscopic historical ramifications of the coming championship. There’s the smallest possible window through which either upstart Kenya or over-the-hill Sri Lanka might squeeze through to the championship match, but having watched India clobber New Zealand just last night – and with all do respect for the old “on-any-given-day” adage (“on any given day any given team can beat any other given team”) – I can’t see how there’s any other option than an India-Australia final, which should be a high-scoring, electricity-charged affair. (NOTE: This predicted match-up is the real deal.)

Of course, there will always be those whose eyes glaze over at the specter of bats, balls and base runners. But if you can pipe in even just an “over” or two – an “over” being cricket’s answer to an inning – of the Sony Max broadcasts, there will be some elements of the telecast worth checking out.

Wisely the International Cricket Council has not allowed team sponsors to promote their products inside the various venues in Zimbabwe and South Africa, so you won’t spot Pepsi insignias on any uniforms or corporate banners dangling from the bleachers. But a few of the advertising campaigns, including Pepsi’s near saturation of the airwaves, provide some insight to the outrage of those wacky WTO-protestors who crop up every so often. Then there’s that snazzy little animated cheetah that appears in the lower left-hand corner of the screen anytime something crucial happens in the game – a score or out, generally speaking. In a bit of inspired silliness, this mascot does a Kung Fu dance for the masses, which is a great alternative to the exploding helmets and muscular robotic animation witnessed during so many American sports broadcasts.

The Times of India and Hindustan Times websites, as well as those papers from Australia, South Africa and elsewhere doubtless can help you get up to speed much faster than I can here. But the best thing to do is find a cricket fan in the city you are in, locate a likely place to watch the game, settle down with an ample supply of Kingfisher, Fosters or the brew of your choice, and get ready to waste the day away. Beyond being a sport that matches baseball for pastoral finesse, tops basketball in terms of high scores, and carries
the weight of 500 years of colonial history, like any fat novel, cricket can also be an excellent cure for insomnia.