Natural History of the Game

By Aditya Dev Sood

Imran khan bowling bw A man is hurtling towards you from some twenty paces away. He leaps to hurl a projectile at you with all his might. You can duck, you can flinch, or you can swat it away with your blade, stylish, balanced of body and mind, having yet again defended your wicket. There is tremendous fury and violence in cricket, only just restrained by the the spatial logic of the playing field and the ritual logic of each set of six balls, each over bowled by a different bowler.

The great cricketing theorist Douglas Adams was the first to explore the symbolic logic of the game. What are those three stakes, planted into the ground in a row, delicately supporting the bails above? Do they, for instance, relate to the fundamentals of architecture as expressed in the Stonehenge? My own view is that they represent a kind of abstracted straw or wooden man, his two legs and dangling middle stick now all that remains of his dismembered body, his stump. Each team must protect its carcass of a king from the slings and arrows of the opposing side.

Unlike baseball, which is played within a single Cartesian quadrant, excluding the howling crowds behind its two perpendicular foul-lines, the topography of cricket has a bipolar, side-switching logic. There are two stumps on either side of a cricketing pitch, which is twenty-two paces long, and two batsmen from the same team defend those wickets from alternating sides in subsequent overs. Members of the fielding team range all around them in every direction at various distances, resulting in a panoptic field of observation, evaluation and reaction which eventually extends to us spectators, sitting in thrall outside the boundary line.

The use of alternate ends of the cricketing pitch somewhat resembles the alternation of service in tennis and similar racquet sports, and the switching of courts at the end of every set. Still, no other game has precisely this kind of running, alternating, side-switching logic, and I have had to think hard to propose a possible source. I believe it could derive from the logic of medieval jousting, which required mounted adversaries to ride in towards one another, lances drawn, till one of them fell. One imagines their heralds and stewards playing with that armor at dusk, swatting back with wooden clubs the stones thrown upon the absent form of the knight. Or even an early game of cricket played by a two-man team, one bowler, one batsman, each bowler thundering in simultaneously from either end of the pitch to the other side's defending batsman, until one of them got lucky, and broke through to break the opposition's middle stump. This practice of simultaneous attack and defense eventually being unraveled over the centuries into the logic of 'innings.'

Cricket was an English schoolboy and then gentleman's game that slowly spread through many of the lands that became part of the British Empire. Ramchandra Guha's comprehensive account of cricket in British India explains how the game came to take root in different parts of the subcontinent through the patronage of English colonialists and various petty Maharajas. No less than the railways, the civil services, and the English language, cricket became an institutional apparatus necessary for the satrapy that was British India. It is mildly appalling and entirely true that in those days of segregated society, the Parsi, Hindu, and Mohammedan Gymkhanas played one another and played all-White English teams in annual league matches that were followed with all the breathless rivalry and filtered, focused animus that would later attend subcontinental rivalries, particularly India versus Pakistan.

The Bollywood fantasy Lagaan (2001) starring Amir Khan offers a mythic account of how a bunch of villagers quickly acquired a foreign game and beat the Whites at it too. Inspired by the rustic characters of an Asterix comic book and an improbable Escape to Victory storyline, the movie offers all the thrill and rush of an epic performance by underdogs, whom no one should rightly expect to win. One of the characters explains the game to his innocent countrymen as a cross between gili-danda, a kind of batting game, and pitthoo, a fielding game like poison-ball, but which requires that a seven-stone ziggurat be quickly built up. What is left out of that character's account — yet made clear from the film's ensemble cast and unfolding narrative — is that cricket can provide a vehicle for the expression of different kinds of talents and specialized capabilities: batting, pace and spin bowling, catching, throwing to the stumps, keeping wickets, and so forth, and that these diverse arts can themselves serve as vehicles for the expression of different kinds of prowess, style, personality, and the varying natural abilities and predispositions of individual players. Cricket is therefore also like shatranj, chess, which was played by the Great Mughals at life-scale, using palace attendants for the different pieces of the game in the enormous interior courtyards of citadels like the Fatehpur Sikri near Agra.

Like everyone else I grew up with, I've played cricket with the palm of my hand, a pencil-box or a tennis racquet for a bat, with squash balls and tennis balls, amidst shrubs and trees, in backyards and alleyways, and even, on rare occasion, in full battle-dress on a formal pitch at my old school, with a wooden bat and hard leather cricket ball. And though I was too young to have known anything of India winning its first World Cup in 1983, I did watch Ravi Shastri anchor the Indian side to an off-season Champions Cup trophy in 1985 on a newly installed color-TV set. He also won a man-of-the-series award and celebrated by driving all around the ground in the maroon Audi he had won, with team mates climbing, riding up top and hanging out of the windows on all sides like so many boyz from his hood. Through the eighties and nineties, cricket was an essential means for young Indians — and other subcontinentals — to imagine the wider world around them.

India developed famous cricketing rivalries — and infatuations — with individual cricketers and teams from the the West Indies and Australia. Cricket then served as an occasion for the expression of racial friction and the multiple competing and colliding identities of different national sides as well as a means for these to be progressively worked out. For a long while in that period, and now again more recently, India and Pakistan couldn't peaceably tour or play one another in either nation. In one memorable instance in the nineties, zealots from the Hindu Right dug up the cricketing pitch right before a India-Pakistan match so as to ensure that the match could not proceed. These kinds of shenanigans, along with threats and attacks on teams visiting Pakistan, meant that India and Pakistan could only meet each other at third party venues like Sharjah in the middle east, and before empty stadiums in Canada. It was in Sharjah that Javed Miandad hit Chetan Chauhan for his in / famous six runs off the very last ball of the match, resulting in such an incredibly unlikely Pakistan win that it is now remembered as a kind of shorthand for Pakistani cricketing pride and more generally as a token for how an underdog team can win against, as they say, the run of play.

Some twelve or fifteen years ago, I was at an Indo-Pak cabbie hangout in downtown Chicago watching a specially projected pay-per-view India-Pakistan match with a fellow grad student named Prithvidatta. He predicted that the center of the world's cricketing gravity would soon shift to the subcontinent. India and Pakistan were going to co-host a World Cup, and it was being noticed for the first time that advertising revenues for international cricketing events dipped and soared based on whether anyone in India was actually watching on TV. I doubt Prithvidatta could have imagined or predicted what has, in fact, transpired over the last four years since the establishment of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Matches run practically every night during the two month season every at prime time for up to four hours. There are 'iconic' players from each region, other Indian players, and a smattering of the world's best international players in every side. Music plays during time-outs, groups of cheerleaders dance and shimmy at every turn of play, pretty-young-things interview coaches and players off the field, whistles trill like vuvuzelas, and from time to time a Mexican wave sweeps round the entire stadium.

There are now ten teams in the league, each notionally associated with a particular city and stadium in the country, each bid upon and owned by a different Indian corporation or consortium of owners. The distribution of the IPL teams maps not the geography of Indian states, nor the country’s demographics, but the logic of capital. If you draw a line from Chennai to Delhi, you will find only a single team to the east of that line, based in Kolkata. All of the league's teams are associated with regions in the western half of India, where industrial capital has created vast new tranches of wealth as well as the middle-class and urban life-styles that the game now celebrates.

Anthropologists have long noticed that the sub-clans ('frateries') of a larger tribe often organize themselves against one another by naming themselves after an animal of some kind, which then serves as the groups’ totem. So too, in the IPL, we get two different lions (from Chennai as well as the Punjab), a bull (from the Deccan), and now a south Indian elephant (Kerala). But other teams offer a more nuanced notion of what it means to be part of a band — Shah Rukh Khan's Knight Riders, for instance, have really the most abstract take on the concept of a cricket team, using imagery borrowed American motorcycle gangs.

Almost half the teams in the league play in varying shades of blue, which is also the usual color of India's national side. This would suggest that team owners continue to seek to appeal to the nation as a whole as their market, rather than narrowing down their appeal to a particular local constituency. Owners and their branding consultants have apparently been torn between representing a specific city (Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore), or a particular region (‘Punjab,’ ‘Rajasthan,’ ‘Deccan,’ ‘Kerala’) and the country as a whole (Mumbai ‘Indians’, Pune Warriors ‘India’).

It seems to me no accident that both teams from Maharashtra, representing cities not a couple of hundred kilometers apart, should also try to speak for the nation as a whole. The Mumbai Indians, owned by Mukesh and Nita Ambani of Reliance Industries, is only slightly more subtle in its branding and style, for the word ‘Indians’ is a pun, a play on American baseball and football teams, where the word conjures up a battling band of Native Americans, and not inhabitants of the South Asian subcontinent. The ‘India’ Warriors, on the other hand, have chosen a logo vaguely reminiscent of the iconography of the mounted Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji. The team dresses in an angry black, much like the Shiv Sena, the parochial right-wing political party from the same region, which similarly pretends to speak for the larger nation.

Like India’s constitution, the configuration of the IPL represents a combination of idea diffusion and straightforward blueprint copying. Its name derives from the English Premier League, a soccer body, but many elements of its structure derive from or improve upon American sports franchises, especially Major League Baseball, whose American and National leagues play one another in their own private ‘World Series.’ Some years ago, I learned that my old professor John Kelly was writing a book on the World Baseball Classic, which is an international tournament played once every four years among the world's sixteen major baseball playing nations, which includes countries like Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Cuba, Panama, several Latin American countries, as well as the ambivalent and multi-talented Netherlands, which also sends a scrappy semi-pro cricket team to the ICC World Cup. Professor Kelly's take on baseball was as a filter through which to read out American empire and / or a globalizing ecumene of sport that just happens to be led by the United States.

The split universes of baseball and cricket can clearly be read as ciphers for the alternate and diverging forms of Anglo-American institutionality, trade networks, and capital over much of the last century and bits of the one preceding. With the advent of the IPL, however, I think India has finally come to inherit and own the legacy of all those institutional networks, practices and cricketing forms of life that were once considered a part of the British Commonwealth. Decades ago, a budding young player from the national sides of the West Indies or South Africa would have looked to make some money in English county cricket. Now he would look to the Indian Premier League. World cricket's foreseeable financial future is now locked in to the IPL, which I expect to continue to grow and expand at the cost of bilateral and multilateral national forms of the game, which will become more and more infrequent and finally exotic. In effect, India now has its own World Series.

It is not true that Indians love their cricket, wrote Aakar Patel last month, but rather that Indians love India and cricket is the means through which they express that love. If he's right, then the nature of that love is surely changing, for Indians are quickly gravitating towards a new form of the game in which they cannot, by definition, lose. I think this narrows the emotional range and poetics of the game, while also rendering it a more effective marketing medium. Where for decades the meanings and associations of cricket have had to do with a ritual overcoming of colonial oppressors or repeated sibling clashes with other children of midnight, those meanings are coming to be almost entirely blanched under the floodlights of globalizing Indian capital.

Last month, as the last ICC World Cup drew to its end, people at the office began asking for a day off on Wednesday, so they could watch the India-Pakistan semi-final being played in Mohali, near Chandigarh. We ended up working until the start of play, when many colleagues left to catch the match at the Bennigan's a block away. I headed home, where we set up a projector, laid out wall-to-wall floor-seating, and invited friends over. On screen, Yousef Geelani wore a green tie and Manmohan Singh a fortuitously blue turban, and they both sat and stared out uncomfortably from behind a bulletproof glass enclosure. My friend Ashish explained to his son that this was a historic game, which he should try to appreciate. We had the air-conditioner on at full blast, and passed around bottles of beer and plates of kathi-rolls.

India seemed to struggle during its batting innings, or maybe it was the pitch that prevented ball from coming fully on to bat. Even so, I could not quite shake the feeling that the time for this massive subcontinental rivalry was coming to an end, and that these two siblings and neighbors were now headed down very different cricketing paths, not frequently to intersect in future. In this age of the IPL, were we already watching the Last Great India-Pakistan Match?