Samir Chopra July 17, 2008

Testing times

Be careful of what you are wishing for when you ask for a "good, hard, closely-fought game."

On Sunday July 6th, as the Federer-Nadal final moved into the fifth set and into another cluster of deuces, a Federer-loving friend simply stopped watching the television and started doing the dishes instead: the tension had grown to be too much for her. I looked at her and sympathized. While this particular tennis match did not evoke that same reaction in me I knew from past experience, exactly what she was feeling: a tightening of the gut, a nausea whose phenomenology is distinctive, a holistic anxiety that seems to pervade every atom of one's being.

Ever since I started worrying about the ebb and flow of fortunes in the world of cricket, this sensation has been my constant companion during moments of play when it seems the entire fate of the universe hangs in balance. Of all the blessings that cricket has brought into my life, this has been the most mixed one. Without it, the release engendered by the latest development in the match in front of me is not quite as euphoric; when Ponting was caught by Dravid off Ishant Sharma at Perth earlier this year, my yell and air-punch must have woken up my neighbours. But experiencing it is never pleasant; be careful of what you are wishing for when you ask for a "good, hard, closely-fought game."

Examining my past in this regard, I am inclined to say that one truly becomes a cricket tragic when you allow the game such access to your emotions. I suspect it should be possible for most serious fans of the game to point to a cluster of moments in one's cricket-watching career when this became evident. And it is the slow-build up and development of this suspense that marks a Test match as the highest form of the game. Nothing else quite gets into your system the way a Test match on a slow flame does.

Indeed, one of the reasons why I welcome one-day internationals is that it provides a way for me to watch cricket without some of the intense anxiety generated by a closely-fought Test. While the closing stages of a one-day international often provide the kind of drama that triggers such a tension, these moments are brief, the tension has not been sustained over a long period of time, and more to the point, one-day international finishes have become clichéd over the years.

Of course, when a great deal hangs on the outcome of the game, like say, a tournament final, the same tension can be approximated; I certainly remember experiencing this emotion when Dujon and Marshall inched their way towards 183 in 1983. And I'm certain South African and Australian fans' stomach linings were damaged during that 1999 World Cup semi-final. But could anything come close to the tension I felt as Tendulkar inched toward what would have been a famous win at Chennai in 1999? Nine years on, and I still feel the pain. But 18 lost finals later, including the latest Kitply and Asian cup fall-downs, I'm relatively impervious to the pain of a one-day international loss. It just doesn't mean as much.

Twenty20 losses and wins mean even less. When Sreesanth was getting underneath that Misbah skier, I did hold my breath, but had he dropped it, and had Misbah smashed a four off the next ball, I would have resumed my long walk down Coney Island Avenue, away from all those cheering Pakistani fans, had a beer or two, and felt just fine. I would have been incapable of such sanguinity post-Chennai.

Kingsley Amis famously wrote of the metaphysical, and not just physical, hangover caused by excessive drinking; a bad Test loss can do just that, failing to provide relief for this most insidious of sporting emotions.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

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