A case of cricketing apathy
Global cricket continues to pound its own never-ending treadmill with the urgent ferocity of a marathon runner who has remembered mid-race that he was supposed to be at his own wedding, but is on course for a personal best which he is unwilling to sacrifice. The IPL has added further congestion, while proving that, contrary to scientific expectation, the best way to solve the problem of players complaining about an overloaded calendar was not to reduce the amount of cricket, but add to more and cover it with solid gold.
With so much of the world’s cricketing focus on the IPL, it has been easy to forget that the first Test of the English summer is just two weeks away – which is an entirely ridiculous sentence to be able to commit to cyberpaper on the 23rd of April. As the great cricket scribe EW Swanton once wrote: “An Englishman should never start a Test match when he can still catch frostbite by sneaking into Lord’s at the dead of night and playing nude cricket on the square. This Gubby and I learned by bitter experience on a moonlit evening early last May.”
The English domestic season is already in full swing – if ‘swing’ is the correct terminology for something that lurches spasmodically from one form of cricket to the next, like a drunk polygamist trying to cuddle the right wife.
I realise that the expanded programme of international cricket is necessary to fund the expanded programme of international cricket, but the current structure of the England team’s summer is designed to minimise spectator anticipation – Tests begin before the season, its characters and its form lines have properly started to take shape, without the curtain-raising, rivalry-establishing pre-fight sparring of a one-day series. The matches are then squeezed together into frantic back-to-back bowler-punishing wodges, with an ODI series tagged on as an elongated afterthought, dragging along through September to end the summer on a probably damp and quickly-forgotten squib. (By comparison, when Jimi Hendrix played the Woodstock festival, he was on after Herbert The Singing Labrador, not before. Otherwise, Herbert would have struggled, however good his barked rendition of Blue Moon.)
Nevertheless, the fact that this is an Ashes summer creates regular twitches of excitement, especially following the tumultuous winter England have endured, and the fact that it will be an almost entirely new Australian team for the first time in 20 years.
It is more than possible in these days of global media coverage to become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of cricket. I admit that, as an English neutral, I have had serious motivation problems psyching myself up for the IPL. (It hasn’t helped that Lalit Modi’s jamboree has also coincided with some distractingly intrusive building work in my house – what was once my kitchen currently looks as if Devon Malcolm has spent two hours bowling to himself in it. Debris and destruction everywhere.)
In an effort to engage myself emotionally with the IPL, I have tried to artificially create a personal link to some of the teams. I jumped a motorcycle over eight London buses in an effort to make myself feel like a Daredevil. I held a mobile phone and put my fingers into an electrical socket to convince myself I was a Charger. I jumped on Sir Ian Botham’s back and made him give me a piggy back, but still I felt little like a Knight Rider. I paraglided into Buckingham Palace and invited the Queen to wrestle me, but had I become a true Royal Challenger? Alas, no.
Next, I tried hypnosis, to convince my subconscious self that my father had been a Chennai Super Kings fan when he was a boy, and his father before him, and his father before him, because a schoolfriend of his once had trials for their youth team, but still I could not forcibly affiliate myself to the team.
I even tried auctioning my support, but none of the franchises sent so much as a financial director to the auction in my living room. Unwanted and unbought − I felt like a cross between a canoe made of salt and Samit Patel.
Even the much-hyped (in the British press at least) ‘head-to-head’ duel between Pietersen and Flintoff failed to spark my interest. In the end it amounted to the Lancastrian Leviathan scoring six runs off four balls by the Hampshire Hulk – not quite Hector versus Achilles for the 21st century.
So I consulted a sports-watching psychologist. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked. “I love cricket. The IPL is the spangliest cricket tournament in the world. But I don’t really care about it.” The shrink gave me a thorough physical and mental examination (although his methods – a mixture of prodding and growling – I considered to be somewhat Victorian). He bowled me across his surgery a couple of times, put some bails on the bridge of my nose, then noted my reaction to an ink blot which looked like Yuvraj Singh hoicking one over midwicket.
He put on his diagnosis hat, tucked his chin into his chest, and put on his most serious available face. “Mr Zaltzman. It’s bad news I’m afraid. You’ve come down with an uncharacteristic case of cricketing apathy.” “Oh no,” I screamed. “It’s like the 2007 World Cup all over again. Be straight with me, doc − how long have I got?”
He grasped my shoulders. “Calm down, big horse,” he soothed. “Yours is an increasingly common problem. Watching cricket on television has become a never-ending grind. If you don’t look after yourself and manage your schedule properly, your enthusiasm for cricket in general could wane. You will find yourself drifting off at key moments of matches, and soon you will want to spend more time with your family. It’s a slippery slope.”
I gulped a gulp of fear and realisation. “I can’t risk that – not with the Ashes so soon. You’re right, doc. I’m going to have to give the IPL a miss. Sure, I’ll check the scores, but I already cram far too much sport into my life. I cannot risk adding what is essentially a new sport without jeopardising my marriage or having my children try to put me up for adoption.”
The psychologist squeezed my cheeks. “Good boy,” he said. “Now go home, put the kettle on, take a passing interest in the IPL, and save yourself for the Tests.”
I suppose the problem is that, fundamentally, I quite like Twenty20. I find it sometimes entertaining if largely unengaging. Test cricket grabbed my six-year-old soul in 1981 and has never let go. Twenty20 has been a seismic phenomenon in cricket, and this year’s tournament – an Indian league featuring players from all corners of the world playing with and against each other in South Africa – is an incredible event that joyously must have old apartheid honcho Hendrik Verwoerd spitting fifty different kinds of feathers in his well-deserved grave. But I just can’t quite bring myself to care who wins. Does that make me a bad cricket fan?
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer