Easy on the exoticising please
Yesterday, on my personal blog, Eye on Cricket, I penned my 1000th post. In a comment offered in congratulation, one of my readers complained about the excessive use of cliches in sports journalism. To use a nineties Brooklynism, word.
One persistent complaint of mine is the East versus West cliche in cricket journalism. A glaring display of this came in the aftermath of Pakistan's World Twenty20 win (I'm not referring to any particular article for these sentiments were present all over the place). In this art versus science view of cricket, Pakistan's victory in the World Twenty20 was a triumph for flair over persistence (this sentiment was especially on display after the semi-final win over South Africa). While believing this story about the modern cricketing game would certainly aid in the construction of a narrative that says 'unpredictable, divine genius' will always trump 'solid, old-fashioned, mechanical competence', it did nothing to help us understand South Africa's loss to Pakistan from a cricketing perspective.
Pakistan beat South Africa in the Twenty20 semi-final because, in fact, they did certain very ordinary cricketing things better. They had the better spin bowlers on a turning track (how extremely unpredictable to pick good spinners and bowl them on a track that turns) and they had a better exponent of reverse swing in their bowling line-up (how delightfully erratic to have a reverse-swing bowler saved up for when the ball gets a little older). Pakistan's batting was not particularly different from the Twenty20 efforts of many other teams: an opener that flails away in the opening Powerplay, a hard-hitting allrounder, some canny single collection when the pace went ever so slightly off the ball.
Pakistan played better cricket and won. There was nothing mysterious, or oriental, or wholly unpredictable about their cricket. South Africa did not match up to the Pakistani spinners and to Umar Gul's dead-set accurate bowling. If Gul had been an Englishman or a South African, everyone would have been raving about how his bowling spell reflected a "canny, pragmatic, level-headed, strangulation of the opposition."
But because this young lad possesses a Pakistani passport, suddenly he becomes a poster child for the dark arts. It is not surprising then that when so much of what he does is classified as mysterious and strange, that he suddenly becomes the dusky assassin, mysteriously strangling the white explorers in his part of the world's cricketing jungles, and provoking complaints by the New Zealand cricket captain.
I'm not sure cricketing teams from 'that part of the world' are done any favours by the maintenance of this mystery about the game they play. It aids in the construction of a narrative where Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan cricketers are representatives of the Strange East, all dazzle and no substance, who do no hard work to master the skills of this difficult game, who have no tactical nous. That virtue seems to be reserved for the science side of the aisle, inhabited by dour, businesslike Englishmen, South Africans and Australians, all grit and no flair apparently, who don't play cricket as much as execute a business plan in their flannels. This description of their cricket is no less an injustice, disregarding as it does the very real dazzle that they are able to bring to their cricketing performances.
These descriptions of a supposed divide in the way cricket is played and understood and mastered by its various exponents worldwide have some truth to them, just because players from different parts of the cricket world do display some differences in their approach to, and execution of, cricketing skills. But to insist on it as a lens through which the cricketing world must be viewed is to ultimately do disservice to talented and hard-working cricketers. Their cricketing skill, rather than being viewed as the understandable result of what happens when perspiration meets inspiration, is lost in the rush to shoehorn it into a tired old storyline about the Pragmatic West versus the Mysterious East.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here