Cricket and Football June 12, 2010

Football, the occasional mistress

Cricket is an enduring romance for me, but once every four years, when the World Cup comes around, I submit to the illicit pleasures of football

Cricket is an enduring romance for me, but once every four years, when the World Cup comes around, I submit to the illicit pleasures of football.

Club football has rarely held any appeal for me; I might occasionally catch a game with the kids and be touched by a burst of individual brilliance, but I can't get myself to feel anything for a club, just as I can't, despite trying, feel any kinship towards the IPL teams. Mumbai is my home, but I couldn't bring myself to feel a trace of pain when Mumbai Indians were losing to Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final. I root for them in the Ranji Trophy, but must I care for a team brought together by Mukesh Ambani's money?

Of course, being a sports fan is about appreciating the skills of the players and the thrill of a contest. But even more than that, it's about being able or unable to relate to something. I relate to Roger Federer, as I did to John McEnroe. I relate to Lionel Messi, too, but through him I find it impossible to relate to Barcelona the way I would with Argentina.

Sitting thousands of miles away, feeling a bit errant about ditching Test cricket, which was on television as the same time, I felt far more deeply for the South African football team, a side I had never watched before, than I have ever done for an IPL team.

I switched to the game while another South African team were battling away in my chosen sport. Jacques Kallis had been dismissed in Port of Spain, the ball was gripping and turning, and Ashwell Prince had just danced down the pitch to play an airy drive. And though I kept coming back to the Test, I couldn't keep my eyes off the South African men in the yellow jerseys for too long. Even at the risk of disloyalty, it was the better story. Rank underdogs -- they are only at the World Cup because they are the hosts -- but lifted by the will of the nation, they filled the opening match with spirit and emotion. Katlego Mphela, after pulling away from the defender and dodging the goalkeeper in a sensational burst, hit the woodwork in the 90th minute. I have my favourite teams at the World Cup; now I just have to support one more.

I have digressed massively. This piece was prompted by an instant riposte on email from Jayaditya Gupta, Cricinfo's own man at the football World Cup to a blog post titled "10 reasons why cricket is better than football".

Now, Joy, as he is better known, enjoys running Cricinfo these days -- if it is otherwise, he has done a good job of hiding it -- but in his heart he must feel like an infidel often because football has always been his game. We had the good sense to lend him to our sister site Soccernet for a month, and I can feel his sense of liberation in South Africa (you can read his latest piece here). Our spirit of generosity extends to even allowing him to diss cricket while he is away. He knows which South African wines to bring back from Cape Town.

But even I will grant him this: a good 90 minutes of football would beat the three-hour game of cricket hands down. No argument there. For individual skills, speed, thrills and adrenaline rush, the Twenty20 game is no match. But I doubt any field sport can match the intellectual dimensions and the epic grandeur of Test cricket. It's an unfair and futile comparison, too, because no sport has been, or can be, granted the scale and canvas of Test cricket. Consequently no game can grow and linger in the senses like a winding, turning, well-contested Test match does. In these times Test cricket remains a luxury we are fortunate and privileged to be able to afford. And it is played at such a gentle pace that if you are smart you can catch a lot of football while watching it. I counted: between two deliveries from Ravi Rampaul in Port of Spain, the ball had been passed around 16 times in Soccer City.

My loyalty will really be tested if Messi - I love him the most, because apart from his obvious gifts with the ball, his smile on the field conveys an enjoyment of his sport that is unsullied by the trappings of stardom - is on field while a Test match enters a gripping phase on the fifth day.

I hope I will be true to my heart.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo