Samir Chopra December 12, 2010

Packaging sledging as entertainment

A few weeks ago, I read a little story by Eknath Solkar about the time he made Geoff Boycott his bunny on the 1971 tour

A few weeks ago, I read a little story by Eknath Solkar about the time he made Geoff Boycott his bunny on the 1971 tour. As I read the piece a line caught my eye:

In the second innings of the first Test at Old Trafford, I was fielding at forward short leg when he tried to flick Abid Ali away. I stopped the ball instinctively and challenged him to run, wagging my finger at him as I spoke. He was taken aback. In the very next over, I got him to edge one and Farokh Engineer took a wonderful diving catch, almost at first slip.

It was certainly the first time I'd read of any such interaction between Solkar and Boycott, though I knew about Boycott's difficulties against Solkar's amiable seamers.

Equally interesting was the reaction of the readers to the story. To a man, no one seemed to have picked up on what Solkar had told us: he sledged Boycott, he "mentally disintegrated" him, he dismissed him using, as part of his repertoire of tricks, the very same strategy a segment of the cricket world would find offensive today. Wagging fingers at a batsman, chatting with him, challenging him to run? Sounds like "mental disintegration" to me. An Indian doing this, in the Golden Age of Gentlemanly Cricket (for this is how most Indian fans regard their cricketers and that period) should seem shocking. But it isn't and it shouldn't be.

For to read stories of cricket matches of yesteryears is to be reminded again and again, that cricket matches have always featured chatter in the middle, that grown men, when thrown into close competitive proximity, will often find ways to express a variety of emotions, not all of which would meet the approval of Miss Manners.

When I read Ray Robinson's On Top Down Under (on which I wrote a glowing review in these pages, I was struck by how many chapters featured reports of banter, edgy verbal interactions, and the like, all taking place out in the middle on the hallowed 22 yards, right from the moment Test cricket began, back in 1877. Sure, those are Australians we are talking about. But Solkar's story reminds us that even our pure-as-driven-snow Indians weren't above a little badmaashi when it suited them.

But imagine for a second that the Test at Old Trafford had been covered by a modern television production team, perhaps Channel 9, or Sky, featuring eagle-eyed commentators. Then how would it have gone? The Solkar-Boycott interaction would not have gone unnoticed. Had it not been directly visible, we would have been directed to it, by a replay, perhaps in slow-motion as well, with ample opportunity to try and read lips:

Things are getting a little testy out there. During the last over, Solkar and Boycott had a little run-in. Here's Solkar, running up to Boycott, and oh boy, he's sure got a lot to say, doesn' he? And Boycott's not looking too happy. These Indians are never short of a word out in the middle. And, let's look at it again, here comes Solkar, running up, and he's making a gesture, and Boycott's giving him a bit of a look too. Pretty tense stuff, the battle is definitely heating up.

And so on. You get the picture.

Yes, indeed, things are a little testy out there. But I've yet to find an encounter between adults that is even slightly competitive (corporate meetings or faculty meetings, for instance), that don't get a bit testy. They just aren't telecast live with every single run-in replayed endlessly in slow-motion, all the while accompanied by inane commentary, all part of an entertainment package put together for us. How entertaining would our daily encounters be, I wonder, if packaged similarly?

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