December 9, 2011

How exactly did one become a Test cricketer?

As someone that has studied philosophy, I'm used to dealing with cosmic questions: Why is there something rather than nothing

As someone that has studied philosophy, I'm used to dealing with cosmic questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of the good life? When can we say we know something?

But I must confess I have often found some rather more mundane questions more puzzling. For instance, how does one become a Formula One driver? Is there a minor league for racing? Do budding Formula One drivers get picked up by talent scouts as they roar down highways picking up speeding tickets?

In the past, the question that perplexed me the most was quite simple: How exactly did one become a Test cricketer? As a schoolboy, it seemed to me cricketers appeared like magic from nowhere, plucked out of the ether to have a national team cap placed on their heads. The connection with domestic cricket soon became apparent, once I became aware of that level of the game. But the mystery persisted. How did cricketers make it to those teams? In some abstract sense I knew the answers to that question as my interest and involvement with the game grew. But I don't think anything quite bridged the gap between my world and that of the domestic and international games like coming into contact with university cricketers in New Delhi.

Back in 1984, the cricketing powerhouses in Delhi University were Hindu, Kirorimal, PGDAV and Khalsa Colleges. Delhi's best schoolboy cricketers vied for the few spots that opened up on their rosters every year; they often faced stiff competition from out-of-state schoolboy cricketers as well. When I joined Delhi University and began my "studies" (I use that word with some hesitation), I met cricketers, who, it became apparent, were viable candidates for admission to Delhi's Ranji team, and therefore, for the Indian national team.

Suddenly, the path to international cricket became clear: play for the college team; get selected for the university team; get called for the Ranji trials; play Ranji; play for India. These young men were potential superstars, and they were my classmates. I could watch them up close and personal; in the nets, on the field, playing and talking about the game. And they were all mortals. They sometimes spoke differently; their cricketing lingo was decidedly different than ours; they seemed more tolerant of the cricketing misfortune of international stars than we were. But they were all decidedly grounded in the mundane and quotidian world of ours. And watching their progress toward the higher levels of the game reminded me of the little quirks of fate that can determine one's success or failure in making it to the top.

In my first year, a young lad, from one of Delhi's best school cricket teams, who had not qualified in the first cut for the College XI, tried again to catch the coach's eye. He succeeded, and was given a net with the First XI. Things went well, and before we knew it, he had scored himself a spot in the team for a game against one of our strongest university rivals. We waited with baited breath for his debut.

Our hero went in with two wickets down and returned an over later, the victim of a marginal leg-before decision. He never made it back into the First XI, and after trying a few more times to get a trial, gave up, and turned his mind to his studies. (He is now an extremely successful economist).

Years later, I wondered how he had thought of his debut. Had he seen, just for a second, the door swing open, showing him the path to international cricket, before it slammed shut?

I don't mean this to be a cautionary tale about how bad umpiring can ruin careers; rather, what I had experienced was a glimpse of how the most exalted journeys can be grounded in mundane beginnings, and be subject to a host of contingencies. And so, every time I watch an international cricketer now, I wonder at his particular journey, and how many little pitfalls and barriers he transcended in getting to that exalted arena that schoolboys can only dream about.

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