April 10, 2013

Life is tough but cricket is harder

Cricket is the most ambiguous of all sports, often messier, more confusing, more contingent and more compelling than life. It may be billed as escapism but, for some, the trauma of a sporting memory is lasting

Remember Chennai 1999? Of course you do © AFP

It is the IPL season and, personally, a break from watching cricket as the cardinal purpose of life. I'll watch every time Sachin Tendulkar bats, most CSK matches, and every other time my Twitter timeline gets too excited to make any coherent sense. A distanced, passive viewing of IPL helps to provide a semblance of balance to my life: for perhaps the first time ever, I won't feel guilty for not caring about cricket matches. Does that take away much of my cricket time for the next two months? Not quite. It gives me the space to devour all the cricket books that I have collected over the years; the time to read my favorite ones again is especially priceless.

So, I was re-reading Gideon Haigh's On Warne a couple of days ago. If ever a cricket book deserves multiple readings, this is it. I was struck by a particular passage on the importance of sport at large, a passage so insightful that you nod along as if someone just answered the question you have feared to ask yourself all along: Why on earth do I take cricket so seriously?

"Sport is not life. Sport is better than life. Life is big, messy, confusing, contingent, compelling us to make decisions on the basis of imperfect information with finite resources, with no certainty about their outcome and no expectation of immediate resolution. Sport is bordered, unambiguous, unadulterated, meritocratic; it offers us simple questions, unqualified answers, straight lines, exact quantifications, winners and losers, heroes and villains. Or so we can pretend, when it is served up to us in the superficial, black-and-white terms in which it is usually consumed in this country."

On reflection, I find it ironic that of all people, a cricket writer had to offer this insight. In my subjective view, cricket is the most ambiguous of all sports. Often it's messier, more confusing, more contingent and more compelling than life. Cricket is that rare sport where the place of action is ridiculously far away for the spectator to make complete sense of. If you watch cricket on TV in India, you pretty much know the definition of adulteration. If we chose cricket as a healthy distraction from the rigour of everyday life, it appears to me that we have been conned, badly, royally.

Maybe, most of us have crossed the stage of engaging with sport as a healthy distraction. It's life which comes in the way of sport. I can't think of any invocation of the number 89 without feeling a deep sense of betrayal by the world at large. Which cruel universe would rob Stefan Edberg of his French Open title? That too in favor of Michael Chang? Will it ever happen again? The most natural, swift, compulsive serve-and-volleyer ever, nearly won over the dirt. That's as romantic a sporting story as any. Yet. The trauma persists. Perhaps this is true of all sports. The pain of losing, as Bill Simmons explicates, is a common thread across all sports.

What is unique to cricket, though, is that it clubs the pain of losing, the bittersweet tie, the stalemate of a draw, the unfathomable draw with the scores level, with the torture of a million ambiguities, and then it slows it down, spreads it over infinity, and plays it on loop. It gives you the guillotine and also leaves you ruminating if you were the intended target at all.

Such is the scale of the trauma that it reoccurs at the hint of vulnerability. Again, it's not just the pain of losing

In the fourth Test of the recently concluded India-Australia series, India were chasing a gettable target of 155 in the fourth innings. They were already 3-0 up in the series and on the verge of completing the whitewash. When India lost Murali Vijay with the score at 19, there was some scope for panic. But Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli batted with such fluency that even the most insecure fan would have felt at ease. That's when Subash Jayaraman - of The Cordon's Cricket Couch - chose to invoke Barbados '97 on Twitter: "if only we had Pujara and Kohli at Barbados". There really was no sane reason to bring that up now. Is there even a remote connection? For God's sake, India was cruising to a whitewash against a hapless Australian team.

But for a generation of Indian cricket fans, it made perfect sense. They knew exactly what he meant. Such is the scale of the trauma that it reoccurs at the hint of vulnerability. Again, it's not just the pain of losing. The ambiguity pains you even more, and the 'what ifs' just kill you. What if those wickets which fell to front-foot no-balls were called right? What if we had won it? How would Tendulkar have turned out as a captain if the result had gone in our favour? What kind of impact would it have had on Indian cricket? What about our own childhood? Would we have been less traumatised?

Talking of 'what ifs', read Sidvee on the mother of all of them. It changed nothing but my life is a statement that resonates with a generation of us. It doesn't get more traumatic than this.

Life sucks? Your girlfriend dumped you? Your best friend betrayed you? Your boss giving you hell? Your house owner increased the rent? Someone stole your bike? The money lender is knocking on the door?

Stay away cricket. Life is easier.

When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, Mahesh Sethuraman works in a bank in India to pay his bills. He tweets @cornerd

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