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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on April 12, 2013, 23:54 GMT

    Exceptional piece Mahesh! Each and every word of this article reflects my feelings towards this beautiful game. I still remember Sachin lofting Saqlain only to be caught by Wasim, thus handing Pakistan one of the greatest victories over Ind.Asking my mom to let me watch the 99 WC final ball by ball (as I had exams) only to be utterly gutted to see my team get thrashed. Memories of Akhtar ripping apart Aus at Gabba, Sachin's sixes over point in 03, Inzi's celebrations in Multan against BD, Pak coming from behind to beat Eng in Old trafford 02, then that Yuvi-Dravid partnership at Lhr that took the series away, Afridi's blast at Kanpur, shattered feelings in 07 WC, watching Inzi crying as he left the field for the last time, then ofcourse the t20 title in 09,this and so much more..All of it is as fresh as it happened just yesterday.Thanks Mahesh for brining back all of that.

  • Gangasagar on April 12, 2013, 11:30 GMT

    Tough days you have !! Everybody has their moments of disappointments. This article makes me nostalgic about those moments. 1. Klusener's Madness in WC'99 !! 2. India's Madness in WC'07 !! 3. The great Indian collapse in Sydney in 7 balls of Clarke !! 4. Sachin on 98 vs Pak in WC'03 and 194* in Pak. He was so close !! 5. Ganguly's duck in his final innings !! 6. Nagpur Test 2004 Ind vs Aus !! 7. Me giving out 16 runs of 1 ball and losing the match with 1 ball to spare (In local match) !!

    I wish I could have gone back reversed those moments or results.. Just in case..

  • Dummy4 on April 11, 2013, 21:07 GMT

    another special piece, Mahesh.

  • Dummy4 on April 11, 2013, 19:29 GMT

    I somehow had slightly contradictory emotions while watching the Chennai test. When Sachin got out , and we started collapsing, I was, in a bizarrely sadistic manner, hoping that the remaining wickets fall, India lose and the match get over in day 4 itself. Don't know why, I had a similar feeling when we started collapsing against Zimbabwe in the World Cup later that year (remember Olonga taking 3 wickets in an over?SRT missed that match)

    The result that left the biggest scar was the WC'99 semis finals between Australia and South Africa . Every time I watch the highlights, I still hope Klusener waits one more ball and smashes the next ball to win it for South Africa. Somewhere back in my mind, I am still convinced that had Australia not tied and won the wc, they might not have gone onto dominate world cricket for the next 7-8 years.

  • Pete on April 11, 2013, 4:03 GMT

    As an Australian, I know the feeling about Barbados. Somehow the disasters burn horribly - like missing the mammoth with your spear and having to watch all your cousins starve. The wins - cricket is so exciting until it becomes an actual cakewalk - you always think something could go wrong. Then there's a shift; instead of enjoying the formality of a Glenn McGrath 5-0 prediction coming true before your eyes, you think about Botham at Headingley, or Thommo and Border at the 'G, or why Mark Waugh never seemed invested when the chips were down, and then shocked you once ever couple of years. I can honestly say I won't be looking back at the present Australian team and thinking 'What if?', because the critical mass of astounding talent just isn't there - Clarke and Pattinson when fit are not enough. Hopefully we'll see some fight in England. India are a great team at home, and have the team to wipe the floor in Eng, RSA, Aus, Pak (!) - a huge and worthy challenge.

  • Vinish on April 11, 2013, 3:52 GMT

    One word sums up this excellent piece of artwork. Awesome.

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