June 19, 2014

Life outside the cricket stadium

Most fans are familiar with far-flung corners of the globe but often we don't know much about those places apart from the fact that they are cricketing venues

It's easy to get too caught up in cricket and forget the world beyond Phil Walter / © Getty Images

A few days ago my wife brought home a copy of NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names - borrowed from a co-worker on the basis of her enthusiastic recommendations. Seeing the book lying on our kitchen table, I asked, "Is she the first Zimbabwean novelist you've read?" My wife, who had not yet even opened the book, replied, "How do you know she's Zimbabwean?" Well, how wouldn't I, when she has a last name like that? It's the name of a place where Test cricket is played in Zimbabwe after all.

Cricket fans have, I think, a curious relationship to the globe. Many locations on it - obscure to others - seem quite familiar to us. Non-cricket fans might never have heard of, say, among others, Port Elizabeth, Dunedin, Faisalabad, Galle, or Cardiff, but cricket fans most certainly have. But curiously enough, quite often, that's all a cricket fan will know about them - that cricket is played there.

The cricket ground, which ostensibly only takes up a few acres within city boundaries (or sometimes outside) has, in our minds, magically expanded to consume the entire urban space. Despite the best efforts of cricket magazine editors to commission articles on life outside the cricket ground, on the city's history and its contemporary social and cultural offerings, those who watch games on television and read scorecards often remain oblivious to the city's doings off the pitch. (Ask yourself how much you know about some of the most prominent centres of cricketing action in the world - say, Georgetown, Brisbane, Chennai, Karachi, Manchester - that transcends easy sound bites.) That privilege and pleasure still remains reserved for those who actually travel to the venues of action.

Or not. Touring teams in the past - perhaps most notably those from England when touring the subcontinent - often remained persistently and determinedly ignorant of the larger context of their cricket-playing, content to travel in an insulated bus to and from the hotel to the ground, and to spend their R&R time by the pool before moving on to the next venue. A tour could very easily blur into a sequence of images of the interiors of team coaches, the surfaces of cricket pitches, and the occasional soiree at the High Commissioner's.

But cricket players aren't the only ones guilty of this kind of tunnel vision. Fans can be too. Let me point the first finger at myself. Back in 1997, I travelled to Kingston, Jamaica, to watch India play West Indies in a Test. The academic semester was already underway and I was cutting corners and classes to make the trip. I was keen to squeeze as much cricket watching as possible into my trip. I ensured this by buying tickets for the second, third, fourth and fifth days; my flight bookings - the only ones possible - brought me into Kingston as the first day's play ended, otherwise, I most assuredly would have bought tickets for the first day's play as well. Because I had to get back to New York City to resume teaching duties, I would be flying out of Kingston after the fifth day's play ended i.e., that same night.

On the night of my arrival, I picked up my rental car, and drove straight to the hotel, getting there as darkness fell. The cautionary warnings sent my way by the many Jamaicans I had met on the flight had had their effect; I wasn't keen to go exploring just yet.

Over the next four days, my routine was set in stone: rise and shine, head to the ground. My evenings were supposedly free, but I only went out twice - for dinner, to restaurants nearby. The heat, and the Red Stripe and rum consumed during the day, sitting in the George Headley Stand, had contributed to a lassitude that felt like it could only be addressed by hanging out by the hotel pool or catching a bite to eat before lounging some more. Unsurprisingly, I saw next to nothing of Kingston, home to Trenchtown, and a locale indelibly associated with Bob Marley, Michael Manley, and perhaps even James Bond.

On my return from Jamaica, looking through my collection of photographs, I realised I had taken only one outside Sabina Park, and that one showed a sign bearing the ground's name. (I did take a few of the Blue Mountains, shot from Sabina Park's stands.) My girlfriend - my companion on the trip - sensibly took two days off from the cricket, and toured around in our rented car, visiting museums and checking out other sights. She might have struck the right balance.

There are times I wish my cricket watching didn't interfere so much with seeing the world around me. This was most certainly one of them.

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