November 5, 2015

An agony only cricket can create

No other game makes you crave updates, no matter how trivial, when you are denied live coverage

What's the score? Refresh... refresh... refresh © AFP

I didn't, in all honesty, pay much attention to the second Test between Pakistan and England. I was trekking in the Simien Highlands in Ethiopia, where there was neither Wi-Fi nor a phone connection, and by the time I got back to Gonder and looked at my laptop, it was the fourth day and England were already two down and in deep trouble.

They had lost their fifth wicket by the time I went out the following day and my assumption was that the game was over. A few hours later, as I left a restaurant, I saw four kids playing on a dusty, pebble-strewn flat area, at either end of which were dilapidated goalposts.

But they weren't playing football. Rather one of them held a plastic water bottle and the other three took turns to lob a small stone at him, whereupon he'd hit it in the air and the others would try to catch it. The four came running over. One grabbed my hand. "Hundred birr," he pleaded. "Buy football."

"You're joking," I replied. "You've nearly invented cricket."

Which led me to wonder just why Ethiopians hadn't invented cricket. After all, shepherds all over the world have used variants on the crook. If it's true that cricket began with one shepherd tossing a stone for another to hit with his crook, why did that happen in northern Europe rather than east Africa? Two days previously, I'd ridden a mule across a great sweep of grassland high in the mountains; even at the time the thought had occurred that it would be perfect for cricket.

I'd also seen a painting of a traditional game that featured a lot of men chasing a ball around while brandishing sticks. It looked a lot like hockey, or perhaps hurling. Further investigation reveals it to be Ye Gena Chewata, which was apparently either invented spontaneously by shepherds overcome with glee at the birth of Christ, or the result of the Magi (in orthodox tradition, Balthazar was Ethopian) beheading a non-believer on the way back from Bethlehem and whacking his head about with their croziers. Given the game is played particularly at Easter time, it may be that, like football, Ye Gena Chewata began as some kind of fertility rite, with man demonstrating his mastery of the sun as represented by the ball. Whatever the origin, Ye Gena Chewata's existence and the kids with the bottle suggested the urge to hit a ball with sticks is present in Ethiopia and has been for two millennia.

I got back to my hotel idly wondering how many England had lost by, and reflecting that it might at least mean James Taylor getting a go now. I was so certain the game would be lost that it took a little while for the numbers on my laptop screen to sink in. Still eight down. Fourteen and a bit overs to go. And so began an impossibly tense 40-odd minutes with indifferent Wi-Fi, counting down the balls, just as we had done in Cardiff, in Centurion, in Cape Town and in Auckland. Only, this time the Wi-Fi was indifferent. There was no update for what felt like hours, then the screen would reload and a whole over would have passed - a whole over nearer a draw. Or only three balls would pass and you'd wonder what on earth could have taken so long.

If it's true that cricket began with one shepherd tossing a stone for another to hit with his crook, why did that happen in northern Europe rather than east Africa?

Twitter was largely inscrutable: wry comments that probably made sense if you had pictures to go with it, but that, in that hotel room, offered only a tantalising glimpse of what was actually happening. Was it turning? Were they dead-batting calmly? Was every ball an ordeal by spit and bite? For me it essentially came down to irregular counting down. In the lacuna lay the drama.

And that, perhaps, is one of cricket's greatest appeals. Many seemed bored by the first Test; I rather relished the sense of this elemental force going on in the background. During the Ashes it felt like you could pop to the shops for 45 minutes and miss the bulk of an innings. Here I could happily start an article, look up an hour later and see 16 runs had been scored, that Alastair Cook was still there, dry-browed. There was never that menacing sense of exciting things happening unwitnessed.

Would that have sustained the Ethiopian consciousness? I have no idea. Certainly for those who live in the highlands, the impression is that most sport is consumed as a fait accompli. When I got a lift back from Chenek to Gonder, the first thing the driver did was to start telling everybody in the car the previous day's football results, which he did with a great sense of drama, provoking "aii"s and "eee"s. When he made a slitting gesture across his throat while talking about Jose Mourinho, I assumed he'd been sacked and felt a desperate pang I hadn't been there to write about it; it turned out he had just been sent from the touchline.

And yet even that pattern, of ignorance and enlightenment, of anxiously holding simultaneously the twin possibilities of victory and defeat, isn't the same as following a desperate rearguard on an inconsistent connection. That agony is uniquely cricket's.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. @jonawils

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