The full symphony of cricket

Robert Trivers once said about the legendary evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, 'While the rest of us speak and think in single notes, he thought in chords.' And how do we watch cricket?

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

1.10pm IST - Thinking in chords

Robert Trivers once said about the legendary evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, "While the rest of us speak and think in single notes, he thought in chords."

Hamilton, of course, was a scientific genius, but that musical analogy strikes me as one that can be applied to any human activity. We begin our process of understanding anything one note at a time. While learning a language, for example, we learn the letters first, then compounds of letters called words, complexes of words called sentences, and then suddenly one day we start making sense.

I used to be an earnest chess player in my teenage years, if not a very succesful one, and I remember reading once that amateur chess players think as many moves ahead as grandmasters. The reason grandmasters are so much better at the game: they think in chords. While a novice chess player will see a chess board as a collection of different individual pieces, an expert will see them as a collection of broad dynamic patterns of pieces, each with its own qualities, engaged in complex interactions. He will immediately understand the fundamental nature of a position, while a beginner will miss the bigger picture.

I know many people who watch cricket in single notes. So-and-so bowls, so-and-so plays the ball in such-and-such manner, and that's the totality of it. In reality, of course, the story of a single delivery goes well beyond what actually happened. Say Anil Kumble traps Damien Martyn, on the back foot, lbw with a flipper. There could be a whole saga hidden there. How had Kumble set Martyn up for that through the innings? Why was Martyn on the back foot? What is the history of their past encounters? What are the field positions? What is the state of the match? What is the pitch like? What are the strategies of each side at that point of the game? What was the umpire thinking?

The interplay between the batsman and the bowler is complex and nuanced. We can never, of course, discern all of it. And if we're watching the game on television, we're bound to miss much of the music.

Television is like a music system with a faulty graphic equaliser, that turns most of the channels off so that just one instrument in an orchestra is heard. Discrete notes filter in from here and there, but the only sense we can make of the symphony is through the selected bits of melody that we hear.

In such situations, cricket fans depend upon commentators (on television) and cricket writers (in print) to fill them in, to help them understand the complex phrasings, the counterpoints, the harmonies. I have already blogged, in the past, about the deterioration of modern cricket commentary, but we are fortunate that there are still great cricket writers around, who can, with a handful of words, make us feel like connoisseurs. For those of you bemoaning the coverage of this India-Australia series, google these names and read their reports: Peter Roebuck, Mike Coward, Harsha Bhogle and Mike Atherton. They write in chords.

Can you hear that cello in the background? Listen closely!

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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