Cricket, tennis and the loss of immersion
Wimbledon will be in its second week when this appears, but I write on its eve. I look forward to it more than I have any cricket series in the last year. Or anything else in the next few months, unless Australia agree to play Tests here in October. Then, too, I dread the pitches, the empty stands.
I found it mildly disturbing that my unquestionable, indisputable, all-time number one sport no longer occupied a pedestal. I never had to consider the matter before. Cricket wasn't selected as a choice, it was in our blood, in our air, and it absorbed us as osmotically as we absorbed it. I wondered if the realignment of affection had something to do with the fact that I had been playing tennis for the last year. I also read relatively little tennis press. I could approach it in a manner closest to childlike fascination, drawing directly from Sunday-morning knocking to the glory of the gods on the screen.
But that didn't fully account for it; playing tennis, or football, or basketball as a teenager, I never felt the intimacy I did with cricket.
More likely was that tennis provided better what cricket once did, an immersion. At Roland Garros the cameras always lingered. On the players taking the court, taking their seats, warming-up, the Parisian crowd, the French skies, the world of tennis and its players and its environment, subtly and consummately relayed without gimmicks of propaganda. As much as for the actual tennis, I liked leaving Roland Garros on through the evenings for the beauty of the clay courts and the soothing coverage.
In his review of Andre Agassi's autobiography in the New York Review of Books, Michael Kimmelman wrote that "players shape points by moving the ball around the court to make it arch and zig, devising patterns that from a spectator's perch map crisscrossing lines. The fan's pleasure, after a particularly good exchange of shots, stems from redrawing those lines as a memory, every point, like every creative mark on a page with a pencil, being slightly different. Within sameness, there is variety, artists have proved. Athletes have, too."
Kimmelman is probably talking about watching live, but television coverage of tennis, like the restrained appreciation of a tennis crowd, complements perfectly this ephemeral, elusive marvel of the tennis point.
A good sports broadcast ought to always bring out the essence of the sport. I remember Channel 4's coverage of India's England tour in 2002, able to capture cricket's expansive langour as well as its urgent obsession with tactics and trends and its family-soapish quibbling over decisions made by the captains or umpires.
Cricket on Indian television is now unendurable. The Neo Sports telecasts don't have the mid-over advertisements of Sony Max's IPL telecasts, but Neo makes up with the length and volume of its breaks between overs and every minor stoppage. The logic of a passage of play is so utterly damaged as to feel dismantled.
Cricket, with its huge capacity for roles, needs all the more latitude to play out its proper drama. It isn't, like tennis, a straightforward rivalry. Cricket's rivalries include a team versus another, a team versus an individual, an individual versus an individual, and in that, a bowler against an opposition batsman, a bowler against an opposition bowler, bowling or batting partners of the same team versus one another, a captain versus a captain, sometimes a captain versus one of his own team-mates.
We watch sport to see the response of human beings under forceful pressure. The tennis rally is a conversation. Its truest thrills are the moments when the balance of power shifts, like dialogues in old films. Cricket's exchange is an interrogation. There is pathos in a dismissal that I think has no parallel in sport. But for the interrogation to feel significant, one needs good pitches and good bowling attacks. It is unrevealing when the interrogated run the show like ringmasters, as they do these days.
At times tennis has out-cricketed cricket. I mean, of course, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in exquisite counterattacking symphony at Wimbledon two years ago. With its seven-hour span, its rain breaks, and subsequent influence of weather and intervals, its all-white attire - Fed swan-like, Rafa like a punished Dennis the Menace - it recalled a day of Test cricket. In fact, it was the most exhausting day's Test cricket since Sydney 2008.
I envy tennis - and I use tennis here as an illustrative example. In the four grand slams, the ATP tour finals, the nine ATP masters events, one can be assured of a minimum level of excellence. This no longer holds true for cricket. The last two years have been the least inspiring I have seen in the last two decades. Perhaps that is a cyclical thing. More worrying is the confusion among cricket followers. Tests are hardly watched. Nobody is sure what form one-dayers ought to take. If Twenty20 proliferates at this rate, I fear it will stale faster than one-day cricket did.
I have no faith in the administrators. I only hold on to the hope that, as it sometimes happens, half a dozen players of such calibre arrive into the world game that no matter how awful the pitches, the calendar, the coverage, they cannot help but illuminate for us the essential wonder of the sport, à la Fed and Rafa.
PS The signs are everywhere! There was a three-day match at Wimbledon. They've been beaming parts of the tournament on Star Cricket.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge