June 28, 2010

Cricket, tennis and the loss of immersion

If you're looking for sport to convey gripping narrative and drama involving human beings under pressure, cricket is probably not the place to look these days

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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 1, 2010, 12:19 GMT

    I dont care if cricket matches are played in empty stands or packed seats.I just want to see the game.

  • Dummy4 on June 29, 2010, 22:01 GMT

    waiting on the next generation of administrators with clear heads, great wisdom, and good work ethic to lead cricket.

  • Dummy4 on June 29, 2010, 22:00 GMT

    I do agree that we need greener pitches. Cricket fans do not want to see a bunch of runs being scored. If the batsman is just playing through the line and scoring lots of runs then it is not very interesting to watch. The batsman should have to fight for his runs. He needs to concentrate and watch the ball until it hits his bat. He needs to account for swings and skiddies.

    Cricket is good the way it is. I do not even mind T20, as long as we are honest about the pitches, and the let the players do their thing. Trying too much to make it interesting will only cost the game its appeal.

    Although I must say, I hardly find the need for T20s since we have odis. They are pretty similar - all things considered.

    Lets forget about the money and preserve what the game is about. I hope that my children and their children are able to play cricket in their neighborhood grounds. I ask the administrators to not harm the game.

    Maddening I tell you. Waiting on the next generation of

  • Chaitanya on June 29, 2010, 13:00 GMT

    All the same, I think Rahul's observations are more true for limited overs and less for tests. There are many reasons for this: the quality of tests are much better, they don't happen as often so there is no danger of an overdose, there are fewer sponsors (this seems to be changing) and above all, great feats take place mostly in tests and greatness is almost always made here (its only confirmed in other versions except in cases like Bevan's).

  • Chaitanya on June 29, 2010, 12:51 GMT

    I think Rahul has either not seen enough tennis. Many of the things he mentions about cricket are true. But tennis has also become just as bad these days. Today there are no serve&volley players left. Today you can no longer see the brilliance of a Sampras or for that matter even an Agassi. Remember how many people feel power hitting is murdering cricket? Well today even tennis is all about power. The only player who is interesting to watch is Federer and that is because of his style and grace not because he plays in an old fashioned manner (like Dravid or Kallis play cricket).

  • Dummy4 on June 29, 2010, 11:13 GMT

    nic natanui all i have to say ahahahahahahahahahahaha

  • arun on June 29, 2010, 3:26 GMT

    Rahul your fascination for tennis has surely something to do with you playing tennis these days. Tennis has become as insipid as cricket these days. For a fact, it is now a uni dimensional game dominated by slug fests from the baseline. Where are the McEnroes, Edbergs, Stichs and Beckers ? The grass near the net remains green throughout ?! The grass becoming slower is a lame excuse for the total lack of serve-volley tennis. Now it is just a question of out-hitting each other. Similarily, in cricket there is no pace in the pitches. Is it rocket science to have fast grass or quick pitches ? Will the world ever see another Dravid or Laxman play for their country ? Because players have to first prove their mettle in T20 cricket these days before they can think of playing the longer version.

  • Yogesh on June 29, 2010, 2:49 GMT

    I know what Rahul means. The administrators have sold the game to an extent that the game itself is becoming irrelevant. Incompetent and corrupt administrators have prostituted the game and are killing the goose that laid golden eggs. It is just a matter of time that cricket loses its appeal.

  • Paul on June 29, 2010, 2:20 GMT

    Tennis? Isn't that the sport which popularised seeding which ensured the start of any tournament featured a minimum number of one-sided matches? And Michael Kimmelman was supposed to be writing a review of an autobiography of a player of a sport. What was he doing waxing lyrical about the sport itself?

  • Muhamad on June 28, 2010, 22:05 GMT

    Cricinfo should be closed down, I guess. All the writers writing-off cricket. Looking at the pieces published on Cricinfo during past several weeks or so, some of the writers like football, some like Tennis, and some are questioning the existence of 50 over ODI cricket, some criticize the timings of ENG-Aus series, and some are suggesting that WI-SA test series should have been cancelled. Yes, all this going on ONLY at Cricinfo. Whats going on guys ?? I do like Tennis, I play Tennis, but I still postpone my tennis game if it coincides with a cricket match. What is the problem ?, who is forcing you to watch cricket ?, finding the time to visit a cricket website or writing articles on it ? if you don't feel passion about it just go away, don't watch all the matches. If you think that there is too much cricket going on then change your TV channel move to a football or Tennis match. That's it. What effect it is having on your health? But please just don't spread disappointment

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