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How and why do we watch Test cricket in an age when time is measured in seconds and countless gadgets demand our attention?
January 18, 2012
LONDON - After the torture of eight disconnected hours, the plane lands at Heathrow. We're still rolling when I turn on both phones, hitting refresh on my email, burning at the twirling wheel. Effing phone and its thinking. The messages finally arrive but won't load. I curse all the way to passport control, trying not to run into people as I scan emails and texts. Immigration officer No. 1268 waves me down to the right.
"Why are you here?" she asks.
"The Test match between England and India," I answer.
"When does it start?"
"When does it end?"
"Why does it last so long?"
"I don't know," I tell her honestly. "It just does."
ESPN covets the international sports market, so The Boss dispatched me overseas for a cricket match between India and England. This made sense, as I'd recently covered the cricket World Cup in the subcontinent. I knew the rules and knew that a Test match was the original and purest form of cricket, a game that can go on for five days. Forty hours. I thought the same thing any sane person would think: how can a sporting event that lasts five days possibly still exist?
There was also a personal aspect of that question: how was I going to pay attention to a game that lasts five days? I'm a typically over-connected modern worker bee. Lately, as the trips run into each other and I go 50, 70 days on without one off, I often feel frantic, wondering what I might be missing. I have two phones. An iPad and a Kindle. Three MacBooks. I take my iPhone into the bathroom, to text and play Zombie Gunship. Sometimes I take a call, hitting mute to flush. I use airport urinals with a phone in the other hand. I compulsively check my email. At dinner. In bed. At funerals. No, really, I checked messages at my great-aunt Thelma's funeral. I was a pallbearer. Lately, though I haven't told anyone, I've been having trouble reading. Half-finished books pile up. I open stories in browsers and get a few paragraphs in before I'm distracted by another link, another pop-up video. I'm an addict.
As I settle into my seat on my way to London, the plane over the Atlantic, I start a book called Hamlet's BlackBerry, which hypothesises that all our devices are removing the moments before and after important events, amputating both anticipation and reflection, robbing our lives of depth. I feel like the writer is inside my head. There's a passage about each generation fearing the new, describing how Socrates believed the invention of writing would be the end of creativity and critical thinking, the permanence of words calcifying ideas. Writing was to Socrates what video games are to current parents. This is fascinating stuff, just the sort of modern philosophy I'm usually drawn to, but my strobing mind distracts me. I mark my place and never pick it back up again. Oh, and I'm reading a book about the poisonous effect of our devices… on my iPad. Such is the depth of my sickness as I leave passport control at Heathrow. And yet, as my cab heads straight to Lord's Cricket Ground, I still feel in control. I mean, for instance, I don't imagine this trip will lead me to reevaluate my life in a Buddhist temple on the seventh floor of a north London public housing building.
Lord's is surrounded by leafy streets and hushed neighborhoods. Sir Paul McCartney's house sits a half block from the North Gate. On match day, the sidewalks between the Marylebone and St John's Wood tube stops fill with survivors of the old empire, mostly men, wearing pastel shirts beneath summer jackets. Knotted around many of their necks is the orange and yellow tie of the Marylebone Cricket Club, founded in 1787. Club members lovingly call the tie "egg and bacon". Those who wear it are the protectors of the game. For them, this is a time of great angst.
The third week of July has brought a random but significant intersection of storylines. This Test match is the 2000th in history. It is the 100th time that India and England have played a Test, and it is likely the ageing Indian star Sachin Tendulkar's last trip to Lord's. He is still chasing his 100th international century (scoring 100 runs in a game), and his first Test century at Lord's.
The match falls at a critical time in the history of the game. For its first three centuries, cricket matches spread out over a series of languid days. Almost 50 years ago, one-day cricket emerged. An ODI (one-day international) match takes eight hours and is the format now used in the World Cup. Eight years ago, Twenty20 was born, grinding a five-day game into three hours.
The new game was invented by a marketing man named Stuart Robertson. He'd been hired by the England and Wales Cricket Board and inherited an unsustainable economic situation with domestic long-form cricket: rising debt, sinking revenue. He did what must have seemed obvious to him, which was to persuade a television network to fund elaborate consumer surveys.
Unbelievably, this was the first time market research had ever happened in the long history of the game, and cricket wasn't prepared for what it found in the mirror. The survey discovered that about half a million people followed cricket in the UK, but that around ten million more would watch if the game was played in three hours. Robertson prepared a presentation for the 18 chief executives of the county cricket clubs, who would decide whether or not a shorter game of cricket should be played. One slide silenced the room. Slide 40. It showed the only group strongly opposed to T20 was over the age of 55. Their fans were dying. The new game was approved, 11-7.
It has spread around the world, for many of the same reasons that baseball has lost ground to football, and that the distilled violence of MMA has replaced the sweet science of boxing. Casual fans, advertisers and television executives love the flash and speed; meanwhile, attendance at Test matches has cratered. The Indian tour of the West Indies found empty stadiums, ennui in a place once known for the madness of its fans. Experts think the on-field quality of Test cricket has rarely been better, but the public doesn't seem to care.
In the 2010 installment of the Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, given annually at Lord's, former Pakistani great Imran Khan put words to the game's new reality: "I am afraid that Test cricket will die."
His fear is widely shared. Waiting on the pre-match press conferences, I open the day's papers. They're filled with passionate defenses. Adjectives include "sepia," "anachronistic" and "Victorian". These are intended as compliments.
The editor of Wisden, the bible of the cricket establishment, wrote, "It is everything marketing men tell you is out of kilter with everyday life," as if the marketers are themselves the mirror, not the ones holding it. When we look at the destroyer of some treasured piece of ourselves, we often find that the face staring back is our own. Test cricket is suffering from the same problem as I am: struggling to find space in a hyped-up world.
We are waiting on the Indian captain, and you can guess my tolerance for waiting. I kill time by making notes about the England board's conference room. The chairs are comfortable. Reporters gossip. A long window runs the length of one wall, looking out on a crumbling, ivy-covered wall. There's nothing to give away the fact that this room is where the diminution of Test cricket began. This is where Robertson showed slide 40, where the vote passed 11-7, where the revolution began.
After that vote, television networks jumped on board, as did corporations, leagues popping up globally, the most powerful of these leagues being the Indian Premier League. In the IPL, a star can make millions for six weeks work. A few younger players don't even play Test cricket, and the kids in the streets of Mumbai idolise sluggers who excel in the shorter, simpler form of the game.
|How could drama based upon the tides possibly compete with Grand Theft Auto? You spend 40 hours studying humidity and water particles. Me, I'm gonna pick up a virtual hooker and then beat her to death with a pipe. Isn't the whole point of modern popular culture - to remove boring from our lives?|
In America, television executives began looking at cricket, seeing the opportunities and marketing potential, knowing advertisers would salivate over the untapped global market. ESPN recently bought the rights to the next four years of the World Cup, and, with the fan interest rising, dispatched a reporter, who is now sitting in this conference room, watching as the Indian captain, MS Dhoni, arrives to a flutter of cameras.
"Do you think Test cricket will survive another 2000 matches?" I ask.
There's a pause. The room snickers. Four seconds go by. Finally, Dhoni clears his throat.
"That's a really tricky one," he says.
Many in the egg-and-bacon ties blame India and its exploding economy for the change that has come to the cricket world.
A growing number of Indian fans now see their cricket team as an instrument of nationalism. Some believe that India no longer loves cricket, and instead loves how its dominance of the sport represents a new-found global power, which of course brings another level of drama to this Test. There seems to be the feeling in the quiet drawing rooms of the MCC Pavilion that England represents what is pure about the game, and India represents what is crass, and that this Test series is not just a battle of teams but a battle of values. That feeling is mostly unspoken. Mostly.
In April, Wisden held a black-tie dinner celebrating the release of its annual almanack. A week before, India had won its first World Cup since 1983, punctuating its rise as an economic powerhouse. The scenes from India were electric and fresh in everyone's mind as the English cricket establishment crowded the Long Room of the pavilion, watched by Victorian men in oil paintings, by Thomas Lord himself, in a black overcoat and a tall white collar. The room is a remnant of old England; two days before the Test match, the Duke of Edinburgh, best known as Mr Queen Elizabeth II, held his birthday party there.
Behind the private walls, with the jacketed stewards manning the door, the guests discussed the future of cricket. Instead of celebrating India's championship, or the triumph of the universally beloved Tendulkar, or how the success of the World Cup had made cricket more globally relevant than at any time in its history, the debate settled on something nasty: Was India destroying cricket?
The traditionalists argued yes. To them, India and the IPL represented the encroachment of the modern sports economy onto their quaint game. To the younger people in the audience, here's how the debate looked: a crowd of old, white men gathered in the safety of the last castle, in its innermost hold, quaking with fear about the marauding Indian hordes. A screaming match broke out between the two sides, fuelled by an open bar. A BBC producer summed up the modern view.
"This is bull----!" she shouted.
That pretty much summarised the state of the game on the eve of the Lord's Test. I stared out at the green oval from my seat in the press box, which hovers like an insect at one end of the field, looking exactly like Wall-E's head, or, in the imagination of the snarkier locals, the smile of Tony Blair's wife.
It's a fitting metaphor. On one end, a Gehry-esque spaceship. On the other, the pavilion, long and squat, like a prestigious boarding school. The sun has bleached the red bricks almost peach, with crisp white bleachers on three levels, sort of like a beard, bushy eyebrows and a tuft of hair. If you stare at it intently enough, the building begins to look exactly like a ruddy-cheeked, white-haired person.
The pavilion has held so many old men for so long that it is turning into one.
The press box is alive with debate. How will the humidity affect the wicket? What about the clouds? Will invisible molecules make the ball curve? I must look incredulous, because soon I'm getting Test Cricket 101, lessons about the defensive nature of the game, which is sort of like the NFL to T-20's Arena ball. With runs so difficult to score, no detail is too small. Everything impacts the curve of the bowler. When it's overcast, for instance, the ball swings more. A few clouds change a game, so the old saying at Lord's is that you need to always be looking up.
Other things create microclimates, which change the game. When a new stand was built at Trent Bridge, the ball moved less. At seaside grounds, tides affect the swing. Captains study the tides.
This is wonderful stuff. I imagine the American cable television show, where red-faced writers scream at each other about the tide tables, about the phases of the moon, about how volcanic activity in the Ring of Fire is messing with the barometer, Woody Paige having an aneurysm over hectopascals.
All this, I realise, is part of the joy of Test cricket. The outcome of the games is so closely tied to nature that watching demands an awareness of the world around you. Modern inventions mostly keep the world at bay. Don't like the weather? Close the windows. Turn on the AC. Light a fire. But following Test cricket requires, for at least five days, being governed by subtle shifts in the elements, just as surely as an ancient sailor.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen," says Mike Selvey, a writer and former cricketer for England. "I find that quite exciting. The anticipation is better than the event sometimes."
Test cricket revolves around noticing and appreciating nuance, which is a good idea in theory, but also quaint. Actually, quaint is probably a bit generous. Anachronistic is a better word. I think about the T20 research done by Robertson. Many of the older fans in the survey came of age in a world with fewer options. If America's Greatest Generation is defined by bringing freedom to the world, then England's Greatest Generation is defined by how it did without, how it survived, in the face of, in the face of, in the face of. Anyone here who lived through the war or was born soon after remembers rations and a city left in rubble, and how five days of a lazy game was a gift beyond imagination.
Those generations have eventually given way to us. How could drama based upon the tides possibly compete with Grand Theft Auto? You spend 40 hours studying humidity and water particles. Me, I'm gonna pick up a virtual hooker and then beat her to death with a pipe. Isn't the whole point of modern popular culture - to remove boring from our lives?
"There's an entire generation of people," my ESPN colleague Andrew Miller says in the press box, "growing up without knowing how wonderful it can be to wait for something."
There will be dozens of little dramas in the next five days. The first is the coin toss. The two captains come out in white uniforms and blue blazers. Because of the overcast skies and the early advantage this will give to bowlers, it's important to win the toss.
Fans tune into the BBC's Test Match Special on handheld radios, listening to Henry Blofeld narrate the proceedings. Blofeld is as English as scones and jam, and he has covered cricket for 50 years. (Yes, Ian Fleming was friends with his father and named the Bond villain in his dad's honour as a joke.) Blofeld is famous for long digressions, describing the traffic on the streets outside or offering soliloquies on pigeons. Any good Blofeld impersonation involves a clenched-teeth, guttural, "Pigeons!" He's a national treasure, and also confounding to modern ideas about media. When he retires his replacement will be much more about the play on the field. He's 72. His eyes are going.
The home captain, Andrew Strauss, flips the coin. India win, and Dhoni, as expected, elects to bowl first. There are no national anthems or pop stars in short skirts. No rolling smoke or roaring animals. A coin toss, a handshake, then the game begins. Well, I mean, sort of. Truthfully, little happens. As romantic as I want this experience to be, I'm bored. I'm reminded of an old story. Groucho Marx attended a match at Lord's once, and the club president visited him in his seat and asked, "How are you enjoying the cricket?" Marx looked at him and said, "When does it start?"
I'm watching, enjoying a sandwich, still a little baffled. Something's off. I can't figure out what it is. I've been in a lot of American stadiums, and in hindsight, I guess I'd internalised their rhythm. Live sports are packaged and marketed by experts, an experience designed for people who crave a constant barrage of data, in the form of flashing lights and pounding speakers and dancing girls and guns that shoot t-shirts, and guns that shoot hot dogs, dispensing with any pretence of subtle metaphor, literally attacking us with merchandise and unhealthy food.
The stadiums I visited in India for the World Cup were very American in this regard. They gurgled with promotion and noise. So what's different here? Then it hits me.
The moments before and after each stanza of play are empty. The people in the stands are apparently free to use their imaginations to fill that silence with anything they like. Obviously, as someone who has experienced the orgasmic beauty of sensory overload, I think this is an enormous waste. I feel like a lost child. When do I cheer? What do I say? Should I say De-Fence? How will I know? When should I get on my feet? When do I maaaaaake some nooooooise?
Tell me how to feel!
My ticket for the second day takes me to a covered grandstand. Many people around me are texting or checking email, and I'm disappointed. The guy next to me has a cell in one hand and a BlackBerry in another, emailing someone named Rupert from JP Morgan, checking his calendar, writing to Barry: "my assistant tells me I do have some time at 1."
In my ear, like the voice of a god issuing orders his agnostic followers ignore, Blofeld thunders on in defence of Test cricket. Some newspaper guy wrote that yesterday's play was boring. If Test cricket continues to play at this pace, the story said, the sport won't last the decade.
Blofeld is deeply offended. The first day was very dramatic, he thought. England escaped with only two lost wickets, with the clouds and weather making batting a nightmare. My neighbours and I discuss how play was rained out and how India lost its star bowler to injury. An Indian man squints at me.
"Are you American?" he asks.
I tell him yes.
"That's a rare sight," he says. "An American at a Test match."
"I'm the only one," I say.
"No, I met an American yesterday," he says. "He kept saying how baseball is better. He left after an hour."
There are two meanings to "American". There's the physical being, i.e., me. Then there's the idea of us. The blitzkrieg of culture. Whatever starts in America sooner or later ends up around the world. It's in India now, swallowing the measured game of cricket. I feel like the advance scout for an army that will ultimately destroy everything around me.
It occurs to me, sitting in this grandstand, that maybe I'm looking for answers in the wrong direction.
For a few days now, I've been focusing on the game itself, reporting on the state of Test cricket. It obviously doesn't fit in a modern world. People don't have five hours, much less five days, to be disconnected. One look around the stands and you realise many don't have five minutes, or at least they think they don't: a parade of kids eating ice cream cones, holding hands with dads on BlackBerrys. The game is out of sync with today. But maybe it's deeper than that. What if it isn't the world that's changing?
What if it's us?
Gary Small, a professor at UCLA, is at the cutting edge of research on what our devices are doing to our brains. His findings are terrifying. The way we ingest information is changing us. When we read online, our mind, instead of focusing on the text, is subconsciously making thousands of instant decisions, each hyperlink or embedded video causing a series of chemical reactions: Yes or no? Yes or no? Connect. Disconnect. Connect. Disconnect. "Our brains get trained to work like a search engine," Small says. "We jump from idea to idea. We're not thoughtful. We're not pondering. In some ways, we're less creative."
Like a muscle, the brain strengthens the part of itself that it uses the most. This isn't new. Scientists can point to the invention of the handheld tool hundreds of thousands of years ago, and a corresponding growth in the size of the frontal lobe. The internet is really just a sophisticated hammer. What will future anthropologists find out about our brains?
The good news is that, for digital immigrants - people who grew up without these stimuli - a few weeks away will allow the brain to return to normal. But digital natives - those who've always known the internet and smartphones - might be forever different. Before the age of 20, there's a significant amount of pruning of the synapses. The generation coming of age now might have permanently changed its brains. Studies show humans are losing some ability to interpret facial cues. What's next? Will people one day be unable to read a novel? Or, say, watch a five-day sporting event?
"Digital natives are very impatient with mental tasks that involve delayed gratification," Small says. "That's what you're going to see with cricket. It will be very challenging for this long form of cricket to survive, except among a few aficionados. What's happening to the brains of young people is going to affect the fan base as well as the player base."
That's a new thought, a frightening one. Separate from the economics of television and advertising, from the money pulling at the players and the time required of fans, the biggest threat to Test cricket might be the reconstituted brains of those who watch it.
The face in the mirror is our own. We created a world without space for a pastoral game. We created a world without enough hours in the day. Forget great generals and politicians; unintended consequences are the true drivers of history. When the clock was invented, there was no minute hand. Nobody really needed minutes until around 1700. The modern wristwatch was invented in about 1820. What happened in between? The Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, people needed to be at work on time. Minutes mattered. Now seconds matter. So we check our email every few moments, even feeling phantom vibrations in our pocket - like pain in an amputated limb - wondering what we're missing, even as we're doing something we profess to love.
A cab takes me to Hackney, a neighborhood famous for revolutionaries and union men. I'm hoping the man I'm meeting can give me further focus. Mike Marqusee is a cricket writer. He's an American expat in his late 50s. A socialist. The book Marqusee wrote about falling in love with cricket, Anyone But England is a classic. It has inspired a generation of literary cricket writers, much like Michael Herr's Dispatches did for a generation of war correspondents. In a manner befitting his neighbourhood, he finally gives me some context for all the angst I've noticed about the future of Test cricket. In the first cricket book ever printed, he tells me, the author was already lamenting things that had been lost.
|Bowling a cricket ball and the invention of the spinning jenny, the machine that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, happened at the same time. So much changed so quickly, and cricket becoming the national sport was a response to that change. The game was dying from the moment it was born|
"The obituaries for cricket are constantly being written," he says. "This goes back a long time. And now it takes the form of: will Test cricket survive? There's this anxiety about losing that link with the past. And the anxiety is greater than the actual threat. It's very English, that anxiety. It has to do with the English experience of modernity and paradox. This was the first modern nation. And precisely because of that, there are a number of emotional attachments to the pre-modern."
We're sitting in a Turkish café, drinking coffee, laughing, talking about history. He's been sick and his tongue is yellow, and a thin patina of foam dries in the corners of his mouth. He's in a contemplative mood. I've imagined that cricket struggled to survive in a modern world because it was a sporting relic of a different time, of a pastoral England. No, Marqusee says.
"It was created by industrial England. It's actually not pre-industrial England, but that's how people see it."
So it turns out cricket never fit into a modern world. Englishmen have played variations of the game since the Middle Ages, but cricket evolved to its current form as humans changed the way we interacted with time. Bowling a cricket ball and the invention of the spinning jenny, the machine that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, happened at the same time. So much changed so quickly, and cricket becoming the national sport was a response to that change. In a world where time suddenly governed lives, sportsmen played a game that lasted five days. The game was dying from the moment it was born. In some ways, it was created to die, a symbolic martyr for a world crushed by the minute hand.
Of course, the same people who created cricket as an antidote to spreading commercialism inevitably commercialised the game, unable to deny the impulses of their time. Once, cricket was played in open fields. Anyone could wander over and watch. People made bets, but the actual viewing of the game was free. That lasted until a businessman realised that he could put a fence around the grounds and charge admission. He'd make a huge fortune off this idea, and when he died, his will would leave his stadium to a club that made its home there.
His name was Thomas Lord.
Marqusee walks me across the narrow street to a taxi company. We wait to catch the dispatcher's attention, and he casually mentions that this building is where Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. It's true. There's a small blue plaque on the building. In 1719, the darkest hell a writer could conjure was being stranded on an island. Now a chance to be disconnected from the world - and from my own mind - seems like paradise. I'm desperate to be shipwrecked.
Do we all long for a way out of this age? When I imagine a vacation now, it's not a vacation from climate. I want to go where I cannot be found. A day with my phone off in Tulsa is more relaxing than one in Paris with it on. This urge prompted the rise of cricket. The game was an island of pre-Industrial England. Even people who disagree about almost everything else can agree on this: if Test cricket is threatened, so too is our collective depth.
When Marqusee describes the pleasure of attending a Test match, he lingers on the way he's able to think. In the white spaces. I think about the silence at Lord's, and I understand. Test cricket is different from the rest of the world because it was designed to be.
"I like the idea I can go to a sporting match and bring my own mood," Marqusee says, "and not have it spoon-fed moment by moment. The mood isn't pre-determined or pre-packaged. You create the mood. It almost means cricket requires complex meanings because there is more interacting with the spectator's mind. That horrifies the professional entertainment industry. You know, dead air. But it's freedom for the spectator. Not everything is being pushed on us. We get the chance to let our minds free. It's not demanding. It's not shrill. It's meditative."
Yes, but of course you have to be mentally able - or perhaps spiritually able - to receive this gift. I don't know if I'm capable. Can I sit in the stands and just be? How will I ever learn to keep my mind and body in the same place?
"We've lost the ability to meditate," Marqusee says.
"Why Zen?" the monk asks.
The voice is calm. It sounds the way a hand running lightly across your arm feels. The outside world slips away, as I try to relearn how to meditate, if I ever knew at all. An ice cream truck passes on the street. The tinny, sing-songy tune disappears. So too do the high-pitched Euro sirens. A few minutes ago I stepped out of the elevator on the seventh floor of a public housing building, having found an available monk on the internet. Now the only thing in the world is this voice. It gives me chills. The words have a physical quality, and I can almost see them move across the room. I know this sounds crazy, but it feels like the voice has the ability to extract my innermost thoughts.
"I suppose you know about Socrates?" the voice asks.
We lock eyes. A thick Polish accent is no longer hard to understand. Life is about questions, not answers: Zen.
"It's about sitting your body and sitting your mind," it says. "It's about sitting your mind. Nowadays, people use brain a lot. Sitting meditation is very helpful in calming down our minds. Basically three things are very important. Our body position. Our breathing. And also what to do with our minds. Zen means perceiving our true selves. Also to keep present, moment by moment by moment. The power of now. The air we're breathing is reincarnation."
The voice is soft.
Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out.
We repeat the chant, a cycle of breathing, letting the last two words linger as our lungs empty.
"People are more and more disconnected," it says. "When you have money, we can avoid this primary question: What is life about? Where am I going? How am I appearing here on this world? Basically we need to face our old age. We need to face our death. That is too late to recognise who am I and really understand our self. Zen is about a very basic and very important question: What is life about?
"Where did I come from when I was born? Where will I go when I die? What is my life about? Zen is really going very, very deep. It's not to find definitions. It's to experience. We don't read any books in Zen. We don't analyse any sutras. Our Zen master said everybody is looking outside, outside, outside. We need to come inside."
The voice is a whisper now. It wants to ask me questions. I'm nervous.
"What is your age?"
"This is your body age. What is your true self age?"
"I don't know."
"What is the shape of your true self?"
"I don't know."
"What is the colour?"
"I don't know."
"Where did you come from when you were born?"
"I don't know."
"Where are you going when you die?"
"I don't know."
"This is 'don't know'", the voice says. "When you look deeper, 'don't know' is very, very powerful. Very big. When you keep 'don't know,' and I keep 'don't know,' then your mind and my mind are not separated. Some people think 'don't know' is like the sky before thinking, before any ideas appear. Some people say this is God. Or Buddha. Or Allah. Or Universe. Or Cosmos."
I'm overloaded, freaked out. I feel still and don't know what to make of it. The quiet, penetrating voice recites part of a Zen poem:
"Coming empty-handed. Going empty-handed."
Days 3 and 4
The grass is the colour of a pine forest after a rain. The wicket is the colour of New Orleans coffee. The uniforms are the colour of whipped cream. The sky is finally the colour of sky.
Clear mind. Clear mind. Clear mind.
Thoughts intrude. Last night my dinner companion said, "The last vestige of the British Empire is Test cricket." I need to let that go. Observe and let go. Forget deeper meaning. I should not be a reporter. I'm a traveller with the gift of a Test match at Lord's. When will I ever get this chance again?
The breeze comes in, blowing gentle on my face, cooling the slight burn from the sun. I hear birds. I write these details down, spoiling the moment.
Clear mind. Clear mind. Clear mind.
I look down at the pavilion pass I finagled. For the next few days, I can just be. A man nearby has on sterling silver Spitfire cufflinks. Another man is reading a novel. Everyone is working the Telegraph's crossword puzzle: 1 Down: "'Submission to one - brings on another.' Latin proverb".
In the Long Room bar, just behind the Long Room, there's an oil painting of famous cricketers from the 1950s. Men in blue blazers, together in the pavilion. Nearby there's another painting of stars from a later era, and if you look closely, the 1950s painting is hanging in the background. There's a painting of a third generation of players, and it's got both of the previous works in the background. Standing a few feet from me is MJK Smith, who is in these paintings, posed with a crossword puzzle in his pocket. Time doesn't exist inside these walls. The men are contemporaries in the generation of cricket.
|It's as if there are two matches being played simultaneously, on top of one another. A lost wicket in an important Test match is reason for despair, and the Indian newspaper reporters in the press box are sharpening their knives. Me? I'm eating a scone with clotted cream and jam, watching the action|
At 12:25 pm, on the third day of the Lord's Test, Sachin Tendulkar walks through the Long Room to the field, a multimillionaire passing the oil painting of Thomas Lord, the man who figured out cricket could be a business. Sachin's great wealth sprang from that long-ago realisation. The cheers echo around the grounds. The Indians chant, "Sa-chin! Sa-chin!" The two MCC members next to me talk about Don Bradman, the Babe Ruth of cricket.
"Bradman was the greatest of them all," one member, a former BBC newsman, says. "In 1948, he played his last Test match. He was cheered all the way to the wicket. Then he was clean-bowled on the second ball. Then he was cheered all the way back. The pity of it all: Had he scored four runs, his career average would have been 100."
Tendulkar digs in. The crowd wants history. The only thing missing from Tendulkar's résumé is a Test century at Lord's. Here, like the men in the trilogy of oil paintings, Bradman and Tendulkar exist in the same dimension. The men with me speak of Bradman as if he were standing inside, at the Bowler's Bar, ordering a Foster's on draught, which given one of many odd but strictly enforced club rules, even he would not be allowed to take across the hall to the Long Room Bar.
"The theory was he was bowled because there were tears in his eyes," the newsman says.
His friend grumbles with scepticism.
"Allegedly," the newsman says.
Clear mind. Clear mind. Clear mind.
The Test Match Special crew whispers in my ear through my radio. Blofeld asks: "I wonder if Sachin Tendulkar woke up this morning a little bit nervous?" The English fielding strategy, I hear, contains three slips and a gully. A silly point. I'm not sure what that means, but the words are pleasing to hear. Just the sound of them. The Indians are staring at an English score of 474. The grind is slow. In Test cricket, only bad things happen quickly. Anything good takes time. Will this be bad or good?
Tendulkar rocks one between carefully placed fielders for a boundary, hitting off his back foot, with a fast bowler's best stuff on the rise. That's the shot he used to announce his greatness to the cricket world, playing Australia at the beginning of his career. He was still a boy. Most cricketers can score with only two or three shots. Sachin can always score, on a cover-drive, a straight-drive, a cut, a leg glance, a late cut, or even hitting a ball still rising at 95mph toward his head. The fans see that shot and edge closer to the field, which is the colour of pine trees after a rain. The uniforms are white. The pitch is brown. The sky is the colour of sky. The anticipation is as tangible as blue.
Clear mind. Clear mind. Clear mind.
Something special could happen today. Everyone at Lord's knows it, and they can tell Tendulkar knows it, too. The break for lunch is approaching. What will happen in the next few hours?
Sachin Tendulkar stands at the centre of Lord's. Everyone looks at him, and he looks for chances to score. There is energy in the air, and it's all for him. He bangs a four to the boundary. "He wants to make it a memorable occasion," a fan sitting next to me leans over and says. "There's no doubt about it."
The bowler begins his run, and the crowd noise builds with him. Sachin flexes his knees and waits. The ball sounds like a starter's pistol when it hits his bat. Most he simply deflects, waiting on a moment to attack. To do something historic, he'll have to concentrate for hours. Each previous swing buys him no quarter from the one that will come next.
I met Tendulkar once. We were in the Royal Gardenia Hotel in Bangalore during the World Cup, the night after he'd scored the 98th international century of his career. It was the last time he'd faced England. The hotel manager had sent him a card congratulating him on this achievement, but the Indian star still simmered with anger that his team had managed only a tie.
The room was heavily protected. The floor required a specially coded card to activate the elevator, and guards stared at me when the doors opened. Tendulkar is a prisoner in his fame. Sometimes, he drives through Mumbai in the middle of the night. That's the only time he can be free of eyes.
He'd just woken up. On one side of his bed was a laptop computer and a tangle of wires. On the other was a Hindu shrine. Two halves of himself. One modern, connected, the world that allows him his fortune and scrutinises him for it. The other is serene and calm. He chooses to live in both, and at this point, the nation demands it of him. But make no mistake. Sachin Tendulkar likes the rewards. He is not a monk. Therein lies the duality of modern life. Success both frees and traps him.
The shrine on the right side of the bed is part of how he manages those worlds. It works for him. When asked later to describe Tendulkar, the word I used was calm. He exuded a sense of balance. Other people who know him say the same thing. His team-mate Rahul Dravid, a legend in his own right, said this about Tendulkar: "He doesn't talk about the future. He just talks about what he needs to do now."
Clear mind. Clear mind. Clear mind.
I watch him stare down the bowler. The battle has taken on levels of meaning, and Tendulkar isn't just battling the pressure and the opponents. He is battling himself. How can he take what he wants from the world without being undone by it?
His focus is nearly complete, until the 58th ball, in the 90th minute. A moment of vanity intrudes, or simple carelessness, and he tries to drive a ball he could have defended. Out. Ordinary batsmen wouldn't have tried to score, but he is Tendulkar, who can score at any time. This time, he is a victim of his own talent. He was feeling in control, and he was, right up until he wasn't. He walks slowly into the Long Room. The members form a tunnel, a wall of blue blazers and egg-and-bacon ties. Tendulkar's expression doesn't change as he passes the applauding crowd, but before he turns left and disappears up the stairs, he smacks his lips in disgust.
We rise and fall for the next two days.
I'm in the crowd, a bottle of rosé in an ice bucket. There are endless tiny struggles, but with my phones switched off, I find I can focus on the build and release. I cancel interviews. I blow off the BBC. For two days of one-act plays, I am a fan. These moments turn one match into 50 smaller ones, and in the stands, each victory or defeat is anticipated and celebrated. We've all been here so long, as have the players, and all that invested time creates tension. I cannot believe this is the same game that lazily flitted along beneath Thursday's grey clouds. Lord's is suddenly electric. I meet a friend for a Pimm's in the Long Room Bar. We are captivated.
Indian star Dravid is chasing history. He is approaching his first Lord's century. The score builds, 70, then 75. The crowd murmurs when it's his turn to bat.
There's the competing drama of the "follow-on." This is a strange cricket rule. If India can't get within 200 runs of England, then England has the option of forcing the opponents to immediately bat again. In baseball, it would be like the visiting team suddenly being able to bat last. This would give a huge advantage to the English.
It's as if there are two matches being played simultaneously, on top of one another. The follow-on seems assured, as India loses wicket after wicket. A lost wicket in an important Test match is reason for despair, and the Indian newspaper reporters in the press box are sharpening their knives. Me? I'm eating a scone with clotted cream and jam, watching the action.
With just two batsmen left, Praveen Kumar comes out. He's a bowler, and like a pitcher in baseball, is barely an adequate batsman. But the Indians need runs, and he's their only chance. In desperation, Kumar starts swinging from his heels, taking wild uppercuts. On this afternoon, he's in the zone. The team is on his back. He lofts a shot over the defenders' heads, and the ball runs out to the boundary for four runs (a ball that touches the boundary is four, and one that flies over it is a six). Another ball arrives, and he swings as hard as he can, again. Boom. Four. He follows that up with another wild swing. The crowd plugs in, humming now. The English fans cheer wildly for their opponent.
Dravid feeds off the energy and adds a four of his own. He's got 91 runs. Nine more.
Kumar scores enough to get India within 200, avoiding the follow-on. When he finally gets out, he receives a standing ovation as he walks to the Long Room. As he heads upstairs, old guys slapping him on the back, an enormous smile spreads across his face. All the drama now focuses on Dravid. Can he reach his long-awaited century?
He's on 98. The fans know his story. Fifteen years ago, in his first appearance at Lord's, he scored 95. He's never equalled that success, until today, near the end of his career. Finally it happens. Dravid reaches his century, and he runs down the wicket with his bat raised in the air. He throws a fist pump, content. He's as simple a man as a celebrity athlete can be. He can take his family out in public. Keeps his kids grounded. His talent has brought him respect, money and fame, but never the rock-star treatment or compensation of his team-mate. He's kept some essential piece of himself that Tendulkar lost, but like anything else, it came at a cost. Tonight, in the hour of his triumph, reporters will ask him about… Sachin. He responds with a smile, as if he knows something the questioners don't.
The last day of a Test match is for the people. Often there is no fifth day, so advance sales don't work. Tickets are first-come, first-serve. They cost only £20, and children under 16 get in free. Today is the first day of British summer vacation, and fans start lining up at 2am, a silent queue stretching through those hushed neighbourhoods, cricket lovers on the sidewalk just outside Sir Paul's mansion. Most of them are Indian supporters. They are entering the castle.
In the hour before play begins, the players walk around the pitch. Dravid touches the wicket with his bat. He stands at the crease, staring down an imaginary bowler, wiggling his toes, tapping his bat on the ground. Behind him, a random and enormous cheer erupts from the grandstands. The groundskeeper doesn't need to look.
"That's Tendulkar," he says.
The stage is set. India needs to chase down 458, which would be the highest chase in Test-match history. It's not impossible; India have what some consider the greatest batting line-up ever. These are the 1927 Yankees. Tendulkar will have one more shot at his Lord's Test century, and England need to take 10 wickets. They've got eight hours.
"People can't understand a game that can last five days," the groundskeeper says, "but we have a position here today where any of the four results in cricket are possible. Either side could win. The game could come to stalemate. Or it could actually end up being a tie. Very unusual you get all four results possible."
I'm waiting on a call.
Robertson, the inventor of T20, is coming to the grounds today. Until he arrives, though, the phones will stay mostly in my pocket. I'm into the rhythm. I enjoy the silence. I work a crossword puzzle, looking up every minute or so to see the bowler begin his run. A thought assembles in the white spaces. Being here feels like a vacation, not just because the days are free of responsibility, but because they feel so different from the rest of my life. The world is full of people trying to slow down. There's the slow food movement, a rejection of consumerism and industrial convenience. Knitting, baking, urban farming. There's yoga. Folk music is inexplicably huge in England again. People are seeking something.
Maybe Test cricket is part of that search. Maybe slowness won't kill Test cricket, but instead will spark a revival: the right game at the right time. Not long ago, I read a magazine excerpt of a new book, About Time, by astrophysicist Adam Frank. He believes we are living at a vital moment in the history of time. For thousands of years we've been shrinking time, making minutes important, then seconds. Frank says we can't shrink it anymore. An enormous change is imminent. Oil will run out and with it cheap transportation, both of goods and people. He believes that, contrary to our view of a world always growing smaller, the planet will spread apart again. Only the extremely wealthy will be able to afford flying to Europe, for instance. Global shipping will regress. Email won't be as commercially important since the businesses it exists to support will lag behind. "We're at a breaking point," he says. "We just can't organise ourselves any faster. We've grown up with this amazing idea of progress. That's operating with the mindset that science will provide miracles. There really are limits. One of the things I think about this generation we're living in: this is the age of limits."
There's a story I heard recently that seems appropriate. A friend was giving his interpretation of The Decameron, about a group of people taking refuge from the plague, telling stories which preserved some spark of the humanity being killed in the city they left behind. Test cricket could offer the same protection for a quaint idea such as a sport existing outside the tyranny of money and time.
That romantic notion lasts until my phone rings.
Robertson meets me behind the futuristic press box. His young daughter Charlotte is with him and they're enjoying the sunshine. We make small talk, which is interrupted by a sudden jolt. A cheer, though that's a feeble description. It's a treble explosion, a solid wall for the first 30 seconds, as if from one being. The crescendo never breaks. That first blast is high-pitched, with a backbeat of claps, each landing a moment after the last. Then it breaks apart, just a little, individual pieces recognisable. A whistle. A shout. The noise downshifts, growling now, all low-end and gut muscles, with the occasional rising shriek. After a minute the cheer dies down and is replaced by the rhythmic chant of a single name.
"Sachin Tendulkar," Robertson explains to his daughter. "Best batsman in the world."
|The world is full of people trying to slow down. There's the slow food movement, a rejection of consumerism and industrial convenience. Knitting, baking, urban farming. People are seeking something. Maybe Test cricket is part of that search. Maybe slowness won't kill Test cricket, but instead will spark a revival: the right game at the right time|
Robertson and I find a bench where we can see a little corner of the green pitch. He no longer works for the ECB. There's a new venture, Cage Cricket: an even shorter form of the game, or as he puts it, more democratic. He wants to take the final step in the evolution of cricket and completely remove teams. Six individual stars, in a plexiglass cube, where hits off different parts of the square result in different run totals. The bowler can score by getting someone out, as can the fielders. Losing your wicket costs you 40 runs. The game lasts 30 overs, and all six men get to bowl, field and bat. He sees basketball arenas and great swells of hype. "The guys will come in like prizefighters," he says. "Then we'll take that around the world. We're talking to India, the Caribbean, Australia, the States."
I'm walking around the concourse, headed toward the pavilion, when a groan comes from the stands. It can mean only one thing. People near me sprint for the nearest portal. I follow them, just in time to see the umpire raise a finger. Tendulkar is out. There will be no Lord's century. I turn on my radio in time to hear the Test Match Special guys narrate Sachin's long trek back across the pitch. This is the last time he'll ever make that walk, they say solemnly. The crowd rises to cheer, Indians and English alike, just as the crowd did 50 years ago for Don Bradman. The difficultly of cricket means that ends are almost always disappointing, and Bradman's ghost walks next to Sachin, step for step.
"He disappears from our view into the Long Room," Blofeld says.
There's only one drama left. Three hours of daylight left, and five Indian batsmen to dismiss. The English defence, sturdy for the first four days, has turned sloppy. The mistakes pile up. The English drop an easy out, then another, then misplay a ball. "This is a disaster," an English fan near me says. There's a new buzz: India might hold on for a draw.
Then Dhoni is out, caught by Prior. Four more wickets to go. Then three. Kumar comes back out, to an ovation, but the English bowlers aren't risking a repeat. They pepper him with short balls, which are bouncers that come flying for the head. He's out soon. In the concourse, a father and son carry a cardboard tray of fish and chips with a side of mushy peas. The son looks at the people headed for the exits.
"Why are the Indian fans leaving?" he asks.
"They know they've lost," the father replies.
The last man bats for three minutes and then the Test is over. After five days, England has won. England captain Strauss is cheered as he leaves the field. In the pavilion, a guy near me slams a glass of wine. The egg-and-bacon ties say their farewells and head down the grand staircase. Right outside the front door is a wall of Indian fans, six and seven deep, allowing a thin alley of space for members to leave the pavilion and head home. The crowd is waiting for Tendulkar.
The mostly old, mostly white men, wearing their ties, leave the hushed walls of their castle to see an endless sea of foreign-looking faces. One group of members exits and their eyes get wide.
"To see Sachin," one man says.
"I've never seen anything like it," he says.
The future is only feet away.
The next day is the rarest of gifts, one mostly free in a city I love. The weather is perfect. I feel calm. I've slowed myself down for a week. I see a cricket ground in a park, one without bleachers, just a pavilion for players and a wicket. I stop to stare at it, outside the Royal Hospital, built in the 1600s by Sir Christopher Wren. I focus on a spot in the green grass and meditate, resting on a bench.
Clear mind. Clear mind. Clear mind.
The devices in my pocket aren't all bad. I punch an address into my phone and follow the directions to Ovington Park, where my mother lived when she was just out of college. I try to imagine her here. Her father died a few months into her trip and she went back home, where she met my dad. This was the last place she existed outside of other people. I find the apartment and take pictures. I interview neighbours, recording them with my phone, and they tell me this street belongs to foreigners now, using solid English real estate as an investment. One house, a woman tells me, hasn't had anyone stay overnight in seven years, but there are fresh-cut flowers arranged every day, just in case. Finally I stand in front of my mom's old balcony and call her, describing the street, which she tells me hasn't really changed.
I head over to Chelsea for lunch, where I'm meeting Henry Blofeld. He seems like the perfect way to end this journey. Someone who will leave me with a sense of an old world, who will remind me about the importance of not being ruled by the latest modern thing.
As I walk into the pub where Oscar Wilde once drank, waiting on Blofeld to arrive, there are things I don't know about the future. I don't know that I'll order a satellite dish to get cricket on television but cancel the order when technicians can't find a clear view of the southern sky. I don't know that for a few glorious weeks I'll wake up early and take my coffee onto my porch to listen to Test Match Special. I'll follow scores on the internet and make sure I'm tuned in every time Sachin comes to bat, hoping to hear his 100th century. I'll start checking on local Buddhist temples. My wife and I will make plans to attend one Saturday. But something will come up and I won't ever make it. Soon I'll miss a Test match on the radio, finding myself working early in the morning, on deadline, trying to get ahead. There will be plenty of time for cricket later. I programme dozens of future matches into my calendar, set with alarm bells. Every now and then, at 2:30am, one will go off and I'll feel a pang, for just a moment, before I switch it off and roll over again.
I don't know that I'll begin to plan a trip back to a Test match, hoping to recreate how I felt for five days during an English summer. Maybe I'll finish my ESPN contract and rent a small flat in St John's Wood, near Sir Paul's gated home, and spend my days filling the silence around the bowler and the batsman. That's what I'll do.
The pub is airy, with leaded glass bending the light. Blofeld comes in, wearing red socks and blue shoes, an open-collar madras shirt. His family has lived on the same estate near Norfolk since 1520. He looks like it.
"I'm in a foul mood," he says. "I need a large glass of Chablis. I need one. I've lost every number."
He points at his iPhone. In the process of syncing, he accidentally lost all his contacts, and a frustrating three-hour morning at the Vodafone store couldn't retrieve them.
"Oh," the waitress says, "for goodness' sake."
We're quickly trading cellphone horror stories, about cracking their fickle screens and leaving them in cabs, or rental car buses or on top of bars. Oh, yes, bars.
"Do you drunk-text?" I ask Henry Blofeld.
"No, I don't," he says. "I never text after dinner."
"Yes, I know exactly where you are coming from," he says. "When I go out to dinner, unless it's a very good reason, I tend to leave my mobile telephone at home. Then you can't get in trouble. You can't send one girlfriend a message that was intended for another one."
His voice has a wonderful vibrato. There's a slight buzz on the end of every word, and the two glasses of wine make the words more pleasing. He orders a Rhone with the rabbit. He knows his time as the conscience of Test cricket is coming to an end. In some ways, he has outlasted the world he represented.
"It goes on as long as… dot… dot… dot," he says. "Until I die or my eyes give out. Two or three more years. Then I think I'll find it terribly hard to see. Which is sad."
He shrugs and goes back to his lunch. We spend our time talking about Test cricket and how I think I'm in love with the game, and what I believe it could mean for a changing world. He looks up.
"Are you, coming from America - you must be - looking at it in a different perspective than we are here?"
"How do you think I would be looking at it?"
"You're romanticising it because it's new to you," he says. "Of course you are. When you come to anything new, you come to it with, not exactly preconceived ideas, but with a framework which is peculiar to you. With your life and background in the United States, if we write of an identical age, I would come to it in a very different way."
Nobody comes empty-handed. Nobody leaves empty-handed, either. That's a dream.
"Everyone's reality is peculiar to them," he says. "It has to be. Thank God."
We finish our meal and leave the pub. I feel changed by the past few days of silence, certain my exploration can continue even after the noise returns to the white spaces. I promise myself that I'll listen to Test Match Special for years to come, and find my own Zen teacher back home. There's a peaceful walk before me, but first a few things need doing. People need answers. I walk past that cricket ground, past the hospital designed by Christopher Wren, returning emails and a call. I write a headline. I check with a friend about dinner plans. I use the GPS to find my hotel. I feel the phones in my pocket, certain that I control them and not the other way around. I stop and stare at Buckingham Palace. The sun shines off the gold angel of victory. I take a photo and reflexively email it home, proof of how unplugged I am on this lazy afternoon.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com, where this article was first published
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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