November 24, 2012

Cricket's Pinteresque silences

The sport is full of pauses that enhance the drama, just like in Harold Pinter's plays

In the right mood and under the right circumstances, Javed Miandad can sometimes be persuaded to talk about The Partnership. It was a 139-run affair that won a landmark title, so the capitals are well deserved.

The story has an arresting beginning. The MCG is packed to capacity and the World Cup final of 1992 is nine overs old. Derek Pringle is bowling lively swing and seam. He gets one to cut back sharply and Pakistan are 24 for 2.

Miandad walks in and steps up to the wicket. He takes guard and surveys the field. Imran Khan is at the other end, and the two make eye contact. Information flows but no words are exchanged. There is not even a nod or any other visible form of acknowledgment, yet meaning and intent are conveyed. Over nearly two decades of struggle and combat, these two have laid the foundations of modern Pakistan cricket. By this stage, Imran is living inside Miandad's head, and Miandad inside Imran's; there isn't much left to be said.

Miandad settles into his stance. Imran steps out of the non-striker's crease, moving his bat to his left hand and dragging it to just inside the line. A heavy burden hangs above them both. The Partnership begins.

Cricket is full of such Pinteresque silences. Pregnant with meaning, loaded with portent and symbolism, they are interludes that punctuate the willow-leather conflict at points of inflection and drama. No runs are scored, no stumps smashed, no strokes executed, yet every so often these episodes can emerge as the most pleasurable - and oddly memorable - passages of play. Great literature is sometimes about saying something intense and important without really saying it. This is the charm of cricket's meaningful silences. They have the potential to be subtly yet powerfully expressive in a way that the thrill of a flying bail or the delicate nuance of a silken drive are not.

Take the sense of allure and possibility that comes from watching a celebrated fast bowler walk back to resume his run-up. In the prime of his bowling life, Imran Khan looked the part better than anyone. Frame erect, chest flared out, hair flowing like a lion's mane, he provided an utterly captivating sight. The backdrop could have been Karachi or Lahore, London or Sydney. The sky could be cloudless or overcast, the day still or breezy, the crowd massive or sparse. You always felt the same sheer majesty of his presence. He was usually looking down and to the side, polishing the ball on his trousers, a few motions down the front, then up the back, occasionally mopping his brow with his shirtsleeve. Eventually the moment arrived, and he turned at the top of his bowling mark. Quite apart from the delivery and its consequences, Imran's walk back existed as an event in itself. This wasn't any mere appetiser; it could be consumed as a silent entrée delicious enough to unleash waves of gratification.

Harold Pinter, who adored cricket, interspersed his plays with calculated silences and used them as a literary device to intensify the dramatic experience. It is tempting to wonder if he saw any correspondence between the expressive silent passages of cricket and the silences he created in his plays to such legendary effect. As a famous cricket aficionado, he is credited with one of the wittiest quotes about the game, in which both cricket and sex come out looking good. Although he barely wrote on cricket, you can hear silences in his one famous essay on the game, "Hutton and the Past".

One of Pinter's remarkable theatrical achievements was to show that silent drama can, in fact, be embedded in the most trivial of activities, with the most basic of props, and created from but one or two characters. Cricket provides a fertile mix for such occurrences. Try and reflect for a minute, and you will soon come up with your own favourite examples.

Imagine a batsman walking back in defeat, a bowler quietly simmering after a catch has been floored off his efforts, a spry fielder prowling the outfield in athletic anticipation... Cricket's vast canvas is dotted and decorated with these engrossing silences

One that struck me recently is from the film Fire in Babylon. There is a moment in the documentary when Viv Richards has his cap knocked off by a rising delivery. The ball itself draws applause, but Richards' response to the affront all but draws blood. His skull has just had the narrowest of escapes, yet there he is, a seething Smokin' Joe, with nothing in his manner to suggest he is perturbed or unsettled. The incident hasn't even remotely affected his gum-chewing swagger. With an unhurried calm, Richards gathers his cap, dusts it off, replaces it on his head, and resettles into his stance. His mouth remains silent, but his eyes speak a cool anger. Pinter would approve.

You don't always need intensity and emotion to make a cricketing silence memorable. Nor do you need any elaborate storyline. In another World Cup at another time, Zaheer Abbas is padded up in the dressing room at The Oval. With a semi-final at stake, Michael Holding is on fire and West Indies are doing justice to their fame. At 10 for 1, Zaheer stands up and begins walking down the pavilion steps. All of Pakistan collectively holds its national breath.

This is 1979, so he is dressed in whites and has nothing on his head except a green felt cap with the PCB insignia. At the bottom of the steps there is a latched barrier barely waist-high. Zaheer dangles his bat from his left hand as he uses the right to undo the latch. Because of his batting gloves, the action is a bit clumsy. The battle of his life beckons, but Zaheer has been reduced to just a man fiddling with a wicket gate and its latch. He is like a knight setting out to slay a dragon, but first there is the chain of his castle's drawbridge to deal with. There is something strangely incongruent about it, but it is incongruence with momentous implications.

The essence of the Pinteresque silence is unspoken eloquence emerging from a minimum of plot, the contours of which, while shaped by context, also have an independent existence. A celebrated batsman walking in for a historic battle provides a natural instance, but it is far from the only one. Imagine, for example, a batsman walking back in defeat, a bowler quietly simmering after a catch has been floored off his efforts, a spry fielder prowling the outfield in athletic anticipation, a stone-faced umpire whose brow crease nevertheless reveals that he is fretting under the burden of a crucial appeal.

Cricket's vast canvas is dotted and decorated with these engrossing silences. In a way, it is not surprising that some of cricket's best moments are to be found among them, since they constitute such a big chunk of the game. In any given over, for example, the ball is in live play for only a small fraction of the time, perhaps 10% or less. In this skewed ratio of lack of action to action, cricket stands unique among the major spectator sports. Only baseball comes close.

You could argue that the silences become significant because of the action that precedes or follows them, but they also possess something intrinsic and fundamental that imparts to them a life and a character of their own. With the right gestalt, they become unforgettable. It has been said of Pinter's plays that they are at their most eloquent when nothing is being said at all. In some ways that is true of cricket too.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi