A contest that brings cricket alive
During the last World Twenty20 I had a chat with a senior cricket writer who wanted to quit cricket. He had spent a long time writing about cricket, and just thought there were more important things he could have written about. For a minute, I argued the opposition. But the truth is, I could see his point.
I mean, what is writing about cricket really? It involves travelling to summer-drenched places (and England) and sitting in a usually comfortable glassed box where you are fed free food while writing about someone who is trying not to be hit by a bouncer so you don't tap on your crumb-riddled keyboard that they have a weakness, before ignoring the next ball to look at a stream of tweets saying essentially the same thing.
That is probably cricket writing at its very worst.
At its best, well it's still a lot of those things, but you get to see something that actually moves you. Something original. Something funny. Something horrific. Something that you love.
Yet, mid-tournament blues can still come in. The thought that this isn't really that important. I could be writing about an animal that is being wiped out. An atrocity that people are ignoring. Or outing a businessman for pouring poison into a school playground. Instead I'm trying to work out how to write about Trott's strike rate of 87 in a losing total for the 1743rd time.
A few days after my chat with the writer about cricket's lack of importance, I was at the game that is often the most hyped, most underplayed and most important to cricket. India v Pakistan.
Australia and England might have been at it for longer, but really for most Aussies and Poms, the Ashes is just a thing that happens. I doubt many fans lose sleep over the result. Cricket is not the favourite sport in England; if it is in Australia, it's by default. Australia and England are trade partners; they share Naomi Watts, Germaine Greer and the Bee Gees. You can travel between the two pretty easily. Australia has not attacked England, nor has England retaliated in quite some time. Individual groups based on political and religious beliefs do not plan to do the other country harm.
It's great that the Ashes exists, and cricket is lucky to have it. But it's of less and less cultural importance these days. Australia no longer see England as the mother country. Young Australians don't flock over here to work. More and more Aussies have completely different mother countries. Mostly countries that have no interest in cricket at all. Cricket gets less important by the decade in English society. It's seen by many as a posh sport; state schools don't really play it. If your posh or Asian parents don't introduce it, you'd have to find it by accident to get involved.
For many reasons, most blatantly obvious, the India-Pakistan series is far more important. It has more people involved. Many of those people do lose sleep over the result. Many take the matches incredibly seriously. It's important. It's not front-page news, it is the news.
An Indian fan recently told me that Imran Khan was overrated and Pakistan were a fourth-tier nation. It wasn't sane. It was fanatical. It was India v Pakistan.
And I get it. I'm told by Asian fans I often don't get the culture. That as a white man, I could never understand it. Of course these same fans tell me exactly what is wrong with England or Australia quite often. If I don't understand it after six years of writing and fighting about cricket, I never will.
Let me explain the culture as I see it. Pakistan fans can handle losing a tournament, but not losing to India. Indian fans can handle losing a tournament, but not losing to Pakistan. That is not unique. There is barely a sport in the world without this rivalry. Collingwood wants to beat Carlton, the Lakers want to beat the Celtics, the Celtics want to beat the Rangers, Jennifer Jones wants to beat Kelly Scott, and Royal College wants to beat St Thomas' College.
The next part is a mixture of personal history and nonsense. The final bit includes wars and weapons. It stems from ugliness. But you put it all together and you have the world's most important sporting rivalry. And the only two teams that could completely reincarnate a dead rubber.
Yet, before the World Twenty20 match, I felt no extra excitement. I was merely on my way to another cricket match. I was jaded, tired, and bored of T20 matches I could barely remember the next day. Even with the crowd cramming in, and the game starting, I was still not excited.
Then I looked around. And suddenly I saw something amazing. Indians and Pakistanis cheering next to each other. Now I've been to a college basketball match that had a brawl. I've seen pictures of football fans ripping each other apart. And I once went to a suburban Aussie Rules game that ended when every supporter in the ground went onto the field.
And here I was with the world's biggest sporting rivalry, between two countries that are in constant arguments. That have nuclear weapons as deterrents. That war, fight, scrap, blame, curse and mock each other all the time. And their fans were cheering like mad men or sulking like babies, a few feet from each other.
So I left the press box and went to watch the match.
Indian fans abuse Rohit. And Pakistan fans abuse Akmal and Malik. Suresh Raina shushed the crowd in a cheeky way, and even the Pakistanis loved him for it. I saw a Pakistani man dance with an Indian. And two Indian guys accidentally head-butt each other while dancing.
Fans from both countries abused me for being English; I never stopped to correct them.
Pakistani supporters stare mournfully at the screen for the longest time when their team does something really stupid. Indian fans will all turn in and discuss any bad moments like their conversation can help solve them. The Indian crowd will chant Sachin's name even though he is not there. A Pakistani man without a Pakistan shirt on seems almost impossible.
No matter the shot, if it makes runs, it is awesome. People with face-paint are more likely to dance. People with wigs are more likely to scream. The mobile phone is an active member of the experience.
Pakistani fans will leave once the result is obvious, but for hours after the game they will roam the streets outside the stadium. Indian fans will cheer the TV interviews like it's another boundary.
It was just another cricket match, and it wasn't just another cricket match.
I loved it. Every second of it, even the bit where I was called English. Watching the fans, it felt like something. Like this game was actually needed. That it wasn't just something that was happening, that it was happening for a reason. That it should be covered. That I should be there.
I wish they could play five-Test series in both countries all the time. I wish I could be at every India-Pakistan match. I wish every cricket match felt like this one. I wish the fans would have opportunities to troll each other every couple of months. I wish the conflict would end, but that the cricket passion never does.
Today I'll head to Edgbaston jaded. But no matter how much this game doesn't matter, this tournament doesn't matter, and this format of cricket doesn't matter, I know I'll feel something. I'll be glad I was there. I'll cherish every moment of this contest. Probably even the rain breaks. I'll leave my glass cocoon of comfort and stand among the fans. I'll be glad I did.
This match, like all India-Pakistan matches, is important, because of the history, and because of the now. That they happen at all is a miracle. And I'm glad I get the chance to be at them. Especially as I'm a jaded white guy who doesn't understand.