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The joys of (not) watching cricket

The trigger movement of the seasoned watcher-cum-reader is one that is developed with practice Getty Images

Cricket is a great sport to not watch.

That sounds suspiciously like an insult but is far from it. Cricket is, of course, the greatest sport in the world to watch. In several ways, though, it is a sport that well suits the non-watching spectator - an oxymoronic rather than moronic term.

Cricket is a game that by its very structure lends itself to reductive analysis: ball by ball, over by over, innings by innings. In the same way, however, that music relies as much on the rests as on the notes themselves, the intervals between deliveries are just as much a part of the game. Steven Smith bringing up a short leg for Mitchell Starc; Joe Root giggling at second slip; Steven Finn trudging back to his mark after another dropped catch: plenty happens in the gaps.

The same applies to watching the game - it's just as much about the time between deliveries. When attending a match in person, the pauses yield opportunities to relax, to argue with one's companion, to make new acquaintances and to revive old ones - literally, if they have dropped off in the Hove sunshine. Those determined to introduce the squalid note of business into proceedings may even engage in a spot of mild networking. The ultra-purist may well be able to sit and watch three sessions without exchanging a word with anyone else, eyes soaking up every nuance of the on-field drama, but that is not the only option available to the genuine enthusiast.

The power of the game is such that even when there isn't actually any cricket going on, being at the cricket can be an experience in itself. At a Middlesex T20 at Lord's last year, with nearby lightning preventing any play, a family member struck up a friendship with two other families seated nearby, leading to an impromptu tri-generation, tri-nationality knockabout in the upper tier of the Tavern Stand. One of the fathers later emailed to say that his young son was telling everyone that it was "the best day ever at Lord's", which was a mild worry to him, as no cricket had actually been seen.

Even when the weather permits play, for many followers of the game in the UK, non-watching is, unfortunately, a state of affairs inflicted by the lack of free-to-air coverage. As cricket is used by Sky and BT as another chip to lure more users to their broadband services, those who will not, or indeed cannot, pay for the luxury are forced to the radio, to the web, or in extremis, to the newspaper - though the reduced print coverage these days makes the latter a harder task.

It is therefore fortunate that cricket shines when it comes to radio commentary. It's surprising how even many non-lovers of cricket will nevertheless admit to having Test Match Special on for background noise. The venerable programme's place in cricket culture seems secure; nevertheless, having become an institution, it has come in for the criticism that organisations viewed as part of the establishment, rightly or wrongly, will attract. Listeners are less captive than before, as well, and can vote with their ears: on the other side of the boundary, online offerings such as White Line Wireless and Guerilla Cricket provide valuable alternatives. It is perhaps, however, the BBC's online county coverage that performs the most undersung service, gently lifting listeners all over the world to the Quantocks, the Yorkshire seaside, the South Downs, and beyond. The multihued variety of cricket's audio commentary is surely something to cherish.

Even when there is access to moving pictures, the pauses between deliveries, overs, innings, make cricket an ideal sport for multitasking - for instance, attending to some domestic chore, perhaps, if one needs to convey the impression of work to any suspicious family member who looks in. Matching socks is a good option. Ironing is a possibility, but a high-risk one, as being mesmerised by R Ashwin's guile can fry your hand as well as your brain. Reading is safer; extensive testing has revealed that books that themselves reflect cricket's structure of discrete items - compilations such as Martin Smith's Not in My Day and Charlie Connelly's Elk Stopped Play - are particularly well-suited to this application.

With a little practice you can soon learn to identify the cadences of the bowler's delivery-stride, back-foot leap coming within range of the bowler's-end stump microphone, glancing up to the screen with split-second precision. Eyes perform their trigger movement, ball is delivered, batsman plays, fielder gathers, and it's back to your book. This way you can spend most of the day nominally watching cricket without any feelings of guilt. After all, the chances are that you'll have spent most of the time not looking at the screen, which means, after rounding, that you haven't been watching it at all.

In a game that is so obsessed with statistics, and that is increasingly becoming preoccupied with the need for instant entertainment, there is a danger that we focus so much on the measurable on-field activities that we forget the game provides a basis for so much more. Its value cannot be quantified in only sixes and fours, dots and wickets. The game can pervade the atmosphere and background in a way that may only be fully appreciated when the eyes are taken, counter-intuitively, off the game.

Cricket: not a bad sport to watch, but an even better one to not.