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The Catcher in the Cricket Field

November 2007
The Catcher in the Cricket Field

When my 3-year-old son says, "Daddy, play ball," he has two balls in mind: a big blue one, always used for kicking, and a small white one that lights up every time it's hit with a bat. Amit has added ‘soccer' to his expanding vocabulary, but at least for now, the second game remains unnamed. That doesn't mean there is any doubt in my mind. "Cricket," I said to my young niece the other day. She'd just asked, after seeing me hit the ball, what we were playing. "No," she responded, "you're playing baseball." A sensible observation, given that I was holding a toy baseball bat.

And here, I initially thought, was a classic example of the differences between Indian-born and American-born desis. Though I've lived in this country for many years, I'm still drawn to cricket—the most important sport of my childhood—while American sports such as baseball and football have little appeal for me. On further reflection, however, I've realized that this indifference is by no means common among Indian-born and raised males. In fact, when it comes to my male relatives in the States, I'm something of an exception. There were times, even at family gatherings, when I looked on in silent admiration and envy as the men launched into an intricate analysis of a game they'd just watched, using technical terms that confounded me. I'm not proud to admit that, until recently, I didn't attempt to understand a game that's considered cricket's cousin. A poor cousin, I might add like many other cricket enthusiasts (chauvinists?).

One can scarcely deny that first-generation migrants who follow U.S.-centric sports participate in an important male bonding ritual. Aside from being a social lubricant, an active interest in baseball and football acts as a rite of passage for immigrant males; it's a powerful, assimilative ingredient in the American melting pot. When I was in banking, conversations that revolved around baseball or football would usually make me feel awkward, since I never had anything to say. I didn't have an opinion on the famous Yankees-Mets rivalry when I was living in the New York area, and now that I'm based in Atlanta, there is little I can tell anybody about the Braves. At work, among male colleagues, it was always a relief when the topic changed from American sports to, say, films.

Baseball and cricket may be distant cousins, with a British game called rounders as their common ancestor, but they are also seen as rivals—at least by certain armchair enthusiasts. It's the Mahabharata of sports for these diehard fans. "Cricket will always be India's national sport," said author Ramachandra Guha, a well-known historian and cricket writer. "We will never succumb to baseball."

Even the terminology can appear strange to the other side. The fielding positions ‘two slips, a silly point and a deep fine leg,' for instance, would sound absurd to those who know nothing about cricket. As for me, I still cannot relate to the popular phrase ‘batting a 1000' from baseball.

Now that I have some understanding of baseball, I can see why cricket fans tend to think their game is better. "That's why a little knowledge is dangerous!" baseball fans would retort. Nevertheless, imagine the reaction of cricket players when a bowler delivers the ball without letting it bounce on the pitch. And the batsman actually hits such a ball. "Full toss!" we used to cry derisively. Yet, of course, that's the norm in baseball, whose pitchers cannot match the wide range of movements and techniques of cricket bowlers. The same holds for batting, which in baseball seems to rely more on brawn when compared to cricket. Baseball is not known for the dancing strokes of Little Masters, whose dexterity on the pitch can make commentators rhapsodic and fans rapturous. One merely has to think of the flat side of a cricket bat, which makes such a variety of strokes possible, to understand the relative limitations of batting (‘hitting' is the more appropriate word) in baseball. A cricket bat can be used to hook, pull, on drive, off drive, cover drive, straight drive, square cut, late cut, glance and sweep!

The Economist magazine has gone so far as to call cricket the best all-round sport. The comment would no doubt attract skepticism—and sarcasm—in this country, considering that it's a British weekly. Baseball, with its quick pace and built-in drama, has a do or die quality that can, in relative terms, make cricket seem slow and tame. Yes, they're both bat-and-ball games, but it's also true that baseball is a more black-and-white game than cricket. Gray areas such as those inconclusive draws can frustrate people who don't ‘get' cricket. Or take defensive batting, to give another example from cricket. That makes even one-day matches too laidback for baseball fans, since they're so used to seeing their hitters run as soon as the ball touches the bat. As baseball fans would argue, hitting a fast-moving, airborne ball with a round bat requires considerable strength and agility.

Winning is important in any sport, but cricket does seem to give more value to skill and artistry. This is the perspective of a cricket chauvinist, of course, and the view from the other side can look very different. Indeed, those observers—American or otherwise—have not refrained from expressing their opinions.

Bill Bryson provides a trenchant, and typically hilarious, example in his book about Australia (In a Sunburned Country). Though his wife is English and he has lived in Britain for many years, this popular American author remains baffled by cricket. "After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry," he writes. "It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game."

Or as the actor Robin Williams puts it, "Cricket is just baseball on Valium." But being a devotee of cricket, I'd say, "Baseball is just cricket on Speed."

By Murali Kamma

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