Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Crease


We, or at least I, tend to think of sports as culturally hereditary. Most of us follow and care about the sports that our parent(s) do/did, with the occasional extra picked up because we liked playing it as a kid or were on a club team in college. By and large, our sports taste is determined by our upbringing, which lends itself to association with those who were integral to that upbringing.1
1: It occurs to me that I’m really talking about team sports. Individual sports seem to be natural extensions of human activity, turned into sport only by introducing competition and the concept of winning. People run and jump everywhere, swim everwhere there’s water, and luge everywhere there are ice tracks down mountainsides. Car racing and cycling fit here too, as they’re just a heavily augmented form of individual sport.

That’s all true and good, but in a larger context, the societal menu of sports is a product of history in a way we tend to not think about. Pretty much all major team sports played globally are products of European or American inventors.2 Which specific ones are played in a given culture has less to do with the rest of the culture’s shape than with whether the culture, if not European, was influenced more strongly by the British Empire or American cultural imperialism. Given the ubiquity of play in human experience, I would be shocked if any culture hadn’t invented some form of team sport, but victors write history, and likewise the colonizers pick, actively or tacitly, which sports succeed interculturally/internationally.
2: Codifiers, really. Except for volleyball and basketball, I don’t know that any of the major sports can really claim to have an individual inventor.

Soccer was invented by the British, unless it was brought over by the Normans. Rugby was invented at a British public schools. Team handball is apparently an amalgam of various similar European games codified in northern Europe. Cricket has apparently been around Britain forever, or at least since Tudor times. Baseball seems to be grounded in rounders, but in its current form is a product of 19th C. America. Volleyball and basketball are products of America phys ed teachers around the turn of the last century. American football is just rugby’s cavalry warfare transferred to trench warfare. Hockey is what Canadians did to get outside during the winter. Lacrosse, through the magic of passing time and cultural appropriation, somehow made the leap from Native American gatherings to New England and Mid-Atlantic prep schools.

That’s the list. Those are the team sports played globally. Play being the universal impulse it is, I doubt there’s ever been a culture that didn’t invent its share of games and sport, but the way modernity shook out, the non-regional team sports we all share stem from either Great Britain or the United States.3 Soccer and basketball are more or less global, undeniable in their kinetic charm. Volleyball probably belongs in this category too. Rugby is played in a wide scale in England, France, South Africa, and the former British colonies of the South Pacific. Cricket is played outside of Britain primarily by the former colonies in Asia. Australia and South Africa also factor in the sport’s constellation, but the IPL is the heavyweight in the sport outside of national teams. Baseball is played in Latin America and the parts of Asia and the Pacific that the US Army frequented during the 20th C. American football and lacrosse haven’t gone international in a meaningful sense; hockey is played primarily in the parts of the northern hemisphere where bodies of water actually freeze during the winter.
3: I had expected the breakdown to be Europe and the United States, not specifically Great Britain, but that’s what I get for underestimating the British Empire’s cultural might in the 19th C. Those Brits had to have the last say in everything back then, I guess.


All of which is an overly digressive lead-in to saying that I’ve long been curious about cricket. The two sports that spend the most time bouncing around my skull are basketball and baseball. This is a product of parenting—my mother grew up playing baseball, so that was my favorite sport as a kid. I enjoyed basketball the most as a child, and my father put a hoop up behind our house. With different parents I could as easily have ended up a diehard college football or NHL fan. At the same time, I’ve always wondered about cricket because it’s baseball’s overseas cousin.4
4: I assume I’d feel the same way about rugby if I were a bigger football fan, but at least rugby has a strong presence on the college club team scene. At least at my university, the few cricket players there were Indian/Pakistani kids who already knew and loved the game. I doubt they would have been hostile to me if I’d approached them, but it was a small corner of that sports world and I’m really more interested in spectatorship anyway, as I can’t hit a baseball for shit and I assume that wouldn’t change in cricket.

Thanks to the magic of ESPN35, I’ve been watching the West Indies Cricket Twenty20 tournament. Twenty20 is the sped-up version of cricket. Test matches involve two teams battling for up to five days; a twenty20 match lasts about as long as a baseball game. Each team bats once, having twenty overs consisting of six bowls in which to score as many runs as they are able. One team bats its entire innings, and then the other side has their innings to try and better that score.
5: When I lived in Vermont and my service provider was the local telephone company, my exclusion from ESPN3 infuriated me. Now that I live in a bigger city and do my business with Comcast, I’ve been enthralled with how easily it lets me watch Bundesliga soccer matches, Liga Dominicana baseball games and whatever else ESPN has the rights to/deems to show. This is the place where the Worldwide Leader seems to actually be trying to live up to that name in non-economic terms.

The bowling and batting are entirely different from baseball, of course; the bowler has to deliver his ball with a straight elbow but can run up to the delivery line, leading to a windmilled over-the-top motion. The batsman has to protect the wickets behind him, and can hit the ball in any direction. Some deliveries he tries to hit over the boundary to score a lot of points, but a ball he can’t hit well he just tries to redirect to where the fielders aren’t somewhere in the oval field surrounding him. This leads to a lot of scoop swings and half-cuts which would never work in baseball. Once you’re used to those differences, though, the logic of the game is pretty similar. Bowlers try to fool batsmen, batsmen try to avoid outs and hit it hard if they are able, fielders try to limit runner advancement and get the ball back in as quickly as they can.

I’ve often heard it said that it’s easy to explain baseball to a cricket fan, but almost impossible to do the reverse. In watching both the play of the sport and the body language of its players, I’m reminded of the Swiss German I learned as an exchange student in high school. Switzerland’s cantons cloistered themselves a millennium ago, and the German-speaking regions developed a flavor of German whose roots are obvious to anyone who speaks the language, but whose spoken words are confusing and opaque to anyone only familiar with standard German. The forms the games take differ in a lot of meaningful ways, but there’s a core resemblance once you get past all the trappings, and getting down to that level has been fun.

Beyond the appreciation of the game’s form, I’ve also been taken with the statistical displays inherent in a game where a team bats only once but for an extended period of time. At the end of every over, a team’s run total is shown if they keep up their current pace, and if they revert to 8, 10 or 12 runs per over, marks ranging from good to huge. When the second team it batting, their progress is graphed against the other team’s score by over. In an age of infographics and statistically-enriched baseball fandom, it’s a joy to watch a sport where meaningful stats are generated in real-time not just to broaden your understanding of the game, but to give you context for the score itself.

For all that I love the depth of understanding and narrative generated by longtime fandom of a sport and team, I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to step outside my normal cultural opportunities and be part of the audience of a sport that never made it into my cultural DNA. I’ll never be a cricket fan per se; I don’t even know how I would go about such a thing, and I’m too invested in baseball to try anyway—I don’t need two sports compelling me to watch languid three hour-long matches. But I’m relishing the opportunity to step outside my biases and take in this twenty20 tournament. Now I just need to find out how to watch some top notch sepak takraw


  1. Twenty20 is indeed fun, all action, and exciting. When you get to the last 5 overs, there is nearly always the possibility of a tight finish. Its a great innovation.

    But the 5 day test is very interesting too, but its quite unlike any other team sport. As the action is spread over 5 days, it is not enough to win one session. the game can ebb and flow and becasue there is so much time, it ism possible to see the pressure build up within players minds. The batsmen get anxiuos and get themselves out, the bowlers get up tight and start trying too hard, losing the line.

    It can be more of a mental game than any other team soprt I think.

  2. @Connected: The elevation of test match cricket to some sort of lofty cerebral pursuit is based on nothing more than certain folk needing a justification for subjecting themselves to five straight days of tedium (and more recently to denigrate the shorter forms & other sports).

    Certainly, the pressure is no different to that encountered in any other sport in key situations; the absurd period of time only ensures that these situations arise far less frequently.


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