Since time immemorial, men and boys have long relished hitting balls with sticks. Satisfaction and accomplishment have no exemplar more pure than the moment of contact between ball and stick. With his first alphabet, man drafted rulebooks to institutionalize stick ball-hitting in rites like Rounders, which left the Queen’s isles on a boat to make its fame in the New World as Baseball. But before all of this, there was Cricket.
With this in mind, I set out for my first ever cricket match, a benefit for the victims of the floods in Pakistan and contested between the struggling Pakistani national team and the physically much larger squad from South Africa. It was green against light green.
Somehow, in my years of curiosity about “the sport Baseball made more interesting,” I had never been able to learn the rules. But there at the pitch, tutored by a well-traveled American, I had it down in five minutes. And immediately, I knew what was wrong.
We were watching a fledgling version of the game called Twenty20, shortened to only three hours. Each team would bat for twenty “overs” — twenty sets of six balls thrown by guys on the other team. With only 120 at-bats (plus a few extra for wide balls), there is some incentive to actually hit the ball.
A batsman’s only fear is of losing his wicket, by getting thrown out while running between wickets, or by hitting a caught fly ball. These things cannot happen if a) he doesn’t run, or b) he doesn’t swing. In the 120-ball version, getting out ten times (losing ten wickets) is less of a concern, so batters tend to actually do something. In other forms of cricket, however, where balls are infinite and time is only measured in wickets, the incentive is gone.
Even in the short version, players explode in ecstasy when they get an opponent out. This is perhaps the only game in the world where teams almost never celebrate scoring points, but always celebrate getting closer to the end. A newspaper sports’ page showed some South African cricketers happier than I’d ever seen them look — ten percent down, they must be thinking. Maybe I’ll get to go home.
This is, then, the fundamental issue: cricket perverts the pure and innate desire from which the game first sprung. Where he once sought to hit a ball with a stick, the batsman is now told that he must refrain for the good of Queen and Country. Cleaving id from superego, he does absolutely nothing. And thousands watch.
This is all well and good, of course, when spectators who set out for a 9-5 game or a 5-day test match are so far under the influence that they are content to watch the grass grow on the cricket pitch while nothing continues to happen. But here in the desert’s driest town, that is simply not an option.
Fans muster more energy than any sober westerner ever could to cheer for their struggling men in green uniform and to call each other female goats in Urdu. In the immigrant-based demography of the UAE, Pakistan had a literal home field advantage, with throngs of thousands of supporters lining the grassy hills inside the gates. South African fans, though few in number, held their ground with cheers that made no sense (“kick your butt, no more bat”), and ultimately emerged triumphant.
Unlike baseball, one team bats as much as they ever will before the teams switch sides. South Africa, in the second half, assumed the position of catcher up until they would win or run out of balls. Of course, keeping with cricket’s perverse tradition, they started slow and cautious. But as overs ended and Pakistan failed to catch or throw them out, the South Africans capitalized on their wickets to spare. With time running out and many men left standing, South Africa did what few cricket teams get to do: they tried. The light green batsmen swung the bats, they ran and scored points like sportsmen, they moved.
Perhaps, in the colonial era, cricket served to break (or rather, confuse) the spirit of the colonized by indoctrinating them with a game that made no sense. Man, separated from the ubiquitous need to hit balls with sticks by a set of rules might then submit more peacefully to other sets of rules separating him from other innate desires, such as, say, self-governance.
Or perhaps, I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe the spread of cricket taught man that his gut desires must be bridled by a higher reason. We cannot go on forever hitting balls with sticks with abandon. We must choose which balls, and we must wait for our moment to strike.
Watch how cricket works here: