When Sledging Becomes Harmful

I dismissed the Jadeja-Anderson dispute too casually in my last post, so I want to add a careful amendment. One thing that has always irked me about sledging disputes is the general devaluation of the power of speech. So, in this case, it is agreed by all sides that Jimmy Anderson did say some hurtful things to Jadeja. However, he escaped judgment because Jadeja then “turned around” — aggressively, apparently? — leading Anderson to act in self defense.

The upshot is clear: A cricketer can spew a fair amount of abuse, and his target will have to turn the other cheek. Any hint of physical action will be harshly punished (except in “self defense”?); what is spoken is, generally, free.

I’m not a fan of this approach because I think it undervalues how important and powerful speech can be. As I wrote in a previous post:

Speech matters, and it can in fact cause harm. To focus on the physical aspect of an argument seems natural, since violence among men is always a concern. But it is ridiculous not to view harmful speech as potentially injurious as well… [The] sledger — the one having fun at somebody’s expense — enjoys a massive legal loophole, because he knows that, to a large extent, sledging in cricket is tolerated (and increasingly celebrated).

It’s not like what I’m arguing for is unprecedented. In the Shane Warne-Marlon Samuels dispute, the arbiter in that case said Samuels’ throwing his bat was, to some extent, justified by Warne’s “extreme provocation.” That wasn’t an international game, but the same principle applies. And that says: If a cricketer comes at you, again and again and inappropriately (such as off the field of play, as Anderson did), then go ahead — do what you must. Turn around, even.

When You Go To England With Young Men

The problem with India’s cricket team has always been its inconsistency. It was expected, then, that a rare win at Lord’s would be followed by a crushing loss less than a week later. But the nature of that loss revealed an interesting element of India’s fragility. There was no batting collapse; infuriatingly, we witnessed exceptionally talented (yet inexperienced) group of players “get in” and then give up their wickets for trifles.

Annoying, yes, but this game (and the previous one too) was a good reminder that we are watching two very young teams. This is the sort of behavior you expect when you have a group of 20-somethings play each other. A bunch of Englishmen losing their wickets to Ishant Sharma, and a bunch of Indians losing theirs to Moeen Ali, betrays, if nothing else, a tangle of near-adolescent nerves and insecurity. In fact, the Anderson v. Jadeja dispute, a silly and inconsequential tussle involving tell-tales and unnecessary shoves, has provided a valuable interpretive frame for this entire series. Both sides have fresh players who are new to the international scene, and they are capable of extraordinary bouts of brilliance, patience, and absolute stupidity.

Isn’t it strange how cricket fans age according to a separate, accelerated schedule? I am only 28, but I’ve been watching Test games long enough to see some incredible legends play this game. And now, my generation, fed an incredible diet of Tendulkars and McGraths and Warnes, must now start again and digest a new layer of raw talent. We are like new parents: Captivated by the first steps and words, and exasperated by the utter helplessness and endless shit.

But who knows? Perhaps in a few years, we’ll be talking about the greatness of Ali or Rahane and say, “Why, how quickly they’ve grown.”

Leave Alastair Cook Alone, You Hear?

Fortunes in cricket change quickly, but veteran fans will recognize an ancient and predictable rhythm in the recent backlash against Alistair Cook. Every young captain–no, actually, every captain–will enjoy a honeymoon phase before inevitably descending into this “private hell” in which he does not score runs and/or starts losing games.

I don’t know what it is about the burden of captaincy that it should consistently impact an individual’s form. But no matter, it does–few human minds are capable of both marshaling strategies and fielding places and performing par excellence.

So, with that in mind, I want everyone to lay off Alistair Cook, you hear? This fine young man has done enough already to merit a place in the list of “great English batsmen” . Don’t you dare pay any heed to the nattering nabobs who can’t say enough about his head falling over or his trigger back-and-across-and-then-front movement–this man has scored centuries (big daddy ones, even) in every part of the cricketing world.

Moreover, he is captaining a team that is newly terrible–it has lost some of its best players ever (Pietersen, Trott, Swann); it has also lost a famously intelligent coach. So why not wait for a little bit longer before you discard this man back to county cricket (or whatever lower-order reality you English reserve for your unwanted athletes)? Is this really the worst it’s ever been for English cricket? Isn’t it possible that the English now have a terrible bout of rising expectations, and that your anxiety to avoid a return to the dark days of the 1970s…1980s…1990s…basically, every year other than parts of 2005-2013 — has led you to demand bigger and better things too soon?

My advice is to remember the natural order. The Australians, particularly Shane Warne, will always–always–think your captaincy is terrible, and that you’re not attacking enough. The captain will always–always–fail for an extended bout. But almost every captain, given enough time and support, will reward you in the end — if not with outright domination, then a close victory or a crucial innings here and there.

Why, just look at our very own M.S. Dhoni. It only took him three years.

*A previous version of this post, rather embarrassingly, misspelled Cook’s first name. But whatever you call him, just leave him alone. Got it?

It’s OK Maria Sharapova Doesn’t Know Sachin Tendulkar

It’s summertime in Boston, which means (a) I don’t any classes or homework and (b) I want to return to some blogging. Before we get to the serious stuff (i.e., India v. England), I wanted to say: It’s totally O.K. that Maria Sharapova doesn’t know who Sachin Tendulkar is. (In case you didn’t hear, someone at a press conference told Sharapova that David Beckham and Sachin Tendulkar had walked in during one of her matches. This person then asked, You know Sachin? And Sharapova said, basically, Nope.)

Apparently, the Internet–or at least, the part of it that Indians read and use–experienced a minor explosion, featuring not-so-funny, anti-Russian, vaguely misogynistic, and often childish memes about how, no no no, you got it all wrong Maria, Sachin doesn’t know who you are. Sure, some of the stuff is innocent enough, but this little e-fracas gets to a larger problem for Indian cricket fans: Basically, India isn’t very good at any international sport other than cricket. We used to be really good at field hockey, and we’re sort of getting better at badminton, but other than that, we’re a blip. Now, we are reasonably good at cricket, but unfortunately, Indians account for maybe 95% of global cricket fans. Which means that something that many (male) Indians care about–often very deeply and passionately and unreasonably–is just another thing that the rest of the world doesn’t. And a lot of these folks, fed almost daily on headlines proclaiming India’s growing global importance, can’t handle being insignificant.

There are two immature ways that Indian cricket fans come to terms with their (and their sport’s) relative irrelevance. One is to suggest, as some BCCI officials apparently did at the ICC, that India doesn’t need the world and can simply do what the Americans have done with their sports — draw tons of foreign stars to domestic cricket leagues and just call these events “world series.” (The same emotional impulse occasionally leads Indian fans to defend the BCCI for sticking up to those dastardly white cricket nations that, many years ago, treated us like shit.)

The other way is to elevate their favorite cricket stars, like Sachin, to some mythical god-like status and exaggerate their importance so we feel better. Don’t get me wrong: Sachin was a great player (scroll down and you’ll see I believe it!). But we Indian cricket fans will be on a sounder psychological footing if we accept that we’re big fish in a relatively small pond, and that’s totally OK. We like this crazy game that seemingly no one else seems to get (other than, ironically, rich old members of the All England Tennis Club, who applauded Tendulkar’s entrance). And years from now, we’ll be telling our kids how, once upon a time, a 16-year-old Bombay middle-class guy with untamed hair became the greatest batsman in the world, and he’s our little secret.

What Set Sachin Apart

I wanted to return from my blog sabbatical to comment, briefly, on Sachin’s retirement. Much has already been said, and much of it has been quite moving and well-written, but I want to ask: Compared to Ponting or Dravid–No. 2 and No. 3 in the all-time batting runs category–why did Tendulkar enjoy such a visceral connection with cricketing fans? Hypotheses:

1) Sheer longevity: I forget the statistic, but a huge percentage of India’s population is under the age of 30. For them, Tendulkar has been around since childhood, an impressionable period. The other members of the Fab Four did not emerge until the mid-1990s, and even then, they were not fully established as legends until the early 2000s.

2) Better than the rest: This is a less obvious point than it seems. For a long time, Sachin was by far the best player in the Indian team. That was not the case for Ponting, who was indeed excellent, but also surrounded by Australian riches. I would not say Sachin ended his career as the best player; indeed, I think for a portion of time, Dravid really deserved more respect than he got–but compared to the general mediocrity of the 1990s, “Tendu and Ten Don’t” spoke to the gap between India’s potential and its (rather depressing) reality.

3) The Kallis Factor: Jacques Kallis should be regarded by all as the foremost cricketer of his generation. There’s no arguing with the statistics, and there’s no doubt that the South African team would be much, much weaker without him. The reason no one talks about Kallis, however, is that he is South African, an excellent cricketing nation, but also, in the grand scheme of things, a backwater. (Don’t misunderstand me — I love South African cricket, and I’d rather watch its variety, but cricket is not the No. 1 sport in South Africa.) To be on top in India guarantees at least 500 million people care about you; to be on top in South Africa means…what?

4) Believing in Magic: Tendulkar was fortunate to play for India because in the rest of the cricketing world, God is dead. Other preeminent cricketers, many equally capable as Tendulkar, will never capture his scale of public adulation because irony and cynicism are much more potent factors in other countries. I wonder, however, if in the age of mass advertising and the IPL whether Indian fans will not also grow more curmudgeonly. Is part of our sadness about Tendulkar’s retirement an acknowledgement that we generally believe less in magic now? That we have lost a sense of the transcendent and mystical?

Programming Note

To my ten (or so) readers: I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for nearly a month now, but major life changes are underway. I’ll get back into blogging soon, promise.

Diagnosing Australia

Jarrod Kimber has a fine essay on Cricinfo about all that ails Australia. It’s a beautiful piece, and I recommend it in full. That said, while I’m not nearly as smart or observant as Kimber (the little I know about cricket, I learned from commentary), I want to add a note of caution to the recent diagnoses of Australia.

Please keep in mind, all ye critics, that Australia just lost a great number of players in the past five years. Not just any set of players — but some of the greatest to have ever played the game. In my mind, it is still an open question as to whether Australia will face a terminal decline (a la The West Indies), or merely slide to something more mediocre and less dominating (but still very, very good). I’d like to think that a nation with as much cricketing history, talent and infrastructure as Australia will not allow Michael Clarke to suffer as much as Brian Lara did in the early 2000s. We shall see.

At any rate, think about how different this team would be if they still had, say, Michael Hussey. I’m not saying that they would be winning now, but perhaps they’d be more like Sri Lanka’s Jayawardene-Sangakarra — a combination that can still occasionally stop the opposition in its tracks, and provide succor and stability to the rest of the (largely middling) batsmen. Hussey’s retirement (as I understand it) caught Clarke by surprise, and I think it’s fair to say this Australian team would have had a less embarrassing transition had Hussey stuck around for another year or two.

Because let’s keep in mind as well that Australia are also playing against England in England. We’re dismissive of Watson and Hughes and Cowan (and Warner), but both Cowan and Warner performed admirably against India when India played in Australia in 2011-12. Of course, England is not India — Jimmy Anderson and Swann are much better than latter-day Zaheer Khan and Ashwin. But playing in England against a great swing attack is no easy task; even the mighty Australians of yore (e.g., the 2005 squad) failed that test. (Please also note: When Anderson played in Australia in 2006-2007, he was a shambolic travesty: five wickets in three Tests and 93 overs. He got better, sure, but it took a long time.)

So what are we comparing this Australia to? Are we comparing it to the Australians who didn’t relinquish the Ashes urn for nearly two decades? If that’s the case, we’ve got a problem — we are refusing to recognize the greatness that has passed. No, compare Australia to a team that’s in the middle of a generational change — didn’t England suffer in 2006-2007? Didn’t India suffer in 2011 (against both Australia and England)? Every cricket fan from every country has been humiliated in the past; now it’s your turn, Aussies. Stop being so dramatic about it.

Is It Time To Root For Australia?

Like most cricket fans who matured in the 1990s, I have very little love for Australia. Here’s a team that won three World Cups in a row, along with 16 consecutive Test games. Here’s also a team that had some of the most arrogant (and capable) players on its scorecard — people like Hayden, and Warne, and Ponting…that is, players who inspired more respect than love. I had a friend in Bombay who told me once he always rooted for Australia, and it nearly destroyed our relationship. Because it signaled a lack of imagination — it’s like rooting for the sun to come up, right? (I felt the same way about Federer fans in the mid-2000s.)

But all that’s gone now. I don’t think Australia is as bad as people say, but they are clearly not as good as they once were. Should we bury our resentment and forgive Australia for their past sins? Do you still draw strength from watching them fail? It’s funny how time shapes our preferences and favors. I imagine there is a whole lot of fans from the 1970s and 1980s who still respect the West Indies team, despite the last decade and a half. I wish I could throw off my 1990s skin and like this Australian team, but then they go and do something silly like appoint Darren Lehmann coach. All of a sudden, the flashbacks appear — the brashness, the “I’m too stupid to understand sports science,” the masculine chumminess. I suppose it’ll take 16 consecutive defeats before I’m ready to urge on an Australian victory.

Cricket Sightings in America: NYC Edition

(For previous posts in this series, see: here and here.)

Was walking on the subway platform on my morning commute, when I stopped at this ad:

Go Park

 

Do you see it? Cricket: As American as canoeing, digging dirt, and a hot dog. Happy July 4th!

 

India’s Youth Transformation Has Been A Long Time In The Making

When India won the Champions Trophy, Nasser Hussain (and a few others) marveled at how quickly India has filled the holes left behind by out-of-form/retiring legends (such as Yuvraj, Sehwag, Zaheer, Tendulkar). I’m not sure “quickly” is the right word — since at least the 2007 World Cup, India’s official policy (first formed by Greg Chappell) has been to find and support younger players. A number of players currently at the top of their games — Dhawan, Karthik, Jadeja, Rohit Sharma — are on second-run tours in the national team, and it took a fair while before India dropped non-performing seniors (both in the Test and ODI formats of the game).

Am I merely quibbling with an off-hand remark? My point is that other teams in search of new batting talent (like Australia and Pakistan and the West Indies) should not think that India’s current largesse is the magical inevitability of having millions of dollars and a large supply of potential players. That certainly helps — as Dhoni said in his acceptance speech, one reason Indian fielding is so good now is that players aren’t deathly afraid anymore that they’ll die diving on brown maidans. But India has succeeded now because of many failures in the past (8-0 overseas, 2-1 against England), and giving youngsters time and space to perform is a messy, chaotic process.

I will say that it’s much more fun to watch a team of hungry youngsters win than a pack of entitled (but truly awesome) veterans. Watching this team, I was reminded a little bit of the 2007 World Cup T20 lads (of whom only Dhoni, Rohit Sharma and Karthik remain) — the naive self-belief and the raw (but untested) talent. During the final, I was amazed to find myself feeling that India, even with its top and middle order largely gone, would still achieve a good score, and that some bowler — Jadeja, or Ashwin — would take the wickets at the right time. That expectation of victory…well, it’s downright Australian. Time will tell where this team goes from here — will they follow the path of the WCT20 squad, or somewhere else?

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