The world’s No. 1 sport takes center stage next week in Brazil, but No. 2 only relinquished it last week in Bangalore. The Indian Premier League ended on Sunday, and the maharajah of cricket tournaments again brought the largest stars, crowds, brands and paychecks in the game. A host of imitators have sprouted across the former British Empire, including our Caribbean Premier League, hoping to capitalize on the novelty appeal of three-hour fixtures. Today’s top talent, like Chris Gayle, criss-cross the globe from one domestic T20 league to the next, racking up salaries inconceivable to the stars of even a decade ago, like Brian Lara. To the casual observer, the game of cricket is doing very, very well, thanks for asking.
Lost somewhere at the back of this noisy, glitzy, profitable parade is the elderly grandfather of the game — Test cricket. The five-day original is hopelessly anachronistic in an age of television, Twitter and twenty-over matches. On international tours, two or three Tests are thrown in seemingly out of habit or obligation, with audience and players slogging through it like vegetables at dinner, anxious for ODI meat and T20 dessert. But this is no elegy for white flannel. Test cricket’s obituary has been in constant rewrite ever since its birth in Australia in the 1880s. In truth, the money now flooding the pitch is as much tonic as toxin for the long-form game, subsidizing empty stadiums and leisurely play.
The real lament is for what happens beyond the boundary rope, in the stands. The art of watching cricket is dying. That might sound silly, with record turnouts everywhere from Sabina Park, Kingston to Sahara Park, Cape Town, and a satellite audience that keeps growing. But the Faustian bonanza of T20 attendance has been a trade of quality for quantity, and in the exchange much has been lost.
The average T20 patron doesn’t have a clue what’s going on
For openers, the average patron at a Twenty20 match doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Every sport has its quirks and corners known only to the initiated, like the offside rule in football or club selection in golf. But cricket is nigh impenetrable to an amateur, stuffed to high heaven with English jargon. A leg-spin specialist can come around the wicket from the north end and bowl a short delivery on the offside, which the one-down batsman late-cuts between second slip and gully, beating third man for four, marked down as five runs because it was a no-ball. That’s a routine moment, but one lost on most who find themselves at the stadium nowadays.
A crash course in positions and principles is just the beginning, however. Twenty20 feels like a carnival — not the opulent samba of Brazil or iridescent soca of Trinidad but the generic, crassly-manufactured Jamaica Carnival. The gameplay amounts to the cricketing equivalent of a home run derby, so to juice the excitement, organizers provide a smorgasbord of cheerleaders, giveaways, pyrotechnics and noisy distractions from the actual match. The effect, from the bleachers, is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
This is anathema to true cricket-watching, whose rhythm is minutes and perhaps hours of restless quiet, sharply punctuated by the crack of the bat, the cartwheel of the stump, the roar of the crowd. The echo of these sounds live inside you forever — any diehard fan has only to close her eyes and hear them, and suddenly a whole innings rushes back in glorious synesthesia.
Test cricket levels the playing field outside the playing field
Those who attend Test cricket are a dysfunctional family, joined in the certain knowledge that we have to live with each other for the better part of five days. The morning drunk, issuing mellifluous, superfluous coaching advice as he traverses the walkways, is treated with a respect he finds nowhere else in life. The legendary ex-player finds himself subject to diatribes and open disregard for his achievements. This egalitarianism is promoted by the architecture — rows and rows of identical seats — a leveling of the playing field outside the playing field. But it takes time to seep into your bones.
Cricket has never been about cricket. To watch the game was to subsume oneself in the fabric of West Indian life — to see complete strangers break bread, best friends break apart, and grown men break down. It was about waiting and waiting and waiting for what you want, and sometimes not getting it. The modern game, all wham-bam-Spidercam, is about cheap instant gratification. That’s why Test matches may survive yet. Sooner or later, everyone wants their life — and their cricket — to mean something.