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Published: April 27th 2016
Crowd at the mall
Watching the cricket match on the big screen.
In exchange for centuries of imperialism, exploitation, and bloodshed, Britain left to each of its former colonies a sport in which they could reliably beat the hell out of their one-time taskmasters lieu of actual vengeance or war. The sport, cricket, in true British fashion involved a great deal of empty green field, arcane rules, and not enough physical exertion to exclude participation by the rich. And cricket has found fertile ground in India. Each day going to and from work I pass at least a half-dozen matches, mostly kids playing with old tennis balls and bricks stacked up for wickets, but sometimes full-grown men in their dress whites with umpires keeping sentinel in wide-brimmed hats.
I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but I have learned the basic rules and even a few of the intricacies. By now I can swing the bat competently when playing in a pickup game, but my bowling is still worse than stiff shoes on a long walk.
None of this matters, however, when spectating, an activity that employed everyone’s attention when the Cricket World Cup was played in India this spring. Regardless of the venue
Crowd at the mall II
Everyone comes to watch
across the subcontinent, whenever there was a match on, the crowds ground to a halt as every eye was held in rapt attention by a screen at a local home or bar or even shopping mall. When India played Pakistan we packed into a bar in Delhi with my friend Ghosh and watched as raucous yuppies chanted in Hindi “Tell me who is going to win?! India is going to win! Tell me who is going to lose?! Pakistan is going to lose!” (And indeed they did, thank God.)
Kolkata, incidentally, is home to the finest cricket pitch in India, Eden Gardens. (It was apparently named by someone wise enough to recognize that any part of India could be a paradise only in a pluralistic sense.) We availed ourselves of its proximity by attending a match between superpower New Zealand and hometown favorites Bangladesh. Bangladesh was woefully outclassed in this matchup (indeed, they lost every match in the group stage of the tourney, while the Kiwis immerged undefeated) but their fans were boisterous and jubilant even in defeat. They danced around and waved flags for even the smallest of moral victories as their ship sank beneath a
cannonade of New Zealand’s dominance.
For most of the sport’s existence, cricket games have had a reputation of being excruciatingly long. Teams would-and sometimes still do- play for days on end taking breaks for meals and tea (because: England). Then someone figured out you could make the game a hell of a lot more interesting by making it shorter. To do this they simply limited the number of balls each side faces in a game. It’s like a fascist pitch count in baseball: 120 pitches and the whole game ends. Just like that the game went from conservative affair where spending breakfast to supper at bat without getting out, though also without scoring much, was considered transcendent, to a hard-throwing, hard-swinging, aggressive-running athletic affair that ends in about 3 hours.
In cricket each team is only given one turn at batting in a very don’t-screw-this-up sort of way for a batsmen. This means that the second team to bat knows the score it must beat and “chases” it down in a way that can be pretty exciting. India’s offensive gem Virat Kholi is famous for clutch batting in big chases. And indeed, India squeezed
into the semifinals against South Africa by executing a very exciting chase. In their next match against the West Indies (a whole bunch of past and present British colonies there have a unified team) however, India batted first and was taken down. It was sad, but no one was too upset because India beat Pakistan, which was all that really mattered.
In the final England batted first and put up a respectable but not eye-popping 156 runs. The West Indies chugged along slightly behind the pace the whole way. England played solid defense up to the final six balls (that’s one “over”) where they led by 19. Now scoring two runs off of every ball is an incredible pace, and even the equivalent of a home run is worth only six runs in cricket, so putting up 19 in a single over would be nearly impossible. Now in cricket you switch bowlers every single over, so the England team met to decide who was going to throw the last six balls and have the glory delivering the coup de grace or the ignominy of being the goat if something went way off the rails. They settled on
a young, all-around athlete named Ben Stokes.
He bowled the first ball to Carlos Braithwaite who shockingly hammers the ball for a six. The crowd is cheers but 13 in 5 balls is still a really tall order. Braithwaite hits the next ball, somehow, further. The crowd goes bonkers. Now the Windies need only seven runs in four balls. All of a sudden this match went from a snoozer to a real competition. Stokes, now visibly shaken steels himself and throws his best stuff. Braithwaite hits yet another six! He incinerates it. It’s like hitting three consecutive homers. If you look closely on the instant replay you can actually see the moment when Stokes’ heart explodes. Just for good measure Braithwaite finished off the match by hitting one more six, though just one run was needed.
Folks go bananas. The West Indies team storms the field and then as if to remind everyone that they are from the Carribean, start dancing with gyrations and spirals. It was a captivating end to the final and serious redemption for a sport with a reputation for dullness.
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