Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ashes, match five, day one

A hundred years ago, when I was a university student, I spent a season working on the outdoor maintenance crew at a large townhouse development. There were about ten of us working at a place that really only needed about half that number, so we had a lot of time on our hands. One day someone found a few tennis balls lying around in the work yard and started tossing one against a brick wall. Someone else got the idea of hitting the ball with a scrap of wood to see how many times they could bounce it off the wall without missing. Before long, we had invented a game. We painted lines on the wall and the ground, scavenged scraps of wood to carve various paddles, and arranged tournaments. Rules were gradually agreed on to suit the vagaries of the playing field (if you hit the water tap in the wall, you got two points; if you hit the sewer grate on the ground, you lost your turn.) The game was christened f**kball, in honour of the expletive that was usually uttered when anyone missed a shot.

More than just a way of killing a few hours, f**kball was a terrific example of the process which I suspect is behind most sports, a process which has its roots in boredom and enforced idleness. You're sitting on a hill in Scotland, watching the sheep, idly knocking round pebbles with a stick and trying to get them into a distant hole. Before you know it, you've created golf. In winter, you slide bigger rocks across a frozen pond to see if you can get one to land on that dark patch of ice over yonder. Welcome to curling. You and a bunch of mates start kicking a ball around the pasture one day, and someone suggests getting it across that line/between those posts/into those trees. Congratulations: you've got the roots of soccer, rugby, NFL, AFL, and just about every other big ball game.

And then there's cricket. I'm watching the beginning of the final Ashes match right now, and try as I might I can't imagine how on earth this game came to be. It is so incredibly convoluted that it can't have evolved spontaneously. And yet who in their right mind would have sat down and created such a bizarre sport? If you google the question "who invented cricket" you get answers ranging from a bunch of shepherds in the 17th century, through 16th century Belgians, 14th century Kentishmen, and even pre-Norman conquest northern Europeans. (My favourite, though, is this post on Wiki Answers, which simply says cricket was invented by "my nan")

I suppose those sort of origins make sense -- with 500 years or more to mess around with the rules, you could end up with something as complex, as ritualized, as completely odd as cricket. Think about other things that are that old -- law courts come to mind -- and you certainly see the same sort of elements. People dress in funny outfits, use arcane language, do things that may be rational or may just be tradition.

This can make it a very hard game to watch. I've enjoyed watching AFL and rugby league, because I can very quickly figure out what's going on and appreciate the skill of the players. Cricket, on the other hand, is all about strategy. It's not the single hit that makes a great batter, it's the timing of the hits, the ability to hit certain kinds of balls, the consistency that keeps him on the field for a hundred or more runs. The bowler isn't usually trying to hit the wicket with every ball; rather, he's trying to find the weakness in his opponent, hammer away at that chink in his armour, and manouever his way through. Apart from the occasional spectacular catch or hit, there are very few highlights-reel moments in cricket. It is not a sport that you can dip your toe into. You need to make an investment in the game if you want to have a clue what's going on.

Or, at the very least, you need to have grown up with the sport in the background so you can absorb some of it by osmosis. Canada is, as far as I know, the only Commonwealth country not to have made that investment, so most of us are clueless about the game. Australians, on the other hand, know all about it. It's a summer game here, so the current Ashes series is a bit of an anomaly (the Ashes is an annual series of games between Australia and England, played during the English summer), but during the summer you see it being played everywhere.

You also see it in print. Biographies of famous cricketers are at the front of every bookstore, including new books about Don Bradman, who played in the first half of the 20th century and who is still touted as perhaps the greatest batsman ever. It's clear that Aussies, like South Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and Brits, take their cricket very seriously.

Until the summer games begin, I think this last Ashes match may be my last chance to watch cricket on t.v.. I think I'll try to catch a fair bit of it and see how much I can soak up. I should have plenty of time to do so -- the afternoon session of day one just began, and it's expected to last for another four days. Like I said, cricket is a game that requires commitment.

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