The Big Question: cricket, Sambit Bal explains, combines intellect with sensory appeal, and to follow it is to be a student of life
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine July/August 2012
VERY FEW THINGS, certainly no other sport, can engage the senses like Test cricket, the subtlest, most poetic, most varied and intellectual of spectator sports. Harold Pinter memorably described it as "the greatest thing God created on earth—certainly greater than sex", and I know what he meant. To those who get it, cricket counts among life’s highest pleasures.
The beauty of a Test match is that it can be enjoyed in several ways: in its majestic fullness, over five long days; in a short session; in a duel between batsman and bowler; or in the action of a second. The experience is unlike any other, at once meditative and exhilarating.
On one level, cricket is a grand, winding narrative that runs languidly enough for the souls of players to be bared, but making so many startling turns that nothing can ever be taken for granted. On another, it is a game of moments, each invested with match-altering potential. The central action, the delivery of the ball by the bowler and the batsman’s response to it, lasts only a second or two, and for the batsman every ball is a matter of life and death. Because the game goes to the edge hundreds of times a day, the anticipation, between balls, between overs, between sessions and between days, creates a unique pleasure. "Each thing that happens", Pinter said, "is dramatic."
Cricket has all the best attributes of sport, as well as some of the worst—the scope for cheating and fixing, the occasional longueur. It contains multiple skills and styles. For sensory appeal, watching Shane Warne bowl (search on YouTube for "best wicket in cricket history") or Brian Lara bat ("Lara’s batting style") is a feast by itself, but watching them take on each other ("Lara vs Warne") is a joy without parallel. All wrists, all poetry, and each deploying a distinct craft. Baseball is the only other game where two such different skills clash, and cricket, by allowing the ball to hit the surface before it reaches the batsman, by letting the elements—sun, clouds, dust, wind—play a part, and by making scoring possible all around the ground, finds room for variations that baseball can only dream of.
It calls for light feet and deft hands. There’s balance, poise and grace when Sachin Tendulkar, an all-time great still playing today, caresses a boundary: speed, ferocity and athleticism when a fast bowler like Dale Steyn is in full flight. It demands lightning reflexes and saintly patience. It can be both subtle and brutal. And it is the only sport where a stalemate can be heart-stoppingly thrilling.
And then it has something possessed by only one other game, chess, which has none of the adrenalin. Cricket calls for so many decisions that it is a game of the mind as much as of the body: just ask Mike Brearley, who was a philosopher before he became England captain and has been a psychotherapist since. All games reveal character, but cricket reveals so much that it has long since been a study of life. How can any other sport compete?
What do you think is our best sport? Have your say by voting on our online poll. Read Patrick Barclay on football, Tanya Aldred on athletics, Samantha Weinberg on equestrianism and Dan Rosenheck on baseball
Sambit Bal edits Cricinfo.com. He is a former editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Gentleman magazine
Photograph Michael James O'Brien