There are many sayings that have emerged from the noble game of cricket, that we all love to watch, and for the lucky ones get’s to play. The best one that come’s to mind is, “Cricket is a funny game”. There is nothing funny about the game. It’s just a very complex game, and some nations and their inhabitants (Americans included) fail to grasp the concept. Inclusive of all the vagaries that are packaged with the game, there is a stupendous support for the game, wherever it is played.
And in some parts of the world, the passion for the game is so high, that it transcends all else. The modern game has to fit in with the prevailing lifestyle and in response to the insatiable appetite for the game, various formats have emerged. The limited overs format is one of them, its main appeal being fast and furious as compared with the five days test format. In recent years, the abridged version of the limited overs format has emerged known as the T20. Most club cricketers have been playing this format much before its acceptance at the international level. Each format of the game is uniquely different, and requires differing attributes and skill sets.
I was fortunate enough to play the game at a high level, and have come to understand the subtleties, the strategies and above all the psychological implications that stand between winning and losing. There are times when the mind and the body is in total harmony and you cant put a foot wrong, and yet at other times the well oiled machine looks decidedly unfit for purpose. The three things mentioned before have serious ramifications on the eventual outcome or indeed individual performance.
Let us firstly examine the subtleties. The game itself has mass appeal at all levels of participation and ability. A batsman or a bowler will be considered a class act, if he surpasses the expected performance at the participating level. In club cricket a bowler will take more wickets, if he is able to consistently bowl line and length. His main weapon is the batsman’s incompetence. By and large the batsmen at club level will get themselves out, it usually is a matter of time. As the bowler engages at higher levels of the game, it soon dawns on him that bowling line and length is not a sufficient condition. He has to do something different. This brings about in the bowler’s repertoire a variation, snaring the unsuspecting batsman.
As soon his variations are exposed, the batsmen evolve their techniques to combat what is thrown at them. So how can then the bowler stay effective? The answer lies in subtlety. Now imagine if the bowler could bowl an out swinger at perfect length, and the delivery was to swing away a couple of inches, then the subtlety would be to bowl the same delivery with the same speed and action that swings just a fraction more. This would incite an outside edge, as the batsman would be playing the ball accounting for the swing of the previous deliveries. The change in speed, direction, amount of swing, or indeed the spin needs to be subtle. This level of control is very difficult indeed, and only a handful of bowlers were able to produce those memorably magic deliveries that still rekindle and evoke memories of yester years. Akram, Warne and Muralitharan, to name a few.
Now on to the second aspect, strategy is an essential ingredient that brings about change. In cricketing terms the requirement is to chase down the opposition’s total or to dismiss the opposition for fewer runs than your own total, or restrict the opposition to a total that enables your batsmen to achieve the pre-requisite total easily. Strategic planning is done off the field and on the field. It’s a dynamic environment where almost nothing could be predicted, except for the few contrived situations where the unscrupulous amongst the cricketing fraternity are at work.
At the highest level of the game strategy plays a deciding role, Jayasuria performing for Sri Lanka in the early on in an innings, or Akram bowling at the death of an innings. Or indeed the position of the pinch hitters in the batting order, the bowling changes or the least talked about area, the field placing. Indeed the final outcome is dependent on the execution of the off field strategy and its adaptation to reflect the dynamical behavior of the game. Strategy or strategic planning is evident in all walks of life, from theaters of war to the corporate boardrooms.
I was once told a very interesting story about an African tribal chief who was fortunate enough to study at Cambridge. When his son grew up, part of the strategic development plan was to send him to England for higher education. And of course education is incomplete, until you watch a match at the Mecca of cricket, namely the Lords. On his return back to Africa, the chief’s son was full of praise of the English way of life and the education system, except for an oddity. He went on to narrate a story.
“I was taken during my last few days in England to a place they call Lords. Two elders dressed in black trousers and white coats came out, and stood in the middle of what appeared to be a battle ground, witnessed by thousands of country folk. Then came eleven men (no women), and proceeded to position themselves in strategic places on the battle ground. What surprised me, most was the absence of any weapons!!. Then out came two warriors, dressed up in protective gear and holding a weapon made out of willow. At this moment, in time I felt that these two had weapons in their hands and the others did not. Not fair at all. But then, the two elders produced a red shining object from their coat pockets, and hurled it to one of the warriors. Soon it became evident, the need for all that protection that was on the two warriors. This red object was being thrown with the intent to kill. Every now and then the red object would hit the willow, and race away to different parts of the battle field. Then the sky opened up and rain came down. All the warriors left the battle field. What a funny way to do a rain dance”.
And of course we are willing participants in a game which is potentially very dangerous and risk of injury is very high. The saying, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, comes to mind.
Cricket is a game that is planned and played in the ‘mind’, the body merely implements and executes the plan. A batsman has a fraction of a second to gauge the length, the direction and the projected bounce of the ball, position the body (head, hands feet etc) to execute the shot. It is not trivial, especially when the ball is coming towards you at 90mph or faster. The frailty of human mind and emotions can be put under a rigorous examination. All that is needed at international level, is a cynical comment directed at the player and the mind has something else to think about. This multitasking behavior, when time is really at a premium can produce that momentary lapse of concentration, resulting in dismissal or in the case of the bowler straying of course and being hit over the ropes.
It is evident that the modern game at the highest level not only requires the physical skills (fitness included), but encompasses subtlety, strategic planning and psychological toughness. To the casual observer it appears a game of chance, but the game itself is far more complex than that. What lasting impression or fingerprint will this impending world cup leave on the evolving game that we all call cricket?
Looking at the team sheets that have been announced by the participating nations, apart from one country none of the teams have a mercurial leader, and none of the teams have a bowler of the class of Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, or Murlitharan most are trying to establishing themselves, I wont be at all surprised that all the bowlers put together have fewer wickets then those three.
Murlitharran, is still playing but is not as effective as he used to be in his younger years. And with the placid, slow sub-continental wickets, we are unlikely to see bowling performances that will light up and fire up our fervor. It will be dominated by batsmen. South Africa, India and England have been performing consistently in this department, and I will see no surprises to see them in the last four. This just leaves one place up for grabs, and it is anybody’s guess which team takes that spot.
Cricket is a funny game and many a strange event has taken place on the field, heroics of one lone ranger with the bat or ball, a match changing spectacular catch or a moment of pure brilliance with the mind. Then of course, we keep forgetting the elements, match being abandoned due to fog, rain or bad light can affect the points table. My only hope is that the game is played in the true spirit of the game and that for once the results are not contrived or fixed, though I am sure the temptations out there must be huge.
The game itself is revered all over the world, it is a passion that is fueled by dedication and enthusiasm to achieve perfection, that enables spectators enjoy and get immersed in the action and talk about individual heroics for many years to come. Cricket is an institution; it is a way of life for some. It has immense educational values, it hones motor skills, it teaches patience, it sharpens the thinking ability, it improves decision making abilities, it promotes team working, is a game that encourages wider participation and much more.