Saturday, two teen friends of mine from the neighborhood came home to watch the cricket [‘Uncle, watching cricket with you is great fun’ was the opening gambit, when I opened the door to their ring — very flattering, except for the ‘uncle’ bit]. Both aspire to play cricket; one is already fairly decent skills-wise and of late, they have developed an interest in reading books on the game, and on sport in general [one of these days they will hopefully learn to return the books they borrow].
“This Puttick — how come he has never played for South Africa, if he is that good?”, asked one as the Cape Cobras captain weathered the early loss of Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Davids and, with JP Duminy for company, began turning it around.
That led to a fairly intense discussion of domestic cricket, how talent filters to the top from school and collegiate cricket on, and why not every talented player will necessarily find space on the international stage. “Must be way cool for these guys — you think they’ve ever played in a stadium this big, before a crowd this noisy?”
Possibly. Domestic cricket is hugely competitive in places like South Africa and Australia, and good matches attract a decent amount of spectators. But the youngster’s point was well taken — this is a step up from domestic cricket, a newly erected stage that could over time redefine ‘international cricket’ as meaning more than ICC-stamped encounters between nations. And clearly, the fact that they were now competing against peers from other nations was spurring teams and players on to perform out of their skin — even as we spoke, an admiring Mike Haysman in the commentary box was saying this was the best he had ever seen Putting bat.
What caught the attention of the kids was the standard of fielding, especially in the second half of the game, as the Cobras turned it on. “He must spend all his time throwing a ball at a single stump,” one remarked as Herschelle Gibbs pulled off a stunning straight hit from mid off. [While on that, the fielding by the club teams has been outstanding. Clearly, it is this high standard set at the club level that translates into the brilliance shown by the national teams; the antithesis is India, where the fielding at the domestic level is mediocre, and that in turn translates into the way our national team performs.]
That led to a discussion on by-rote practice as opposed to developing situational and positional awareness. How do you explain that concept to kids? Two examples worked. The first was a quick trip online to watch The Shot, by Roger Federer. Clearly, he had practiced hitting that shot between his legs, with his back to the opponent, time out of mind — but what made the shot was not the act of hitting a ball in that fashion; it was positional awareness at its best, with Federer ‘seeing’, even with his back turned, the possibilities on-court and the position of his opponent and thus finding the best angle to pull off the winner.
Another example was a story I’d once heard of how Pele used to practice his pinpoint accuracy. Apparently his coach would line up, at one end of the ground, a series of flags with sequential numbers on them, each flag separated from the next by the width of a ball and a half. Pele would start his run from one end of the ground; as he gained momentum, the coach would roll a ball, at varying speeds, in tangential lines to the player’s approach. As Pele got to the ball and pulled his foot back to kick, the coach would yell out a number — and the trick for the player was to then, without pause, adjust so his kick sent the ball between the designated flag and the next one.
Henry Davids helped the discussion along by putting on a show. He had already run out Brendan McCullum, and was discussing that live with Harsha Bhogle. I want the ball to come to me, Davids said — and on cue, the ball came to Davids who raced in from his position at long on, turned sideways to field, and fired in the return long, to the striker’s end to catch Neil Broom short.
“Hey, do you think one day all players on the field will be wired like this, so commentators can ask them about the play live?”
Watching cricket with kids is a salutary lesson in what how the next generation sees the game, in what excites them — I wonder if the ICC, which currently is in the throes of ‘reform’, carries out such exercises to get a sense of the audience they seek to attract.
If my two friends are exemplars, it is not about national loyalties any more — what turns them on is great cricket, and it is immaterial to them what flag the team flies. [An amusing example of such shifting loyalties came later the same evening, when a spectator at the Chargers versus Somerset game held up a banner welcoming ‘Gilly bhai’ and ‘Symmo anna’].
“If you had a choice between watching India play Australia and watching this game, which would you pick?”, I asked.
“I’ll check both out, uncle — and watch whichever is more exciting.” Simple, unambiguous, immediate.
“And,” chipped in the other one, “If India is playing ODIs and there is a good T20 game on I’ll watch the T20 — more fun.”
“Except if Sehwag is batting for India — then I’ll watch him!”
There’s been considerable talk of reform, of revolution even, in recent times with various notables advancing suggestions to ‘fine tune’ the game. Increasingly, it seems to me, this talk is akin to Louis XVI and his nobles discussing what flavor of cake from the Marie Antoinette Bakery to distract the peasantry with, completely unaware that said peasantry is busy dismantling the Bastille brick by brick.
The ‘revolution’ is already on — one of these days, the ICC will wake up and notice that their carefully constructed edifice is in ruins.
A random point my young friends brought up are also worth mentioning. “How come,” one of them asked, “the big IPL teams are getting their butts kicked by clubs we have never heard of?” [While chatting randomly on Twitter yesterday, I realized this is a fairly prevalent question, and comes with its set of conspiracy theories on the lines of ‘The franchises are guaranteed payment, so there is no incentive for them to exert themselves].
I suspect the answer is considerably simpler. Drawing up a list of 11 ‘stars’ does not make a team. The club teams are composed of players who have been playing together, have a sense of each other’s game and a trust in their mates built through constant association. The franchises, on the other hand, are made up of players who got together just the other day, and have not as yet begun to gel as a unit. For the IPL, most of these teams got together at least a fortnight before the event to train together; not so for the Champions League — and the resultant lack of cohesion is showing in the on-field performance. I suspect the franchises — or at least, the ones that survive the preliminary round — will start to come into their own from the next stage on.
Aside: Did you notice the rain midway through the Somerset chase, Saturday? Here’s the question: How come the umpires didn’t immediately wave the players off the field, but permitted play to continue? Or, to flip that question on its head, how come the same umpires, standing in ICC-sanctioned tournaments, call off play at the first hint of rain on the grounds of ‘danger to the players’, and then waste our time with endless inspections? How come there is, within the game, such variance in the interpretation of what constitutes ‘suitable’ playing conditions?
Somerset continued its chase, got distracted by the D/L rules, stumbled, picked itself up and played on to a dramatic win — and those of us watching enjoyed every minute of it. To paraphrase a famous cricket quote for the benefit of the game’s mandarins, we come to watch cricketers play, not umpires ‘inspect the ground at 12’.