We know it’s so, Joe

On March 23, 2003, I wrote my last match report, ending seven years of non-stop commentary and reports/analysis. By then, ‘match-fixing’ was inextricably embedded in the vocabulary of the cricket fan; it had become increasingly difficult to write with conviction about ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ and ‘turning points’ while deep down inside of you, there was a voice constantly second-guessing; it was difficult to write with any honesty, let alone passion, when deep down inside of you a cynical alter ego kept going, yeah, right, like you don’t know better.

This is a true story [and knowing you guys, the comments field will fill up with speculation on the identity of the central characters. Speculate all you like, I’m not telling]:

There was once an opening batsman known as much for his impeccable technique as for his preternatural sense of the ebbs and flows, the rhythms, of Test cricket. The way he constructed an innings was both masterclass and template: the early watchfulness, the constant use of the well placed single to get away from strike and go to the other end, from where he could observe the behavior of pitch and bowler, the imperceptible change of gears and then, as the lunch interval loomed, the gradual down-shifting of gears as commentators marveled: ‘He is pulling down the shutters… he knows it is important not to give away his wicket just before the break… the onus is on him to return after the break and build his innings all over again… the man is a master of focus…’

I followed along, on radio first and later, on television, and I marveled along with the commentators, the experts. And then, years later, I heard a story — of how, when the toss went the way of his team and this opener went out to bat on the first day of a Test, a close relative would bet with not one, but several, bookies, about whether the batsman would get to 50 before lunch. Or not. ‘So he would get to 45 or so, and there would be 20 minutes to go before lunch, and he would defend like hell, and all these experts would talk about how he is downing shutters for lunch when the fact was, there was a lot of money riding on his not getting 50 before the break,’ is a paraphrase of what one of the bookies who suffered from such well-placed bets said.

That is just one story, of the dozens that come your way once you become a journalist, and gain entree into the Kabuki world of cricket.

So I stopped writing match reports. The intervening years have done nothing to lessen the belief that it was the right thing to do at the right time. [You know those match previews you write, about the best composition of the team for the morrow? What if, even as you wrote about which spinner was likely to be picked, you knew that he was a business partner of the captain? Or if you knew of the increasingly tight nexus between the agents of various players, representatives of corporate sponsors, and even some journalists who are on the payroll of the former? How much conviction can you bring to a match report on, say, a must-win game, when you notice that umpires, so prone to what the ICC calls ‘human err’, become more human in such games, and also notice that somehow, their sudden attack of human-ness seems to benefit the team under pressure to win? How straight can you keep your face while analyzing the ‘strategy’, the ‘tactical call’ a captain of a leading franchise makes in the final of a short-form tournament when, needing to up the run rate, said captain holds back the most explosive batting star in the lineup till the very end? I could go on, but you get the idea].

And then, June 23 this year, I went off this blog as well after the umpteenth post on the mess that was the IPL. Just how much of sanctimonious posturing can you take from the Pawars, the Manohars, the Srinivasans of this world? How do you keep yourself from gagging when people of that ilk talk about ‘conflict of interest’ — calculated, self-serving sound bytes eagerly seized on and amplified by a hypertensive electronic media? Lalit Modi is so crooked he doesn’t need to own a corkscrew, yes — but the cloak of ‘moral indignation’ the BCCI honchos shrouded themselves with, even as they routinely leaked what served their interests while shrilly denying information leaked by the other side, seemed as risible as a clown suit.

So how long do you write this stuff? And why would you even want to?

During this two-month sabbatical, I read a lot to the detriment of my credit card, and also re-read several books as the mood took me. One of the books I revisited was The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, which should be on any discriminating reader’s short list of the best five books on football sport, ever [on wikipedia; a sample chapter].

For those who came in late, it is the story of an American who, thanks to happenstance, discovers the abundant beauty of football, falls passionately in love, and sets out to a remote hamlet in Italy to immerse himself in the area’s ‘miracle team’ for the length of a season. It is part sports narrative, part bildungsroman, part travelog — and wholly compelling, as only a writer of Joe McGinniss’ calibre can make it.

I read it partly because I recalled, from my first reading some years back, that it was far more un-putdownable than the latest out of James Patterson’s ‘thriller factory’. I also hoped, through re-visiting the story of a team that achieved more than the sum of its parts and of a fan’s passionate immersion in sport, to rediscover something of what I had lost. Bad idea — I had forgotten, when I dug my copy of the book out of a packing case labelled ‘Sports’, dusted it off, and settled down with it, how the story ended. This is how [This first passage is a conversation the author overhears]:

“Three goals at most,” a player said.

“Yes,” another answered, “but not three to nothing.”

“No,” said a third, “we must score one.”

“But not too early,” said another, “or it looks like a minaccia” — a threat.

“But three at the most, that is agreed.” There was a murmur of concurrence. I could not be sure how many players were actively involved in this discussion, but it was at least half a dozen.

“Maybe Bari gets greedy and tries for more?”

“Don’t worry. They have been instructed also.”

“How do we score? And when?”

There’s more, but you get the idea. [Try a thought experiment: Imagine a conversation between various Pakistan players about how precisely the fix will be implemented; imagine the experienced Mohammad Asif telling his divinely talented junior that umpires sometimes don’t catch no-balls, so the trick is to be sure to transgress by a sufficient margin to compensate for official myopia].

This next passage, towards the very end of the book, describes the match played, the next afternoon, between Castel and Bari [by which point, you need to know, Castel had achieved its goal of staving off relegation, while Bari was desperate to get back into Serie B, from where it had been relegated the previous season]:

As for the match? At the opening whistle Tonino kicked the ball directly to a Bari midfielder who passed to an undefended Bari forward who shot from fifteen yards out as De Juliis, waiting until the ball was safely past him, dove in its direction. That procedure had taken less than twenty seconds.

For the next half hour the teams took turns kicking the ball out of bounds. Then a Bari player sent a long pass downfield to a teammate who was standing in front of the goal, with Luca D’Angelo behind him. Luca, who had blocked a hundred such passes during the season, jumped, but at the same time twisted his head out of the way to ensure it would not make contact with the ball. The Bari player, unimpeded, headed it directly into the net.

Two minutes before the half ended, as a coterie of Castel di Sangro players stood by watching, a Bari midfielder launched a shot from 20 yards. De Juliis gave it a friendly wave as it went by. That made three, so De Juliis knew that his work, such as it might have been, was now finished for the season.

When Joe first overhears the conversation detailing the fix, he goes ballistic, rants and raves, calls the Castel di Sangro players — to whom he is friend and mascot both — traitors. One of the players takes him aside, and explains to him that this is typical for the end of season; that owners get together to fix which team will go through and which team will not, and then orchestrate the results of the final league games accordingly. E molto complicato, Joe, the player tells him. It is complicated. You will not understand.

And then, the player says this:

“I am sorry if this makes you sad. I am sorry if this makes you angry. But I must tell you as a friend that I am sorry also that last night, you believed it was necessary for you to curse and to shout at these players. When one does not understand, Joe, that is the time for the soft voice. Or maybe better, for no voice at all.”

As I typed the above passages, I could hear in the background the breathless voice of Arnab Goswami, driving himself to his usual state of imminent apoplexy over the latest ‘spot-fixing scandal’ and, in the same breath, solving all these ills in a fashion originally invented by Lewis Carroll. Remember?

Queen of Hearts: Who’s been painting my roses red? WHO’S BEEN PAINTING MY ROSES RED? /Who dares to taint / With vulgar paint / The royal flower bed? / For painting my roses red / Someone will lose his head.
Card Painter: Oh please, your majesty, please! It’s all his fault!
Card Painter: Not me, your grace! The ace, the ace!
Queen of Hearts: You?
Card Painter: No, two!
Queen of Hearts: The two, you say?
Card Painter: Not me! The three!
Queen of Hearts: That’s enough! Off with their heads!

[If Charles Dodgson were writing today, this character would be based not on Queen Victoria, but fashioned on the lines of a television anchor we all know and love.]

But I digress. A book by a fan, about discovering and immersing himself in the passion that pure sport can provide, proved to be not such a good choice after all. It began with Joe McGinniss being mesmerized by the innocence, the purity, the beauty of sport; it ended with a terrible loss of innocence.

What of us cricket fans? Those who spent the late eighties and nineties [here’s a timeline] pretending that the portents we were seeing were figments of our imagination? Those of us who lost our collective innocence in 2000, as we followed court proceedings in far off South Africa, unable even to echo the plaintive wail of the young White Sox fan to ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson? [That fan’s wail was the peg for this column I wrote at the height of the match-fixing furor].

We’ve spent two decades since then, willy nilly suspending our disbelief [Think of this: During this same period, many fine cricket writers, mostly from Cricinfo, dropped out of sight, reinvented themselves, and/or discovered other areas to focus on. Why do you suppose that happened?]. That is easy enough to do for the three hours a Ram Gopal Varma movie takes; it is far harder to do over two decades of following international cricket — but we fans are capable of anything; we managed even that feat.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, it is now possible to be a serial virgin. Innocence, not so much — you can lose it just once, and we’ve been there, done that, and worn that T-shirt to tatters.

Maybe it is time for no voice at all?

PostScript: I’d thought of making today’s post about the ongoing spot-fixing controversy — but for the third day in succession, the noise-to-signal ratio remains hugely weighted towards the former. I plan on giving it a day or so more for the dust to settle, before figuring out what I have to say on this. If anything. Meanwhile, appreciate your thoughts. And discovered links. And anything else apropos.