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08/03/2007 | In Praise of Cricket: It May Not Bowl Over Yanks, But Itís a Manly Game

WSJ Staff

It is a source of immense chagrin to those of us who love the game--and there are few games on earth that are loved with as much fidelity, and gusto--that cricket is disparaged in America as a languorous pastime conducted between breaks for tea by men who utter such daffy things as "sticky wicket, old chap."


I make no apologies for saying this, but such views of the game are just not cricket; and I'm determined to make my case by inviting readers actually to watch the game. The International Cricket Council's 2007 Cricket World Cup begins next week--on Tuesday, when the West Indies, the tournament's host, takes on Pakistan--and will conclude on April 28, when the final is played in Bridgetown, Barbados, with India thrashing Australia. (OK, that last bit is pure fantasy--as is any thought of physically attending the match, unless as a guest of the Barbadian prime minister: There isn't a room to spare on the island in the days preceding the final, and cricket fans are being billeted on cruise ships anchored offshore for want of terrestrial accommodation.)

But you can watch this match--and the others preceding it--on your PC, assuming a high-speed Internet connection. Be warned, however: The relevant picture stream does not work on Macs, and if there ever was a reason not to buy a Mac, I have found it. Sorry, Steve. (One wonders, with all the Indian geeks at Apple--cricket-watchers to a man--why they have not addressed this particular shortcoming.)

Given that the time differences between the U.S. and the various Caribbean islands are never greater than four hours, you can actually watch this World Cup in real time without the need--as arose with previous World Cups, held in India or Australia--to wake up while those around you slumber. All you must do is log on to (a Web site named after the splendid and resilient wood from which all cricket bats are made) and purchase a package of 51 matches for $199.95--a cost of under $4 per match. When you consider that each match lasts about seven hours, that's a lot of sticky wicket for your buck.

In the inaugural cricket World Cup--played in England, in 1975--there were only eight teams, and the tournament was over in the blink of an eye. This year, there are 16 teams, the trend over the past few tournaments being a sort of match-inflation to feed the Gargantua of global TV: This has meant the inclusion of such cricketing minnows as Ireland and Bermuda, Canada and the Netherlands, and many more uncompetitive matches than there used to be. Australia versus the Netherlands at cricket, or India versus Bermuda, is akin to watching Germany take on the Faroe Islands at soccer.
But when the Big Boys play--when Pakistan meets South Africa or Australia takes on New Zealand--one gets a whiff of the cordite almost instantly. Cricket then takes on the aspect with which the game's devotees are familiar, and Americans, alas, so unfamiliar--that of a virile, even brutal game in which a rock-hard ball is bowled at speeds that can approach 100 miles per hour at batsmen who stand no more than 22 yards away. No wonder there are leg pads, helmets and (the thing no batsman would dare take the field without) testicular guards. There could be few less romantic ways to die--and few more painful--than to be hit amidships, without protection, by a cricket ball.

Unlike baseball's leather-palmed catchers and fielders, players who patrol a cricket field must collect or catch the ball with bare hands. Scorching hits must be stopped with a wall of nothing more than flesh, bone and epidermis, and fingers are often broken, and webbing split, in the process. This is not to belittle baseball, of course, whose fielders can be breathtaking and beautifully clinical; but there is an almost primitive grace to the unadorned way in which the ball is fielded that sets cricket on a higher plane, as a game, than its American cousin.

Who will win this World Cup? A month ago, only a simpleton would have bet on a team other than Australia, which has taken--in the past five years--to finishing off its foes as if at a turkey shoot on the road to Basra (first Gulf War, not second). Yet for reasons known only to the cricketing gods, Australia's form has collapsed in the weeks leading up to the Cup, and other teams--South Africa, India, even normally hangdog England--have scented the perfume of possibility, giving the impression that this might be the most unpredictable of all of cricket's World Cups.

The best result for cricket would be for the hosts to win. If a certain amount of romance has gone out of the game these past few years, it is because cricketing luster has departed from the West Indies--a team made up of countries such as Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Antigua, that weld together as one on the cricket field (and on the cricket field alone). The West Indies was once to cricket what Brazil was (and some say still is) to soccer: unbeatable, but digestibly so to neutrals, on account of the grace, skill and élan of their play.

For too long now has cricket been dominated by Australia's unyielding and highly tactical aggression. It does not play an ugly game, but its methods and mien are seldom beautiful. Australia's cricketers care not whether they are loved, except by their own fans, who, having drunk deeply of the same cultural cup as their cricketers, celebrate hardnosed methods.
But if there's one good thing that might come out of an Aussie victory, it would be this: Americans might understand, at long last, that cricket isn't played by a bunch of petunias.

Mr. Varadarajan is an assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal.

Wall Street Journal (Estados Unidos)


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