Thursday, September 20, 2012


Let me take you back in time, to the cobbled streets of an ancient Rome. Imagine the markets, busy and raucous, under sheets and sheds lining the paths, sprang shops that sell the season’s produce, all the way from Thrace to the Tiber, selling fruits and hay and pots of clay. Walk on past and there you’ll see a market square at the heart of which would a cool fountain be…

Common folk in sack-cloth and clogs, make way for a noble man’s horse. His silken robes and noble steed shine blinding white, against the brown and grays of the plebeians that walk amongst the hopeful, wagging strays. A slave, tall and burnt brown in the sun, holds an umbrella over his master’s head as he trots in time with the horse, down the road past marble platforms, where traders sell the soft est silks from the east, the finest pearls from the oceans south, and the prettiest slaves from lands beyond the Bosphorous. You follow them as hawkers call out to the ‘master’, for they’d only dare to sell him the very best, or so they claimed. The master rode on, gazing on all that pleased his eye but stopping not till he reached a cul de sac, where a crowd had gathered around a raised platform.

He looked up at the platform and there they stood, fifteen boys, and even some men. Fair and blonde, dark and brown, even black and a blue, with hair and beard grown long and thick, from all the conquered lands of Rome, had risen these men as hard as stone. They were survivors all, rebels and warriors who had lost battles and comrades, farmers and ranchers who had lost lands and hope and sailors who had lost their ships or their way, but they were all survivors still. The steel in their sinews clambered like vines on a tree, along their granite like forms as they stood on stage. But it was the steel in their souls that shone through their eyes that had helped them survive for as long as they had, through all that they had…

“80 denarii!”, screamed a voice “…for the light haired giant from Germania!” The auction had begun…

There were other men in silken whites that day, and they all bid for the ones they chose. Some got the ones that they wanted, the ones who they thought would buy them pride and riches, even greater riches, with their sweat, their blood, and then their lives, while others had to squabble for the ones that remained.

The sun was high in that ancient sky. Sweat poured down the brows in the square. The platform was empty, the Romans were thirsty, but it wasn’t water or wine that their parched souls were after… and so they followed the masters and their new buys, through the dusty streets and empty markets. As they walked, the train grew long, as more and more folks followed along. Not just men but women too, and their dirty dusty children, a motley crew. Then came centurions and legionnaires, in their reds and golds, and merchants and their wives on palanquins, sheltered from the sun in their satin folds.

They all headed for that shadow in that sky as it came closer, the shape grew bolder and they saw it then for what it was… Its tall arches declared that it was the giver of dreams – it was the arena where the Empire quenched it’s thirst for blood, it was the Coliseum - a portal to another world where they could live a second life, where there were battles, and sweat and tears, victory and defeat and there was blood and gore, and glory galore, and life and death, yes even death too… It was all theirs and yet not theirs to bear…

The crowd rushes in, and you follow in its wake, as the heart beats like a war drum, a tidal wave of anticipation sweeps your senses as the surging crowd behind you carries you in and deposits you on your seat… the noise, the din, the bloodlust reaches a crescendo as you look up at the sky and realise it isn’t the hot Roman sun blazing down on you but the white heat of floodlights under a once blue sky. You look around and realise it isn’t an ancient amphitheatre of mortar and stone but a stadium striped in blue and yellow and in the oval lay not grains of sand but grew blades of grass cropped short and close. And on them strode not the heavy feet of gladiators in armour, with trident and sword and mace and spear but the spiked boots of men who had traded their cricketing whites for coloured tights…. And it was a coliseum still!

The world T20 World Cup is here, and let Test cricket be the great battle it is for the purists of the game. Let it be the rite of passage that gives a player the membership card to the hall of everlasting fame. Honestly, half the world couldn’t care less, and let the other half call us vulgar plebeians for wanting to see gladiators go to battle, for rooting for raw emotions, for flying wickets and slashed sixes, instead of gently clapping for gentlemen being civil in their cover drives, but as far sporting spectacles go, this really is a no-contest.

And sport, televised professional sport, before anything else, has to be a spectacle. It has no right to play itself out to be a self indulgent draw. Even fift y overs cricket, from the 25th over till about the 44th is not designed to be a spectacle. The cerebral, tactical chess-with-a-willow genes of the game often allows cricket to become almost glacial in its approach. Sport isn’t allowed that.

Sport unfortunately is no substitute for war. If the Serbs and Croats could have settled their Balkan disputes over a Davis-Cup tie, then I too would have rooted for Test cricket to wear itself out over our border disputes with Pakistan. I would have held my breath as night-watchman Pragyan Ojha poked and prodded till end of the day’s play in the face of a marauding Umar Gul and wily Ajmal while the fate of our fishermen trapped in Pakistani jails hung in the balance. Alas, that is not to be… not yet anyway. So if sport is not to be war, then what is it to be? For those who play it, it is a career, a way of life, a ladder, and above all else, a canvas to paint, their souls with … But what of the spectators who make it all - the career, that life, that canvas possible? What is it to be for them?

Sport, at least the greatest sports, like soccer and boxing, have always been what the gladiatorial games were in Ancient Rome - a spectacle, a wonderland where there is glory and shame, where there are heroes, fools, even villains, and where there is victory and loss, and at least a hint of danger, of violence. It is meant to be an emotional roller-coaster where we can partake of the glory and disown the loss and the shame, as we bay for the blood of those who fell short of the crease, the finish line and our expectations, just like it was for the crowds thirsting for blood in the Coliseum all those eons ago.

And love it or hate it, you’ve got to admit that no version of cricket celebrates the sublimation of this primal bloodlust better than T20 cricket.

Imagine walking past a cricket field exhibiting a Test match with let’s say a group of Eskimos and Latvians, who do not understand the game and have never seen such a thing. They will stand for a while as they see the ball roll, ask a few polite questions and then walk away. Then they saunter up to a park where they are playing a 50 overs version of the game. Subject to the stage of the game, they might wait a while or even walk away without a passing glance. Then let them walk up to a T20 game. Watch them hover around the crowd for a while as they try to catch a glimpse and then feel the electricity of the game touch them - the frenzied running, the ball flying and a fielder flying higher still to catch it, the heat seeking missiles being flung from one end and then watch them duck as a resounding thwack of willow clobbering leather sends the white sphere sailing out of the ground… over and over again. That game would have sown the seeds of a day when a big burly caber tossing Latvian fast bowler would be seen bowling for the Pune Warriors, and defending champions Holland would be opening their defence at a T20 World Cup against a team from Greenland.

Test cricket is glorious, pure and the supreme test of skills in muscle and mind say the experts. Sure is.. but make football an eight hour affair, and boxing a fight to the death, and they too would become greater tests than they are today…

So celebrate not the length of a game but the depth of its fervor. And all hail T20 cricket! Real cricket! And what might one day become the only cricket…!


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