Were Mister Macawber a cricketer, he would have summed the game up thus: Home team 240, visitors 239 – result, happiness; Home team 240, visitors 241 – result, misery.
Our collective failure to observe the equation of Dickens’ most glorious N’erdowell may have led to the credit crunch, but the game of cricket resists such simple blandishments. I spent over an hour wondering about how to sum up a game with so many variables, and came up with this equation:
240 (xa x yb x zc) = μ
And this for a simple 40 over game in which the possible values attributable to each letter range between four and around thirty, making the ways of reaching μ unfathomably great. And μ can be a wicket or anything between 0 and 7 runs (inclusive). Rinse. Repeat.
It is truly the most perverse of games. The best of games the worst of games. A game which frustrates, cajoles, annoys, teases and sulks like a lover and still can happily provide no apparent joy to any of the players.
The platonic ideal of cricket is thirteen players on the field, a bright, warm Sunday afternoon with two teams indulging in good-natured competition watched by a smattering of people drinking beer and not really paying too much attention.
And yet sometimes the best games are played in the most inclement of conditions, where an astonishing and very English sense of togetherness can obtain from playing this most sunny of sports in the wet … united in chilly, clammy misery, unable to grip the ball, impossible to catch it, pretty difficult to hit it as it doesn’t so much bounce as skid. The water drips from your helmet visor, down your back, and you look at the rather expensive stick in your hand that is far better an implement than you deserve, wondering whether the water will ruin it. Then you walk back to the pavilion. Willingly.
And let’s not even think about gentlemanly play. So often the game is beset by miserable, sniping, insulting players who will happily berate the umpire with a spiky ‘how can you give me out for that, you c**t’, even though the umpire is from their own team. Like the old lag, the batsman in never out leg before wicket.
Naturally, all cricketers are scrupulously honest, play hard but fair, and never, ever cheat. There are always warm handshakes after a game, no matter what the result. Mostly, this is true, and many a tea interval has been spent discussing how ‘that team’ from Oxington Smythe are a bunch of lying, cheatin, miserable gits with an ex-pro they pay to play who treats the game as his own personal workout, who stare at the batsman when they bowl a wide, berate the umpire … we all have these tales.
The truth is that no other game is as complex a mix of teamwork and individual contests as cricket. It is a great leveller.
In no other sport can you spend five hours in the game and not touch the ball. In no other sport can you wait for an hour and a half to play your part, have it be over in seconds, then spend an hour waiting for tea before standing about for another two and a half hours without the ball coming near you. And still feel utterly fantastic because you’ve won.
In no other sport can you play brilliantly for the first half, then brilliantly for the second half, and still feel utterly miserable because you’ve lost.
In cricket, every ball can prove to be your last. If batting, you can get the unplayable delivery. If fielding, you candrop the catch that loses the match, and be banished to fine leg. Or break a digit. Game over.
It’s ultimately a game built on paradox. A game played on a field often larger than an acre, and yet the difference between the ball coming off the middle of the bat and taking the edge is a matter of inches. A game which thrives on elegance and yet which is so often agricultural. A game which ebbs and flows and can so rarely be predicted.
I play cricket the way many of my age play the guitar. I played as a kid and was pretty crap. Now I know how to apply myself and work hard. My eye for the ball and quick hands developed through several years of martial arts gets me out of several sticky situations. But I’m still no more than average, but I can afford a bat that is practically all middle. Can I find it? Only when I’m attempting a delicate dink and it simply flies … invariably into the hands of some fielder who will not drop it. If I could play cricket the way I used to play the guitar, I wouldn’t be languishing at the bottom of the East Sussex League.
In cricket, it’s so often the case that the talent of being lucky wins out against the luck of being talented. Your opposite number swishes and misses, almost plays on, edges the ball over and over again into empty space, spoons it to just where there is no fielder, makes your average cat look frankly unfortunate and you? you get one edge and you’re gone. The fielder takes an astonishing catch. Half an hour later, you watch him drop the most embarrassing of chances. Typical.
This year, I have had no luck … at least, until Sunday, when I batted for something like an hour and a half, and shared the winning partnership of 100 runs … of which the other batsman, a brutally efficient hitter of the ball, scored 78. I probably scored 15 runs in the fifteen overs we batted for. And yet, while I was gently ribbed for my slowness, I actually batted very well, making sure that whenever possible my partner was on strike. I spent much of it watching him demoralise the opposition.
In no other sport can one have so much influence simply by being there. It is a game of which Milton would be proud: They also serve who only stand and wait.