Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Amazing Race 20, Episode 9

Lake Manyara (Tanzania) - Kilimanjaro Airport (Tanzania) - Cochin, Kerala (India)

I’ve often said that one of the benefits of taking a trip around the world is obtaining a less distorted mental map of the world. One of the things I’ve liked best about The Amazing Race is that the reality-TV show has consistently given both India and China appropriate prominence. India and China are too important to ignore, and you can’t really say you’ve “seen the world” if you haven’t been to both. The Amazing Race visited both India and China in its first season, and has visited at least one of the two, sometimes both, in almost every season since.

This week in Kerala, the racers got to participate in the two preeminent phenomena of Indian popular culture, as extras in a dance scene in a Bollywood movie and as cricket batsmen.

The state of Kerala is perhaps better known in cultural geography as one of the centers of Christianity and Communism in India. But Bollywood and cricket dominate popular culture — to the point where both could for many devotees be considered “religions” — throughout India, including Kerala, as well the other countries of South Asia. Bollywood movies, in fact, may constitute India’s highest value, although largely bootlegged, export across the generally closed border with Pakistan.

Turn on the TV in hotel rooms around the world, and you’ll see Hollywood movies and television dramas but also Bollywood movies and Mexican and other Latin American “telenovelas” (soap operas). Bollywood has its own conventions — which its audience expects as part of what they pay for — but they aren’t, on the whole, any more or less realistic than those of Hollywood. In Hollywood, ordinary people may start shooting at each other at any moment, for any reason. In Bollywood, they might do that too, but they are even more likely to break into song and elaborately choreographed chorus-line dance at the most improbable (to American eyes) and serious-seeming moments. Does it really make any sense to say that either is better or worse than the other?

While many people outside South Asia are aware, at least peripherally, that far more movies are made in Bollywood than Hollywood, the significance of cricket to South Asian culture and international sports is less widely recognized. Outside the world of cricket, the sport tends to be thought of in relation to England, where it’s considered an old-fashioned, elitist sport and its popularity lags far behind soccer. Even in some of the other major cricket-playing countries — South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand — cricket shares the sporting stage with, and often lags behind, another British upper-class invention gone proletarian, rugby.

Cricket is the dominant sport in the former British colonies of the Caribbean, but they are such small island countries that 15 of them field only one joint team in international cricket tournaments, under the collective name of “the West Indies”, or colloquially, “Windies”. Surely that can’t warrant cricket more than a footnote in any survey of the sporting world?

It’s the unquestioned sporting hegemony of cricket throughout South Asia that gives it its place as the world’s second most popular sport, far behind soccer but far ahead of any possible rival. (I suspect that basketball’s growing international popularity, especially in China, places it third. But I can’t find any hard evidence to support that speculation.)

To more than one and a half billion people in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, cricket is sport and sport is cricket. Students in South Asian schools play a variety of other games, especially field hockey, and my maternal grandfather once coached the soccer team at Punjab University in Lahore. Cricket, though, is what South Asians mostly play for fun, what they watch on TV and in person in stadia some of which hold more than 100,000 spectators behind barbed-wire fences to keep them from charging the field in their enthusiasm, and what fills the sports pages of newspapers and an entire array of specialty magazines and Web portals.

Boys playing pick-up cricket are the ubiquitous backdrop to every scene of Indian outdoor community life, whether in urban alleys or patches of waste ground between planted farmland.

Cricket and Bollywood are the two main sources of Indian celebrity, both of which — like Hollywood in the USA (Reagan, Schwarzenegger) or hockey in Canada (Ken Dryden) — have often provided steppingstones to electoral politics as well as the gossip columns. Like baseball and American football in the USA, cricket in South Asia provides an array of metaphors so commonly used in discussing other issues and topics that without knowledge of the rudiments of cricket terminology it’s hard to make sense out of an Indian newspaper op-ed page.

It’s tempting for someone new to the game not to take seriously a sport in which a single match can go on for three days with breaks for lunch and “tea”, where the fielding positions include “silly mid-off” (is that part of the stage directions for a comedy skit?) and a “googly” is a type of pitch. But having accompanied several foreigners to their first American baseball games, or tried to explain to them the logic (logic?) of a televised American football game, I’ve realized that any sport with sufficient complexity to be interesting is likely to be perplexing to the uninitiated. Why are people at a baseball “park” now sitting down chatting to each other and eating things, and at another moment — when nothing obviously different is happening on the field — on their feet and screaming before a ball has even been hit?

For what it’s worth, most cricket matches, including those in the professional Indian Premier League (where the preeminence of the salaries, like that in American NBA basketball, attracts the best players from around the world), are now played in one-day formats. And the American baseball counterpart of a three-day cricket “test match” is a “best-of-seven” series played over a week, with strategic decisions like the choices of starting pitchers that have implications throughout the series and not just for a single day’s play.

I first paid attention to cricket when when it was impossible not to. My traveling companion and I were staying with family friends in Mumbai during an India-Pakistan test match. (The epitome, like some South American soccer wars, of national conflict sublimated to sport.) The patriarch of the family and all the rest of the men of the house who weren’t working were watching the match all day on TV, while outside on the streets throughout the city you could follow the sound of the match on radios and TVs from one open window to the next.

The more closely I looked, and the more our hosts explained the game to me, the more I realized that cricket is harder and subtler than it looks, for bowlers, batsmen, and fielders alike.

The teams in “The Amazing Race” only had to bat, but I was surprised that they were able to get any runs at all without more practice. Each team member was required to hit at least one ball over the “boundary” around the “pitch” (field), which counts for four runs if the ball bounces or rolls before crossing the boundary marker (like a baseball ground-rule double) or for six runs if it goes over on the fly (like a home run).

How hard is that? The “bowler” (pitcher) doesn’t have a raised mound to throw from, and is supposed to “bowl” with their arm straight rather than “throwing” with a bent elbow. (A certain amount of elbow-bending is allowed in practice, and the limit of impermissible “throwing” is perhaps the most difficult judgment call for the umpires.) The lack of a mound is more than made up for, however, by the cricket bowler being allowed (1) to take as long a running start as they like before releasing the ball, (2) to release the ball about 1/3 closer to the batsman than the distance from the pitcher’s rubber to the plate in baseball, and (3) to bounce the ball on the ground in front of the batsman, rather than being required to deliver the ball on the fly.

There are many more variations in cricket deliveries than baseball pitches. Most often the ball is aimed more or less at the batsman’s feet, forcing them to make a split-second choice either to step forward to hit the ball on the fly, or step back (without bumping the “wicket”, which would put the batsman out) to play the ball on the short hop. There are curveball pitchers (“spin bowlers”) in cricket, but spin can be used not just to make the ball curve in the air but to deflect up (backspin), down (topspin), or sideways when it bounces. A “sticky wicket” is a pitch damp enough for the soil to give more friction with the ball when it bounces, so that spin deliveries jump more sharply as they bounce up in front of or alongside the batsman.

To those used to watching baseball, cricket fielding looks unimpressive — until you realize that the fielders are trying to catch a ball slightly smaller, harder, and heavier than a baseball, barehanded. Only the “wicket-keeper” (catcher) uses a catching glove. That also makes cricket more accessible to the masses: Only one bat, one ball, and perhaps a glove for the wicket-keeper are needed for 22 people (or more if the teams are expanded in informal play) to take part. Bats and balls can be, and often are, improvised by those too poor to buy them, but the most prized and valuable possession of many a South Asian boy is his cricket bat. Even in England, most of the cricket bats and balls are imported from Pakistan and India.

Cricket fielding is complicated by the flat blade of a cricket bat, which can be used to direct the ball much more precisely than is possible with a round baseball bat. Worse, the bowler and batsman are in the center of the field, and balls hit in any direction are in play. Cricket isn’t like baseball, where only 90° of arc are in play and all the other directions are “foul” and out of play. Also unlike baseball, there are no fixed fielding positions other than that of the wicket-keeper. A large part of the strategy for the bowling and fielding team therefore lies in optimally arranging the fielders to be able to catch balls wherever a particular batsman is likely to hit them off a particular bowler delivering particular pitches.

Like Bollywood movies, cricket is often considered an acquired taste. If you haven’t yet acquired a taste for either, but you’re curious, “Lagaan” is a Bollywood cricket flick (yes, the cricket players periodically break into song and dance!) that had considerable crossover success with audiences outside South Asia familiar with the language and conventions of neither cricket nor Bollywood film. The Practical Nomad says, “Check it out!”

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 22 April 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I saw a lot of cricket on my trip to Kerala. In fact, at one place I stayed, I was a bit surprised when the porter who brought up my luggage asked if he could watch the cricket match in my room while I was at the beach! I never quite got all the subtleties of the game, but on the other hand, I still can't tell a curve ball from a slider.

Any New York readers you have only need to go to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on any warm Sunday to see the West Indian Cricketeers play, looking splendid in their white uniforms, which miraculously never seem to get dirty.

I was disappointed that none of the rickshaws they showed on TV had pictures of Che Guevara on them, in Kerala I saw lots of them.

Posted by: Cathy Sullivan, 25 April 2012, 07:14 ( 7:14 AM)
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