Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I refuse to believe it. Sri Lanka - aided by bad light and rain - actually saved the Test. I wasn't daring hope that this might happen, and in all fairness it didn't look likely. 537/9 in the third innings in overcast conditions, with a tail wagging for all it's worth...wish I'd been there. Confirms all my belief in the superiority of Test cricket. And say what you will about the torpor of dull five-day matches without results, there's nothing that quite beats a really exciting drawn Test. Results like today do not only bear drama and nail-biting finishes, but also embody justice. A draw's one of the very few ways in which genuine justice can enter the world of sport. And this was a just result. The thought of Chaminda Vaas hanging on there for four and a half hours, the thought of Murali keeping fifteen balls out of his wicket and barely staving Hoggard off, the thought of poor Flintoff bowling with all the heart he has, for 51 overs, and not being able to beat the tail...and of course, the thought that with Jayasuriya back for the next Test, we might actually have a real series on our hands...these are exciting thoughts. Test cricket, I love you.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Went to Lord's yesterday, for a day of Test cricket between England and Sri Lanka. For a cricket fan this has to be a big moment, and it was, despite what seems to be an inevitable England victory. A beautiful ground despite the billboards, less-than-beautiful spectators sitting behind us who left beer cans and trash strewn in their wake as they left, and the redolence of international cricket's oldest history. An ambiguous experience. The stuffed shirts of the MCC strutting in and out of the Pavilion to which they had exclusive access, secure in their ownership of the venue and their claims to its 'traditions', a bunch of overfed gin-soaked Tories who couldn't be bothered to follow the day's cricket and left their reserved seats empty for the most part as crowds of genuine cricket-lovers thronged outside in vain. But not just that: also people watching avidly and formulating on-the-spot theories and prognoses, people sufficiently in love with the game to follow its intricate logic, the way it moved and shifted infinitesimally and produced its moments of beauty even as the (seemingly) inevitable result drew nearer.

And there was enough to thrill at in the day's cricket, regardless of the result tomorrow. An overcast morning, rain hovering in the air but staying teasingly at bay, and Matthew Hoggard produced lethal swinging deliveries - the swinging ball under a clouded sky being one of the ground's more wonderful traditions. Sri Lanka, starting at 91/6 against England's 551, looked like they'd fold before lunch, and I half-expected an innings defeat before the day was over. But Jayawardena batted beautifully, and the tail wagged. Tailenders are no longer clumsy hoickers: for each beautiful, crisp cover-drive by the captain, there was a similarly correct and elegant stroke by Vaas or Maharoof or Kulasekara, the latter two partly making up for their inability to make a mark with their bowling. The follow-on happened, but not without a certain recovery of dignity. And the rest of the day belonged to the Lankans: Sangakkara and Jayawardena had a century stand, and all of a sudden Hoggard didn't look quite as threatening, and Sajid Mahmood, who'd ripped through the middle order in the first innings, was driven and cut with mounting confidence. The sun came out after tea, and Lord's looked utterly beautiful as the ball raced off the bat across the green carpet of grass on the off-side, something that happened with mounting regularity as Sangakkara and Jayawardena carried out their fightback.

I always love watching Sri Lanka bat, and there's no team in the world I'd rather see as world champions - sadly, that won't happen for a while yet. But they rose to the occasion with spirit in the second half of the day. That continued today, and I wish I could have seen it. Today they avoided an innings defeat, the nightwatchman Maharoof making a half-century, and Jayawardena making what was from all accounts a magnificent hundred. I'm fantasizing about the tail wagging tomorrow and saving the match, or Murali taking nine for twenty or something similarly absurd, but it won't happen, much more likely that England will - deservedly - win by nine or ten wickets much before the day is through. Still, I saw a good day's cricket. Amazing, really, how there can be so much drama in an apparently dead match: batsmen fighting a losing cause and yet batting with complete command, a wicket falling at the close of day, and the sudden, unexpected tension produced by that. Flintoff steaming in with his remarkably varied repertoire at one end, Monty Panesar ambling in with his accurate and incisive left-arm spin at the other, fielders crowding in the slips and around the bat, the crowd building up momentum with its mounting applause and roars before each delivery in the final overs.

They love Monty. There's a touch of patronizing laughter in it: they love his inept fielding (and the poor man's worked on that! but the ball followed him all day, and he tried but fumbled and let a few by), his spindly clumsiness, and they love his turban, to them he's exotic and he's cute. One could sometimes get angry at this, were it not for the fact that English crowds have in the past been much more vicious: assaults upon dark-skinned cricketers, pigs' heads thrown into enclosures of Muslim women spectators, loaded racist abuse. I heard nothing overtly racist at all - as the demographics of English cricket change, attitudes also seem to be changing among audiences, imperfectly but positively. They love Monty: no one received half the cheers he did all day, not even 'Freddie' Flintoff. And one could hear the mockery transmute into something like admiration, as he belatedly took the ball and bowled a tantalizing spell, the best of the day. Nor was the laughter always tasteless: after he delivered the beauty that dismissed Tharanga for an excellent 52, a wag behind me yelled out 'now take a catch!'. Another followed up: 'and make an 'undred!' I cracked up.

And also the sprinkling of real aficionados: committed, nutty fans who've watched the game for decades and decades, and shower you with their reminiscences of bygone names. 'Keith Miller, now he was as hard-hitting a batsman as you could hope to see! But you know' - prodding me - 'if he had a weakness it was against top-class spin. Laker could get him, yes he could, on a turning wicket.' I felt thankful I knew cricket history reasonably well, having been through more than my fair share of cricketing fanaticism in my early teens. Laker? Laker of the 19 for 90 fame? Someone had watched Laker? Back in the 50s? I half-expected an old, dowdy-coated man to turn up nodding sagely and talking of Compton, or Larwood, or - why not? - Woolley. But it's this harvesting, and sharing, of memories that makes cricket - and all sports with their histories and their obsessive fandoms - special. Something as inconsequential as a six over the stands four decades ago stays in memory. Something as inconsequential as a game that takes five days to play and has the most intricate and inbred set of rules in the world can stir people to passionate reminiscence, and I don't know if it's just me, but I think that's beautiful. To delight in what is fundamentally trivial - as trivial as an unexpected harvest of wickets or a beautiful hundred, or even a single straight drive with its compressed glory - that's true cricket madness, true absurdity and true wisdom.

Cricket, sport in general, is not really inconsequential or trivial, of course. Many world-historical logics converge within it: class, capital in some of its ugliest forms, corruption, conservatism and entrepreneurialism, the creation of mass publics, and national partisanship, that double-edged sword that gives cricketing enthusiasm its bite but also its venom. But that can never be all there is; there are always moments at which the logic of a particular match takes over and creates hordes of spectators chattering themselves blue discussing the ins and outs of specific moments, with little regard for the moment for results and victors. Jayawardena drives Mahmood through the covers, the ball runs up against the billboard-lined boundary, and the woman and man sitting on my right, who I do not know, applaud the stroke and discuss his style, as though for that moment nothing else really mattered. Monty gets one to turn in really sharply, thinks he's found an edge, and appeals, only to be turned down, and huddled groups across the ground proffer their views, vocally, on the merits and demerits of the umpire's decision. Pleasures and excitements that will only last the day, for spectators at the ground and for people glued to their televisions and radios, all of whom will return, reluctantly, to the routines and rules of their everyday lives. But the world would be poorer without these pleasures.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Two pieces of writing that are on my mind at the moment. The first by a friend of mine, a near-accidental product of long and difficult meditations on the relationship between theory and practice, theory and knowledge, theory and reality. The other by Thompson, in The Poverty of Theory, his passionate vindication of historical knowledge and knowing. The two citations aren’t about the same thing, but I think they speak to and with each other. They do for me – long live the reader!

In Defiance

The word reality has been hounded out of language. Unless qualified by ten adjectives, twenty clarifications, and the customary footnotes signalling awareness of all theories of discursive deconstruction, its best left out of all projects of research. What is real? Is there a reality outside subjectivities? Can that reality be approximated, be represented? Is re-presented reality still original/real? And what is original anyway?

But what are we really talking about? The limits of process, experience, sensation or the limits of language in expressing it? Surely, pain is real. The rifle butt descending upon an unarmed protestor- it seems obscene to reduce it to an image. Real pain, with real consequences of blood and mashed bones, of dead and mutilated bodies. Surely, absence is real. The absence of food in the stomach, of money in the wallet, of blood in veins? And surely work is real- shapes conceived in air, given form through flesh and blood- real hands, wielding real tools giving shape to matter- welding, beating, burning, shaping, moulding or cutting- until ideas take shape in matter.

So when did we surrender? When did life surrender to the doubts of its voyeurs? When did the speakers start stammering in consideration to their audience? When was the consumer enthroned as the judge and the jury and the executioner of all that can be ever created? But more importantly, why? In no stage in human history has doubt ever been doubted. But we are its worshippers. We have enthroned it. And in doing so, in doubt we believe. In triumphing, we have been defeated.

(Uditi Sen)

For what a philosopher, who has only a casual acquaintance with historical practice, may glance at and dismiss, with a ferocious scowl, as ‘empiricism’, may in fact be the result of arduous confrontations, pursued both in conceptual engagements (the definition of appropriate questions, the elaboration of hypotheses, and the exposure of ideological attributions in pre-existing historiography) and also in the interstices of historical method itself.

(E.P. Thompson)