An American At Lords

A couple of days ago I was pointed to this long essay by ESPN reporter, Wright Thompson. He’d been sent to cover the England-India test match at Lords last summer, and found the experience fascinating. There is much good in the article. Thompson is great at getting across how antiquated and stuffy Lords can be, and how ridiculous the MCC members look. He’s also spot on about the Tendulkar/Dravid phenomenon. He does get rather side-tracked at times, which is perhaps appropriate for anything that mentions Test Match Special and the inimitable Henry Blofeld. But the more I thought about what he wrote, the more I felt that he didn’t really understand test cricket, or baseball either.

Much of the article is, in fact, a standard piece of modern technophobia. Back in the 19th Century, journalists worked themselves into a frenzy over the possibility that people would die traveling in trains because our bodies simply weren’t designed to move that fast. Naturally they could find reputable doctors willing to attest that this was a very real danger. These days the favorite story is that the Internet and smart phones will make us dumb: if we use them too much we will never be able to concentrate on anything that lasts more than a few seconds again. As this manifestly isn’t true for most people, the current line is that it will only affect people who are born in the digital age. Naturally there are experts willing to swear that this is a very real danger. In a few years time no one will be able to read a novel, or watch a test match.

Well, I confess that I did spread my re-watch of The Lord of the Rings over three days because a whole twelve hour movie was a bit much, but I don’t think I’m a cabbage yet, despite my intensive use of Twitter. And I still follow test cricket, despite loving T20.

There’s a pervasive myth that baseball is a high-intensity, thrill-a-minute sport, whereas cricket is slower than watching paint dry. It doesn’t surprise me to hear British people trot this out, but I’m somewhat agog that an American who has watched both games could think this. As anyone who has seen more than a few games knows, much of the enjoyment of baseball comes from things not happening. Games in which one side doesn’t score any runs are common. Games in which one side is prevented from making any hits are celebrated. A game in which both pitchers got through nine innings without giving up a hit would probably be celebrated as the Best Game Ever, though this being baseball they’d play on until someone won, even if it took another three hours.

It is true that T20 was designed to last the same amount of time as a baseball game. But this wasn’t to replicate the energy of baseball, it was because it meant that you could stage the game in an evening, after work. The average baseball game sees 9 runs scored. The average T20 game sees around 300 runs scored. Which game sounds like it has more action?

The two sports have a number of similarities that become obvious if you watch Ken Burns’ fabulous documentaries (including the newly released 10th Inning). Both sports have a love of history. Both are absolutely obsessed with statistics, baseball probably more so because plays are called off the field rather than by the fielding captain so it is much easier to check stats before making a decision. And the frisson of horror that ran through baseball during the McGwire/Sosa home run fest was very similar to the panics that hard core cricket fans have over the six-hitting in T20, again possibly more so because of the open secret that performance-enhancing drugs were involved.

But what about this five-day thing. Americans would never watch a game that lasts that long, would they? Well, actually they do, it just doesn’t seem like it.

Almost all baseball games are played as part of a series. Mostly fans pay little attention to the outcome of series during the regular season because they are more focused on the overall record of their team, and its place in the standings. Once you get to the playoffs, however, it is the series, not the game, that matters.

A playoff series is played over several days, in both teams’ ballparks, with different starting pitchers each night. It is good to get the better of your opponents in an individual day’s play, but ultimately only the series result matters. The playoffs take place later in the year, at a time when the weather is most likely to affect games. Even the time of day matters, as anyone who has watched one of the idiotic 4:00pm start matches at Emperor Norton Field can attest. At that time of day the angle of the sun over the park, and the shadows it creates, makes batting almost impossible (which is reminiscent of the infamous “sun stops play” incident at Derby a few years ago). The World Series of Baseball is, in effect, a single game played over seven days (with breaks for travel).

Of course it doesn’t feel like that, because at the end of each day’s play one team or the other can say that it won. Also each day’s game (normally) only lasts about 3 hours, not 6 as in a day’s cricket. But the real attraction of both the World Series and test match is not what happens on an individual day, it is the developing story. It is the ebb and flow of fortunes, the changing conditions from day to day, the different individuals who come to the fore each day, the chance for redemption tomorrow if you mess up today.

Any writer will tell you that there is so much more that you can do in a novel than in a short story. The same is true of sport. Cricket has short forms, and baseball has regular season games, but for both sports the pinnacle of achievement comes in a contest that develops over several days. And in both cases the serious fans are glued to the developing story. I think that has always been the case, and always will be.