I am rather surprised that the game of cricket has never gained popularity as a comprehensive metaphor for work, life and business. I don’t mean localized figurative metaphors like “on a sticky wicket” (tricky situation) or “bowled over” (fell in love/was caught by surprise). I mean a broad, coherent conceptual metaphor. The way American football is sometimes seen as a metaphor for industrial organization, soccer as a metaphor for reactive and opportunistic “network” styles of decision-making, and basketball as a metaphor for an artistic, Zen-like approach to life. I think I know why this has been the case, and why it might change in the near future.
What Distinguishes Cricket
If you are of the Robin Williams “cricket is baseball on Valium” school of thought, and are not interested in changing your mind, then don’t bother reading further. This post really is not about that.
If you are willing to learn, take a quick look at the basic rules of cricket (don’t worry, we won’t need all the details). Curiously, despite the general contempt for the game in America, the first ever international game of cricket was actually played between the United States and Canada in 1844. There is apparently an ongoing exhibit at Lord’s, a collaboration between the MCC and the Baseball Hall of Fame, on the shared history.
Here’s all you really need to know about the cricket-baseball difference, as far as understanding this post goes. The cricket-baseball difference is actually the cricket-everything-else difference. Despite superficial similarities, baseball is more like most other team field sports than it is like cricket. Four differences almost completely explain the difference in character between the two games.
- In cricket, you don’t have to play every legal ball. You can let it go. No ‘strike’
- In cricket, if you hit the ball, you don’t have to run. You don’t have to risk a run-out. You can stay put.
- In the classic form of the game, (test cricket), in principle there is no limit to how long a batsman can keep playing. He’s in till he’s out, or decides to ‘retire’ due to fatigue or injury.
- The ball is allowed to “pitch” on the ground once before reaching the batsman. This means its trajectory can be a lot more varied than in baseball, since both in-air and bouncing dynamics are involved. The ball and pitch also “age” through the game, due to wear, giving the later stages a very idiosyncratic character, and allowing the home team a decisive advantage in “framing” the game by curating the pitch in specific ways, and helping the ball age in specific ways (there are legal and illegal ways of doing this). Australians, for instance, like to create hard, bouncy pitches to favor their fast bowlers, while Indians like to create low-bounce pitches that favor spinners in the middle of the game.
Though modern innovations such as limited-overs cricket and Twenty20 constrain the third feature (each side gets 50 or 20 overs at-bat respectively; an over is six “balls” or pitches), dominate the game today, test cricket is still the holy-grail form of the game, and the form which gets you into the serious record books.
The point of these four features of the game is that the game can get very long. Five days is the official full length of a test match, and if there isn’t an outcome by then, it is a draw. Five days is long enough to exhaust most of the creative possibilities of the rules of the game (though games like the original Native American version of lacrosse seem to have had enough richness to go on for weeks, on fields that were miles long).
If you want an analogy, cricket is to baseball as Go is to chess. A lot of the comparisons between those two board games hold for baseball vs. cricket.
The game can also get very uneventful. Due to the first two features, a good (and patient) defensive batsman can basically stay on the field for a long time, with very little happening. And cricket aficionados will still like the contest, a grim battle of attrition between increasingly weary bowlers and batsmen. Cricket is the only game where a non-event comes in for high praise: “well left!” is a compliment when a batsman judiciously decides not to take a swipe at a tempting ball, due to a high risk of a mishit leading to a catch. “Well left” is the negative space move in cricket that separates it from almost every other game I know of.
But with the good comes the bad. The huge temporal canvas, with its ability to hold negative space (uneventful periods), and presence of true “personality creating” elements, such as artistically curated pitches and balls that “age” over 5 days, allow something very unique to happen: cricket games can turn into real stories.
That’s where the conceptual-metaphoric potential of cricket lies, in its ability to sustain truly rich narratives.
Cricket as Narrative
To summarize my claim about the unique feature of cricket: it allows enough time, negative space, and “personality” into the structure of the game that it can sustain narratives that are richer than those of any other game. This means, for any kind of story, you can find a metaphoric equivalent in cricket. There have been matches that read like the Lord of the Rings, and others which read like The Great Gatsby.
So my candidate for the metaphoric “meaning” of a game of cricket (and I mean test cricket, for the rest of this post) is “cricket is narrative.” If American Football is about top-down military-industrial planning, and soccer is about free-form reactive/opportunistic improvisation, cricket is about narrative thinking and storytelling.
Every game of cricket has the potential to become a story of truly literary proportions. Of course, other games have narratives too, but they are more like genre fiction, limited to a set of fairly formulaic scripts. The excitement is more due to immediate stimulation, visual spectacle, and the like. This is not because the rules are not rich enough to create complex stories. It is because those games impose a few constraints (mostly due to television economics) that prevent the full richness of the rules from being expressed. This delivers a more reliable level of spectacle and entertainment.
The general criticism of cricket is true: it can deliver games at a level of stupefying boredom that simply cannot be achieved in other sports. A cricket game can languish in unbearably dull low-tempo doldrums. But that is also the strength of cricket. It can deliver games of sublime narrative richness that other sports cannot hope to achieve. Cricket can produce anything from trash to Shakespeare. Other sports have a much narrower quality range.
Cricket as narrative also means that games are often far more interesting to read about than actually watch, which is why cricket writers can get a lot more literary than writers in other sports. In fact, you could argue that a game of cricket is really just a preliminary phase. It’s purpose is to create narrative fodder, raw material for literary analysis. Other sports have strong post-game analysis cultures, but in cricket, it is practically the main act.
Which is fine by me. In fact, when I follow cricket these days (rare; I’ve lost touch with the personalities of major players — “characters” or dramatis personae — since moving to the States), I usually do so by reading post-game summaries. Unlike in many other sports, the outcome matters less than the story. Draws can have more interesting stories than wins. Games that are exciting to watch can be dull as hell when written down, while dull-to-watch games, in the hands of a good storyteller who really understands the psychology and personal and interpersonal histories involved, can turn into epics. In fact the declared literary winner by the best writers (and statisticians) are often more admired than the technical “points” winners.
In most other games, there is not enough time for rich narratives to emerge, and there are artificial rules imposed to keep driving the action along as a visual and crowd-participatory spectacle. Even when non-action (artistically necessary for rich narratives) might be more appropriate. The only sort of non-action in games besides cricket is the occasional use of “run out the clock” tactics (frustrating to live watchers, great fodder for writers).
Removing negative space potential might make for exciting TV and good fuel for drunken rioting, but it limits artistic storytelling potential. To be fair though, cricket fans have been known to riot as well.
The players in a game of cricket must sometimes make decisions that are practically literary. For example, when a team has strong, entrenched batsmen who have run up a huge total, and the other side is unable to get them out, the captain of the batting team must make a curious decision that has no parallel in any other game I know of. He must decide if and when to “declare” the innings closed, and give the other team a chance to bat.
Why is this a literary decision? Yes, at one level, it is merely a decision about risk, like deciding to punt in American football. The timing of a declaration can either lock in a draw or keep the game open for an outright win/loss outcome. But this is about more than just risk, for two reasons:
- Unlike similar decisions in other games, where particular points or tactical decisions may assume situational strategic importance, “declaration” is fundamentally a purely strategic decision. There is no tactical skill involved. It is a pure “thinking” decision. So it isn’t like a “crucial” point, which would be a tactical decision elevated to strategic importance.
- It is a point of narrative control. There is no way to really compute the risks quantitatively. There is too much action to go, too much uncertainty. So it is mainly a “let’s make this interesting” decision. Or not. Captains can get booed for declaration decisions that basically make the game uninteresting from a narrative perspective. Playing for a safe draw as opposed to playing for a story. The rest of the gameplay becomes a listless working out of the nearly inevitable. Oddly enough, though narrative interest is lost, this can lead to some of the most spectacular viewing events, since it becomes a “nothing to lose” situation, batsmen and bowlers alike can try risky things that make for good watching. But fans of the game are rarely in it for pure spectacle, so it is a weak pleasure at best. If it were chess, the players would shake hands, agree to a draw (or one would concede) and walk away.
The point I am making is that cricket is full of such narrative decisions (for those who know the lingo, the follow-on and shuffling the batting or bowling order are all narrative decisions).
This sort of dynamic leads to the possibility of every game having a unique “fingerprint.” There is enough room on the canvas for every game to take a unique trajectory. Cricket strategies, unlike strategies in other games, don’t read like “plays” in Football or doctrines like “full court press” in basketball. They read like stories. Cricket teams have invented entire narrative “styles.” “Team personalities” are often finely drawn in literary ways, rather than just being labeled as “industrial style” or “artistic style” as in some sports. Here are just two examples.
The first example is the infamous Bodyline series between England and Australia. This was a narrative designed by one peculiar character, the vicious Douglas Jardine, based on two other peculiar characters: the fast bowler Harold Larwood and the Australian star Don Bradman (still regarded as the finest player of the game). Until then, cricket had been a game known for its very English “Gentleman’s Game” style of play, based on gracious decision-making. So it is rather ironic that it was the English themselves who broke with tradition, and created a vicious style of play based on attempting to intimidate and injure the opposing team (this was before the advent of protective gear in the game). It was motivated by the need to contain one player, Don Bradman, who was so good that the English team could think of no way to hold him and the rest of the Australians back. It was enabled by another player, Harold Larwood, who could bowl to break bones.
The English won by the letter of the law, but the Australians won by the spirit of the game.
A second, more recent example involves the cricket team of Sri Lanka, in the limited overs (50 a side, still enough to allow for more richness than most other sports) form of the game. These games tended to have a certain fixed narrative which held that 250 runs was a respectable total to defend, and that the side batting first should aim for a cautious “50 in 15” start, followed by a steady, higher scoring tempo in the next 20 overs, and indiscriminate “slogging” in the last 10. Teams would lead with their relatively cautious and hard-to-intimidate defensive batsmen, who could survive the intimidation of the fast new-ball bowlers, clearing the way for the middle order of the batting lineup to score faster against the less intimidating old-ball slow bowlers (who rely on spin rather than speed).
Sanath Jayasurya of Sri Lanka changed all that. Along with his team mate Romesh Kaluwitharana, they introduced a narrative that involved attempting to hammer away at the opening bowlers. Rather than meeting intimidation with caution (opening bowlers tend to be intimidating fast bowlers), they turned the story into a high-risk intimidation-vs.-intimidation premise. If it worked, huge, unprecedented totals could be piled up.
Some saw this innovation as merely a case of bringing to cricket a sense of spectacle it normally lacks, but that wasn’t it (that would be done by Twenty20 nearly two decades later). The Sri Lankan offensive model created thriller narratives with real depth.
The Valley of Darkness
In classic narrative models, such as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, there is often a “Valley of Darkness” phase when the hero must struggle alone through a scary set of trials. The emotion and tempo in these narrative phases is one of gritty persistence, and the ability to press on through the darkness, driven only by faith and a sense of bloody-minded relentlessness.
The characteristic feature of such narrative phases is the length. You can’t have a story where you claim there’s a gritty “valley of darkness” phase and it is wrapped up in five minutes. If Frodo, Samwise and Gollum had finished their journey from the border of Mordor to Mount Doom in five minutes, you’d have felt cheated. It is the sheer length of the journey, that sense of hopelessness that descends, that makes it such a critical phase in the “Hero’s Journey” narrative template.
Cricket is the only game I know of that can produce this phase. Where Frodo trudges, burdened by despair, one step at a time, in cricket there’s a phrase used to describe what bowlers must do: “line and length.” For hours bowlers must attack with a very steady, disciplined control, not allowing the ball to stray. The batsmen must remain equally disciplined, resisting the temptation to take unnecessary risks, and milking runs from every loose ball.
There’s plenty of anxious negative space with nothing happening.
Sounds a lot like life itself, doesn’t it?
This is one of many rabbit-trail pieces that I wrote while exploring ideas for my book project, Tempo. This essay distracted me for a few pleasant hours from my chapter titled “Narrative Rationality.” I have to regretfully inform cricket fans that there isn’t much reference to cricket in the book. I am sure non-cricket fans are relieved. Sign up for the book release announcement mailing list.