Cricket as Metaphor

by Venkat on September 14, 2010

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.

  1. In cricket, you don’t have to play every legal ball. You can let it go. No ‘strike’
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Some Examples

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

S September 14, 2010 at 6:32 pm

There was also the time when it was Australias’ turn to win by the law instead of the spirit of the game – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underarm_bowling_incident_of_1981

Pete September 15, 2010 at 3:43 am

Great article Venkat. I have always had a similar opinion of cricket to yourself, but have never thought about it in this way, and you are absolutely right in your analysis. There simply isn’t any other game I can think of, except perhaps boxing oddly, that has the same level of storytelling to it. Those long battles that you see between bowler and batsman in test cricket are something truly unique in sport.

Sam Penrose September 15, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Nice piece. In the mass-media-centric American sports, these narratives happen at the level of the season / team dynasty / great-player era. I posted some related thoughts here:

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/05/assorted-links-14.html

“Consider the related question of why organized sports compels us. Hypothesis: it combines the structural cohesiveness of fiction with the emotional impact of public events, like a big election in which the main characters were well drawn, the conclusion clear, and the many small moments on the way factored cleanly, causally, and dramatically towards the final decision. [Bill] Simmons [the ESPN writer] has better material to work with than either novelists or journalists. His audience comes to him having bought in to the shared mythos he furthers: professional sports fans have a commitment to “suspension of disbelief” on many points which makes his job much easier than other writers. The simple fact that elimination tournaments always end with a “champion” should lead to a null hypothesis that “championship” says more about the contest than the contestant. Raised on sports, following them all my life, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that they are an attention parasite, an infection I’d be better off without. “

Venkat September 18, 2010 at 11:36 am

Pete: I agree, boxing has the same literary proportions compacted into a smaller time, due to the intensity of the violence. Taking 10 minutes of slugging is like staying at the crease for 5 hours I guess. Maybe that’s why so many literary greats, from Jack London on, have been inspired by boxing.

Sam: that quote is very thought provoking.

A.H.A. September 19, 2010 at 11:21 am

Dammit! This blog post makes me want to learn cricket. Much kudos!

TimW September 21, 2010 at 8:16 am

The best way to appreciate cricket is Test Match Special on BBC Radio. Radio 4 LW 198, or in this digital age: Radio 5 Live Sports Extra (DAB and maybe the BBC site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/5livesportsextra/).
The banter of the old hands, and interesting guests at breaks, make it a very pleasurable experience. You can easily imagine the what’s going on from the descriptions (but you do need to know your field positions!). After solid 5 days, you feel like part of the family.

There are some truly great stories. Like when a young whippersnapper called Ian Botham ran out the older, stolid, “well left” character Geoffrey Boycott in 1981 Ashes because they needed a higher run rate. That series is known as “Botham’s Ashes” because of his performance.

And the spirit of the game is so honourable. “That’s just not cricket, old boy”. One of the last places where the spirit of the English Gent still exists.

“Cricket– a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of eternity.” Lord Mancroft.

You have me misty eyed and feeling patriotic…

Venkat September 21, 2010 at 1:28 pm

I do recall that Lord Mancroft line. Very apt :).

I remember the Botham incident, though I was only 7 at the time and didn’t understand much about cricket. And you’re right about radio… there was a whole different feel to listening to cricket commentary on the radio as opposed to watching it on TV with instant replays.

James October 1, 2010 at 8:48 pm

A moving cricket narrative comes from New Zealand’s 1953-54 tour of South Africa. Suffering head injuries from bouncers (fast deliveries aimed to reach the batsman at head height), the New Zealand batsmen were struggling. What’s more, Bob Blair had just heard of his fiancee’s death in the Tangiwai rail disaster.

“As New Zealand began its first innings on the morning of the 26th, chasing South Africa’s 271, a distraught Blair remained at the team hotel and was not expected to play. On a lively pitch, Bert Sutcliffe and Lawrie Miller were both forced to retire hurt after being hit by bouncers from the fiery fast bowler Neil Adcock; John Reid was struck five times before being dismissed for three. With the visitors reduced to 81 for 6, Sutcliffe returned to the crease, his forehead swathed in bandages. When the ninth wicket fell at 154, however, all of the players began to leave the field. Suddenly the crowd stood in silence as the lone figure of Blair emerged from the tunnel and was greeted by Sutcliffe, who placed a comforting arm around his shoulder. What followed was sensational as the pair smashed 25 runs (including four sixes – three by Sutcliffe and one by Blair) off a single over from South Africa’s Hugh Tayfield.”

South Africa won, but the press hailed the memorable courage of the New Zealanders.

http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/nz-cricket-team-in-south-africa-1953-54

Bheema V October 10, 2010 at 6:21 am

This was marvelous. Over the last week, following the beautiful first test between India and Australia, I had been wondering, once again, about why people no longer seem to enjoy the pleasure of seeing a well turned out match played over three days or more.

The Irani Trophy match was also quite interesting, especially on watching it play out around Yuvraj Singh. The fall from the Test team, the first innings failure, the team-mates scoring big, the opposition promising to turn it into a tame draw while news of Laxman’s back trouble and opportunity to return to the Test team presents itself if supported by a bold innings, the follow-on not enforced, …

Anyway, my assumption is that Indian don’t really like cricket. They simply like the promise of pure visceral pleasure that is afforded by supporting a team (India ODI, and IPL teams) when it wins. Whereas, for most parts the pleasure of the longer game is in the minute details, it is in the slow turning of the screw.

Cricket, I decided, is about narratives. I didn’t expect that someone else had written about that very thing. But, on searching for “is about narrative” I landed up here.

I specially liked the discussion about negative space in cricket.

Niall Mac Maghnais October 13, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Two things, of varying relevance:

1. If cricket reads like, say, The Great Gatsby, then golf – at least when watched on TV, at least during the final round – has the bearing of a Dan Brown novel: there are several interrelated threads of action; the story constantly jumps from one thread to another (“We go to Tiger on 14″); each thread is likely to be interrupted at another cliff-hanging moment (“Tiger’s in the bunker … and it’s plugged!”); all those threads are neatly woven into place by end of day; and the postscript consists of high-schmaltz.

2. Soccer and basketball are exceptional in that – and unlike cricket – their popularity spread beyond the reaches of the empires – British; American! – from which they emerged. The stories of cricket’s waning popularity both in the United States and in Ireland make for interesting reading. In the latter case, its decline was triggered by a self-conscious assertion of cultural indpendence. The tone was set, at times comically, by an Archbishop Croke (see http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Archbishop_Croke__the_GAA_November_1884); the spirit was one of fighting fire with fire.

Akram November 28, 2010 at 9:39 am

cricket is such a beautiful game

Cricket is like life.

Blocking a full toss is like denying a good profile job.

Cricket is so much about delivering and connecting, something which life is all about.

Football is just about some brainless people passing balls..trying to get it into a goalpost. Thats all. On the other hand, cricket has so many things…….and a lot of suspense into it. No wonder cricket overcame football here in Bangladesh

here in bangladesh, cricket might not be religion, it is the only sports we can boast about. our football is nothing worth considering, hockey, rugby, tennis and golf are worthless here…and basketball is just taking its first footsteps and but cant go any further. Baseball, it doesnt even exist here.

But most important thing, cricket is perhaps the only game in which the best team on the field along with some individual performances, wins almost always. In football, a team plays extremely well, much better than their opponent but finally loses after receiving a goal in the last minute.

Long live cricket….

Great article nevertheless

Chandra March 9, 2011 at 10:48 am

Your article was emailed to me by a friend last year and I thoroughly enjoyed reading, it as I am also a cricket fan and have also played the game all through my school and university days. In my response to my friend I pointed out something possibly unique to cricket and he suggested that I let you know – it took me awhile to get around to this. Here’s what I wrote:

Like in many other sports, playing cricket provides experiences to players that helps build character, discipline, persistence and sense of fairplay. Something unique to cricket that was not mentioned is the act of “walking” . That is when a batsman who is actually caught out – say behind the wicket, the umpire says it is not out and the batsman walks out on his own, honoring a personal code of truth and fairplay. (this might be a moot point now with the third umpire and reviews etc.) There was a time in cricket that acts like this by batsmen were praised, but I have also been chastised once by a team captain for walking. Of all the current international cricket teams the Sri Lankan team has the highest reputation for having many players who regularly “walk”.

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