The greatest game of all Ian On Sunday
Stabroek News
February 10, 2002

When I was young I played a little cricket. Indeed, one of my most precious memories, a memory now more than fifty years old, is of playing for my school third eleven on a rough pitch up at Mount St. Benedict in Trinidad and taking 5 wickets in one eight-ball over with some slow cunning leg-breaks which did not turn. However, much to my regret, I never became a serious cricketer. I played tennis hard and grew to love the game. And tennis was certainly good to me, filling my life with much pleasure, excitement, challenge and reasonable achievement. It was a game that introduced me to many life-long friends and taught me, I think, a few of life's important lessons.

And yet always, in my heart of hearts, I have thought that cricket is the greatest, the most splendid, game of all. If I had been given the choice by some benevolent god between winning Wimbledon and hitting a century at Lords for West Indies I always knew which I would have chosen.

I have no doubt that cricket is in fact the greatest game yet invented. No other sport compares with it in the number of skills displayed: batting skill; bowling skill; throwing skill; catching skill; running skill. It requires fitness, strength, delicacy of touch, superb reflexes, footwork like a cat, the eye of a hawk, the precision and accuracy of a master jeweler. It involves individual skill and nerve and also unselfish team play. It calls for short-term tactics and long term strategy. In the course of a good cricket match there is a mixture of courage, daring, patience, aggression, flair, imagination, expertise and dour defiance that is certainly unequalled in all other, more superficial, games. It is not surprising that cricket has inspired by far the best and most varied literature of any sport.

There are games that take more strength, games that take more speed, games that require a higher level of fitness, games that require deeper resources of endurance. But no game equals cricket in its all-round development of all the aptitudes. There are games that contain a greater concentration of excitement per playing hours. But no game approaches cricket in its blend of subtlety, entertainment, sudden thrill and sustained intellectual interest. Cricket, like no other game, takes the whole of a man - his body, soul, heart, will and wits.

Cricket - real cricket, that is Test cricket - has been stigmatized by some as being too slow, too leisurely, lacking in colour and excitement. I believe this is simply one more aspect of the malignant modern appetite for instant stimulation and quick-fire titillation. The slash-bang games may sometimes satisfy the craving for a quick thrill, but they bear about the same relationship to a good game of cricket as instant food bears to a superbly cooked gourmet dinner.

It is like the difference between lust and love. There is, it is true, the temporary excitement of a passionate one-night stand. But who can doubt that the more mature, the more beguiling, the longer-lasting love affair provides the more challenging and the deeper experience?

So it is with cricket. Like any lasting love affair a good cricket match has its moments when the play is ordinary, slow-moving, and even boring. But the complex inter-play of emotion, psychology, collective bonding and individual character, allied with the sudden bursts of excitement and the unexpected twists of fortune, add up to an experience which far outweighs the temporary and quick-fading lust for instant gratification which so many other sports supply.

One of the glories of cricket is the way the drama of a match develops, how the pace varies from the leisurely to the suddenly lethal, how the plot thickens, and the sub-plots are inter-linked as the play goes on, how the heroes and the villains take the stage with time enough to act out their roles. A good Test Match is the equal of a 5-act masterpiece of the stage. Even the best of the other games can really only compare with one-act spectacles that attract those whose attention span is brief and whose imaginations are lacking. It may be that the latest pop star, with his highly charged and hectic act, can attract much larger crowds than Shakespere's King Lear or Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, but we all know that the one will fade into oblivion long, long before the other's glory ends.

I think there is a measure of truth in what the old men say - that in cricket today there is too much playing for self, playing for averages, playing for money, and that therefore some of the variety, spice, spontaneity and sportsmanship has gone out of the game. Lord Harris, captain of England years ago, wrote some famous words about cricket:

"You do well to love this cricket, for it is more free from anything sordid, anything dishonourable, anything savouring of servitude, than any game in the world. To play it keenly, honourably, generously, self-sacrificingly is a moral lesson in itself, and the classroom is God's air and sunshine. Foster it, my brothers, so that it may attract all who can find the time to play it, protect it from anything that would sully it, so that it may grow in favour with all men".

These words summon up a view of cricket which, sadly, seems now much too idealistic and almost completely outdated.

And yet...and yet...I wonder. Cricket is a game great enough to rise above the limitation of this overly commercial age. In cricket we will always have dramas and performances to match any in the past. In 2002, you can be sure, there will be games of cricket that generations to come will wish they had seen. Cricket contains the pure stuff of human nature. As Neville Cardus and CLR James advised long ago, you must go to this best of all games with your imagination's eye, as well as your physical eye, open. To the dull of spirit who merely looks at the scoreboard. "A Lara at the crease's rim A simple Lara is to him And he is nothing more" But to the cricket-lover of sensibility this Lara, and his fellows, are artists all, and the game they play is the wonderful game of life itself.