Cricket is the only mainstream sport in the world that has a legitimate and integral role for boredom. Consider on the other hand tennis, where the build-up and release of tension is so rapid and uninterrupted, there’s barely even room to think. And football, where the 90 minutes or so of playtime are awash with adrenaline, with animation. Time is the defining factor in all of this: football and tennis are marked with a sense of urgency occasioned by an acute shortage of time, whereas cricket gives us plenty of time — those minutes and hours and days of idleness — to think, to contemplate, and to sometimes feel that crushing sense of boredom.
Getting bored at a cricket match, for extended spans of the game which are marked by slow-paced progress and soporific calm, is not just an entirely acceptable emotional state but also, to some extent, a desirable one. More, the whole cricketing experience — the experience of watching and even playing cricket — is incomplete without this.
That fielder alternating between third man and short fine leg after every over during a Test match, seldom getting the ball hit in his direction and too far even to cheer and applaud the rest of his team, is not unlike the average spectator nodding off on the distant stands or lying barely awake before a TV screen. At seemingly dull moments like these, what they’re getting — this fielder and this spectator — is a lesson in perseverance, and a sense of being in direct contact with the passage of time, an idea that is central to all the narrative arts, and not least to the sport of cricket.
Last week, as India and South Africa gathered for their final Test at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, boredom was the last thing on everyone’s mind. The previous games — except for the washout in Bangalore — had been crunch versions of Test cricket: low-scoring, rapid-fire encounters, sometimes over in three days flat. And the hope was that the match in Delhi, too, would present a similarly compressed and energetic spectacle, leading up to a definite result as opposed to a draw.
By the third day of the match, the crowds had begun to thicken outside the venue. India had done well on the two preceding days and seemed poised, just as before, for an early and overpowering win over the Proteas. As I took my place on the second tier of one of the stands — the Rs 100 category — I saw what was perhaps the best turnout I have ever seen at a five-day match in Delhi (except for that one game against Pakistan years ago in which Anil Kumble took all ten wickets in an innings).
It was a wonderful sight, having all these people — predominantly school kids — settling down under the December sky, the winter sun a pale disc behind all that smog, for a full day devoted to Test cricket. Out in the middle: the two Indian batsmen, Rahane and Kohli, were cautiously trying to build a partnership after the loss of three crucial wickets. Every boundary had the crowd cheering in unbounded excitement, and each falling wicket spelled heartbreak.
Getting bored at a cricket match, when the game is marked by slow progress, is an emotional state that is acceptable and even desirable.
Then, just before teatime, things became irremediably and unquestioningly slow, dull, boring. The culprit was Rahane. Having lost his bearings somewhat after lunch, he returned to the middle for the new session, resolved to get his eye in all over again; he had apparently resolved not to get out at any price. The price batsmen pay for increased concentration in such cases is usually calculated in terms of the runs scored (projected) per 100 balls, which is known, in cricket’s technical lingo, as strike rate.
Rahane’s strike rate, during his prolonged ordeal that is typical of a sportsman aiming to get intent and outcome in rough alignment with each other, plunged to miserable depths. He had completely forgotten about scoring runs, aiming only to block the ball. Not surprisingly, this made the crowd a little bored and quite restless. There were grunts and sighs audible on the stands as Rahane shouldered arms, played spinners with his pads, employed rock-solid forward and backward defensives against a disciplined bowling attack. At one point, Morne Morkel, fielding on deep fine leg, having nothing better to do, danced along with the chanting crowds.
This of course was Test cricket at its best, and Rahane — who is a more than able hitter of the circket ball — was doing as well as any world-class batsman is expected to in a situation such as this. He also didn’t get out all through the day, and later went on to score a fine hundred. The question is: why were there so few people in the audience — virtually none — capable of appreciating this fine display of patient self-restraint.
When South Africa came out to bat on the fourth and fifth days of this match, this hold-the-line strategy, employed with unparalleled mastery by Rahane earlier, was made a little more obvious to the spectators. Hashim Amla took over 40 deliveries to get off the mark; AB de Villiers, among the fastest scorers in the world, traipsed along at the strike rate of just over 14, making 43 runs off 297 balls. This was a well thought-out “blockathon”, as newspapers termed it, that had the hosts slightly worried. And the audiences? Well, the audiences were no doubt bored, but most were still hooked to the slow narrative unfolding in the middle — a stretch of longueur that is an indispensable part of all the greatest stories that cricketing history has ever told.