Monday, August 4, 2008

Lagaan: a semi-critical guide

S. and I took the opportunity one recent Friday night to enjoy a takeout biryani from a local Indian restaurant, and to take a break from our scrambled schedules to enjoy a night in watching a movie. Ever encouraging of this erstwhile project, S. had acquired a copy of a prominent film about cricket -- a Bollywood epic entitled Lagaan.

The film is the story of a village “in the heart of India”, during the days of British rule, where the local villagers are beset by both poverty and the tyranny of the Empire, as personified by the immensely arrogant Captain Russell, who gravely insults the local rajah/figurehead and, in a imperious snit, doubles the village’s lagaan, or land tax. Already scrabbling to survive under the prevailing drought, the villagers protest; the sneering captain stands firm but offers a way out: a game of cricket against the local army team. Win, and the land tax is forgiven for three years; lose, and it is tripled. Bhuvan, the brash but charismatic young farmer (played by the famous and influential Aamir Khan), is alone in standing up to this injustice; reasoning that his people have nothing to lose, he accepts the challenge.

Bhuvan is initially beset by resistance but ultimately wins over a few folk who form the core of his team, and the villagers soon take a fitful but sure interest in the sport of their occupiers -- cricket being not too dissimilar from a traditional game called gilli-danda, it seems; plus the team get a few surreptitious pointers from one Elizabeth Russell, the captain’s sister who has a kind heart and an eye for the dashing Bhuvan. The film does a good job at introducing a number of concepts of cricket as the team is learning them; there are specialist bowlers and batsmen, and the band of batsmen who aren’t terribly skilled form the tail at the back of the batting order (amusingly, the villagers’ tail includes Bagha, the mute strongman whose fearsome but risky slogging would go better in a Twenty20 format, and Guran, the wild-eyed village shaman, who adopts a highly unorthodox facing stance while screaming imprecations of derision against his foes).

In essence the film does a fine job of capturing the popularity of cricket as a victory of the national spirit; and the populist themes of the story are reinforced by the notion that this is, again, a timeless story from deep in the Indian countryside. (Given the reports of a stubborn Maoist insurgency making the rounds of late, it’s not clear that this is the only available brand of populism, but it seems to be the resonant one.) The villagers’ eventual victory at cricket is a complete and durable triumph, given the stakes; the British, struck by humiliation but also no doubt by the pointlessness of maintaining garrison in a territory that can yield no revenue, trudge off shamefully, leaving the gladdened villagers to their new favorite sport, and to the propitious rainstorm that portends self-determined prosperity and the eventual independence of the Indian nation.

The film is very long (3h 45), and the DVD version carries an intermission graphic at the halfway point (being home viewers, we introduced our own break-time about ten minutes before that). Typically for a Bollywood film, there are ample song-and-dance interludes, and also a stock but remarkably nuanced love story pitting Elizabeth against local village sweetheart Gauri for Bhuvan’s affections. But the film is a profoundly entertaining one, both for the legendary sweep of its tale (it earned an Oscar nomination, unusually for an Indian film) and as an entertaining story about cricket; and the biryani wasn’t too bad either.

Ramachandra Guha, in his excellent book A Corner of a Foreign Field, takes a look at the phenomenon of Lagaan within the context of both the world of cricket at that time and within the framework of the Indian experience. He thereupon takes a page or two to digress on the Mike Denness incident, roughly coincident with the release of the film in 2001, wherein the former England captain-turned-umpire sanctioned several Indian players for misconduct during a tour of South Africa; the ensuing controversy ultimately drove Denness out of the sport. One can read into Guha’s words the melancholy and frustration of the committed fan. (Nick Hornby, reflecting on the England soccer team, once opined that people in other lands may not have ready translations available for the sentiment “I hope they get stuffed”; I’m not so sure they’re the only ones nursing this particular complex.) But in his description of Sachin Tendulkar, in Guha’s eyes “the only flawless Indian”, one can also read the yearning optimism that inspires so many cricket followers in his native land.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Get your curse on

Around the time the sun rises here in the US tomorrow, an ancient Celtic drama will play out again on the fields of Dublin: this time it's a cricket match between Ireland and Scotland. The two nations will be facing off in the final match of the European Division One Championships against four other top European sides (a group which theoretically does not include England, although on the evidence it's not clear they've got such a big advantage these days, but including Norway, last spotted being pulverized by the USA). The Irish and Scots are each undefeated thus far and miles ahead of the other sides involved (Italy only mustering a paltry 43 all out against Scotland, for instance), so Thursday's match promises to be a worthy showdown. Ireland are best known for their shock victory over Pakistan in last year's World Cup, but both nations have started down the path to professionalism, trying to make cricket a major sport in a couple of somewhat unlikely places.

And we can't mention Ireland and cricket together without a nod to Joseph O'Neill, the Irish-born writer who's recently been named to the Booker Prize longlist for his splendid novel Netherland, which among other things takes on a fantastical vision of the sport and the possibility of cricket in America. We'll have more to say regarding Mr. O'Neill's splendid novel in a future installment as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A topic of conversation

On a recent evening S. and I were invited once again to dinner at the Karen-and-Chris homestead, this time in more expansive company. The feast was lovely, and the company lively, as predicted.

But an odd sidebar with Chris cast the evening's proceedings into an odd and unexpected light (or perhaps it was just Chris's ineffable sense of curiosity): just casually, he mentioned that he'd heard about how those naughty, sneaky New Zealanders had been wearing special trousers, partly in an effort to gain more swing while bowling.

I am always struck, when people discover that I am a cricket-appreciating American, by how difficult they believe it is for news of their sport to filter out to the non-cricketing world; and so my reaction to Chris's aside was that he must have been especially attuned to the oddness of the story, rather than engaged in some ongoing dialogue about bowling techniques. (This was not a gathering of cricket-mad folk to be sure; actually these were hockey nuts -- this particular evening was the NHL's amateur draft, so throughout the evening people would wander in and out to the living room to see who was on the clock, and theorize about draft picks and trade rumors, the way fans do.)

To be sure, NZ's recent tour of England has had more than its share of controversy and strange moments: the exploits of Kevin Pietersen, who took his imperious batting style to a new level by adopting an unheard-of switch-hitting technique; an ODI that puddled to a no-result because of spotty weather and an excessive tea break between innings (causing the BBC's roguish text-commentator Ben Dirs to lose his mind with apoplexy); and a frenzied last-ball ODI victory, punctuated by a controversial run-out wherein a New Zealand batsman lie writhing on the ground while his stumps were annihilated. But the plain truth is that no one can pass up a story about pants.

Monday, June 16, 2008

An explanation of sorts

Opening commenter and uberhostess Karen makes an interesting observation:

Similar to a new language, understanding a sport - especially one played internationally - takes more than just learning the rules.

I think that's exactly right; and that's the appeal of it, ultimately. Cricket is a sport that attracts damn near zero mainstream interest in the United States -- my NY Times link below might be the only major example of cricket coverage in a major US paper within the last twelve months -- but whose following in certain parts of the world is passionate bordering on psychotic.

So what's the deal with cricket? And what's my deal, exactly? I'm a mid-level financial professional and moderately serious sports fan who has now traveled a few times to India on business, and amidst the traffic and the food and the supernally friendly people and the irksome custom of having the beers kidnapped from your minibar on Gandhi's birthday, what's obvious is that everyday people are deeply into cricket. Work sessions stop dead during random ODIs against Australia, and everyone is sent into a ruinous depressive funk when a couple of early wickets fall cheaply; or otherwise serious people utter the names of heroic batsmen like incantations to their secret lovers. If, even as a la-di-da business traveller, you take your cultural environmental halfway seriously, you will be struck by these things, and you will be moved to attempt to understand the what, and more importantly the why.

Monday, June 2, 2008


So yesterday S. managed to unearth a website that was showing a live cricket stream, and it happened that she'd found the final match of the Indian Premier League tournament. Not that she needed to do anything else to impress me, but she'd succeeded yet again. ;)

It's probably impossible to overstate how thoroughly India have embraced cricket in general; and in particular the new faster-paced variant called Twenty20, a version of the sport so flashy that even the venerable Gray Lady felt compelled to take notice when India's national side won the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup. (To put 'flashy' into perspective: a standard Test match, of course, involves several hundred overs and can last up to five days; whereas Twenty20 matches, as the name implies, last only 20 overs per side and can be completed in a bit less than three hours. Baseball games, which average a similar duration, are derided in some quarters as lethargic beyond all hope. I digress.)

So yesterday's final between the Rajasthan Royals and the Chennai Super Kings (and the prevalence of references to monarchy in the team names is no accident) gave us an alternate form of that passion: using big money and glamour as the draw in place of national-team interest, as the IPL pitted national teammates against each other and paid them quite handsomely for the effort. (It varies a bit what the average professional cricketer earns normally, but barring endorsements, it seems to be the kind of salary that your well-to-do neighbor might take home.)

The final ended up with quite the dramatic finish (although the story stretches a bit in the retelling; the "cut-price" Rajasthani payroll was nonetheless immense for a six-week tournament, and no one will ever mistake Shane Warne for an underdog). And you can now hear the laments about the influence of money in the sport (some barmy American is plotting an English equivalent to the IPL, but mostly the big cash is denominated in rupees); how much of that is true sporting purism, and how much simple reactionary grousing, is an exercise left for the reader, as they say.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The apparent state of American cricket

It seems logical that, if an American wants to get a measure of cricket, he should find out how the sport's doing in his own country; and fortunately events are cooperating to give an idea how that's coming along.

There is indeed a United States of America Cricket Association, whose website bespeaks the amateur nature of the sport in this country; it's essentially a support organization for the various amateur leagues around the country, and does development work at the youth level, but it's also in charge of the various national teams in the sport.

Yesterday the USA cricket team represented its country, in Division 5 of what the ICC calls its World Cricket League; essentially an elaborate stepladder qualifying tournament for the 2011 World Cup. In practice, none of the teams at this level has a chance in hell of actually getting there to face off against the Test-playing nations, but hey, competition is where you find it.

Evidently the Americans making the trip at all is a bit of a pleasant surprise; an interview with team captain Steve Massiah seems to imply that the team's fallen on hard times in recent years, evidently as the result of some administrative issues with the USACA that have since been sorted out.

In any event, the USA acquitted itself admirably, winning four qualifiers in a row (and, like, totally pummeling the Norwegians) before their final rained-out group match against Nepal. They advanced to the semi-finals against the hosts Jersey (the Channel islands, of course, not the state) before bowing out.

Sadly, the USA's loss means that they won't advance towards the World Cup; it also deprived us of the tantalizing possibility of a final matchup against Afghanistan (who as of today's writing have apparently won the tournament).

The Afghanis have apparently come to cricket in many cases as a result of having fled from the turmoil at home; first the Taliban and then the war. Some of them ended up in Pakistan, where cricket is king, and so the Afghanis learned the sport there and brought it home. Judging from initial reaction, the team were looking forward to playing the Americans, and not just for the obvious political overtones; they're using it as a kind of measuring stick as to how far they're progressing as a nation; and, fair play to them, their success will get a lot more notice at home than the USA winning would have. Zindabad Afghanistan, then, if you can say that. ;)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The beginning of summer

So this is an experiment of sorts, born of my own fairly recent and sudden compulsion to follow cricket in a semi-dedicated way despite a few nigh-crippling limitations (stunted knowledge of the sport's nuances and history; my inability to follow high-level cricket either in person or via television; the fact of never having actually attempted to play cricket) and encouraged by the splendid and brilliant S., who suggested giving this compulsion a home and a place to breathe.

Disclaimer: as this will be the meanderings of the unlearned and occasionally clueless, some of this may seem didactic or repetitive to people who actually know the sport in detail.

Also, this will be somewhat discursive; IMO one of the useful things about cricket is that it provides a springboard to talk about lots of other neat things going on in the world. So I will. You have been warned.

Onward we go.