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On Cricket

From Brick 88

Brick 88

Canada was eliminated from the contest at the outset, after such a dismal performance that the team name became synonymous with tanking, as in, “Singh is playing like a Canadian today.”

Stephanie Nolen, the Globe and Mail, March 29, 2011

This made me wince. Worse, a flash of hatred. The Canadian in me immediately kisses it off. Montreal writer Norman Levine once said all emigrants are losers. All immigrants, I would add, carry this snapping turtle within them. We mark those who mock our ways. I hope the other thousands of cricketers and cricket-loving Canadians could be spared this paragraph. It pricks at the heart of why this game has stayed with me, reclaimed me, and now occupies such a place in my consciousness.

It is all about background, and about whether one’s situation in the New Land allows for cricket. It’s about dreams of childhood and the smell of mown grass and linseed oil; and for cricket lovers it’s about the superiority of the game compared to baseball. Notice that the cricket batsman stands at the crease while the baseball batter crouches. Even in that apparently minor difference is significance. The batsman, the good batsman, has choices, can look, decide, or strike. The baseball batter cannot tarry. He has but one choice, strike or no (swing or not), very North American. Hit or Miss. Win or Lose. No in-betweens. In cricket there is grace in loss, embarrassment in victory. (In cricket, a star bowler leads his team off the field and invariably looks downward as he passes into the applauding crowd. The baseball player comes out of the dugout, raises his arms, cap in one hand to the clapping and cheering. This may be healthier.)

I believe all men of sport have inner geometric dynamics going on in their minds and bodies all the time, completely unrelated to whatever they are engaged in. For the gambler strolling through the park, it’s the throw of the cards. For the tennis player or yachtsmen or white-water canoeist walking along the pavement, angles of strike and pursuit are constantly tracing and crisscrossing in their brains. It’s a kind of delicious private madness. I have been taking a Sunday walk up the hill to a park in Ankara, and in a millisecond I will, mentally, break into the cadent run of an offspinner, landing the spinning ball there, on that spot, the leaflet five pavement slabs away, spitting off a tickey through Boycott’s defences (on 99) and striking the leg bail with that exquisite sun-kissed click and the roar from the crowd.

Or in some war-zone airport, no sleep for days, stubble, trousers hard with sweat, I visualize an exquisite late cut hissing between first slip and a wide third man. Like that time in 1965, nose on the pickets, in Pietermaritzburg, aged fourteen, Australia versus a South African invitation team. Barry Richards, a seventeen-year-old Durban High School boy, is facing Ashley Mallett, an established world-class offspinner. That African way of thinking with the sun cradling the brain, drowsy for all other things in the universe, my eyes watching an insect mountaineer the blades of kikuyu grass, then focusing on the boy at the crease some fifty yards away who has been driving Mallett off a length on his frontfoot, effortlessly into the 80s. Mallett delivers his arm ball, a much faster delivery propelled with the same apparent arm speed and tempo but flicked with a stiff wrist, but he digs it in a bit, visibly rankled no doubt by the coiffed beach boy with the lazy lower lip and clinical blade flashing in the heat twenty-two yards away. This time, Richards rocks slightly back, onto his rear foot, exposing his offstump to the ball, like a matador offering his groin, kissing it at the latest, last millisecond, the insouciant caress. In the blink of my eye the ball rocketing over the grass right at me, clattering off the spike of the white picket fence at the end of my nose and bouncing over my head into the incredulous, laughing crowd. I remember nothing else of that match or that day. It is one of those memories of youth burned into the cortex in full technicolour.

I was a brief flameout in the sport, leading the batting averages (205.00) at the age of seventeen in South Africa in a spurt of run-scoring that astonished me (and everyone else), never to be repeated. Two months on the radar. Then, blip. Five ducks in a row! And then a crash, caused by a combination of what my university coach described as a lack of application and a sudden and passionate commitment to radical student politics (I chose to go to an anti-racism retreat with Christian leftists instead of opening the batting against Old Parktonians; we were all arrested and it made the front page, “embarrassing” the club but firing my ardour for anti-apartheid action). The final act was played out at the annual general meeting of the South African Universities (SAU) cricket organization held during the week-long SAU competition in a very conservative Afrikaans town called Potchefstroom.

“I would like to propose a motion to eradicate the SAU and reorganize university cricket in South Africa along internationally accepted principles of non-racialism,” I said from the back of the room, acutely aware of the sun-reddened faces, rubber necks in their blazers, as if sensing a rotten smell. My breath deserted me.

The president stood up and uttered the usual bromides about the separation of politics and sport. This was the apartheid catch-all, with separatethe ubiquitous word. A quick vote was taken and it was a whitewash.

Next morning I was dropped from the team and assigned twelfth-man duties. I was sitting on a tree-shaded bench watching the game, and one of the great names in South African cricket, Jack Cheetham, strolled toward me. Cheetham, a tall, red-cheeked man in his fifties, was one of the most important administrators of the game in the country: the president of the South African Cricket Association, a former Springbok captain, a national selector, and the father of two sons with whom I played on the Witwatersrand University team.

I rose, we shook hands, he gestured to the bench.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

After some benign comments on the state of the game and a few words of encouragement about my own, he let me know how disappointed he was about my “little speech last night.” I began to talk about how as an opening batsman my dream was opening for South Africa against the West Indian quickies, the fastest bowlers in history: “And what about blacks in South Africa, and Indians, and the absurdity of apartheid in sport, apartheid generally. Sometime in my lifetime I hope to see a big black wicket-taking quickie open the bowling for South Africa.”

Cheetham, who’d been steadily reddening, gagged and blurted out, “You damn fool. You’ll never play first-class cricket in this country again with that attitude.” He stood up stiffly and strode off in such an ostentatious manner that a couple of my teammates on the field looked over, grinned, and shook their heads at me.

Politically I wholeheartedly supported the anti-apartheid boycott of South African cricket, but privately, surreptitiously, I followed the careers of great players I had played with: the Pollock brothers, Eddie Barlow, Trevor Goddard, Mike Procter, and Barry Richards. These young, white South Africans of the mid-1960s formed the core of one of the greatest teams in history; the global boycott shut them all down in mid-bloom.

Thanks to my political activities, I was barred from re-entering South Africa for twenty years. On a recent trip back, I learned that Jack Cheetham had had a change of heart and had pushed hard for the de-apartheidization of cricket and there’s a Cheetham Oval in one of the former “black” townships. Good for him. I claim no responsibility. There were bigger forces at play. And in my office I have a wide-brimmed Protea cricket hat signed by Makhaya Ntini on the occasion of his 100 test at Centurion versus the MCC in December 2009. He retired shortly thereafter, having taken 390 wickets for South Africa as a powerful opening bowler.

Then to Canada and no cricket. For years. Like everything South African I couldn’t stand to touch it. While my contemporaries were either training terrorists or killing them, I was creating a new life in the faraway, safe, and commodious environs of Toronto.

Then, in my early thirties, I got a call from an Aussie friend (an oxymoron that, for a South African) and started playing again, embarking on a twenty-four-year re-immersion into the game I had loved. This time, rather than the fizzingly fast grass outfields and hard-packed pitches of the Highveld, it was an artificial track with thick grass at Glendon College in Toronto. The field by the river. I was quite comfortable with the fact that no one but my Canadian family and fellow cricketers knew what I did one day a weekend for those twenty-odd summers.

Not only were the tracks different, but, man, so were the players. It was the reality inside all the slogans, the heart of the rainbow. What for me was most exhilarating about these seasons, and we were a winning team, was the mixture of players. If there was a painting of cricket in Toronto in those days it would be a spectacularly diverse canvas of calm, colour, and passion. There was a team called Tringo. Trinidad and Tobago. Tringo was languid hitters with sleepy eyes and arms like muscled boughs; Sonny Ramadhin spinners of every hue and style, dipping and spinning their deliveries. There was always a laughing controversy with these guys, and a muttering of impecunities under their breaths when we would retire for punch-in-the-mouth samosas and Carib beer. Larry Gomes, the great West Indian wicketkeeper/batsman, came to see his relatives play on his summer visits and once told me, “You can really bat, man.”

My team, initially, was composed of Brits, West Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Goans, Aussies, and a couple of Canadians. The Brits were a bunch of mates from 1960s England, children during the war who had graduated as teachers and computer engineers at red-brick British universities and then escaped to Canada. Most were from the North: Durham, Yorkshire, Notts. They’d started the club out of their football team. “What we gonna do the summa?”


“Yeah. Right. Cricket. Good.”

Brits prefer to maintain a profile that understates their contributions to Canada. A principal reason for this is in the slightly derisive view of Brits by mainstream Canada. One of these clichés is the tea-sipping, white-clad, upper-class cricketer. In reality this character has been consigned to history, as dead as an old edition of Punchand only found in some remote village teams in the U.K. or a few of its former colonies. These men were grittier, more attritional, more attached to the game than its style or fashion.

But something precious about Canada lived here.

Then one year, the Brits, mumbling about “time” and “injuries,” left en masse to play golf. The Sri Lankans took over, a lightning strike, and an excellent development. For the last ten years of my career, I was the only “Brit” on the team, and it was the last and best ten years I played. The Sri Lankan squad was more talented and had, for me, the better approach to the game. They wanted to win and showed it. It burst out of their hearts, despite themselves. The Brits liked winning okay, but it wasn’t at all cool to express that; and to others, it was really not essential to the enjoyment of the day. The Sri Lankans, when we fielded, took to the game with a busy passion—constantly trying to work their angles, vary the bowling and field placings, tongue-lash fielders who fumbled or dropped; they questioned the umpires with indignation, a lethal knowledge of the rules, and the contained vigilance of people who are routinely underestimated in their Canadian lives. A few players had played at the highest level in Sri Lanka, or had played for Canada, and their liquid timing, square of the wicket, between cover and third man through the offside seemed to be a national talent; their spinners with dancing runups like the sublime Muttiah “Murali” Muralitharan, who floated it so deceptively he could be doing up his shoelaces by the time the ball spits at the other end.

Then, miraculously some players from other clubs we played had an outside chance of getting to play at the World Cup. Canada had qualified for the 2003 event in South Africa. I, a documentary filmmaker usually occupied with ostensibly weightier subjects and a budget, couldn’t resist. Canada broke five world records at that first event. The fastest century ever (John Davison), the fastest fifty (Davison versus New Zealand), the biggest 6 (Davison), the most futile run of scores (Nicholas de Groot 0, 0, 0, 0, 0), the lowest team total (32 versus Sri Lanka at Paarl, a game I was expelled from after being discovered filming inside the Canada changeroom; a huge no-no to the goons who enforced Rupert Murdoch’s TV monopoly of the World Cup. I was frogmarched through the international press centre by three beefy rugger-buggers. They reminded me, as I told them, of the brutes who had marched me off to jail during my riotous students years there in the 1970s and who equated my transgression, as did their predecessors, with international terrorism, and whose anger was further provoked as I declared to the hacks of the international cricket press, in a clear and calm voice, “I have been seized by the henchmen of Mugabe, Khadafy, and D’Aubuisson, expelled from four African countries and a Gulf state, detained by Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Somalia, but it’s the first time I’ve been expelled from a cricket match . . . please tell my family I apologize,” as they tossed me toward the lovely row of blue gums that lead away from the Paarl stadium to the winelands and the beaches and Robben Island, beyond the mountain).

Canada played three competitive matches at the 2003 World Cup. The nineteen-year-old wicket-keeper, a chubby-cheeked guy who lived with his parents in a North York bungalow, had been named one of the best wicket-keeper batsmen in the tournament, and I will never forget one of the best bowlers in the world, Sean Pollock, shaking his head at the precociousness with which Ashish Bagai cut and drove his way to a gem of an inning against pre-tournament favourites, South Africa. (At the 2011 World Cup, Ashish led his team to the best-ever performance by a Canadian team with two brave fifties.)

Toronto is nirvana for cricket lovers from all points. There are three 24/7 cricket channels that cover every ball bowled around the world, live year-round for fifteen dollars a month. In the icy winter months, when the epic national series are at stake, cricket is played in countries rich with birdsong and shimmering with heat. During the 2011 World Cup, tens of thousands of Canadians watched live at the ungodliest of hours and showed up for work a little blearier than usual.

And the Canadian team is a Cinderella story. As is Afghanistan. Especially the latter. They are heartwarming tales of amateurs struggling against the odds to test themselves against the world’s finest professionals. But neither belongs in the World Cup on ability. They are there as story fodder and in the service of a global marketing theory, an opening up of the cricketing market (read U.S.A.), which is as likely to happen as an (ice) hockey league in Namibia. It’s an idea that does not spring from the heart of cricket.

Cricket isn’t really interested in what the rest of the world thinks of it, and it rather disavows its colonial past. To be at a cricket match at Rawalpindi, or Kennington Oval in Barbados, or Lords, or Newlands, or the Gabba is to commune in a sort of a secret ritual accessible to billions but impenetrable to the American continent.

Robin Benger is a sixty-two-year-old documentary filmmaker in Toronto who has been escaping messy endings—the end of the British Empire, the end of apartheid, the end of winter, the close of play—assiduously and instinctively for years. But The End will get him in the end. Serves him right.

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