Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cricket and the Arts

"What is Art?".
This is the provocative question posed by CLR James in his magnificent book Beyond the Boundary, widely regarded as the finest cricket book of all time. James attempts to answer this question in a manner which is much too elaborate to be summed up in a blogpost. Nevertheless, he unequivocally concludes that :

It (cricket) is a game and we have to compare it with other games. It is an art and we have to compare it with other arts.....Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance

These lines intrigued me. Cricket is ofcourse a ball game. But is it fundamentally different from the other ball games? Are we justified in regarding cricket as being closer to the arts (the likes of theatre and literature) than other sports?

I attempt to partly answer these questions in this blog. To my mind, there is one chief characteristic that distinguishes all ball games from the arts:

Ball Games are invariably competitive, in that the performance of the sportsman is contingent on the opposition he is up against. Whereas, in most of the other conventional arts, the performance of the artist is nearly independent of practically everything else.

For instance, Pele scored 1,280 goals in his career over 1,363 games. That's an average of 0.94 goals per game. Suppose Pele had played all his football in the Indian leagues (which are distinctly less competitive), one would naturally expect that average to have been significantly higher (perhaps 1.5 or more).

On the other hand, our appraisal of an artist in the theatre or in the cinema is absolute and is hardly contingent on the prevailing competition or standards.

Now, let us examine the game of cricket. To what extent are performances in cricket dependent on the quality of the opposition? I believe that cricket is closer to the arts than other ball games in this respect. Cricketing feats, be it batting or bowling, are less sensitive to "opposition quality" than feats in soccer or rugby.

Does that sound counter-intuitive? On the surface, Yes. But not if one examines closely the records of great cricketers, past and present.

Let us start with bowling. Below, I have looked at the bowling averages of five great modern bowlers both in Tests and first-class cricket.

Mean Bowling Averages
Shane Warne 25.41 26.11
Wasim Akram 23.62 21.64
Allan Donald 22.25 22.76
Glenn McGrath 21.64 20.85
Muthiah Muralitharan 22.72 19.64
Overall Average 23.13 22.2

It is quite clear that all five bowlers have very similar averages both in Test matches and in First-class cricket. Let us suppose a hypothetical bowling attack comprising these five bowlers. Given that their mean Test average is 23.13, we can expect an average Test-class batting lineup to score 231 runs (23.13 X 10) against this attack. Whereas, an average First-class batting lineup (presumably consisting of relatively inferior batsmen) can be expected to score 222 runs (22.2 X 10) against the same bowlers!

The learning is that the wicket taking ability of these five men is almost independent of the standard of cricket being played. It is quite unlikely that these bowlers are any deadlier in a First-class fixture than in a Test match. In fact, we can infer that the bowling average is very close to being a measure of the intrinsic wicket-taking worth of a bowler. A bowler's average is unlikely to change too much across eras and different playing standards.

What about batting then? Is the career batting average very sensitive to the quality of the bowling attacks faced? The answer is No. Below, I have a similar list contrasting the Test careers of several top modern batsmen with their First-class careers.

Mean Batting Averages
Sachin Tendulkar 56.94 59.86
Brian Lara 52.88 51.88
Steve Waugh 51.06 51.94
Kumar Sangakkara 57.25 48.01
Kevin Pietersen 48.42 49.01

Again, we notice that a batsman is quite likely to have similar averages both in Tests and First-class games. In fact, it is quite common to observe cases where the first-class average is lower than the Test average since it is a lot harder to sustain a high batting average over a very large number of first-class fixtures.

I find these tables very revealing. They do suggest how very different cricket is from other ball games. Unlike most other games, performance in cricket is purely a function of the cricketer's inherent skill and not overly influenced by the playing standards of the opposition.

Which is why, it is possible to argue that a cricketer is closer in spirit to a ballet dancer or a movie star than to a soccer player or a rugby forward.

Also, cricket lends itself to comparisons across eras unlike other sports. No serious tennis buff would want to argue too strongly that Bill Tilden transported from the 1920s and equipped with modern raquets would be able to defeat Roger Federer today. The reason is that modern tennis players train harder and are more athletic than champions of yesteryear. In a very physical sport like tennis, training and "professionalism" matter a LOT.

Cricket, on the other hand, is different. Being a skill-based sport, it places less premium on training and athleticism than most other sports. Secondly, the nature of the game is such that it tests one's character as much as skill. If you're a batsman, it only takes one ball to get you out. This holds true regardless of whether it is a Test match at the MCG or a University game in New Delhi. It doesn't matter whether the cricketer in question is WG Grace in 1870 or Viru Sehwag in 2010. It only takes one ball to get you out!!

To my mind, that's the reason why standards in cricket unlike other ball games do not always improve with time. For instance, fast-bowling talent today is most definitely not as rich across the world as it was in the early 1980s. Similarly, the art of leg-spin in the 1970s was surely not as advanced or as prevalent as it was in the 1930s.

Like the other art forms, cricketing standards are subject to crests and troughs. In this regard, it is fundamentally different from most other sports where standards invariably improve with time.

Also, it is possible to think of a batsman or a bowler as an artist in isolation. It is also possible to measure a cricketer's worth by examining his numbers without bothering to consider the numbers of anyone else!

Cricket sure is a very unique game! A veritable art form? Well, very nearly!



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