I had the startling luck of seeing a game of cricket for the first time at one of the sport’s shrines, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in Australia—and something about the weather in Oregon this balmy afternoon, the crack of baseball bats somewhere in the distance, the gentle breeze with fresh clean green in it, the urge to lie down lazily in the grass and gawk at birds, brings me back to the legendary MCG, for the Queensland v. Victoria match.
I knew nothing about the old game, beloved now in every corner of the former British Empire (could cricket, rugby, ale, and Kipling be the best things that emerged from vast cruel brilliant savage imperial enterprise?), other than it was the father of baseball, so I watched with interest and confusion for a while, until a small boy nearby took pity on me. He ambled up to my row, perhaps sent by a merciful grandfather.
You are not from here, sir?
Nope—American. Just visiting.
Ah then—you don’t know much of cricket?
Nope—I’d like to learn, though.
And a beatific smile spread across his wide wild face; I can see it even now. He was so pleased to be of help, and even more pleased to pour his love for the game into a willing ear. It’s a subtle thing, the joy of explaining something you adore to someone who does not know it but is curious and will actually listen, rather than prepare bullet points in riposte. And he poured out his love, his appreciation of small points of positioning and strategy, his wonderful grasp of history and vaunted players (the West Indies’ masterful wry Sir Viv Richards! Australia’s mad genius Shane Warne! India’s unparalleled batsman Sachin Tendulkar!) for an hour, as I sat delighted and overwhelmed; and when finally he went back to his seat, I sat there in the stands of cricket’s Yankee Stadium and counted myself blessed; for now I had a loose grasp of how there are two batsmen at once, and the “bowler” is the pitcher, and games can technically go on for weeks, and batsmen can technically never be put out, and a “sixer” is a home run, and the players, despite the fact that they look like ice-cream salesmen in their cool shining white First Communion duds, are actually unreal athletes who make astonishing plays in the field with their bare hands, and happily hit the ball sideways and behind them and at odd oblique angles when they are “at stumps,” which is to say at bat, and that the way to strike out a batter in this sport is to whip a ball the size and density of a small rock past the batter so that it smashes against a piece of wood behind him, producing a stunning roar from the crowd.
But even better than the small knowledge of the game I had been given that day was the memory of that boy; and even now, when someone who hears me lecturing happily about basketball asks me tartly what is the point of sport, is it not a wholesale waste of money and time on useless and unproductive antics, I remember that Australian boy. And I conclude that in the end sport is about love. Yes, it is theater, and yes, it has to do with savoring the astonishing grace and creativity of the human body and mind, and yes, it is about communal pleasure, and yes, it is about beer, and yes, it is about the ancient way we belong to tribes and clans, and delight in our heroic clan, and sneer at the scurrilous others; but in the end it is somehow, beautifully, simply, happily, about love.
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