I first tried to understand cricket in the early 90s, after graduating from college. I was one of the managers of the intramural department at my alma mater, and a bunch of us who worked there decided to figure out how cricket worked. The World Cup was broadcast on ESPN2 at some ungodly hour when all other sports were off the air, so it gained our attention. Beers in hand, we would gather round a small screen in a dorm room (it took me a while to break free from my ties there) and watch. And wonder. We were all sports fans and also referees, familiar with the most obscure rules of soccer, flag football, basketball, and even baseball – cricket’s alleged relative – yet still we could not figure out what the hell was going on. It didn’t stop us from watching though. Every night, we would sit in front of the television for a few hours and excitedly share some theory as to why a player did or didn’t run, or hit the ball, or do something. We never figured out when it was another batter’s or the other team’s turn. Instead, we would watch every night until it was time to sleep. I don’t remember rooting or following specific teams. I don’t remember any specific matchups. That time was about getting together and trying to understand the game. We were determined, but unsuccessful.
Over twenty years later (ACK!), and I am touring New Zealand’s South Island. My time there was particularly lonely, only partially by design. I went there to reflect, but learned that there is only so long I can do that; I am simply not meant to travel alone. By the time I hit Dunedin, I was in need of company and superficial thought. Not knowing a soul, I did what I tend to do when alone on the road; I found a local bar and wandered in. When possible, I try to find a sports bar, because it seems acceptable to grab a beer and watch the game on one’s own. For some reason it seems a lot less pathetic than watching a sitcom rerun by yourself while drinking in a public place.
The sport of choice that night was cricket – The Black Caps were hosting Team India (the Men in Blue) and it was apparent that this was a big matchup. Perfect. I ordered a Kilkenny poured just right and settled in among the many glued to the screen. My understanding of the game had not miraculously improved through maturity, so I was just as lost as I had been in that dorm room. This time, however, I was in a room full of people who had the answers. During breaks I started to ask about the basic rules. My gender and accent pretty much pegged me as a novice and several men seemed to take not just joy, but pride in explaining what the hell was going on. I learned that runs happen when the two players made it from one wicket to the other. Over the barrier meant six runs; hitting it meant four. I knew that one team batted completely before the next team got their turn. I walked back to my hotel room buzzed and happy at watching a sport among sports fans. The game had ended in a tie, which seemed to please the crowd.
About a year later Oman becomes my next destination that includes cricket lessons. My new friends include a Kiwi and a Pakistani, and it’s another World Cup year, so cricket is in the air. I enthusiastically agree to watch matches with them whenever I can, which usually requires getting up at some horribly early hour and stumbling over to the Pakistani’s flat since he was the one who shelled out for a large-screen TV and paid the streaming fee for all the games. We set up camping chairs in his common room to accommodate the six of us (an Italian and two additional Americans make up the complete crew). Our host lessens the pain of the hour by making amazing omelets seasoned with masala and ginger, served with Nescafé’. Dave brings his mosquito racket, dubbed the Mosquito Killing Machine (or MKM-48), as the little bug bastards have a way of inviting themselves as well. On teaching days we stay as long as we can until it’s time for our first classes. On weekends, Dave and I bring bloody Mary fixings and we stay the full 6-8 hours of the match; the Kiwi brings beer. There are no ties in this tournament.
I ask tons of questions in the beginning as I watch the matches. We witness India, South Africa, and West Indies fall to Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand. Then the Black Caps take out Pakistan and Oceania comprises the final; the fact that they are co-hosting this tournament adds to the drama. While watching the games I learn the strategies; I can differentiate between good and bad pitches; I begin to understand terms like angler, boundary, Yorker, bail, and over. I can even string the terms together, “He hit a Yorker over the boundary to end the over,” and actually know what I’m talking about. Australia ends up winning the Cup, much to the dismay of my Kiwi friend and the rest of us who cheered the Black Caps on unanimously, especially once Pakistan lost in the semis. Given that both teams lost to Oz during the tournament, I see Australia as the eleven to root against forever.
I am a sports fan. This part of me has provided the opportunity to connect with people in and from different places, and has introduced me to cultural aspects of a place that I wouldn’t have normally witnessed. Very little brings a group of people together the way a sporting event does. The beer helps, too.