A Pair of Young Cricketers

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Full Toss: On Loving Baseball in a Cricket Crazy Nation

Shahriar Shaams

To say that I come from a place mad for cricket is to understate the national psychosis that passes for cricket fandom here. Growing up in Dhaka, I have witnessed aunties bawling their eyes out to the National Team’s losses, my mother has had a bucket of paint thrown at her on the streets once during a historic win against Pakistan, and if anyone ever denies being hit by a taped-in tennis ball while walking down the road beside a pack of children playing street-cricket, they are lying. And to think only a couple decades ago, it was playing second fiddle to soccer – a more typically Bengali athletic pursuit. I am often, then, reminded of Ramachandra Guha’s superb essay “the Socialism of Soccer,” which memorably starts with the line: why do Bengalis love soccer so? Because the Americans hate it so.  

Cricket won out in the end. Today it is the undisputed champion of Bengali consciousness, where all its comings and goings are scrutinized as one’s personal affairs. Management decisions become everyone’s business, the “let me tell what I would’ve done!” we discuss as we swing like monkeys on our way to work in the city’s dingy, overpopulated buses.  

My earliest memories of cricket are afternoons at my grandparents’ house, huddled in-between my uncles and older cousins: eating mutton-biryani and ice-cold Pepsi Cola and hollering up at every out and boundary. These usually took place during India vs. Pakistan matches. The infamous rivalry of our two neighbors, once part of us, was perhaps most intensely felt because it represented our inner anxieties in the basest senses: choosing one over the other brought perilous repercussions. You could be branded a patriot by merely supporting India over Pakistan – to love one’s nation by rooting for a whole other country just to see the enemy lose is of course part of being a true Bengali. But times were far more interesting. Pakistan had the tremendously talented Mohammed Yusuf and the then-young Shahid Afridi. India was being led by the hot-headed and charismatic Ganguly in a team that included the sport’s greatest player to ever grace the grounds, the Michael Jordan of Cricket, Sachin Tendulkar.

But I was not sporty. A gangly, short kid, I was a pitiful bowler. The handful of times I played in school,  I had batted in the opening and puttered to a sorry few singles before being bowled out. I did not particularly enjoy playing. My only fascination with the game was, perhaps not strangely, keeping track of line-ups and curating fantasy batting combinations. 

What attracted me to baseball years later, consequently, was the rich literary presence of the sport. Perhaps no other athletic activity, except for the sweet science of boxing, has evoked such poetry. If boxing has Hemingway, Gardner, and Mailer, Baseball has Bernard Malamud, Robert Coover, and Philip Roth. Cricket, by comparison, cannot boast to be the muse of any major work. The only relevant example I can think of is A.G. Macdonell’s novel England, Their England – which is not exactly major. Of course, there are a good number of P.G. Wodehouse novels that feature cricket and the sport routinely shows up in pop culture, such as in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Wodehouse was also part of an amateur cricket team, along with J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells named Allahakbarries (Barrie incorrectly thought the Arabic word stood for “Heaven help us”). Yet the absence of a significant cricket novel springing out of India, the new home of Cricket, is a colossal failure for literature.  Indeed, the way I see it, baseball literature got to be what it is today because of its long history in pulp fiction and juvenilia. Perhaps that is because Baseball at its heart is the story of America whereas Cricket with its ever growing international flavors is yet to hold its feet down long enough to be rooted. Perhaps in the future the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean will both make-up for the dismal European failure of Cricket in our literature. Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman, coming out of Sri Lanka back in 2010, may be a proto-start. 

My fixation with American literature soon drew me to the joys of baseball. My eyes, seemingly made for cricket, took in baseball – its swift double-plays, the gamble of a curve-ball, the beautiful strength of the 4-seamer – the way one admires a new form of art they had stumbled upon by mistake. The originality was astonishing to me. Cricket, the so-called gentlemen’s sport, had tea-breaks. Baseball saw their managers and players empty the dug-out to brawl with each other over a bad call. The collective awe over Shohei Otani for being a two-way player, and being that good at it, is surely felt differently by someone used to Cricket and their dime and dozen all-rounders. Where cricket is fluid, baseball thrives in specialization (even fielding positions are solidified).  

My fascination was equaled by frustration at the inability to get any of my acquaintances and family interested in the sport. To them, baseball was unnecessary, abrasive. Cricket, though nothing like baseball, served them adequately – and bountifully, pointing at the scoreboards, they would add. 

Was it distance, then, that brought me a sweetness of baseball that the proximity of cricket, for all its howzats!, cannot? Perhaps it is through America’s national pastime, I wondered, that I would begin to redefine the beauty of my own city’s pastime. Perhaps we would one day love baseball so, because the Americans love it so. 

Shahriar Shaams has written for Singapore Unbound, Third Lane, Six Seasons Review, Arts & Letters, and Jamini. He occasionally boxes in the local amateur scene and writes literary criticism for The Daily Star’s books section. 

Twitter: @shahriarshaams