Cricket's beauty is more than mere numbers

ROHIT BRIJNATH

A PATH-BREAKING cricketing study has landed on my table. After a series of precise experiments, tested under every possible condition, and with the assistance of equipment used by NASA to measure the earth's distance from Jupiter, the following has been deduced:

That Tendulkar's straight drive on average measures 132.65mph, that Muralitharan turns the ball clockwise 6.91 inches, and Warne turns the ball anti-clockwise 7.23 inches, that Srinath's fastest delivery lands in Deep Dasgupta's gloves with a force of 123 pounds-per-square-inch, and that Jonty Rhode's reaction time from the instant he sees the ball till the moment he moves is 0.32 seconds.

No doubt, official protests, following street demonstrations, will be launched over Warne's turn being greater than Murli's. Cricket is never going to be the same anymore.

Of course, this is all nonsense (I made it up), but can such silly statistics be far away?

The fact is, barring the odd fellow, who might be wearing Tendulkar embossed underwear (I know one), would we really want to know the speed of his straight drive? Does it, in any measure, tell us anything about his genius?

Still, all sort of madness has been unleashed this month with a pointless debate over whether Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee first broke cricket's 100mph bowling barrier. A trivia question has resulted in a continental divide, a piffling detail has become a serious cricketing issue.

The moment Akhtar's feat was advertised it was suggested that the equipment used in Pakistan was local and thus untrustworthy (i.e. it was fixed). Upon which an Australian cricket fan wrote to say Lee had broken the barrier last season, though Channel Nine themselves insisted it was a faulty reading. Yawn!

Fast is good. We know that. Every Indian winces at the term 'right arm medium-pace' and pleas for a fast bowler come just after 'May I get a first class in my exams' in our nightly prayers. But fast scarcely signifies best. This is not the cricket Olympics. The fact that any critic worth his Wisden would pick Glenn McGrath ahead of Lee, and Wasim Akram (albeit a slightly older model) in front of Akhtar seems to have escaped attention.

It was suggested that cricket's 100mph barrier is equivalent to athletics four-minute mile, surely an argument put forward by a fast bowler which only confirms they are hotheads with no capacity for reason. After all, putting Akhtar alongside Roger Bannister is the equivalent of bowling a wide to fifth slip.

Bannister's job was to run fast, his skill was measured purely on his quickness. It is like the first man to pole vault 6 metres. Akhtar's job is not to be fast but to take wickets, though having batsmen wet their pants in the process could be said to be a useful advantage.

To extend that logic further, Pete Sampras' job is not to merely serve fast at 200kmph (though it helps), but to ally service speed with consistency and variety (i.e. if he can, as it is said, serve a wide serve and one down the line off the same toss then that is a skill worth possessing).

Goran Ivanisevic, Greg Rusedski and Mark Phillipoussis may be poster boys for IBM's radar gun, but beyond the usual that accompanies one of their serves hitting a linesperson in an uncomfortable place, their title-winning feats would fit on a postage stamp. Phillipoussis may be 6ft 4in, but in tennis-playing terms he still needs to look up to Lleyton Hewitt, who is many inches shorter and even more miles slower.

The same applies to golf, where John Daly's drives are known to cross the English Channel weather permitting, but he is not quite scorching the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods doesn't do badly either, but he didn't win the Masters simply because he hit it 320 yards, but because his short game is a mix of precision, nerve and invention, he read the greens, which are like putting down a marble staircase, like a confident psychic, and he is fearless under pressure.

Skill sports have become infested with an alarming machismo. We are captivated by the quickest this and fartherest that. Soon we will measuring the distances sixes travel. But greatness in cricket, or hockey, or soccer, does not lie in muscle fibre. Golfers may be more active in the gym that ever before, but no 200-pound bench press can make-up for a mechanically unsound swing.

But the 100mph debate also, in a different sense, suggests how consumed we are by statistics (every ball, even spinners, sometimes are timed!). Our appreciation has become completely number-driven, and while some statistics have been, and still are, vital (i.e. runs scored, wickets taken, partnerships, etc) most are irrelevant. In attempting to be informative, television has turned tedious. If Sunil Gavaskar played today you'd think some TVs might actually be turned off (Arre, so many balls, so few runs). Once leaving the ball was a skill, now its a misdemeanour. There is no big picture now, there are only figures. And it is changing the way we find our pleasure from cricket.

Tendulkar and Lara, for instance, are primarily viewed through a prism of figures. Who scored how much and against whom. The wonder of watching them bat has become only a corollary to the data on offer. The faster they score the more beautiful it is perceived as. But numbers tell only one story.

Beauty cannot be so starkly measured, wonder cannot be so simplistically gauged: a Tendulkar off-drive is an aesthetic experience beyond some numerical classification, the poetry of a Lara late-cut cannot be evaluated through some colour-coded graphic. The sweetness of balance and the dancing of feet, the gambler's instinct meshed with surgeon's technique, the reading of a ball's length and the bowler's mind, is something to marvel at in itself. But instead it is the end not the means that matters these days. It is why a Tendulkar innings is described as 40 runs, 34 balls, six fours, one six, one two, 8 singles, 29 minutes and often left at that. Sport once was theatre, now it's a mathematics convention.

Spinners, like Bedi once and Murali now, pacemen like Akram or McGrath, are seducers of batsmen, they set plots and weave plans, they think out the opposition, they confuse them. It is an exercise of stealth, cunning, imagination, swing, length and control that is a joy to behold. Instead this unfolding adventure is explained us as no wicket taken for five overs, and graphics which carry incredible data that read 3 balls were bowled on off stump, and 2 on leg stump.

Statistics are not useless, indeed they play a important role, whether as explanation or for comparison, especially for writers, even for me. But sport is being cluttered with them, being interpreted solely through them, and the game and our pleasure is lesser for it. Television producers will insist that is what people want. Fine, but I'm not one of them.