Regular readers of this blog will notice that a statically significant proportion of posts are about sports of various kinds. Once you mentally separate the influence of commercialisation of sport, then it becomes only one of a few pursuits in the whole of humanity where it is possible to achieve perfection within the defined parameters. Apart from mathematics which is the only truly exact science, sport is possibly the only human endeavour where you can achieve the thing you set out to do, perfectly.
I think that along with being social creatures, humans are ranking creatures. We like things that are ordered; we like comparing things; we like making lists of things (I'm looking at you Buzzfeed) and we like pitting things against other things to find out which one is the best.
Australia owes quite a lot to sport. Largely because as a nation, we didn't start with some violent revolution, sport became the nation's proxy by which it both defined and measured itself. Any credible list of great Australians must include sporting people. I remember in 1999 when the Sydney Morning Herald tried to compile such a list of the greatest Australians of the twentieth century, first place went to Sir Donald Bradman and second place went to Phar Lap; who isn't even a person.
Sport gave Australia a ready made set of conditions to compare itself and a ready made set of competitors. Australia had been sending cricket teams to England for more than two decades before it had achieved nationhood and the Australasian Olympic Team went to the 1896 games in Athens four years before federation. Australia does have a fine military tradition but let's be honest, we rather achieve glory on the sporting field than the battlefield.
I must admit, I like the absurd, the silly and the daft. This is probably why I like cricket so much. As a sport, it both covers itself in tradition and yet it makes fun of its own vaingloriousness. Because of its level of complexity, it remains mostly incomprehensible to most of the world outside of the former British Empire and inside the countries that do play the game, it achieves levels of fanaticism which are comparable to other sports.
After I got married, I suffered something of a walletectomy and she objected in the strongest possible terms at the prospect of being a cricket widow. Even though I had about as much skill with the bat as Dr Samuel Johnson had with a scalpel (he was a doctor of letters and not a medical doctor), and my prowess with the ball was mediocre, I still quite enjoyed the eternal struggle of leather unleashed at 22 yards on willow. As a player, even one with no hope of playing a standard any higher than St Miserable's Parish XI, I very quickly gained an appreciation of just how difficult it is to play this intrinsically silly game.
You can not convince me that it is a remotely sane thing to be standing out in a field for six hours. A day's play of cricket is basically the equivalent of playing three games of any other sport except with lunch and afternoon tea interspersed. The fact that the thing which a batsman is standing in front of is called "the stumps" and the bat is pretty much a long development of either a paddle or a shepherd's staff, says to me that the game can only have been invented by farmers who have hours and hours to kill in summer. The fact that someone decided to codify the rules of what is otherwise Calvinball, can only have come from a land which ignored the Romans, shunned the Vikings and resisted all attempts by the Normans to influence them with Gallic ways. Cricket is a game which mostly exists without good reason; to be played by those who lack good reason.
Only a game which takes so long to play lends itself to the generation of as many statistics as cricket. Other sports like football, baseball, basketball, motor racing, tennis, cycling et cetera et cetera et cetera have fans but only cricket has boffins. This is the game which attracts writers: EF Hornung, AA Milne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were all aficionados of the game and it has attracted the eyes of MPs and PMs.
Of course with such a dearth of time, of talent and statistics, the game lends itself to that most brilliant of things: waffling on. If reduced to just nine column inches in the newspaper, all you are likely to get is just a list of names and numbers. However, if you open it up to television and more importantly radio, suddenly with as much as eight hours of broadcast time to fill in a day, suddenly you find that commentators will actively go looking for all sorts of rabbit holes to dive down. I have heard talk of philosophy, fashion, politics, science and literature; all within a single day's commentary.
One of the benefits of the game moving so slowly is that you can be doing other things while listening to the cricket. In an Australian summer, I might be out in the garden but in the winter when cricket in England is piped around the world by internet radio, I have fought battles and conquered worlds. During this last match between England and Pakistan was on, I was sweeping across Asia with a horde of Mongol Cannon and Musketeers while Joe Root was sweeping and driving deliveries to all parts sundry on the boundary. The visual metaphor of modern helmeted warriors armed with clubs wasn't lost on me either.
Owing to a long series of historical accidents, I have ended up ten thousand miles away from the sceptered isle. In most sporting contests, and probably because I am addicted to disappointment, I follow England. Unlike Australian fans of sporting teams who get annoyed when they lose, England fans expect perpetual failure and don't know what to do if England wins anything. Just like when the sun comes out and in a stunning turn of events it's not raining in England, when an England team wins anything, the warm glow is so much more enjoyable.
I weathered the storm and gloom through the period of Michael Vaughan, Michael Atherton and Alex Stewart's tenures as captain; when England were genuinely rubbish and couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag with the top open and holes in, and so when England climbed to the top of the Test rankings a few years ago, its was almost like a reward for playing by proxy. England might not be ranked number one in the world at the moment but at least those dark days are long gone. I would hate to be a fan of the West Indies, having lived through the period where the opening lineup of Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson and Viv Richards would tear bowling attacks to pieces, in what was possibly the best cricket team of all time; to now where they're kind of bobbling around number seven in the world and just not that great.
Or maybe I wouldn't hate to be a fan of the West Indies. Maybe I'd look forwards to a time when they might rise again, This is yet another reason why I like this patently absurd game. Almost more than any other sport in the world, cricket has a depth of stories of old and replenishes hope in the future by providing new heroes. It still provides that ability to make lists, to compare and rank things, and to argue forever. Raw statistics are dull and a sport like football is over in an hour and a half but cricket, which goes for six hours a day and takes five days, allows time to tell stories both about itself, the world and most importantly nothing in particular.