A man leaps salmon-like through the air to meet a white ball flying down out of the night sky. His hand, out at full stretch, meets the ball, catches it, then swings 180 degrees out and back around his horizontal body. He flicks it back over a ring sketched in the field. He is dressed in grey trousers, a red shirt with gold threading. His name is Nicholas Pooran, a Trinidadian by birth. He plays for the Kings XI Punjab team in the Indian Premier League, or IPL, an annual festival of the shortest form of cricket.
Its 13th edition has been playing out over the last couple of weeks in the covid-secure stadiums of the United Arab Emirates and will build to a climax in November. The T20 format, a noughties innovation, concentrates a game once played out over five days into twenty ‘overs’, which consist of six ‘balls’ each. T20 condenses the game into its most fundamental units – a combination of raw pace, sharp spin, brute strength and finely attuned field placings make for an excellent team.
For our readers who might think of cricket as the most traditional of English sports, played predominantly on village greens by men dressed in white, the picture I sketched out above might prove a rude awakening. For although cricket has been the world’s second most popular sport since its enthusiastic adoption in the subcontinent, it is still caveated to the outside observer as a post-Imperial curio.
Genuinely ‘global’ encounters are few and far between at present. International travel is advised against in the UK to several of its closest neighbours. Orchestras are unable to tour. The European football championships, envisaged as a ‘pan-European’ event (I had tickets to matches in Budapest and Rome), have been postponed. By contrast, international cricket, specifically England’s Test summer, kept going over the summer in highly engineered ‘covid-free bubbles’ involving strict quarantine of international visitors and a lot of time spent in hotels for the players.
The IPL is being held in a similarly closed off environment but this time in stifling conditions of Abu Dhabi. There is no more salutary metaphor for the transformation of cricket into a global spectacle, a massive jamboree of all the talents. Players from all across the world play for franchise teams, whose names are taken from cities in India the players know only through their experience in the IPL. The England fast bowler Jofra Archer plays alongside an historical adversary in international cricket, Steve Smith, the Australian batsman, for the ‘Rajasthan Royals’.
I say that cricket has now moved beyond its status as a ‘post-Imperial curio’ for precisely these reasons. The international culture of the sport was once created in a series of encounters between the West and the rest, especially, between British officialdom and the local elites that in practice ran the Empire. Long after the Brits had gone, cricket helped maintain the self-confidence of those elites, especially in Sri Lanka, where the game was incubated in just a few clubs, their players drawn predominantly from its English-style elite boarding schools.
That story is long out of date. The great Sri Lankan player Kumar Sangakkara, in his Spirit of Cricket lecture in 2011, commented on the evolution of the game in his country: ‘Our cricket embodied everything in our lives, our laughter and tears, our hospitality, our generosity, our music, our food and drink… In it was our culture and heritage, enriched by our myriad ethnicities and religions.’
The IPL might seem brash to the traditionalist, but it is also representative of that transformation of the game into a genuinely global phenomenon. At a time when mixing between nations is sparse, it is a place of rare interconnectedness in which fundamental human values like the need to demonstrate prowess, tactical intelligence and physical beauty are expressed in vivid terms. The Spirit lives…