The recently concluded Rio Olympics featured 306 events. By a conservative estimate, albeit an unscientific one, at least 3% of them were baffling. A horse danced to a Carlos Santana-Bon Jovi mash-up. Grown-ups in shiny suits did stunts on trampolines, objects of broken limbs for children and crucibles of terror for worried parents everywhere. Mexico, also in shiny suits, danced in water to an Akshay Kumar song. Someone recreated skiing, but on rapids and in a boat, and called the sport ‘slalom‘. Also, racewalking.
These were obviously Olympian feats of skill and endurance and sacrifice that would leave less athletically inclined mortals speechless – partly because they were searching for answers to a particular question: Why?
Why would someone dedicate their life to being the fastest at never running? Or decide to take on the ‘vault of death‘ with its handspring and two spine-chilling somersaults?
Or for that matter, volunteer to face a 90mph projectile with a piece of willow between them and excruciating pain?
Pondering the why while watching the 3000m steeplechase (aka the sport in which a stunning Olympic-level race track finds inspiration in monsoon-ravaged roads) and simultaneously reading Andrew Ward’s entertaining volume on cricket’s strangest games, there came a reminder, and some understanding if not enlightenment: The idea of sport, in its essence, is bizarre.
To a question why, there is a simple response: Why not!
Ward’s book, as indeed the Olympics, the World Cup, or the neighbourhood match, is an acknowledgement of the human imagination and a desire to record new benchmarks.
Just being first in a canoe isn’t enough – let’s agitate the water and try navigating through obstacles upstream and down. Playing on the village green is all very well – but how about a knock-about on ice, on snow (“Harvey-Walker, mindful of the degree of bounce, handed his false teeth to the umpire”), on a ship, on Mt Everest, through flooding and robbery? Between actors and authors, smokers and non-smokers, a team of two against an XI of local lads, “a man and his sheepdog” against “two Middlesex gentlemen”…
Rule tweaks that add to the unusual – a four-a-side match with a maximum of 50 minutes to bat; every batsman retires at 50; a bowler is fined if he takes the wicket before the batsman opens his account; the whole team is ruled out if one batsman hits a shot into the water, for example – are alternatively to raise the stakes or even the playing field.
But is this strangeness a rare event, occurring only often enough to fill a 250-page book, or is it the norm? In the past month or so, 489 runs were scored in 40 overs, 444 made in 50, and all of four added in 178 balls. These were mainstream matches, but surely they fit into an understanding of the extraordinary?
Besides, as Ward, perhaps unintentionally, points out, one generation’s strange is the next one’s quotidian. In 1887, Surrey, having batted “too well” against Nottinghamshire, decided to throw away their wickets – the last seven fell for 25 runs – to give themselves a shot at a result (and they won) rather than a draw. This was two years before declarations were acceptable. And about a century and a bit before ‘positive and attacking play’ became a thing we look up to captains for. In 1965, Clive Inman’s 13-ball fifty was “an insult to cricket”.
And, about a 1952 game when Middlesex took on Arsenal footballers in their stadium, Ward writes: “To make the spectators’ task easier, the ball was white, constantly replaced when the paint chipped off. The cricketers said later they had no trouble spotting the ball.” That, about one of the first attempts to play under floodlights, could be repeated with a few edits to fit our generation’s hand-wringing over the pink ball. (Ward would nod and laugh at the story of the failing floodlights on a 17-wicket day at the Duleep Trophy.)
The 2016 edition of Cricket’s Strangest Games is an updated version of the original 1990 publication (and the few editions that regularly followed). It finds space for the Mt Everest and Kilimanjaro experiments, Laxman’s 281, Pakistan’s forfeit and the Vatican’s good hand. The most recent episodes though, are missing the humour, whimsy and scorecard detail found in the older stories.
This is a volume for which material is unlikely to dry up. Why, from 2016 itself Wisden India found a few extraordinary candidates for the next edition.
- Carlos Brathwaite’s four last-over sixes against England that decided the World T20.
- Pranav Dhanawade’s 1009-run effort, with the opponents from Arya Gurukul making 31 and 52 in an innings-and-1382-run loss.
- A team bowled out for 0 in 20 balls in a six-a-side indoor game.
- Peter Nevill and Steve O’Keefe’s efforts in facing 178 balls for only four runs in an ultimately futile resistance for Australia in the first Test in Pallekele.
- And, closer home, Wisden India’s own terrace cricket league.
Have we missed out any? Do send us your suggestions.
Cricket’s Strangest Matches
By Andrew Ward
256pp, £7.99, Pavilion Books