On the Aesthetics of the Game

Posted on November 26, 2010 by

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Sid Lowe is an amazing writer, and a very intelligent man. So when he fears that the sun might not rise after Monday night’s super clasico, you don’t dismiss it as pure hyperbole.

There are many derbies, and almost all of them are impregnated with history both political and cultural. Many have religious and classist backgrounds. Yet Real Madrid v Barcelona seems to just get bigger than all the rest.

Perhaps the reason for this is because it is a match played between two sides that play the game as a certain ideal.

Madrid purge managers like Stalin on a bad day when they don’t play in a certain style. Barcelona seem to take it even one step further – as this brilliant article points out, they are haunted by an ideal, a moral and philosophical imperative to play a certain way.

The idea got me thinking.

Can we think of cricket in these terms, where a team plays not only to win, but to win with a certain style? Have there been teams which have defined the aesthetic vanguard of the sport?

We see aesthetics, and even moral imperatives of playing a certain way amongst individuals. The batsmen who refuse to slog, but instead evolve big-hitting styles which avoids the Dhoni-esque brutality. The bowlers who don’t go for scratchy slower ones they throw out because they can’t think of anything else. (The beauty of a Shoaib Akhtar slower one is infinitely better than one bowled by Gavin Larsen.)

So yes, individual cricketers embrace aesthetics, but can we say the same of teams?

If we review the history of the game, three teams seem to stand out in terms of residing in a realm above those of mere mortals – Bradman’s Invincibles, Clive Lloyd’s West Indians, and Steve Waugh’s Australians.

Now I only saw the last team in action, so my conclusions might be faulty. But it is difficult to immediately spot a team-wide aesthetic consideration. Certainly the West Indians were known for the hostility of their fast men, but what unites all three was the indefatigable obsession with winning.

You can’t honestly say that they would refuse to play a shot which didn’t look good, or not bowl a delivery which was effective but not a jaffa.

The comparison I am trying to make here is with a football side that eschews the long-punt, the hit-and-hope and run-till-you-die approach that lesser sides adopt. In that case, the consideration to avoid such tactics arises simply out of the fact that they are not beautiful, or stylish. But the more I thought about, (to put it simply) a cricketing analogy for Barcelona, the more i realized that perhaps my comparison is not apt.

For starters, football is a simple game. Take away the offside rule and there is nothing about the game you can’t explain to a 5 year old. In contrast, even life-long followers of cricket sometimes don’t know the rules.

If we strip away the veneer even further, there is another big difference.

At any given time, there are 22 players on a football pitch and any one of them can be involved at any moment. Moreover, football processes continuously, punctuated by minor stoppages like throw-ins etc.

Cricket on the other hand, exists as a procession of individual moments i.e. deliveries, and each moment involves a minimum of 2 players (the batsman on strike and the bowler) and a maximum of perhaps 5 (for example a run-out where both batsmen, the bowler, a fielder and the wicket-keeper are involved.)

Moreover, cricket’s individual moments can end up defining the ultimate outcome far more starkly.

Allow me to explain.

Take Iniesta’s world cup winning goal in the final. You can point out Iniesta’s run and Fabregas’s pass, and you can perhaps blame Van der Waart for his marking, but beyond that it’s difficult to assign responsibility to anyone else.

In contrast, if we take the last ball of the 1999 semi-final between Australia and South Africa, you have Kluesner and Donald to blame for a terrible mix up, and Lehman and Fleming to credit for getting the job done.

The point is that in football, it is often difficult to extricate the individual from the team in terms of the overall reflection, particularly of specific moments. But in cricket it can come down purely to individuals who can end up shouldering an inordinate amount of responsibility for the final outcome.

Consequently, the very concept of cricket and the limits it straddles don’t seem to allow for a team to play according to a certain aesthetic style. Individuals can and do adopt great aesthetic flair, but because cricket not only breaks down into offense and defense, but also highly differentiated roles (bowlers, batsmen and the keeper) it appears that it is impossible to construct a specific aesthetic style that is constant along all these variables.

But the question was, can cricket be played in a certain way, and it is clear that the three examples I quoted (the two Australian sides and the Windies) definitely played it in a certain way. But because of the very nature of cricket, their fight was not against the aesthetics of the sport, but against the limits of what was possible within the game.

In each case, the teams managed to completely break down the sport in a manner that cricket itself evolved. The evolution manifested itself obviously in terms of new formats and rule changes but it also became patently clear in the attitude towards the limits of the game, of what was possible to achieve. When certain sides played cricket a certain way, they managed to reconstruct the very DNA of the sport.

Now of course what all this fancy argument is saying is that the best teams seem to play against themselves rather than their opponents. And that is clearly not unique to cricket.

But what is rather remarkable about cricket is how much room it has for evolution and change. Footballing tactics and styles have changed over the past 100 years, but it’s still pretty much the same sport. Cricket is not the only sport to take on radical changes in rules and formats – Rugby is one of several sports to have multiple formats.

But what makes cricket unique is that its changes have been so successful. The entire sport seems to be overhauled every few decades, and yet re-emerges stronger than ever.

And this is why teams with a certain style, a certain ethos and aesthetics are so important because they are the ones which refashion and reinvent the entire sport.