The Accidental Sports Fan

I’m not really sure how it happened.  It’s inconceivable that it occurred at all, really.  I mean, I’m just not the kind of girl who gets into things like this.  But I did.  And there’s no turning back now.

You see, on Saturday, 20 March 2011, at approximately 4:30 pm, I realized that I’d become an accidental sports fan.  And not just a fan of any sport, but of cricket.  The greatest game ever played.

I was at a second-hand book shop and my choice came down to either “Sexual Palmistry: Unlocking the Power Within” or “How to Catch a Game of Cricket”.  Come on now, in a normal universe, that wouldn’t even be a contest.  Who WOULDN’T buy a book on sexual palmistry, for the sheer amusement value alone?  And anyone who knows me knows that I take a detour at the first whiff of team sports.  That’s, like, a hard rule.

But no.  No, I chose the wilder, more alluring path.  The one paved with images of the guys at fine leg, square leg, slip, and gully; the batsman at the stumps; the bowler ready with his orthodox spin; the beauty that is the game of cricket.  I went home with the book on cricket and read it in a day.  Then I checked out three more books on cricket from the library.

My fate was sealed.  Black Caps 4-ever.

The main fielding positions for cricket

Now admittedly, in the beginning, I didn’t understand a thing about cricket.  It comes in domestic and international forms, as well as short or long versions (more on that in a moment).  The rules seem designed to obfuscate their very purpose.  Basically, it looked like a silly, pointlessly complicated game.

My first taste of it was listening to the 2008 Australia/West Indies game on the radio on a rainy Christmas Eve night.  Insufferable was the word that comes to mind.  When the game replayed the next day (what I thought was a replay), the conversation went something like this:

Me:  “Why are we listening to this game again?”

T:  “We’re not listening to it again.  They’re still playing.”

Me:  “What do you mean they’re still playing?”

T:  “I mean they’re still playing.  It’s still the same game.”

Me:  “The SAME GAME?”

T:  “Yes.  It’s a 5 day test.”

Me:  “5 DAYS??  They play the same game for 5 DAYS?!”

T:  “Yes, of course!  What do you think a 5 day test is?”

Me:  “Insanity.  That’s what I think it is.”

T: “Then you probably won’t like the part where I tell you sometimes there’s not a winner at the end.”

I leave my reaction to your imagination.

But somewhere along the way, I learned how the game was played.  I saw how—over the course of 5 truly grueling days—a team could turn their fortunes around and win the unwinnable game (or lose the un-losable game, as the case may be).  I realized that cricket is an elegant contest of will, intelligence, and physical prowess.  I challenge any baseball team to play seven hours a day for five days straight with virtually no padding or mitts.  I don’t think most of them would last the day.

There are shorter forms of the game as well.  There’s Twenty20 (20 overs (sort of like innings) a side—like cricket on speed.  You can play a Twenty20 game in about 2 hours) and one day international (a full 7-8 hours of play) and one-day domestic (same).

You have to understand something.  The fact that I know that there are various forms of cricket is astounding.  More astounding still is that I know the players by name and even have a rudimentary understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.  Martin Guptil—amazing in the field, is hit or miss in batting.  Daniel Vettori—an adaptable freak of nature who has an amazing left arm spin and through seriously hard work has become a seriously good all-rounder.  I gasped when Scott Styris retired from all international cricket this week, and nearly wept when Vettori announced his retirement from the one-day form of cricket.  I know that Ross Taylor has been tapped as the new captain of the Black Caps, and I question whether he has the maturity and skill to lead the team.  I don’t question it because it’s something to question.  I question it because I’ve actually seen him play, heard him in interviews, and have a sense of who he is as a player and a potential leader.

This is very scary stuff.

I have always had a healthy disdain for team sports.  I never saw the point of them.  Admittedly, this may have had something to do with my basic inability to catch, hit, or throw small round objects masquerading as sports balls.  Being picked last (or the team protesting that they have to pick you at all) does something to you.  But despite that, my beloved Black Caps, and indeed the sport of cricket as a whole, have captured my attention.

I think it’s because I understand it now.  I understand why we watch grown men and women play with sticks and balls.  It’s more than a game.  It’s about the intrinsic concept of the human spirit.  Whether the human body will match the force of will required to say, “We WILL win this game”.  When it does match, it’s like witnessing a rare bit of magic.

I saw that happen in the New Zealand/Pakistan Twenty20 game at the World Cup in Barbados last year.  It was our fifth match against Pakistan, and we’d lost the first four.  It looked like we’d lose the fifth, after only putting 133 runs on the board (a very low score in this form of the game).  And yet, as Pakistan chased the elusive 134, the Black Caps rose to the challenge and forced them lower and lower into their batting order.  Finally, it came to the last delivery (ball).  Pakistan needed two runs to win. The bowler taunted Pakistan with the possibility of a big hit.  But Pakistan hit it high and right to square leg.  Waiting those few seconds (which seemed like an eternity) to see if the catch had been made was agony.  We won that game by a single run.  That was pure magic. And as I was screaming my head off,waving the New Zealand flag like a loon, I’d taken my first step towards becoming a sports fan.  Accidentally or not.