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Cricket's new boundaries

A stunning night in Cardiff. but cricket is breaking its historical bonds
A stunning night in Cardiff. but cricket is rapidly breaking its historical bonds

Booker-nominated author Romesh Gunesekera examines the current state of cricket and predicts a sunny future for the game... in China.

I wrote The Match, my cricket novel, between 2002 and 2005. In retrospect, almost an age of innocence in cricket and a time when it was rare to find the game deep in fiction.

The novel charts a period from 1970 to 2002 when the big eruptions in cricket were the innovation of one-day cricket, the razzmatazz of the World Cup and the emergence of new teams like Sri Lanka on the world stage.

Then, in 2005, soon after publication, England's Ashes victory exploded out of the sports pages to the front pages. Cricket was big. Lucky for me, I wrote my book when I did.

Pakistan's Shahid Afridi during a news conference in Leeds
Pakistan's recent England tour made the front, as well as the back, pages

If I had started in 2006, as I had once planned, fiction could not have taken it: shady money, mystery deaths, embezzling, ball tampering, match-fixing, political interfering, casino gambling - the stuff does not stop coming.

And like professional cricket, on now 24/7, there is no let-up and the revelations come from everywhere that cricket is played.

I would not have got my head round it and the story of my hero, Sunny, playing with a bat in the apparently cricket-less Philippines and in search of his elusive perfect moment, would have been squeezed out forever.

Some say attitudes to cricket in Britain are very different from those in South Asia. Is that true?


Sure, cricket on a beach on the isle of Jura is different from a Test match in a stadium in Galle, 6000 miles away, despite the sea air.

But then a Test Match at Lord's is a very different affair from a One-Day International at the Oval although only six miles apart.

The attitude that matters is that of the fans: who watches where. Their allegiances, like national identities, are beginning to change and become multiple.

Cricket fans all over the world probably have more in common with each other than with their fellow citizens.

Indian supporters cheer during the match between India and South Africa at the 2007 Twenty20 Cricket World Championship
Passion: Indian and South African fans at the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup

Test match fans of every country have more in common with each other than they have with a football fan, a Commonwealth Games fan, or indeed an ODI fan.

Those are different worlds far more apart than Pakistan and Britain.

Some people do love all competitions - cricket, athletics, literary - but if you are used to enjoying the rhythm of a Test match that lasts for days, a novel as it were, what could a 55-second spurt of adrenaline around a track offer?

So, what next?

No doubt, a doosra. While we are watching Pakistan, India, or the Ashes, the action will happen beyond the boundary.

The future will be as unexpected as the past. Take 1844, the year of the first international cricket match. Who played? USA and Canada!

Looking ahead, what might we see? China, of course. Cricket has started there, in earnest, and in the US has as well. Oh, dear, was that a six? Who was that? How do you spell the name?

The geography of the game is bound to be redefined

One tip for the future Chinese team. Go for the big names. Not one-character names, but long compound surnames.

The most appealing side-effect of Sri Lankan cricket from where I stand, shuffling words, has been linguistic.

Who would have thought that cricket commentators on BBC and world TV would find names of four or six syllables tripping off their tongues so easily: Jayasuriya, Muralitharan…

These are big long names taking up more than their expected air time, sign-time, scoreboard time. The challenge of a Viv, a Khan, a Vaughan is surely pretty tame for a tongue trained now on tetralogies and polysyllabic eulogies?

And as many cricket-lovers would attest, what happens in the commentary - text or speech - is often as dear to them as what happens on the field.

Men play cricket in front of Kabul's ruined Darul Aman Palace
Kabul's ruined Darul Aman Palace is the backdrop for an impromptu match

This century, the geography of the game is bound to be redefined. The old world will mean everyone playing from the twentieth century, the new order will be the rest of the world: China, USA, perhaps Argentina, Mongolia...

And that would be right for a game with a life of its own. Unlike the Commonwealth Games this month, full of sound and sometimes fury - lasers, fireworks, pomp and glory - stuck to the fate of a 20th century political accommodation, cricket cannot be easily contained.

A game, more than a sport, and in a world where more and more people are turning to silly games - virtual, electronic, sybaritic - it will no doubt morph as wildly as it has done from the serenity of a Sussex village match to a clamorous IPL Mumbai extravaganza. We will be watching what no one expected.

Scandal, shame, shenanigans…? Where would a truly modern media-dependent game of close-ups and replays be without them?

It is us novelists who need to worry.

Romesh Gunesekera and Mihir Bose will be talking about 'Cricket, Commonwealth and Country' as part of the DSC South Asian Literature Festival. Wednesday 20 October from 7pm at Kings Place, London.

Romesh Gunesekera is writer-in-residence at London's Somerset House. His novel The Match is published by Bloomsbury.

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