Some months ago, a reader wrote in to dispute my characterization of cricket as ‘the most subtle and sophisticated sport known to humans’. He gave twelve reasons as to why it was football, rather than cricket, that should be accorded this honour. He began by quoting Albert Einstein, who once posited a connection between beauty and simplicity. Soccer or football, wrote my correspondent Mr Vimal Kumar, had very few rules, no need for add-on equipment such as pads and bats, and a single objective–putting the ball in the net. It was thus ‘the most simple sport in the world’, and also ‘the most sublime and beautiful game in the world’.
Beauty, argued Mr Kumar, was associated with brevity as well as simplicity. ‘A game that lasts one whole day (or worse, 5 days)’, he said, ‘cannot even begin to compare with a sport that lasts… 90 minutes’. Sport ‘has to be physically and/or mentally agile’, he insisted. But ‘cricket is by no means agile. Its players are often stocky and paunchy’. Furthermore, ‘sport should not be affected by external conditions as much as possible. Unfortunately in cricket there are far too many external factors—the pitch, the weather, even the toss, all too often affect the outcome of a match’.
‘The most boring sports moments I have seen’, claimed Mr Kumar, ‘have been in cricket’. This disenchantment with the men in white, he added, was widely shared—thus during the 1999 Cricket World Cup in England ‘local crowds preferred to throng football premiership grounds’, rather
than watch Alec Stewart’s team in action. Even in South Asia, ‘the entire nation of Bangladesh comes to a standstill when World Cup football is on, even when their own nation is not playing the tournament’. And so he arrived, finally, at ‘the bottomline—cricket is a lethargic, dreadfully boring, wasteful sport—not a “subtle and sophisticated” sport as you claim. These adjectives are more appropriate for a sport like football’.
Mr Vimal Kumar’s mail was among the longest I have ever received, and probably also the most passionate. It is also highly relevant, to the moment, when all of Bangladesh—and much of India—has eyes only for the World Cup being played in Germany.
Football is unquestionably the most popular sport in the world, but is it also the most subtle and sophisticated? That more people watch and follow it does not necessarily make it so. Lata Mangeshkar was not a greater singer than M. S. Subbulakshmi, even though more people listened to her and bought her records. Brevity is not usually productive of sophistication. A song that lasts four or five minutes (as in a Hindi film) will scarcely contain all that a khayal which carries on for a hour might.
Some other factors mentioned by Mr Kumar as being detrimental to cricket actually work to its advantage. That cricketers can be short and fat makes them more human, and hence more endearing. Where sports like football demand that their performers be superbly fit and trim, many batsmen (and even some bowlers) can look like you and me and yet be among the best in the world. Likewise, that the game can be affected by ground conditions as well as the weather adds to its enchantment. We live in a super-standardized world anyway, and long for some element of unpredictability. Artificial turf has taken that element out of football and field hockey. We should be fortunate that it still remains in cricket, that a pitch laid in one ground will not behave like that in another, or that the nature of the clouds overhead might determine the outcome of a match.
Mr Kumar’s thesis is perhaps at its strongest when it comes to the connection between sport and nationalism. Football fans, whether of club or country, can be violent and jingoistic. At the same time, at its best the game has been productive of a wonderful cosmopolitanism. Indians follow cricket only when India is playing. But when the football World Cup is on we all follow it regardless of whether our nation is represented. And Indian allegiances vary gloriously—in my own home, my son and daughter follow different teams, and I follow a third one altogether. Once in four years, when the World Cup is on, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) gives a holiday to its principle of democratic centralism, wherein once a ‘line’ is laid down by the General Secretary or Politbureau no one is allowed to deviate from it. For in the case of football there can be no Communist line whatsoever. Where most Bengali Marxists follow Brazil, their Kerala colleagues are prone to be supporters of Argentina. And there are doubtless some comrades who support Ghana or Angola.
The key to my (hotly contested) claim, however, lies in those words ‘subtle’ and ‘sophisticated’. For simplicity is quite often opposed to or at odds with subtlety. The equations with which Einstein made his name were rather less straightforward than (a+b)2 = a2 + b2 + 2ab. And science and mathematics has got progressively more complex—now, the closer it is to the truth, the less the number of people who can understand it.
To move from science to music, it is fair to say that the more sophisticated the musical form, the harder it is to appreciate its nuances. Ten to twelve hours of riyaz, every day, for years on end, are required to prepare a musician for the concert stage. But the connoisseur needs time as much as the practitioner. It takes years of practiced listening to reach even a basic understanding of Indian classical music. On the other hand, a film song can be loved and hummed by anyone with anything other than a tin ear.
Because it is a richer and more complex art, classical music has more rules to govern it than does popular music. Likewise, cricket in comparison with football. One game is played in two identical sessions of forty five minutes each—the other broken down into innings, sessions, overs, balls, wickets, partnerships—each of which can vary in time and intensity. There is a far greater range of outcomes than in any other sport, and hence far more opportunities for sportsmen to display their talents and technique.
I think my analogy is exactly right—that football is to cricket as Lata Mangeshkar was to M. S. Subbulakshmi. Football is a very graceful and fluid game. It is beautiful, as was Lata’s voice. It is hugely popular, as was Lata in her time. Still, for subtlety and sophistication one must award the palm to cricket. Its variability and unpredictability are that of life itself. That physical fitness is not crucial to success makes it more wondrous, that it is vulnerable to the weather and not standardized makes it more enchanting. That is why it has produced so much more great literature than any other sport. (Can there, will there, ever be a footballing Beyond a Boundary?) Yet cricket is not and can never be the most popular sport in the world—if only because its appreciation requires a degree of application and refinement beyond the reach of the ordinary fan.

The Telegraph