When joy goes for a six

Keshava Guha | Updated on January 12, 2018

A different throw: Adifferent throw In the wake of his retirement, it was common to hear that cricket was never going to be all Ansari (centre) wanted. Photo: K R Deepak   -  The Hindu

A modern cricketer has no time or mental space for other interests. Zafar Ansari’s decision to quit the game for another career highlights the anxious enterprise cricket has become

Those who know Zafar Ansari well, from his coach to his teammates to journalists who have followed him closely, were not surprised by his decision to walk away from cricket at the age of 25. To the average cricket fan, however, it appeared mystifying. Ansari had achieved the primary dream of every child who picks up a bat or ball: representing his country. He had just played his first three Test matches, with the promise of plenty more in the future. Some considered him a future England captain.

Only weeks earlier, Fabian Cowdrey, a year younger than Ansari and, like him, an all-rounder who bowls left-arm spin, also announced his retirement. While Cowdrey was not thought likely to play for, much less captain England — unlike his father, Chris, and legendary grandfather Colin — he had recently found a niche for himself as a T20 specialist. His county, Kent, hoped to have his services for many years to come.

When a cricketer retires in their twenties, it is usually for reasons of health, physical or mental, or because they are unable to secure a stable career in the game. None of these apply to Ansari or Cowdrey. Nothing is preventing them from playing professional cricket: they have chosen other careers instead.

Cowdrey left cricket to support his brother’s music career, as manager and lyricist. Ansari has not yet settled on his new occupation, although law has been suggested — he graduated from Cambridge with a first in social and political sciences. In the wake of his retirement, it was common to hear that cricket was never going to be all he wanted, that a cricketing career would shut out his other interests. Those who made this point were offering more than an insight into Ansari’s character: they were also saying something about cricket, and how it has changed.

The career of the modern cricketer is all-consuming. For those who play at international level, or in foreign T20 leagues, there is no off-season to rest and work on one’s game, let alone room for a parallel career. Before and after matches, a cricketer’s time is not their own, divided between physical training and media and commercial obligations. In an earlier era, county cricketers were “off” from October to March. Most looked to secure a winter job. These days their counties expect them back at work in November; professional cricket is a year-round business.

For most of its history, English cricket had a formal distinction between amateur and professional cricketers. The former came from the middle or upper classes. They tended to be privately educated and/or university graduates. They received no official income from cricket other than expenses, although a few popular or enterprising amateurs found ways to become rich through cricket. While some amateurs retired early to start a new career, many combined other jobs with cricket.

The greatest amateur of them all, WG Grace never gave up his medical practice. Cyril Vincent, a fine left-arm spinner, played 25 Tests for South Africa, but hardly any Currie Cup cricket, because he couldn’t get leave from work. David Sheppard might have been one of England’s most successful captains but for his calling as a clergyman. In 1956 and 1962, he was drafted from church service back into the England team, with little practice, to score match-winning centuries against Australia. Several cricketers spent the off-season playing other sports, such as football and rugby.

The professional-amateur distinction was finally abolished in the early 1960s. It was a caste system that was out of place in the post-War world of growing social equality. But something has been lost from that era in which even professionals had lives beyond the game. The best thing the amateurs brought to cricket was the view that sport is meant to be enjoyed. This belief has been replaced by two unromantic visions of cricket: one that sees it as commerce, and the other that is concerned only with victory (sometimes for reasons of national pride).

From the perspective of the modern player, cricket is an anxious enterprise offering immense financial rewards, but with grave social and psychological consequences for defeat. It is meant to be enjoyable to watch, but not necessarily enjoyable to play. Little wonder that stress-related illnesses are forcing an unprecedented number of cricketers into early retirement or time away from the game.

Full-time modern cricketers are denied a hinterland. They are simply not allowed the time or mental space to develop outside interests. Fifty years ago Ansari could have studied the law part-time, and played cricket without giving up his interests in history and politics. Now, forced to choose, he gave up cricket, and it may be cricket’s that is the greater loss.

Cricket writers, and fans, seem less concerned these days with life outside the game, and to have lost romance and whimsy. Before his retirement Ansari was interviewed by the MCC for a video series in which cricketers choose a personal All-Time XI. Instead of choosing the XI greatest players he had seen, he chose those he would most like to play with, from his brother Akbar — just short of professional level — to Wasim Akram to his favourite Surrey teammates. He spoke of these men with great warmth and affection.

On Facebook, Ansari was subjected to thousands of abusive comments, almost all of them from Indians, who accused him of idiocy and the absence of cricketing knowledge. These young men failed to comprehend Ansari’s playful sense of humour. But they also could not appreciate the idea that a cricketer should seek enjoyment from the game.

Victory and wealth are now the only allowable objectives.

Keshava Guha is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on June 16, 2017
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