Samir Chopra’s new book Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Great Game is a collection of essays that began as blog posts for ESPN Cricinfo. A professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College, Chopra looks at a range of topics in the game, past and present. One consistent theme throughout the book is his experience as a self-described “cricket exile,” someone who follows the sport from America, a land where cricket is at best ignored and at worst derided. Chopra conceded that life in cricket-hating America has sharpened his appreciation for the game, but he wishes that his neighbors would have a sliver of understanding for why he loves this sport.
The essays in the opening section of your book are about your childhood in India, playing and watching cricket. This is something of a bold step, since some readers might find these essays mawkish. Why it is important for you to write about your childhood experiences with the sport?
The most obvious reason is that the childhood experiences of the game are the foundation. They are the ones that brand you emotionally. These are the deepest wellsprings – the early exposure to the game, the fact that my father played cricket, the fact that my uncles were so passionate about cricket, the fact that you couldn’t separate winter and the festivals and the light and the sounds from the sound of cricket commentary on the radio. If there is a way that I respond to cricket now, if there is a way that cricket affects me, it’s because of those experiences. I can’t make sense of myself as a cricket fan and the place it has in my life without processing those experiences. So I knew I was going to return to those. . . .
I learned a lot of geography, history, and politics by reading about cricket. Why is cricket played in South Africa? Why is cricket played in different parts of the world? How did it get there? . . . . Cricket served as a jumping-off point for exploring these broader issues. It fueled a sense of inquisitiveness about the world. I would read books about cricket being played in distant parts of the world, and I thought about those distant parts of the world. I wanted to go there, I wanted to see what they were like. One of the reasons I love traveling so much is because I read books as a child about cricket. . . . They made me want to go to these places. They would tell me about Cape Town, with Table Mountain, this beautiful mountain that overlooks the cricket ground, one of the most beautiful grounds in the world. And I was like, “My God, I want to go to this place. Where is this place?” . . .
So, to speak of the place of cricket in my life without exploring its childhood dimensions would be to leave something unsaid or incomplete. As you can tell just by my reactions, it’s a deeply moving thing for me as well, to think about the role that it had in my childhood. Of course, it’s wrapped up with memories of my father, who’s not with me anymore, with people and places that I’ve left behind.
I was going to ask about that. You just spoke of how cricket made you want to see the world. But in those opening essays of your book, there is remarkably vivid writing about India. How much are these essays exploring the role of cricket in your childhood, and how much are they an attempt to recapture something of home?
I wrote in another book that I used to bring back videos of cricket matches from India when I would travel back to the States. I would bring them back ostensibly to watch cricket, but also because when I watched cricket, I would be watching cricket in India. I would see the stands and the people in the stands. When I would watch cricket matches being played in Delhi, I would see the sunlight the way it was in Delhi in the winter. . . the light fog and mist that used to obscure the morning in Delhi. You could see the skyline of the buildings behind. It was a way of experiencing not just the game but that which lay around and behind the game as well.
Obviously, following the game here as well meant following it in the company of cricket fans, many of whom were Indians. You got the chance to talk to them about your understanding of the game and the place that the game had in your life. You left one community of cricket fans behind, but you found a new one here. And the new community of cricket fans here had its own camaraderie, its own fraternity, its own fellowship, because we all had a sense of loss or deprivation in common. We were all in this self-imposed exile. We were all infected by this spirit of longing. We all knew that we were together in wanting to be part of this sensation of following a game we love so much. . . .
At the start of the interview, you talked about being a cricket exile in America, this land where, as you say, there’s a proud hostility to the sport. But you do have an essay in the book about talking cricket with Americans. Have you ever been able to convert a native-born American to an appreciation of cricket?
I’ve never been able to convert a native-born America to an appreciation of cricket, but I think I’ve managed to get a couple of native-born Americans to be interested in cricket, and perhaps just a little bit appreciative of a couple dimensions of cricket. . . .
The day of the World Cup final, I had some friends over to my place to celebrate my birthday. We were hanging out, but this was not a World Cup final party. It was just that the World Cup final was going to be on the same night. As the party was winding down, the game started. In fact, I didn’t want people around me when the final started. I wanted people to leave. I didn’t want to watch the final with people who don’t know anything about the game, who wouldn’t appreciate it, and who were just going to give me a hard time about the game.
Anyway, the game came on, and some folks were there. And at least a couple of the people who were with me sat there and paid attention. It was the World Cup, so there was the whole razzle-dazzle of a major sporting event. You’re seeing the best of the best playing the game. And they’re not watching cricket that’s part of some commercial for an airline to the Caribbean, or part of some ridiculous photograph of a bunch of people playing cricket in a park. They were seeing the top-level version of the game. And I saw something of an intrigue and an interest there, which I hadn’t seen before.
So that’s about the closest that I’ve come to it. I have had a couple friends say things like, “We should watch a game together.” I think those are my biggest triumphs, so to speak.
But I have not managed to convert anybody. I’ve met some Americans who are already cricket fans, but their conversion happened elsewhere. My church can claim no credit for those converts. We can’t put them in our numbers for the year.
You do make a great point in your book, though, about how key masculinity is in terms of getting Americans to appreciate the sport.
Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s there in Americans’ understanding of soccer. It’s there in Americans’ understanding of cricket. Ninety-nine percent of Americans’ criticism of soccer will have something in there like, “They’re wimpy. They act like they’re hurt. I could stand anything about soccer but this faking. They’re such wimps.” Soccer players don’t meet their impression of what manly sportspeople should be like.
And cricket just looks genteel. The ball hardly seems to move. These guys hardly seem to be running. I mean, what the hell is so athletic about this game? And then they wear all this protection.
I remember when I saw Fire on Babylon, the documentary about the great West Indies teams of the 1980s, I remember thinking: Americans should see this. Then they’d know that people can get hurt in cricket. They’d know what role fear and intimidation plays in cricket – something that cricket struggles to reconcile itself to. You know, fear and intimidation are a very vital part of the game. Last year, Phillip Hughes was killed by a cricket ball, and there was a lot of soul searching in the game. We praise fast bowlers because they are dangerous. They bring a frisson to our understanding of the game. You know, when a fast bowler aims at a batsman’s head and the batsman ducks, there’s this buzz of excitement that goes around the ground. There’s something gladiatorial about it.
A lot of people know they can’t play cricket beyond a certain level. I knew at the college level: “Man, this game – I think I’m done with it.” You know you shouldn’t play beyond a certain level, because you could really get hurt. I knew players in Australia who told me they didn’t want to get promoted to the next league if we won the championship. They were like, “Dude, B Divison? There’s a lot of fast bowlers up there, man. I don’t want to get my head knocked off. C Division is good enough for me. I can handle the pace bowlers in C Division.”
So when Americans start to pay attention to those aspects of the game, when they say, “Oh my God, the ball’s coming to you so hard. How do you catch them with your bare hands?” or, “These cricket balls are really hard, they could actually give you a skull fracture,” then you think: Yeah, now these guys know what we’re talking about. There’s a kind of vindication, that we’ve been vindicated in the best way possible. We’ve not had our masculinity questioned.
Following on that last statement, I wanted to ask about something you write in the book: “When an American does appreciate cricket, I feel my love for the game validated.” Could you unpack that for us, please?
Layers and layers [laughs].
This is my home. Right? America is my home. In some ways, I feel like an outsider in this regard, because I support a game – a game that so consumes me – which people around me simply don’t give two hoots for. It’s how I’ve chosen to exclude myself from the world around me. So when that world reaches out to me, and it says that we know what makes you tick, I feel taken in. That’s the immigrant in me. Or that’s the person who is stranded between two cultures finding acceptance.
There is a political angle, that you don’t want America to be the arbiter of everything. Things can be good without America finding them good. Yet America looms large in our imagination. America is America. You see the word America in print and it just reads differently. And it’s where I live, it’s where I’ve made a home, it’s where I’m bringing up my family. It’s so dominant in me culturally and historically and intellectually. So there are these two competing impulses in me: one that is wanting acceptance by this place, and yet the political part of me is pushing back, with this sense that you should feel completely comfortable and secure in your relationship to cricket, that you should not need validation. It’s like someone saying you should just have enough self-esteem and not need external validation. But you know that you want cricket written into the world’s largest sporting culture, you want it written into the world’s larger political and cultural sensibilities, and one way to have that is to have cricket taken in by America as well. It’s almost like saying: If cricket could make it in New York, it could make it anywhere. . . .
I don’t think cricket is ever going to become a game in the US. It will never become big, it will never be an American game. But I just want Americans to stop hating cricket. I just want Americans to at least be able to see what enthralls its fans. You don’t necessarily want a home for the game in the same way that basketball, football, and tennis have, though even a small slice would do. But you want some greater working of it into the American sensibility. It would make my place in America more secure. I would not be so much of an outsider. It would be America telling me: “We get you. Now we know why you are the way that you are, because we know something about the game you love so much.”
The complete interview about the book Eye on Cricket is available on the New Books in Sports podcast.
HarperCollins India, 2015. 264 pp. ISBN: 9789351365495.