Shabbat Goy: Bowled over

‘So tell me about this Crrrrricket game,’ I was asked as I waited in the rain. ‘What about it do you like so much more than soccer?’

Rain cartoon 521 (photo credit: Friedman)
Rain cartoon 521
(photo credit: Friedman)
We’d been sheltering from the rain on King George Street for 20 minutes or more, so naturally we started to chat with one another.
“Where are you from?” he asked, after we commiserated with one another about our bad fortune, being caught out by the downpour.
Since we weren’t in a hurry and he’d asked nicely, I went through the whole British-Nigerian rigamarole.
“What, English and Nigerian? Gadol.” He wound his red scarf loosely round his neck. “So, you must, like, really like soccer then?” Actually I don’t, I replied. He looked at me as if I’d dropped from the stars to his feet. I shrugged, self consciously. I mean, what can a man say? As usual, I was stretching the truth a little. I do like the beautiful game as much as the next man.
However – unlike the next man – I cannot abide the slavish, quasi-feudal, vociferously partisan charade that most pass off as appreciation of the game. I’m one of those rare souls who can watch a game dispassionately, appreciating the finer points of tactics and skill.
(OK. I exaggerate again. The thing is, the two soccer teams that I follow – the Nigerian national squad and Tottenham Hotspurs FC – are well versed in the art of heartbreak and emotional disturbance, courtesy of their erratic performances over the years. In both cases, a phlegmatic detachment is the only way to preserve one’s sanity.) “So what game do you follow then?” Cricket, I answered.
“Cri-what?” And I must say, this sounds better in an Israeli accent.
It is true, however. I love cricket. I’ve watched cricket pretty much all my life, I played through high school and college. (An explanation for American brethren unacquainted with the noble game: cricket is like baseball, just with a college degree.) “So tell me about this Crrrrricket game,” my friend asked, tugging at his scarf. It was a soccer scarf, I could tell from the embroidered soccer balls near the tassels. “What about it do you like so much more than soccer?” Cricket does not lend itself to easy description, unfortunately.
All this business about being bowled and sixes and silly mid off and the like. (A rough approximation for my American friends: striking out, a home run and short stop. All carried out with more panache and fewer steroids.) Some would argue that cricket is a way of life, rather than a mere sport. Certainly, one aspect of this way of life particularly appeals to me. So I explained.
He stared at me as if I had lost my mind. “You’re not bothered about who wins or loses?” Well, not quite. What I had said was that I could enjoy the game purely for the sake of it – individual and team performances, flashes of brilliance, heroics and the like. I think it’s a principle that most cricket fans can identify with: it’s all very well being partisan, but a love of the game trumps everything else.
Well, I would say that. I supported England’s cricket team through the dark days of the ’80s and ’90s.
This, more than anything else, taught me that partisanship is both painful and pointless. (For my baseball- loving friends: it’s sort of like supporting the Washington Nationals. Everyone knows it’s an exercise in futility, but this won’t stop you from loving the game itself.) So there we were, standing in the rain, talking about cricket. It did make a pleasant change from the conversations I usually have when thrown together with strangers in circumstances like this. Once preliminaries are dealt with, I am always asked – with varying degrees of subtlety – where I stand on the burning issue of the day: to the Left or Right of the Israeli political spectrum.
“Nobody’s neutral when it comes to the Middle East,” I’ve been told more than once. But I’m not neutral, I try to explain. I’m just saying that certain things are way too complicated to facilitate jumping unreflectively on one side or the other of the equation.
Perhaps my personal circumstances make this pretty easy for me. After all, I’ve been told, I don’t have a horse in the race. (I disagree, but that’s for another time.) Still: I know any number of people without any proximate relationship to the Holy Land, but who nonetheless hold very strong opinions about Who Is Right and Who Is Wrong. Good for them.
If there is any single thing I’ve learned in more than four years here, it is that no one has a monopoly on the truth. The Left rages about the hubristic excesses of the Right – occasionally with good reason – but ignores its own paternalism and self-righteousness. The Right accuses Leftists of undermining the State of Israel – again, it isn’t at all difficult to find headcases who suggest that Israel is illegitimate ab initio, for instance – while they dismantle democratic process and the Rule of Law, brick by brick.
What truly depresses me about it is not the fact that all sides dissemble when it suits their purposes – this, after all, is a fundamental characteristic of political discourse everywhere – but the expectation that one must take a side. There’s no middle ground. It is as partisan, as thoroughly unsophisticated, as unsubtle as a soccer game.
It’s just that the stakes are much, much higher.
But the rain’s still falling, and we’re talking cricket rather than politics. To his credit, he listens attentively for a while. But when I try to explain the impact of Shane Warne and his flipper (Americans: think Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball) on the modern game, he’s had enough.
“Dude, just come watch a match sometime. Uncomplicated stuff. Us against the enemy.”
He’s right about one thing: Israeli soccer is pretty uncomplicated stuff.
But I have a bigger problem. From his scarf, I know that he supports one of the Tel Aviv teams. But I can’t for the life of me remember which team plays in red, Hapoel or Maccabi. And I dare not ask him; I’m not going to make the mistake of suggesting that he is one of the enemy.