Cricket an acquired taste

I used to think Acapulco cliff diving, Irish hurling and guys jumping over barrels on ice skates existed only so Jim McKay’s world of sports could become a little wider on Saturday afternoons. This was before I noticed David Letterman standing at the exit to Turn 1 at the Long Beach (Calif.) Grand Prix several years ago, approached him and was not thrown to the ground by burly bodyguards.

I might have mumbled something about his pal, Bobby Rahal, who was driving in the race, and Dave might have mumbled something in return. It was hard to tell, because the Andrettis and the Unsers were making a hell of a racket, but I swear I saw his lips move.

Had our paths converged at some place other than an IndyCar race, which Letterman enjoys more than a stupid pet trick, I am sure he would have ignored me, or had me thrown to the ground by burly bodyguards.

Niche sports, it seems, also can bridge the gap between the prominent and the not-so-prominent.

And so it was that I recently found myself sitting opposite Ramesh Srinivasan, president and chief operating officer of Bally Technologies, separated only by a wide desk made of fine, dark wood. Probably African Blackwood from Mozambique.

Srinivasan was talking, enthusiastically, about the ancient sport of cricket; I was listening, intently. Though I profess to know a little about a lot of sports, I profess to know nothing about the ancient sport of cricket, other than the players wear natty, V-neck sweaters, there are sticky wickets (caused by wet pitches and weird bounces), and by the time the game ends, one’s children will have graduated from college.

Robin Williams has described cricket as “baseball on Valium.” My sense of it was that cricket matches take days or even weeks to complete, especially when rival nations such as India and Pakistan get together.

As a rule, people from India are hospitable and go to considerable lengths to make a visitor feel comfortable. This might explain why Srinivasan didn’t crack me about the kneecaps with his cricket bat for suggesting all cricket matches are more tedious than a Royals-Athletics doubleheader, provided those still existed.

“Why does the Masters golf take four days?” he said in dispelling one of cricket’s common-held fallacies. “It’s because you choose to play four days. You could play the Masters for five days; you could choose to play (only) nine holes. Four days is an arbitrary length. Cricket is the same way.”

Matches between India and Pakistan that last four or five days are called test cricket. The more common version, known as Twenty20, consists of 20 overs, an “over” being six bowled balls, a bowled ball being a variation of the baseball pitch. Or vice versa, as American baseball is a game derived from English cricket, and not the other way around. This form of cricket generally takes about three hours.

If most of the world’s best cricket players these days have names that recall George Harrison’s backing musicians, there’s a reason for it. India and Pakistan, once under the rule of British viceroys, took to the game much better than they took to being under the rule of British viceroys.

It would be impossible to explain the variations and nuances that differentiate cricket from baseball in a paragraph or two.

Terrific hand-eye coordination, and, to a lesser extent, speed and strength, are required in both, and catlike reflexes are an asset for third basemen as well as cricket fielders when the ball is heading their way at speeds of more than 90 mph. But in cricket, there are no Gold Gloves. There are no gloves, period. There are, occasionally, broken fingers.

Both sports have home runs; only in cricket, as Srinivasan put it, “no ceremonial run is necessary” after hitting one. Reggie Jackson, it can be assumed, doesn’t care much for cricket. Same for Barry Bonds, although he wore his trousers like a cricket player.

As in baseball, cricket players develop a passion for the game at an early age.

“I was born to be a cricket player,” Srinivasan said. “God gave me the interest but, unfortunately, not enough talent.”

So Srinivasan, 51, travels to Los Angeles, where there is a dedicated cricket ground in the San Fernando Valley, on 16 weekends of every year to play the game of his youth against others young enough to be his sons. When we visited, he was the No. 4 batsman and second-ranked bowler in his league, and if you don’t believe it, as ol’ Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up, on the Southern California Cricket Association website.

We looked up a lot of stuff on the website and on YouTube, and one clearly could tell that Srinivasan was in his element, because he instructed his secretary to hold all calls and to push back his 2:30 meeting. It might have been Monaco calling, or the Netherlands, or Estonia or the Aland Islands or any of a hundred foreign countries wanting to place a bazillion-dollar order for Double Jackpot slot machines. And it would have to wait, because Srinivasan and a naive sports writer were talking cricket.

The Big Cheese and The Little Cheese, separated by a wide desk made of fine, dark wood, united by a sticky wicket.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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