NDQuesday: On Cricket and Basketball and the Future

I have this idea, it’s not a good idea, but it’s an idea nonetheless to put together an essay the NBA and cricket that brings together some of my research on the Bakken Oil Patch, on the age of austerity, and my interest in these sports. In my fantasy world, I imagine this as a penetrating essay in this fall’s volume of North Dakota Quarterly. In reality, these ideas are probably best left shoved deep down in the ole “idea box.”

On Cricket and Basketball and the Future 

I’ve been watching a good bit of cricket and the NBA lately. Most people tend to see the former as slow-paced, obscure, and unapologetically aristocratic and the latter as up-tempo, almost jarringly athletic, and deeply rooted in American urban experience.

Of course, these simplifications do not hold up to even superficial scrutiny. With countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and now Afghanistan playing cricket at the highest level, it is hard to continue to associate the sport with a genteel aristocracy (to say nothing of the explosive play that characterized West Indian cricket and the recent rise in short-form T20 cricket). The NBA is now, more than ever, a global league with superstars hailing from Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia as well as across the U.S. In short, both sports are global in scope and whatever their historical roots, the significance of the game is now translated into numerous local idioms. 

What has intrigued me lately is that the NBA is undergoing some pretty significant changes in how it is played. When I started paying close attention to basketball in the 1980s, there were clearly defined positions that, with some variation, had clearly defined roles. Centers rebounded and scored in the low post, power forwards did likewise, but often had a bit more athleticism and range. Small forward and shooting guards were typically assertive scorers whose main distinction was range and size. Shoot guards tend to be smaller and more accomplished shooters and small forwards more athletic and slashing with a bit more size and defensive acumen. Point guards distributed the ball and generally had defensive responsibilities around the perimeter.

In the last 5 years, all this has changed. Point guards have become scorers; power forward and centers without outside shots have become one-dimensional role players; small forwards and shooting guards have become so interchangeable that teams generally play three guards without distinguishing. My team, the Philadelphia 76ers, has a 6-10 point guard, Ben Simmons, who can switch to playing power foward, small forward, or even center. In short, the idea of positions has broken down in the NBA and as a result, the game on a play-by-play basis has become a bit more chaotic, less predictable, and, for lack of a better word, elastic with the dominant tactic on any possession, to simplify greatly, to stretch a player to the absolute limits of their comfort zone. 

Cricket has always been a game where positions, particularly in the field, are fluid. Unlike baseball, it’s closest relative, there are only two defined positions in Test match cricket (which is the 5-day form of the game): a bowler, who pitches the ball, and a wicket keeper, who stands like a baseball catcher behind the wicket. Early in the history of the game, fielders were limited to one side of the field, and in shorter form of the game, there are some limits on how fielders can be arranged, but this never created designated positions for players. In fact, any player can play any position. I recall, for example, the great Indian wicket keeper M.S. Dhoni, taking off his wicketkeeping pads and bowling in a Test match in England and nearly getting out the great English batsman Kevin Peterson

I’ve always assumed that this relative fluidity in positions in cricket harkened back to its pre-industrial roots. Absent is evidence for the kind of specialization found on the assembly line (or in industrialized sports like football). In fact, the absence of industrial specialization of the players is also reflected in its leisurely pace stretching over five days in the purist form of the game and stretching the weekend to include Thursday, Friday, and Monday as well. In fact, what is curious from the history of cricket is that prior to the 1930s, timeless test matches were not uncommon meaning that teams would simply play until one side got the other side out in the second innings. It was shipping schedules, in particular, that doomed the timeless test as a number of the games were brought to a premature conclusion because one team had to depart home. Timed tests introduced the draw where neither side could declare victory and historically over a third of all tests have ended that way. Even today, a drawn test can be revetting viewing as one team eagerly pursues victory and another endeavors not to lose. I’d argue that draws remains consistent with pre-industrial practices because it separates playing the game from the need to produce a winner.  

Recent trends away from specialized position players in the NBA might seem like a revival of an older, perhaps even pre-industrial, style of play, but I wonder whether the convergence of a less specialized NBA and a historically less specialized cricket actually reflects key trends in the globalization of sport (and in global economics). First, as innumerable critics have observed our world is accelerating and the economic and technological realities of this rapidly changing world mitigate against any specialization that occurs at the expense of adaptability. Of course, this may have always been the case on the assembly line where management expected a worker to perform with highly efficient familiarity at his or her post, but the worker also knew that the assembly line was always being tweaked and updated requiring a kind adaptability in both the workforce as a whole and the individual worker. At the same time, the 21st century economy, defined by precarity and the radical deskilling of workers demands both efficiency and flexibility in way that makes developing all but the rarest forms of specialization undesirable. As we tell our students, we’re training you for jobs that do not exist yet.

Second, the breakdown in the trajectory of modernity and, its related logic of assembly line, occurs with globalization. Cricket has always been a global game, initially mediated by the scope of the British Commonwealth, but now articulated largely along national lines. The style of play, conditions, and traditions remain local, however, demonstrating the kind of hybridity that thinkers like Homi Bhabha have articulated as characteristic of the postcolonial condition. The result is a delicate tension between the tendency to demand specialized “horses for courses” who can play in certain conditions (e.g. on the dry pitches of the sub continent or in England’s fickle summers) and the desire to maintain a side that can triumph with equal proficiency at home and abroad.   

The globalization of the NBA lacks the keen attention to the local that persists in cricket, but is no less hybridized. The breakdown of specialization, for example, in the power forward and center position can be traced, in part, to the arrival of big men like Arvydas Sabonis and later Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Bazinga with skills honed in Europe and with the ability to both post up and play facing the basket at the perimeter. Today, of course, this is not limited to European imports, but a fairly common aspect of many big mens’ games. Hybridization eroded specialization as the basic logic of the game in one place encounters counter logic from elsewhere.    

In this context, cricket and the NBA both manifest the tensions of globalization that disrupt the neat linearity of modern progress. The skills involved in cricket evoke craft in their disregard for specialized efficiencies born of the assembly line. The archaic characteristics of the game has tempted me to call it pre-industrial. At the same time, the same features in the NBA appear to evoke the contingent dynamism present in a globalized modern economy and this tempts me to label them post-industrial. It may well be that the convergence of cricket and the NBA do not represent points on the modern continuum of progress at all. At their best, they may be places of protest where the economic logic of culture is rebuffed by the logic of practice. At their worst, the lack of specialization in these sports might reflect the global logic of precarity where the risk associated with valuing specialization is increasingly offset by a deskilled workforce that are as valuable as they are disposable.