Cricket's oldest foe

Rain clouds have a way of manipulating sporting fortunes.

Rain wiped out two days of cricket in the ongoing Birmingham Test.

Lovers of sport have it easy these days. There is something live to watch on television almost daily, and summer – that most sought after commodity in Europe – brings with it an abundance of riches for couch potatoes.

With several different contests in currency, evenings in India for sports fans revolve around perplexing choices: should they pitch their voyeuristic tent in the red sludge of Roland Garros, or tail the fortunes of the bickering Englishmen as they take on the equally fractious West Indies; should they chuck these entirely to watch another combustible entity – perhaps the most volatile in modern sport – erupt into a flame of excellence down in Sri Lanka?

What the viewer hasn’t yet factored in is the play of the elements. Rain and sport have a storied, and much-hated, history and it is often claimed in parts that have been worst hit by the fickleness of Mother Nature that the surest way to end a drought is to drive in three pegs of wood in a field, and wait for the skies to open.

This past week, unwelcome precipitation curtailed three separate competitions around the globe, delaying the French Open in Paris, washing out the first two days’ play in the England-West Indies Test in Birmingham, and ruining the opening ODI between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Is there anything more frustrating than sitting before the idiot box waiting for rain to withdraw its clammy fingers from the middle? Is it safer to just stick with soccer and admire the way Euro-2012 is likely to cock a snook at  any curtailment the heavens throw its way?

Cricket, with its susceptible square, infinite strategic intricacies and tactical nuances – all of which are affected enormously by the ‘conditions’, is a sport that has always been at the receiving end of nature.  Even after a game resumes, provided the clouds have receded and the wind dropped, the intervention of weather takes its toll one way or the other - either by dramatically changing the contest through the altered environment, or, in one-day cricket, through a series of miscalculations that have been formalized as mathematical systems predicting target scores in curtailed games.

Tennis is perhaps is as affected by bad weather as cricket is, but thankfully, matches in the racquet sport resume from whatever score they were interrupted at. Marred contests between bat and ball are an entirely different proposition. The bondages of air time, the associated corporate compulsions and logistical loopholes prevent cricket matches from spilling over into the next day, and more often than not reworked scores leave a lot to be desired.

The example (and there are many) that comes first to mind is the 1992 World Cup semifinal between England and South Africa, which was reduced to a farce by 12 minutes of rain. South Africa were prevented (thanks to a bizarre Rain Rule and Channel Nine’s insistence on a prompt result despite the provision of a rest day) from seeing a magnificent late-order rally to its end. It was rain too, partly at least, that enabled Hansie Cronje and Nasser Hussain to forfeit an innings each in the now infamous ‘Leather Jacket’ Test match, a decision later discovered to have been influenced by a bookie.

It isn’t just sustenance and irritation that the heavenly sprinkles provide. Rain has even decided a Test series. In 1936-37, England, possessed of a 2-0 lead, held the five-match series down under in a stranglehold and were running through the Australians in the third game. Down came the rain, and in a twinkling the Aussies’ innocuous first innings 200 assumed alarming proportions.

On a wicket rendered ‘sticky’, in an air laden with moisture, England were shot out for 76, and as the sun emerged on the morrow, Australia and Don Bradman made the best of the conditions to pile on 564, leaving England to buckle down in an impossible fourth innings chase. The third and fourth Tests too were weather affected, but by then Bradman was in his groove as he drove Australia to a remarkable 3-2 turnaround from a two-Test deficit.

No doubt, the slippery twists that result from a downpour are enthralling to watch. Even if they weren’t, is there a way to circumvent the influence of the surroundings on a cricket match? If day-night Tests can be mulled over, why not a gigantic billion-dollar covered stadium, however impractical that sounds? Wouldn’t such a scenario – one where games continue in a vacuum shielded from external factors – deprive the sport of the glorious uncertainties that are its hallmark?

Perhaps it was this fascinating and unique intertwining of the activity and its environment that compelled past Prime Minister of Britain, distinguished first class cricketer and former MCC Chairman Alec Douglas-Home to once wryly wish: “Oh God, if there be cricket in heaven, let there also be rain.”