Tennis v/s cricket: busting myths from a playing perspective

Around end of March, I began to play tennis, having watched it since at least 1994, maybe 93.  I have been following cricket (or used to, rather) for roughly as many years.  The IPL spot fixing fiasco combined with the unsavoury Big Three takeover of cricket did it for me and I finally gave up on a game in which my interest had been waning over the last few years.  On the other hand, what with my now playing the game, my interest in tennis has only increased.  A comparison of cricket and tennis has been running in my head from the time I started playing the latter.  I used to play street cricket and was reasonably good at off spin (for the amateur level) but never put in dedicated effort to get better at it.  I have already upgraded to an intermediate racquet in tennis and I have voraciously devoured amazing youtube tutorials on the different aspects of the game, wanting to keep on improving at a game which I initially found frighteningly difficult to play.  The culmination of it was an ITF women’s singles match at the NMSA club, played on 20th December.  It was won by 18 year old Serbian player Nina Stojanovic, presently ranked 461 in the world.

After I watched Stojanovic beat Russian Natalie Dzalamidze (no. 348), comparisons with the two IPL matches I was able to watch in the stadium, I once again began to compare the two games and the level of play I had seen in this ITF match v/s IPL.  I know what the objection to that (from a cricket purist point of view) is going to be.  IPL is not cricket.  It cannot be compared with the pure form of tennis.  Sure, but I am talking women’s tennis and I am talking about a $25000 ITF tournament played, in tennis terms, between Ms Nobody and Ms Nobody.   So the comparison is not really unfair.  In the IPL matches, I saw players who represent the team at the highest level, like Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan, play, for instance.  So with that out of the way:

1.  Complexity:  The biggest myth held up by cricket lovers is that it is the most complex sport in the world and that there’s absolutely nothing else that compares.  This is a superficial view based on armchair observations and possibly a not very unbiased perspective of other sports.  Here’s what I think.  First off, yes, it’s true that a cricket captain has 9 fielders at his disposal and 4 specialist bowlers, at the minimum, to choose from.  So in terms of number of tactical options, yes, cricket is one of the most complex sports.  But let’s look at what it is like to play the game.  The thing is, there is a lot of inertia in cricket, phases where all players are in resting position.  I don’t mean literally resting but they just have to hang back in their chosen positions as the bowler runs up to the crease to deliver.  Likewise, the batsman just has to stay put in the crease.  It is in the bowler’s interest, if he desires to get him out, to make him play the ball.  So the batsman may have to use some footwork to get to the pitch of the ball at times, yes, but mostly the ball is directed such that the batsman can play it from the crease.

Perspective:  the only shot in tennis that you hit from an initial inert state is the serve!  That’s the only time in the entire point that you get to absolutely dictate play.  If you hit a great serve, you can force the opponent to make the shots you want him/her to and thus dictate the pattern of play.  But even so, and especially when your serve gets the treatment from the receiver, you have to anticipate where the opponent is going to hit the ball to.  How short or how deep is it going to be, how quick is it, where in the court you ought to be to receive it and what shot would be your best response to it.  Based on this, you may have to move forwards or backwards or sideways and prepare to hit a forehand or backhand drive or a slice or a volley. All this information is processed in a matter of mere seconds even at the amateur level of the game.  You do not have the luxury of time.

Additionally, unlike cricket, you do not have the option of leaving the ball unless it’s sailing long or wide anyway.  You have to make a shot.  And if you don’t make a good shot each and every time, you will lose the point unless your opponent makes a mistake.  One may have fewer options to process in tennis but the processing has to be done very quickly.  In top flight tennis, it’s basically done on the move.  He who hesitates pays the price.  To believe this does not require great sporting IQ is sadly deluded.  It is not my case, again, that cricket is not a complex sport. But so is tennis.  Just in a very different sense.

2. Skill and repertoire:  Cricket fans also love to boast about the skills and repertoire in the game vis a vis other games.  The different kinds of delivery and the wide variety of shots available to the player.  This involves a sleight of hand in oversimplifying (and thus diminishing quantitatively the repertoire of other games).  If you say the only shots in tennis are the drive, the slice and the volley, then likewise, the only shots in cricket are the drive, cut and pull.  Now if you distinguish between an along the ground drive and a lofted shot or a square cut and a late cut, then let’s talk about top spin forehands v/s flat.  Let’s talk about a deep slice v/s a short, knifelike one.  Let’s talk about drive volleys v/s drop volleys.  And how about grips?  You can hit the same shot, say a forehand, with a Continental, Eastern, Semi Western or Western grip.  This is not exotic jargon; rather each grip has a different purpose and acts differently on the ball, starting from the flattest and easiest grip (Continental) to the most extreme and top spin based (Western).  Oh, how could I forget down the line, inside out and crosscourt?  Nope, just like Tendulkar possessed a rich array of strokes to target every part of the ground, so too Federer possesses an incredible variety of shots for every part of the court.  You may rue the increasing dominance of baseliners and the decline of all court tennis but so too dextrous wristmasters and the merchants of timing are making way for bashball batsmen in cricket.  That has more to do with the improvement in equipment than the nature of the game.

3. The effect of equipment:  However, if the argument of equipment is going to be made against tennis, its effects have been far more deleterious on cricket whereas the jury is out on tennis.  Understanding this requires watching the game in a stadium as opposed to television.  TV does not do justice to how intensely tennis is played at the professional level.  I dare armchair serve and volley ageists to try net rushing against the powerful groundstrokes of Stojanovic and Dzalamidze.  Even the decline of the one handed backhand becomes easier to explain when you see the power and bounce with which players attack the backhand corner.  I can only hypothesize as to how good Wawrinka’s one hander must be if he could take on heavy topspin strokes from Nadal and beat him at the Australian Open.  A one hander that incredible is out of the grasp of most mortals and accordingly most tennis players choose the double hander.  When you watch a tennis match in the stadium, you are not whining about the lack of volleys (by the by, Stojanovic did produce a few volleys that extracted gasps from the spectators, most of whom were recreational players themselves).  You marvel at the extreme athleticism and precision with which players are able to play the game today.  In cricket, since the advance in equipment has been lopsided with the ball staying the same as bats have improved exponentially, the contest has become increasingly one dimensional and the thrust ever more on the batsmen than the bowlers.

4. Physicality:  Cricket is a game with  much English baggage.  Not surprisingly, cricket watchers look for an underdog angle all the time.  So, the argument goes, cricket rewards the underdog.  A player does not have to be supremely strong, physically, to play cricket well because it’s all about skills.  While tennis is all about physicality (so, in theory, a gigantic dumbo could pick up the racquet and win grand slams).  There is no doubt that tennis has a pronounced bias in favour of tall players.  Not necessarily giants (most 6 foot 5 plus players don’t win the big titles) but the 5’10” to 6’2″ range.  This is lately noticeable in cricket too so it’s not completely immune from it.  Tennis does require a high level of athleticism because it is played at much higher intensity.  But it’s not all about physicality.  How hard you can hit a forehand largely depends on your swing, your hip rotation and your transfer of weight.  If this were not the case, giants like Del Potro would not be applying the same fundamentals of technique that Federer or Djokovic adhere to.  So, no, he is not exempt from it either just because he is much taller.  Justine Henin could out hit much taller and stronger players than her because of her technique.  I am 5’6″ and very overweight and I often hit bigger forehands than really tall and athletic opponents.  If anything, the advancement of equipment has only made players go for even more extreme grips and more torso roll, more bodily momentum in hitting the shot.  Tennis today is played at a higher level technically than in the days when a continental grip was de rigeur.  Whereas the improvement in bats has allowed for more of “see-ball-hit-ball” batting and long held conventions of footwork and position have been ditched as outmoded.

5. Live experience:  It is often repeated, almost as an article of faith, that cricket is meant to be watched in the stadium.  In terms of the almost festive atmosphere what with fans screaming at the top of their voices, maybe.  But the sport as such does not translate well to stadium spectating.  The long periods of inertia I referred to, as in the time taken by the bowler to get back to his mark or for fielders to change ends at the end of an over, take their toll and leave the spectator yearning for action.  And unless the bowler is a real tearaway, the experience of watching a pace bowler deliver the ball is not particularly exhilarating.  At times, what I saw in the IPL matches may have captured my imagination but it wasn’t anything that made me go “How is this even possible?”. It was not jaw dropping stuff.  On the other hand, the lowly ITF match I watched produced many such moments, almost throughout.  When the match was over, I was left wondering what it would be like to watch top 10 players play each other and realised why tennis is such a brutally elite sport.  The sad part is Dzalamidze is probably already too old to ever make the cut in premier WTA tournaments.  Stojanovic has a chance if she has a great 2015 and 16.  Else, she’ll get ‘timed out’.  At 18, she’s already running out of time to make it at the highest level of tennis.  Rank 461.  In cricketing terms, that would be a Ranji level player deemed unworthy of playing for India or maybe somebody who plays for the likes of Bermuda (and even that is being too charitable).

In spite of its punishing system, tennis has great depth at the grassroots level.  I was left to wonder whether the same can be said anymore about cricket.  It is time for cricket lovers to consider these questions and shake out of their complacent “cricket is the best ever game” illusion, which by the way is not true.

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