Is cricket a lot like boxing?

The last few weeks of the Canadian summer I have been getting up at 5:50 more or less every day. Not to spot some migrating birds, nor to catch sight of a beaver preparing for winter, but to fire up the radio and listen to the Ashes, the biennial cricket contest between England and Australia. England are currently 2-1 down and cannot prevent the Aussies from retaining the little urn. But its not for want of trying [edit: I wrote this before the 1st day of the 5th test, where many English batsmen appeared to give up]. The last test match in particular saw a dogged and desperate rearguard action over several days, as England battled determinedly to salvage a draw. Ultimately, their pluck was not enough against an impressive battery of snarling antipodean fast bowlers (not to mention the 2nd greatest batter to have every played the game) and England lost. But it did remind me of something I’ve thought for a while: Cricket is a lot like boxing.

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And I don’t mean Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff’s short foray into boxing. Image: Action Images

I hope you can pause your laughter long enough to keep reading and hear me out. How can a bunch of dandies lolling about a field all day in the summer be like two gladiators pummelling each other in a ring? One has tea breaks, the other only time for nose breaks. And before you leap to any conclusions, the similarity I see is not due to the risk of concussion, brain damage, and even death inherent in each sport. Not to say that it isn’t true. The recent head injury to Steve Smith, and the newly introduced concussion protocols, serve as a reminder of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes and the very real dangers cricketers put themselves in. Boxing more often has to contend with the loss of life, with the last 12 months, Christian Daghio, Maxim Dadashev, and Hugo Alfredo Santillan have died following bouts (source). The sickening thud of leather on bone, as a ball thuds into a rib cage, or a glove smacks into a cheekbone, is present in both sports. But that’s not what I am talking about.

The similarities I see between boxing and cricket are more to do with the ebb and flow of action in each. Sure they differ greatly in tempo, boxing packing all the action into 6, 8 10, or even 12 three minute rounds, while test cricket stretches it out over five days, but if you can see through that difference then the essential rhythm in each is quite similar. I’ll note now I’m mostly talking about test cricket, the meaty five day version of the game, rather than the one-day or twenty20 formats. Likewise, I’m thinking of professional boxing, typically spread over an attritional 10 or 12 rounds, rather than the three or four rounds amateur boxing fills. These other formats are highly skilled and exceptionally entertaining, but are not the comparison I wish to make. Five days of test cricket. A dozen rounds of boxing. How do they compare?

Perhaps because I mentioned death you’ve stopped laughing, so I can explain. In test cricket, the constant question of “Who’s winning?” is often hard to answer, A team can start well, with a barrage of wickets, or a glut of runs. So they put themselves in a good position. And this they can convert into a win. But the opposition can and often will fight back, stopping the flow of runs or stemming the procession of wickets. A 50-run partnership or a couple of wickets can wrest momentum back from the other side, and suddenly the team that was “winning” is not. If the teams are evenly matched and playing to a similar level, this back and forth will continue for five days, until the side that has had the upper hand more often than not is charging towards victory with bat or ball, while their opponents block, or bash, or bowl as they can to deny them. It’s a war of attrition, and only those able to keep their focus and discipline to perform in all three sessions across all five days can ever hope to be great.

Now for boxing. Its true that mid-way through a fight one fighter will be up on the cards, and so can be said to be wining. But a sudden counter-attack, a flurry that changes defence to attack and fills one set of lungs as it empties another, and its all change. Throughout the fight momentum will shift and swing and by the end, although one invariably has had the best of it, the other is likely to still be there doing their utmost to deny them and snatch an unlikely win. Unless of course they are flat out on their back, which happens more often in the heavy weights, but much less so in the lighter fighters.

In both cricket and boxing the, the contest is (hopefully, although one-sided match-ups do occur) a see-saw battle of technique, physicality, and concentration. A gritty dance that rewards those who can keep the pressure on the whole time, and strike when a weary or ill-disciplined opponent drops their guard, knocking their opponent over with a few well aimed blows of the bat, the ball, or the fist. There are other similarities too, that add layers and texture to each contest. For one, cricket teams and fighters can have a history; repeated contests that serve to heighten the intensity and sharpen the desire each time they come together. Clashes of style too enrich both sports. Balanced orthodoxes and slippery southpaws. All-action Mexicans, slick Cubans, Irish fighters with dazzling hands, Russians with mesmerising feet; contrasting fighting styles, ways of moving, preferred shots and paces of fight. Each combination gives different pairings unique twists and allows for endless speculation and re-analysis. Meanwhile, fiery West Indian fast bowlers tear into wristy Indian masters, while willowy English seamers duel with broad-chested Australian run machines. Each combination of players and pitch and country providing infinite sets of permutations, with countless nuances and fascinating intricacies. Match-ups make matches. Both sports also inspire some fantastic sports writing (not that I’m referring to this particular case, The Sweet Science or Cardus On Cricket are some pieces I’ve really enjoyed).

If I am waxing lyrical about the similarities between boxing and cricket, I should note the differences as well. One punch can win a boxing match, while they say you can’t win a test match in one session (although you can lose it). Further, cricket has something of a reputation as an upper-class sport, for toffs from private schools to amuse themselves with in the summer. Boxing on the other hand has a much earthier image, as a means for those from poorer backgrounds to fight their way to a better life for themselves and their loved ones. But despite these potential differences, I still feel that deep down these two sports share a very similar rhythm, even if it can be obscured by quite different tempos.

What really nails the similarities for me is how the losing party behaves, and what could be considered “boring” behaviour. In cricket, the team in the worse position might adopt “negative” tactics, in order to prevent the other team from winning, and so snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat. Blocking every ball for hours on end. Bowling miserly deliveries to defensive fields to strangle the run-scoring. But despite the supposed negativity of these actions, this grim defiance, the refusal to give up and roll over, is enthralling, entertaining, and inspiring. The boring thing would be to give up. Keep bowling as you were, let them steadily accumulate towards victory. Swing your bat at any likely delivery, score a dashing 30-odd and then get out, allowing everyone to get home early for dinner. It may seem more entertaining, but it’s a spineless capitulation. You couldn’t be bothered to stick around, so you didn’t. In a boxing match, when over matched and well behind, you could quit on your stool, declare “no más”, and embrace the inevitable without going through the wringer. Or, you can keep hustling, keep working, forcing your opponent to go the distance, to earn every millilitre of your sweat and blood. Yeah sure, you will probably still lose. But maybe you might just pull off something remarkable. At least, you can reach the bell, or the end of play, knowing you gave everything for the cause. Bloody but unbowed.

OK, that’s enough of my misty-eyed ramblings. Perhaps I’ve convinced you, maybe I haven’t. Let me know in the comments. I’d especially like to hear from you if you have both boxed and played cricket: do you agree or am I talking out of my backside? One thing I do hope is that when you next read about, listen to, or watch a test match or fight night, you might look at them just a little differently.

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