Culture Czar

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Location: Bangalore, Karnataka, India

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Twinge For Alien Game (7)

There was an interesting article in The Guardian, by their crossword editor, Hugh Stephenson, on cryptic crosswords. The full article is here, but what set me thinking was this quote:-

"cryptic crosswords are like cricket. Playing the game is more important than the result. Hours, days even, can end in a draw, with everyone still happy. Perhaps it is no accident that the flowering of the cryptic crossword in the past 50 years has been in the English-speaking, cricket-playing world. It has never taken hold in the US..."

Interesting, most interesting. I love cricket, I love cryptic crosswords, and I do know enough people who share the same noble interests. And yes, we all know that those Americans think cricket is a character in a Disney movie. As for their crosswords, anyone who has been brought up on stuff like The Hindu or the Guardian crosswords would recoil with horror on seeing the New York Times Crossword. Think about it- Dog (4) is ASTA, and Medieval Slave (4) is ESNE. Straightforward, direct, and soulless.

I ran a quick Google search for cryptic crosswords, which turned up some rather interesting results- most of the first few entries were British or Australian websites. India starts to come in around Page 2 or 3... and what sport do England, Australia and India all play?

Of course, there isn't enough hard evidence (which, in this case, would mean Google) to show a direct link between cryptic crosswords and cricket, but a minute of intellectual circumambulation and you can come up with enough reasons to link the two. Of course, most would be contrived, but does that really matter? One of my favorite academic theses of all time is this masterpiece, which links that Bruce Willis classic, Die Hard, with classical music. It's even called, rather grandiloquently, "Collage and Subversion in the Score of Die Hard". And it's a lovely read.

Back, however, to the job at hand. Take Mr. Stephenson's premise, i.e. "playing the game is more important than the result". Half the fun in cryptic crosswords DOES lie in participation, not in finally completing it. Yes, the satisfaction of seeing a fully completed crossword is something else again. But, so is victory in a cricket match, isn't it? The fun here doesn't come from knowing that the match has been won- it comes from watching the match, from the emotional involvement that comes from seeing the ups and downs, the insurmountable obstacles, the sudden flash of inspiration, the brilliant breakthrough, that old cliche about the journey being more important than the destination- extrapolate all this to crosswords, and you would start to understand what I mean.

Of course, you can argue that this is airy fluff, and you would have a point. So, lets get our hands dirty.

It's, for one, about the layers. Cricket as a game is infinitely multi-layered, and understanding and appreciating it would mean delving into each layer, getting to know it intimately, and then moving on to the next. Which is just what we do with crosswords, isnt it? Understanding the nuances, the complexities, the layers, and mastering them...

And it's all about working, working, working on cracking that next one. Getting closer and closer, each time, getting that little bit nearer the target. Just like cricket- watch Kumble, for example. Watch him working on the batsman, one lazily floating through the air, another hacking through it, a third skidding uncomfortably. Watch him push fielders around, push them around like so many letters as you struggle on that anagram, watch him experiment, try new things, try old things, hoping they will work. Watch the anticipation, the sense of everything being almost-there-but-not-quite. Then, watch as one suddenly hurries through, as the batsman thrusts his bat forward, ball thuds into pad, jumps, brushes past bat on the way out, and drops into the waiting hands of silly point. All the waiting, all the thinking, all the myriad combinations that have been tried in that quest for the solution, above all, the immense SATISFACTION that comes from cracking it- the similarities are uncanny.

Neither cricket nor cryptic crosswords are fast-food pastimes. Both require long hours (preferably with favorite beverage), lots of leisure time to languidly savour it all, and lots and lots of mental gymnastics as permutations, combinations and results fly thick and fast inside your head. Both, above all, are filled with " What-Might-Be's", as you try and play Soothsayer and participant at the same time. Should Australia have accepted the light that early in the final Ashes Test, or just have played on, desperate for that win? Does that word end with " ING" or " ION" ? If it ends with ION, then the last unsolved clue has "N" as the fifth letter; if not, the fifth letter is " G". Delicious Agony, never finally resolved until the end. No McCrosswords for me, thank you very much.

Both also require more than just a functional knowledge of the game. I might sound like a pompous ass or even an elitist snob, but the intellectual stimulation that solving a good crossword or watching an enthralling game of cricket gives you is, as mentioned elsewhere, unsurpassed. Chances are, if you like cryptic crosswords, you should love cricket. In fact, think of it- keep a good newspaper ready before the next match, and work on the crossword between overs, or even when the game starts to slow down a bit!

One last point- most people would agree that Chennai has some of the most erudite and knowledgeable fans of cricket in India, people who still talk about Vishwanath's famous 97 against West Indies 30 years back, people who stood up to applaud the Pakistan team after they defeated India in a Test match. Is it a coincidence that Chennai is also home to India's most popular cryptic crossword, from The Hindu?


PS- For those baffled by the heading, 'twinge' is 'crick'; 'alien' is 'ET', from extra-terrestrial. crick + ET gives you the Game..

This was first posted on the Cricinfo Blog, Different Strokes, and is cross-posted from there.


Blogger D said...

Californian City with dismissive remark to Coorgi(5)!

Nice post. You could perhaps amend the hyperlink to this,3604,1672293,00.html


There is no politics needed to get to the Guardian!

8:54 AM  
Blogger noopsterama said...

Nice. I got started off on cryptics after reading an article in a Reader's Digest comilation on the history of crosswords. I even remember the clue that entranced me "Charm one's way in"(8). My dad, an inveterate cryptic crossword solver, was delighted, and we spent many happy moments solving the Times crossword (now it's cryptic only Sundays, the rest of the time it's the NYT one, bastards).
Have noticed that almost inevitably, two people doing a crossword in tandem tend to fill up most of the clues faster than a single one. Maybe each of our brains are wired a little differently. My dad, for example, loves anagrams, while I am better at the puns. It's a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon, when you're thoroughly sick of Seinfeld reruns!

11:08 PM  
Anonymous dsylexic desi said...

Hindu might be popular,but the Deccan herald saturday is the best.

Think of it,The Statesman -ndelhi is topnotch as well

dsylexicus desicus

4:24 PM  
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