In Dubai, a wicket falls in front of a few thousand people at the International Stadium. It is the third day of a test match between Pakistan and Australia, and in Birmingham, my dad is three deliveries behind. In London, my stream is almost a full over behind, so while the score has changed on Cricinfo, I haven’t seen the details yet. I tap my fingers impatiently. I know what’s coming but until it has arrived the present will remain anxiously out of reach. My brother messages me with the action I have not yet seen and in this momentary distraction, I almost miss it when it comes.
When I first started using Cricinfo, my brother told me that a delay in an update meant that something had happened. Cricinfo gives ball-by-ball updates–how the delivery left the hands and how it lands, if it was dispatched or blocked or missed entirely, how many runs were scored and whether the pitch was talking in a language the batsman or the bowlers could understand–which makes it possible to map an innings without really understanding what it feels like. But so much is left out, like at which point the tension shifts and bulges, or when the creeping tide of momentum starts to fills the stadium. Words can’t account for how the mood can change with a piece of athletic fielding, or how the chatter that filters out from an excited wicket-keeper punctuates each delivery. Instead, what you feel are the pauses, the places where something–a wicket, or a contentious moment, or some action that wasn’t just a copy-and-paste of the preceding delivery–has created a delay, something that demanded observation. Delays are when the people writing updates were compelled by what they’ve seen before they were compelled to tell us about it.
For as long as I have frequented this app, I have attached a specific weight to these pauses . . . even when they were only caused by a slow connection, or a failure of technology. Each stagnation becomes a furrowed brow, a stomach knot, or a breath caught in my throat.
Cricinfo updates and updates and updates and the wicket is now something that has happened and passed. My dad messages me. Three. I respond affirmatively, making sure to elongate the s in my yes so he knows I am celebrating. We aren’t able to watch any of this together so occasions of joy get stretched to fill the time it takes for the information to flow. Wicket number three is already in my past but I revel in it a little longer.
When we were kids, growing up within a two mile radius of everything that mattered, we followed the Pakistan cricket team with singular dedication, largely at the behest of my grandfather. In the nineties, this happened via Teletext. Before Sky Sports and dodgy boxes–and, well, before the internet–we followed cricket on an information service that had been created to broadcast facts and figures that were relevant to British agriculture into rural homes across the country: pixelated neon words on a black background that sat in front of whatever was on the screen, Teletext was the first experience, for us, of accessing information on demand. It was primarily used to read the news, follow the weather, play quiz games, and studiously accompany the patter of sports scores as they came in (page 323 for football matches, page 343 for cricket). Before we congregated around moving images, we congregated around Teletext. Each page took 23 seconds to refresh and change and the cricket section was four pages long, two for the scorecard and two for stats. If you were interested in how your team was batting, you had to wait 92 seconds for an update while the pages rolled around back to the start.
That 92 seconds was the texture of cricket for us. On the radios which (rarely) broadcasted Pakistan matches in England or the TV screens of the wealthy, matches happened in “real time”; for us, each moment was 92 seconds and a small world of possibilities. The remote stayed closed to my grandfather and while life continued at its usual pace around these 92 seconds–while meals were placed, eaten, and cleared, phone calls occasionally bursting through, everything else–my brother and I were fixated on my grandfather, the image of fandom.
The fourth and fifth wickets fall in quick succession. I should put my phone away because my Whatsapp conversation with my brother is open and so watching the wickets tumble doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should, as is intended. It is about the time Pakistan are reaching crescendo, notes of tension gathering to put the opposition in a state of unease. Our bowling attack has mastered the slow choke–the gradual drying up of runs that can cause a batsman to play rashly, desperately–which occupies all faculties. The right lines and lengths and speeds demand to be accompanied by the sight of a troubled batsman and an agitated, encouraging wicketkeeper captain; there are twitches of aggression in fielders collecting and returning the ball and an unshakable sense of destiny gathering speed. Players flex and glide around the pitch with conviction. There is no vision more compelling.
My dad messages me to ask if I’m watching and I have emailed my brother to tell him I am. We all feel the change but it’s never named. How could it be? Osman Samiuddin spoke about it as haal but amongst family, this cricket team is an extension of who we are and how we are, and naming it would feel much too deliberate, much too close to nazr, to the accidental malevolence caused by looking too fondly in our own direction.
The landing page for the streaming site that I’m watching this match on, my home away from home, is committed to memory instead of my bookmarks, an overprotective hangover from the time when my regular, saved streaming sites disappearing in quick succession.
The links to these sites are never shared openly or publicly, but they aren’t hoarded either; they are passed around on a need-to-have basis, everyone implicitly understanding that the fragile internet ecosystem is crucial to international support. Pakistan’s cricket season is not widely aired, not important enough to the average cricket viewer–most of the average cricket viewers live in India–but I don’t think that’s not why the quality of the streams are so sketchy; they almost take a pride in their sketchiness, in stubborn refusal to succumb to HD quality images. The viewers will come, and stay, regardless. Perhaps it helps them escape being shut down by whoever it is that shuts them down. They also come wrapped in pop-ups and those tiny little “x” boxes that you have to chase around the screen with a cursor, as well as that barely-surviving relic of an earlier version of the internet, live chat-rooms, unmonitored, unmoderated, and left to fend for themselves.
Alongside the push-and-pull of dicey streaming, chat-rooms stretch time in their own way. Commentary only filters through alongside random observations, requests for other streaming sites, an unhealthy dose of nationalism, and the kind of dull silliness that takes the form of annoying strangers on the internet. Sometimes the collective reactions match what I can see happening in the game, and sometimes I can sense the delay, the few seconds of discrepancy. Other times it feels like they are watching an entirely different game, celebrating wickets that haven’t fallen and casually referencing football matches that aren’t taking place. Chat-room running as a companion to a stream are still just rooms with lots of people, all interested in more than one thing at one time and their attention scattered across various teams and various sports. And, as reliable as Shoaib Malik’s hands, a message will always come through to request “no spoilers,” as though international cricket is a TV series that has already aired (and the request will go unheeded, if only because no one can know where exactly “Oracle510” is on the timeline of this game anyway). Messages arrive timestamped, so they appear linear, but stream-site chat-rooms reside in the PG-rated internet outback, where there is only a loose grip on temporal reality and no desire for consistency. I’ve never been able to work out if these chat-rooms are occupied by bots or trolls or a collection of individuals each locked into their own stream, their own timeline and their own tiny delays; these are the kinds of mysteries that never get solved.
Wickets six, seven, and eight fall. The Whatsapp messages are coming in flurries now and my stream is still behind but it has my full attention; the opposition’s departures have been quick and steady, so I haven’t had to check Cricinfo. I do click back to read about how the wicket has fallen, however, despite having just seen it, and I hope to never bore of the easy satisfaction of the little red circle of a wicket in the ball-by-ball, the bold text in the commentary, and the awe and wonder I can imagine each commentator has experienced when detailing another delectable moment in Pakistan’s bowling. When Pakistan are batting, I do the opposite; in those situations, Cricinfo is my panicked guide and I only return to a stream (usually playing on mute) if there is a shot I want to watch. The delay facilitates my cowardice, the latency gives me time.
I was raised on a diet of batting collapses, of opening order collapses, middle order collapses, and end of innings collapses. I have lived as a Pakistan fan intimately afraid of a chase, frightened of a score that appeared too simple to make; it doesn’t matter how many sublime Pakistani batsman have passed through, there is never enough technique, confidence, or wins to erase the puncturing pain of seeing wickets tumble like dominos. When I did not know how to make sense of the words and numbers on Teletext, I watched my grandfather attentively, his movements palpably frustrated as the pages flickered around their loop. I have seen my dad sink deeper and deeper into his seat, his face a picture of despair, his voice chastising and hurt. My brother has learnt all of these and I have discovered my own, our bodies familiar with the knowledge of what they lay witness to. And there has not yet been enough joy to challenge this particular muscle memory. So, I read before I watch, seeking spoilers as though knowing the very near future can somehow mitigate the uncertainty of what remains unknowable.
Wickets nine and ten are down without the score moving and we are into an innings break. It takes my dad a few minutes to catch up, for our timelines to sync, by which time my brother and I are already sharing replays of what has just been and gone. I send him a tweet summarising Pakistan’s excellent bowling performance and he responds with a video of the most satisfying wicket. There are twenty minutes of down-time before Pakistan will return to the field as the batting side and the game will move onto its next chapter and I will nervously ask my brother what our chances are. But in this break, the past still feels deliciously near and we bask and we gloat; this is my favourite part of a test match, when you have won enough small battles to bask in the glorious invincibility of your past without having to enter the future, yet.
People have been predicting the death of test cricket for as long as we have followed it as a family, for as long as it has been alive, an antiquity of a moment that has supposedly passed. I can’t recall a single test match from my childhood that hasn’t in some way been reinforced and relearnt after the fact but I can remember vividly watching my grandfather, how it felt to want what he wanted and how it felt to yield to the passing of that time. Although it is rare now that we can watch any or all of the meandering five days in the same place, on the same timeline, there is no version of the game that we remain committed to more deeply because of how it asks us to be present for Pakistan and for each other. With the inevitability of developing technology, the ways we follow this time will continue to change and evolve, latency sometimes lengthening our distance and other times soothing it. What remains steadfast is us, and our collective, familial moment.