One of the many things about cricket that amused the comic genius Groucho Marx was the fact that at some point in the day, the two teams battling intensely on the field abruptly broke for tea. There is something archaic about the tea interval in a cricket match - perhaps it is a concession to modernity that the limited-overs games do not have a tea interval stitched into the fabric. It is not as if the urge to have a cup of tea disappears once you wear coloured clothes.
Archaic maybe, but sacred too. The tea interval is as much a part of cricket as the toss before the start of the game and the appeal for leg before. Theoretically, you could do away with either, but then why would you? Interestingly, Test match cricket preceded the tea interval, which means that around 1881-82 when it was first tried out in Australia, it must have caused an uproar.
Few changes in cricket have arrived without an uproar, and although television pundits did not exist then, you can imagine the pro-tea and the anti-tea factions battling it out, throwing into the mix such elements as patriotism, the paying customer, the rhythm of the game and the absurdity of a 20-minute break about two-thirds of the way through a day's play.
The Australian captain Joe Darling brought the tea interval to England in 1899 – a move for which he has not been given proper credit. Tea during a match existed, but the tea interval as an institution was yet to be established. In the 1880s, the England batsman Arthur Shrewsbury left standing instructions that a cup of tea should be brought to him at the wicket at a given time.
While Darling's tea interval prospered, his other revolutionary idea was, sadly, not taken seriously. For six years later, while leading Australia in England, he thought of Graeco-Roman wrestling with his opposing captain as an alternative to the toss. Having lost seven tosses to FS Jackson, the England captain (five of them in Test matches), Darling suggested wrestling. A century and more later, the ICC is yet to give that official sanction. It would be interesting to see how Ravi Shastri dealt with wrestling captains 'tossing' for his television audience.
Already by that tour in 1905, the tea interval had been through both acceptance and rejection. Two years earlier, there was an attempt to stop it altogether, but captains seemed to love it, especially fielding captains who noticed that a wicket tended to fall soon after the break. We don't know what umpires thought of this storm in a teacup, for they were not consulted.
More importantly, the tea interval has remained unaffected for over a century. And now, a fresh idea, and doubtless more controversy, this time with television pundits in attendance.
While the BCCI ask how they missed this, England have taken the lead. Over the next three seasons in Test matches, the tea interval will be owned by Yorkshire Tea, a company based in the UK. Perhaps inspired by the DLF Maximum in the IPL, the 20-minute break will be referred to as the Yorkshire Tea Break. There is a certain charm in sponsoring a period when there is no play, but where does that leave the lunch break? Twice as long as the tea break, it is now the obvious target for sponsors – and commentators who aim only to please.
That both Lalit Modi and his successors failed to spot the commercial possibilities of the non-play sessions must be irking them now. It probably means that we have to prepare ourselves for a host of new-age cricket sponsorships involving the day before the Test match, the space between the stumps, the umpire's right forefinger and so on. One-upmanship is after all, the name of the game.
Story first published on: Sunday, 10 February 2013 19:48 IST