When I saw a story on NPR about ‘cricket fights’, I initially thought that it was referring to the attacks by Hindu students on Kashmiri Muslim students who had been celebrating after Pakistan defeated India in the T20 World cup currently under way. There has been a long-standing geopolitical antagonism between these two neighboring countries that has has spilled over into cricket, and Indian cricket fans are notorious for taking losses badly and venting their anger in violent ways. This loss particularly hurt because it is the first time that India lost to Pakistan in any World Cup format. People on social media even attacked a Muslim Indian cricketer for being a traitor. People take sports far too seriously. But the news item was nothing about that.
The NPR story was actually about a practice in China where staged fights between crickets (the insects) is a thing and that people attend these cricket fights. Apparently people carefully search for and breed crickets for their fighting qualities and a good specimen can fetch thousands of dollars. This is the kind of story that reads like an Onion spoof or an April Fool’s day hoax but it is real.
Big money is involved. The little critters themselves are usually cheap — around $5 to $10 — but the most elite fighters can end up being worth a small fortune in a country where millions of dollars are spent on cricket sales — and cricket care — each year.
Here’s how the game works. Two crickets — always males — are weighed to the closest hundredth of a gram and then paired off by weight class like prizefighters. They are placed in a clear plastic ring nearly the size of a dinner plate, with a dividing wall separating the two insects. A referee signals go time, then slides out the ring divider to let the bugs face off.
The owners poke a special reed in to lightly brush their crickets, which goads them into fighting. The critters lunge and swipe their pincer-like mandibles at each other. A referee closely monitors the tiny combatants, noting the number of attacks and retreats.
In one fight in this smokey room, there’s a quick tussle of just a few seconds, but one of the crickets isn’t able to keep its grip on the other and backs off. The referee declares it the loser. Both crickets are quickly put back into clay jars. They are precious enough that their owners never let them fight to the death, and injuries are rare.
The article goes on to describe how certain parts of China are known for the toughness of the crickets and people fan out to search for prize specimens, carefully looking for specific features that signal that the cricket would be a good fighter. But taking care of them is not easy.
Outside the fighting ring, the critters are high maintenance too. Zhao lets me help clean out his ceramic cricket jars. They have been coated in a special type of “worm tea” — made from the manure of a moth native to southwestern Guizhou province. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the tea provides a cooling effect that complements the bug’s body chemistry.
In each jar, we also add a little clay house for the cricket, the right mix of soils and a carpet of rice paper. “I don’t want them to walk around with bare feet, because they have these tiny claws at the tip of their legs. When they’re damaged they cannot hold their ground when they’re fighting,” Zhao explains.
Each night, he cooks a nutritious meal of grain and bean powder for them every night. “They’re very picky,” he says.
Some of Zhao’s male crickets have to have their bottoms washed in a special solution he concocts to unclog their genital openings, which have been covered up by overly large wings — also a sign of a good fighter, but bad for reproduction.
Zhao loves his crickets so much it sometimes gets in the way of his own love life. Women tell him he’s crazy, he says.
Aficionados of P. G, Wodehouse novels might might see similarities with Gussie Fink-Nottle’s obsession with newts, except for the fighting part.
My usual reaction to stories about cockfighting or dogfighting is revulsion but my initial reaction to this story was more of amusement and puzzlement about its appeal. Maybe it was because while it sounds bizarre, it also seems far less brutal than cockfighting or dogfighting. It could also be because my sphere of empathy does not extend to the insect world, even though the general idea of encouraging animals to fight with another for the enjoyment of human beings should be something that I deplore whatever species is involved.