We live in historic times. Australia humiliated! Slaughtered! Ten batsmen dismissed in the shortest space of time, surviving the fewest balls in all Test Match history! It happened overnight against the English whom we expected to slaughter, to humiliate, to crush. We had announced those intentions, declared them as good as facts.
The Test Cricket contests between Australia and England – termed reverently, ‘The Ashes’, for reasons as fatuous as they are imperishable – excite citizens and journalists of both countries inordinately. Five test matches, each of up to five days’ duration, hold the attention and the hopes of tens of millions at opposite ends of the globe. A strange set of phenomena, these, phenomena that speak seriously to the human condition.
What is the human condition? Broadly speaking we human animals are born and we die. In the interval between our beginning and end we live. Our animality drives us to compete, to form packs, while our humanity creates consciousness of self and pursuit of transcendence.
Like other animals we play. Alone and in groups, dolphins play, both with fellow dolphins and with humans. Lambs plashing on their dewy grasses play, gamboling and skipping. Foals and adult horses alike gallop and canter in groups for no other reason than they can.
Humans play too.
Watch children as they proceed from A to B. Unconsciously, automatically, universally, they wander, they saunter, they skip, stride, jump and run. They do so because they can. Apparently they must.
In respect of play, adults remain children. Play rehearses animal needs: hence running races, wrestling, jumping and leaping contests, swimming contests. Primates learn the use of implements. Fencing as sport exemplifies the primitive contest with the evolved use of an implement, in this case an implement for slaughter, modified for play. At some early time in our story humans invented or discovered the ball. Arguably the ball surpasses the wheel as the singular development in this story.
Early in the story of warfare, which closely corresponds to the story of humans, the idea emerged of the champion, the representative best skilled in slaughter. The champion went out to battle on behalf of the tribe; if your champion slew the opposing champion, your tribe enslaved the opponent tribe.
Test Cricket survives as the recognisable fusion of these elements. When English persons wearing white flannels, and using sticks and a ball, compete for five days in fierce opposition to eleven Australian persons in similar attire, all twenty-two play out ancient animal and human impulses.
Preserved in the game are ancient rituals: fierce facial expressions, face painting, taunts and challenges, insults and oaths; violence in the flinging of the ball, in the plying of the willow; elegance, in batting poetry, in fielding as in batting the highest graces of dance; among players exhibitions of courage, hubris, cunning, strength, nimbleness, speed and deception; among the supporters, transcendence, transports of joy, of grief, of shame, of pride.
With the unbearable recent exception of Phillip Hughes, no-one dies. As in chess, the highly comparable very slow game of transmuted murder, cricket fulfills our animal need for mayhem, without shedding blood. It was Wellington (‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’) who pointed, albeit from a different angle, to the relation between games and war.
In the present Ashes series, we have SLAUGHTER! HUMILIATION! TRIUMPH! We have the march of the superlatives, but nothing new. Nothing at all.