National Emergency

I should declare something at the start. This short piece is about cricket.

WordPress gives me to understand 364 persons follow my blog, a figure to humble and amaze.

I reckon about one hundred of you three hundred and sixty-four can tolerate cricket. The rest of you wish it out of existence, or at least you wish there were no broadcasts of five-day Test Matches.

I regret this post will alienate 264 friends. I do not write this lightly, however.

Perhaps thirty years ago my wife and I watched a rivetting live performance of ‘Equus’, a play by Peter Schaffer. It tells the story of a youth who attacked a number of horses, blinding them.

Towards the end of the play, a psychiatrist accuses a second character – more in sorrow than in anger – ‘You have done a thing that cannot be forgiven. You have destroyed a person’s worship.’

A memorable line which I was unable to fathom at the time. I can fathom it today. They have destroyed my worship.

Let me declare a few truths:

1. A cricket ball is a sphere, with two parallel ridged lines around its equator.

2. Australians playing cricket for our country don’t cheat. A former Captain of South Africa cheated. A number of subcontinental players have cheated.

3. Some Australian men playing cricket for our country are appalling sports in their disrespectful conduct towards opponents.

4. Our last four national captains have tolerated or fostered or led this behaviour.

5.Steve Smith does not cheat. He has suffered one episode of ‘brain fade’ as national captain that led him into breaching the Laws of the Game. But he does not cheat.

These things I have believed. I believed them long after ‘The Tour’ (of France) rotted in public; long , long after Ben Johnson destroyed my worship of men’s Olympic sprinting; long after East Germany destroyed the worship of women’s Olympic running. I knew we played fair in cricket, that is we played within the Laws. I watched our present Captain bat and bat and bat, I watched him rise and rise, I looked at his baby face:

butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. The worldcupniks – I mean the men at the top – gave us a World Cup in Russia and will give us another in Qatar. Who can enjoy that beautiful game mired in such filth?

Russia under Putin has destroyed worship wholesale. A nation – an entire region – lived to see democracy, lived under Gorbachev, experienced the birth of belief. Putin destroyed the worship that was belief in democracy. His henchmen have destroyed the worship of sport. America has elected a taxcutter who promised to reveal his personal  taxation details – ‘later’, he said. ‘Later’ came and he promised never to reveal them.

Who in that great republic can believe that paying taxes is fair? Straight? Decent?

Overnight in Capetown, where Australia’s cricketers are engaged in a mighty contest, cameras caught a junior-ish Australian player deliberately damaging the cricket ball. The effect of such tampering is to change a perfect sphere

into an irregular object, one which will not obey the same Laws of physics that apply to a sphere. Opposing batsmen, unable to read the ball, would be dismissed easily, unfairly, inequitably. Australia’s Captain and Vice-Captain have admitted they put the younger player up to it. They have been stood down, ‘pending an investigation.’

After his earlier ‘brain fade’ I believed in Steve Smith. It offended me that others, loudest among them India’s Captain, Kohli, accused Smith of cheating. It distressed me that one of Kohli’s venerable predecessors, Sunil Gavaskar, echoed that accusation. Those men did not share my worship.

In a tale that is as famous as it is unreliable, a child fan of the Chicago White Sox confronted his idol, Shoeless Joe Jackson, who had been implicated in throwing matches: O, say it aint so! –  cried the child.

Jackson and seven others were banned from the game for, life. To understand this, know Jackson was, like Steve Smith today, the greatest batter of his era. He was stood down for life. From this day forward, whenever Smith (or Warner) will take the field for Australia we will be a nation in disgrace. Be assured our cricket bosses will see to it these two will serve terms of derisory brevity: they are, after all, our two best batters. We will sit alongside Putin’s Ministry of Sport and the bosses of the World Cup.

I am not alone. A nation has lost its worship.

Flannelled Fools at the Wicket

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.