‘How You Play the Game’

Sport is there to be enjoyed. It’s not war. So why do so many Australian cricketers behave as though it were? And as though they can’t win matches simply through their skills, but need to demoralise their opponents first? First there was ‘sledging’ – Australia’s sole original contribution to the game. Close fielders try to rile the English batsmen with reflections on their appearance or their masculinity or their paternity or their wives and mothers as the bowler runs up. Of course there are ways of coping with this. (I like the story of – was it the Indian batsman Tendulkar? – who when asked by an Australian slip fielder why he was so fat, replied: ‘because every time I sleep with your wife she gives me a biscuit.’) And it’s no longer confined to the Aussies. But it’s pretty unpleasant in any case, and demeaning, in my view, to the modern Australian team.

Now it’s getting worse. First we had Australian vice-captain David Warner writing about how he needs to work up a real ‘hate’ against the English players to get him going in a match. He actually described the England-Australia rivalry as a ‘war’. And he has form: on the last Australian tour he punched Joe Root in the face. Now we have spin bowler Nathan Lyon claiming that the England team are running scared of the Aussie fast bowlers, and hoping that they can ‘end a few careers’. ‘It’s an unbelievable feeling’, he said, ‘knowing that they are broken’. Really? Better than winning? And than winning fair and square?

So, why do they present themselves as such bastards? There are reasons for it in cricketing history, but they are getting rather ancient now. (The infamous ‘bodyline tour’, when the English fast bowlers were instructed to bowl at the batsmen’s bodies rather than their wickets, was in 1932-3, for goodness’ sake.) It may be a result of colonial resentment against their old masters, despite the fact that most white Australians in colonial times were far better off and much more ‘free’ than the Britons who stayed at home. (I could understand it if they represented the Australian Aborigines; but even then it was the white settlers who were responsible for oppressing them, not – directly – the Brits.) Or is it resentment against their perception that we – the British – are looking ‘down’ on them; an attitude I came across again and again when I lived and taught in Australia, and which of course is quite unnecessary. (I had to work hard to persuade them that I wasn’t a sneering privileged Pom just because I went to Cambridge.) I’d hate to think it arose from an inferiority complex; but isn’t that what is supposed to motivate most bullies? I love Australia, more than any other country I’ve lived in, especially its natural social democracy. But this particular after-effect of Empire sometimes got me down.

I was looking forward to the upcoming Test series. Ben will be at the Melbourne game. But, back in England, I may not follow it as closely as I used to. If Australia win it will constitute a victory for a kind of cheating, which may make me feel better about it. (It won’t really count.) If England win, which apparently is unlikely without Ben Stokes, I imagine I’ll feel triumphant, but in an unpleasant – unsporting – way. ‘There, that’s taught them!’ Both reactions are unworthy. Neither is the kind that sport is supposed to give rise to. And all because of these Aussie war-mongers; who have ruined this particular series, even before it starts, for me.

‘It matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game.’ Ah, those were the days!

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8 Responses to ‘How You Play the Game’

  1. “Or is it resentment against their perception that we – the British – are looking ‘down’ on them; an attitude I came across again and again when I lived and taught in Australia, and which of course is quite unnecessary. (I had to work hard to persuade them that I wasn’t a sneering privileged Pom just because I went to Cambridge.)”

    Your choice of words here is quite interesting, Bernard; you write “quite unnecessary” rather than than the more focused term, ‘mistaken’. A lot of Australians have travelled to the UK and a number have endured on occasions the phenomenon of being looked “down” on: were they merely hallucinating when having this experience? Probably not, in many instances.

    Surely the British, or a certain fraction of the British population, are justifiably famous for their brand of snobbery, which mainly concerns itself with adopting a patronising or deferential stance in regard to other citizens of the UK, but generously includes those from other countries as well. Conceptions of superiority and inferiority exist in all cultures, of course; however, the English version must take the cake in this respect, having been refined and perfected during the many centuries of aristocratic rule and the long decades of Empire. With notable exceptions, one of the intolerable features of the Raj for Indians was the superior attitudes adopted by their British rulers. The same or (much) worse goes for the British in China. A very high degree of cultural chutzpah was required to maintain and justify empire, and this attitude did not simply evaporate with the onset of decolonisation.

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    • I agree with all of this, so long as all its qualifications are observed: ‘a certain fraction of’, and so on. I do like to think that this snobbery is mainly confined to the British upper classes, who (as you say) sometimes inflict it on the likes of me, too; albeit mainly in the form of patronisation. (Is that a word?) See my comments on my Cambridge experiences…

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  2. English players unfortunately have their own problems in Australia, which seem to be centred around alcohol abuse. The sledging issue continues to smoulder away: it is beyond me why the ICC does not outlaw the practice completely, taking away the discretionary powers of the umpires. The Australian Cricket Board should instruct captains at all levels of Australian cricket to eradicate on-field abuse. It is galling to see players representing Australia behaving like delinquent year ten school students.

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    • Agreed – both points. It’s good to see the ECB, however, taking a strong line over drinking-fuelled incidents.
      I get the impression that Aussie aggravation doesn’t extend to the crowd. So Ben will be quite safe at MCG over Xmas. Just good-hearted banter, which he’s good at. (He got plenty of it at school in Canberra.)

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  3. As for the Bodyline series, England was clearly the aggressor and transgressor at that time. Australians in the 1930s were probably more inured to the traditional English interpretation of the game’s ethics than the English themselves.

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  4. It is not so long ago that Australian players were subjected to a gag by the ACB: only the captain spoke publicly and then it was usually only to promote the game in a generous manner: “We aim to play brighter cricket,” said Richie Benaud in the late 50s. He would never have set out to verbally antagonise his opposition, in public at least. This now looms as a golden era. [The rot started with World Series Cricket, the breakaway competition that took the game down market to encourage the viewers of commercial TV and lift the ratings.]

    These days, again to promote the game, I suspect, the less cultivated members of the squad are encouraged to utter appalling banalities and threats. The default Australian Test cricketer of 2017 is uneducated and has spent his whole life around the nets and the dressing room. Fifty years ago a player as gross as Warner would have been hidden from the public: now, unfortunately, he is front of stage, vocal and rich.

    The aggro is not just saved for England: all visiting teams get the full dose. Against India some years ago, the on-field conflict almost became a diplomatic incident. The most pathetic thing is that Australia performed abysmally, cravenly, on the subcontinent on their most recent tours; however, the players returned home unchastened, still styling themselves as heroes. Depressingly, the public sledging seems to work, or least fails to impede ticket sales: the Boxing Day Test has sold out for Day 1. I hope Ben, your son, has already bought his seat.

    “It may be a result of colonial resentment against their old masters, despite the fact that most white Australians in colonial times were far better off and much more ‘free’ than the Britons who stayed at home.” I think this is a somewhat ahistoric view. Until the Second World War, Australians were proud to count themselves as part of the Empire; a disproportionate percentage of Australian youth rushed off to die and defend the Empire in the Great War; they did not see themselves as fighting for Australia. (Though later myth-makers decided otherwise.) Australians still spoke proudly of Mother England; and the lives of the children of the prosperous were incomplete unless they lived in London in their early adulthood. Australian cities were copies of their English counterparts. In any case, David Warner is probably unaware that Australia was once a British colony. If asked he would strenuously deny that there was ever such a relationship.

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    • Agree all round. Very enlightening. And I’m with you on the imperial attachment and loyalty of Australians for most of the last century. (They instituted ‘Empire Day’, for example, long before the Brits did.) Maybe it’s the fact of their being thrown out of the family when the UK joined the EEC that has hurt some of them. (I picked this up at the time.) But your point that most Australians in the Warner class are probably totally unaware of all this history today is interesting, and broadly convincing. Except (a), Australian friends of ours still complain at having been taught British history in the 1970s-80s (before Warner’s time). And (b) what do they make of that little Union Jack at the corner of the Australian flag?
      Yes, Ben has his tickets for the Melbourne Test – I think. He and his wife and family are going over to spend Xmas with her folks. (Kellie has just taken on joint British citizenship. I was at her ‘ceremony’.)
      The ‘Gabbatoir’ sounds ominous! I’ve seen cricket – and Aussie Rules – at the MCG, SCG and Manuka Oval. Next time I must try to fit in Adelaide. From pictures it looks like a county cricket ground in Kent.

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      • I’ve checked with Ben about his tickets. Here’s his reply: “Yes I do – got them not that long ago. If it has sold out it will be the first time ever – there were a mere 96,000 there when I went a couple of years ago – which still isn’t capacity!” Bloody hell!

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