I’m not sure of the origins of the idea that cricket is a metaphor for life. But for anyone interested, as I am, in the practice of discourse analysis, ideas of nationalism, medievalism, the relation between individuals and institutions, in rituals, cricket, convalescence and the monarchy, the current Ashes tour of Australia provides fascinating and ample fodder. Note to US readers: England is currently on tour in Australia, to play a “best of 5” series, played every 18 months or so in alternate countries. Each game can last up to five days. Australia leads the current series 4-0 (in a game where a draw is not uncommon). The final test starts in Sydney tomorrow.
Here are the parameters of my interest:
• AS an invalid, I’m allowed to watch as much televised cricket as I like this summer.
• CRICKET commentary (on radio and in print) has long been my delight, for its brilliant and/or hyperbolic use of metaphor and meta-narrative. Shane Warne’s announcement of his retirement after the Sydney game brought out this from Peter Roebuck:
"Shane Warne has been the most extraordinary, exotic and entertaining cricketer the game has known. In his hands, a cricket ball could perform previously unconsidered gyrations, spinning at right angles, skidding like a puck upon ice, changing directions after an initial curl or else dropping sharply to leave the batsman groping at thin air.
"He took a bag of tricks onto the field and dipped into it with the cunning of a rat and the theatricality of a tragedian. And now the end is near. Treasure these last few days as the old rascal pitches another jewel of a leg-break or carts another irreverent 40 or plots another clever dismissal or presides over another imposing performance. Treasure them because we will not see his like again."
• I'VE cherished a long-standing interest in tracking metaphors drawn from medieval culture in sporting discourse (this might even become a Research Topic one day). E.g. Greg Baum on the English capitulation in Adelaide: “Like medieval royals with syphilis, they went suddenly mad. England lost its last nine wickets for 60, the same England that made 6-551 declared in the first innings.”
• THE Ashes rivalry is deeply colonialist: the little urn we fight over contains the ashes of the bales burned by some Melbourne women after Australia first defeated the English in 1882, to signify the death of English cricket, as reported by the English media, thus inaugurating a tradition of the English press savaging any unsuccessful national team. How do sporting teams come to represent the national character? Martin Johnson explains:
"What seemed to catch England unawares here, for reasons that will take a bit of explaining, is that Australia's reaction to losing the Ashes [in 2005] was a bit like Scotland Yard's on discovering that the crown jewels had been stolen.
"The Australians have been intense, intimidating, downright nasty at times, but while they are the equivalent of a long-distance truck driver ploughing on beyond the health and safety regulations, England can only go so far before pulling into the service station for a mug of tea and a kip."
• AS an old game, cricket is replete with an elaborate set of rules and rituals. When any umpiring decision is in doubt, the rule book says “the spirit of the game” should be invoked as the deciding principle. (Note to medievalists: cf. Augustine's rule of "caritas" in scriptural exegesis.) This is ritual practice in action, as the game veers between wanting to modernise itself to attract new audiences, and wanting to uphold its own traditions (cricket thus parallels my interest in English ritual practice and the monarchy’s struggle between tradition and modernity: and yes, the Helen Mirren movie The Queen was made in order to prove my current research thesis on the Order of the Garter). Peter Lalor described Adam Gilchrist taking some beer to the ground staff in Perth after the third test as proof that the Australians are “not only better cricketers, they are morally superior too” (tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless, printed). Jonathan Agnew’s blog on the BBC website, and his mention of the MBEs awarded to the English team in 2005 attracted the following comment: "I agree totally with MZ, the England team should be ashamed of their efforts, no will to fight etc. They should all hand back their stupid honours from last year’s streaky Ashes win. It just shows what an outdated system both cricket and the honours are in England!"
• MY son has started to play cricket so this summer I am attending training sessions and games of the Edinburgh Under 12s, watching these young boys being taught this “spirit”, and the principles and conventions of the game. In the last game before the January recess I watched one frustrated young batsman calling out to his teammate: “Come on, go out!”, as he could see the innings drawing to a close without getting a chance to bat. There has been some stern lecturing from the coach, an extraordinary 18-year-old, on the protocols of cheering and applauding the successes of both teams.
• AS a game, cricket is curiously poised between individual and team performances, so for people like me, who identify strongly with their workplace and who also compete against themselves, it’s a fascinating analogy played out in public. This isn’t an issue just for the juniors. There was an extraordinary interchange this week between the Australian coach John Buchanan and the middle-order English batsman Kevin Pietersen. Buchanan accused Pietersen of not being a team player, to which Pietersen responded:
"I've also been helping Monty Panesar big-time. It's just ridiculous Buchanan has come out with such a bizarre statement. And if I wasn't a team player, I could say, I've played my part — I've scored 420 runs at an average of 60 but what about the others? But you will never hear that from me. Cricket's a team game."
Oh good; I’m glad that’s clear!
THIS last point, apart from the excesses of the Pietersen case, is the one that resonates most strongly for me this week, as I think about the relationship between my work and my life over the last very odd months, and as I contemplate the idea of re-entry once this intense phase of my treatment is over and I can establish some modest work routines. The achievements of sportspeople are very much more public than the work of academic scholars, yet our successes and failures are equally visible and public to those in our small circles. Is academic culture more, or less forgiving than public sporting culture? In an institutional context where we are made to measure ourselves and our colleagues all the time, what's to stop us all becoming as self-promotional as Pietersen?