” For goodness sake wave the union jack and let this glorious game belong to the nation as a whole.”Comment
The Ashes series showed cricket at its best, but this glorious sport should belong not to England but to Britain as a wholeSimon Jenkins
Wednesday September 14, 2005
Please, not Downing Street. Anywhere but Downing Street, I prayed, as the bus left Trafalgar Square. Go to the Palace or straight to Lord's. If we must make cricket a state occasion, greet it with a head of state, not a politician. And since the triumph was, above all, a victory over spin, don't go where they manufacture the stuff. But politics could not miss its photo opportunity.
Do the Ashes matter? Of course they matter, if enough people think so. Some time between two and three o'clock on Monday afternoon the nation heaved a sigh of relief and delight as Pietersen's bat scythed through the Australian bowling. The prospect of England's first Test series defeat of Australia in 18 years was enough to cut 30% off stock market trading and cause a de facto public holiday. It stopped traffic and blew fuses between sessions. The values inculcated by sport are no different from those of any other communal activity. They permeate our lives and supposedly make us feel good. That is what was felt in central London yesterday.
The final Test match began after a different sort of sports event. It was a typical foul-mouthed exchange between two of soccer's bling-encrusted idols, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham. They were participating in the defeat of England by Northern Ireland. Everything about that game was awful: the supposed tribal distinction between the teams, the publicising of the obscenities, the ludicrous one-nil scoreline and the ritual evisceration of the team manager afterwards. Soccer is now a modern version of prizefighting, choking on egotism and vulgarity.
Cricket, in contrast, has just presented a spectacle more thrilling than any I can recall in a lifetime of enjoying sport. The intricate saga has been seven weeks of ghostly backdrop, until the final denouement. It has been present in casual conversation, in dimly heard radio commentary or the winking of a shop-window television. The five-day longevity of a finely balanced Test offers an ebb and flow of suspense unequalled in any other sport. Its subtleties are grandmaster chess to the noughts-and-crosses of other games.
The Manchester Guardian's celebrated cricket writer Neville Cardus described the components of the great 1932-33 Ashes series in Australia as each a field of study in itself. There was the precise composition of the soil and its qualities of bounce. There was the climatology of "those presiding geniuses of the game, the elements". There were the geometrical field settings of Jardine's "fast-leg theory" and the impact of Larwood's bodyline bouncers. Above all there was the psychology of the play: "We remember not the scores but the men."
Thus it has been this summer. We have watched each player fighting his battle within a wider war. Giles had to prove his place. Pietersen had to conquer his demons. Vaughan had to maintain his wavering form. Then they all had to confront the astonishing talent of the Australian Shane Warne as he raised to a fine art the bounce of a spinning ball (without which baseball is mere slogging). Half the pleasure of this series has been the advances in slow-motion replay. I shall never forget the easy grace of Warne's deliveries on their lethal corkscrew way to bat, pad or wicket. Slow motion has almost given television the edge over radio as an enhancer of the game; I repeat almost.
Sports define themselves by the manner in which players win. Soccer, ostensibly a beautiful game, is vulgarised by the shortage of scoring chances. I can appreciate Beckham's passes and Rooney's goals. But they are just kicks. It is frustration at the sheer difficulty of turning skill into a score that explains the pouting, spitting, swearing and dissent. A result so often turns on one or two incidents, themselves vulnerable to the match-turning decisions of a referee. Soccer needs more goals, however it is done.
Pundits have long sought an explanation for the gulf between the behaviour induced by cricket and soccer. Cricket does not lack for passion or patriotic appeal. Yet it contrives them without soccer's taunting tribal abuse and its ready lurch into drunken violence. Nor will distinctions do that are rooted in social background. Players and supporters of both sports are not dissimilar. Yet the ritual of a football crowd is awesomely vulgar, even when tickets cost £50 apiece.
The difference lies in the essence of the game. Hurling a hard ball very fast at an ill-protected opponent might seem an improbable form of sportsmanship. Its crises are every bit as tense as soccer's, with as much sudden-death ferocity. Yet it has fairer outcomes. Cricket is composed entirely of scoring chances. It calls for a mathematician rather than a lager lout. Its laws impose their own measured dignity, their "slow movements", on the spectacle. If cricket prides itself, to the point of pomposity, on its gentlemanly ways, it is right to do so.
Hence the images of its latest saga have been entirely elevating. They include the rueful smile with which Glenn McGrath greeted the umpire's refusal of his hat-trick; the Australians' collective applause for Pietersen as he reached his century at their expense; the calm with which both sides accepted cricket's crueller slights, the dropped catches, unfair dismissals and bad light. The advent of big money and limited overs in the last two decades has not in any way diminished the greatness of a Test match. It is incomparable.
There is one matter of unfinished business. I do not buy Orwell's version of Clausewitz, that international sport is war by other means. War is too serious for that. But it is the globalisation of the tribe.
Yesterday's victory was laboriously attributed to "England". The flag of Saint George waved everywhere over its celebrations. This was as absurd as that "England's" World Cup team should be beaten by Northern Ireland, and that what is really Britain must face the world explicitly to the exclusion of Scotland and Wales.
Americans do not stage a knockout competition to decide which state should represent it abroad. Bavarians and Catalans, with far more autonomy than Wales or Scotland, do not exclude themselves from their national teams. British cricket has always respected the United Kingdom, and even its governors have felt obliged to add Wales to their formal title. For goodness sake wave the union jack and let this glorious game belong to the nation as a whole.
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