But is it cricket…?

My grandfather collected autographs – Kingsford Smith, Dame Nellie Melba, Jardine’s English cricket team and Don Bradman’s Australian from the infamous Bodyline Series… Don Bradman’s autograph was there three times, from different decades. Having left England shortly before the First World War with his mother and sister, my grandfather arrived in Australia full of notions of Empire. The English cricket team was both an expeditionary force, and in the vanguard of the defence of the realm. It was more than a sporting team. And leaving the corpse of his recently suicided father behind, my grandfather made the transition to his new home easier by carrying the values and “manners” of his cricketing heroes with him. He remained a lifelong supporter of the English cricket team, and would later bet with judges and politicians on long or short odds for English victories against the Australians.

Interestingly, he was an equally one-eyed Western Australian cricket supporter, with a particular dislike of the Victorians, mainly because they “plundered” Western Australian Australian rules footy teams to get players. He was also a lifelong East Perth supporter. My grandfather was a sign-writer by trade, and also a very skilled and successful “commercial” artist. He painted the giant coronation Queen, the Cook Centenary painting on Barrack Street Arch, the Flinders, and many other temporary landmarks. He painted a lot of the scenery for leading theatrical productions, and actually saw Houdini backstage. He collected autographs. He also painted signs, right through his retirement, for East Perth Football Club (who never gave him a life membership which, given that he was with them from almost inception, was a disgrace in the eyes of family and friends), and for various Western Australian grade cricket teams. He knew “everybody”, and “everybody” knew him. I often wondered about the connections with eminent figures in government and law, but recently came across his “temple” membership card, and realised he’d been a life-member, also, of a Masonic order. So, that was it.

While my grandfather took great pride in some of my achievements, he lamented my leftwing politics and strong support of the Australian cricket team. He couldn’t make sense of my overtly anti-nationalist stance as I entered my late teens and yet strong support of the national cricket team. I explained it away at various times as an addiction, as a desire to oppose the colonisers at every opportunity (the team I followed above all others was actually the West Indies, because I felt they were still being screwed over by the British, though this was more out of an aversion to the racism of ‘white’ commentators reporting West Indian matches in the 70s). As an aside, my problems with following the cricket team increased as I grew older – the nationalism thing, the implicit violence and aggression sublimated by sport, but also from a vegan perspective. I stopped playing the game because of the leather ball – I couldn’t morally defend the idea of belting a piece of a dead cow around an oval for fun. I’ve bowled since, but with a synthetic ball, and I still watch the game on television with the same fervour, but this is a big downer for me, and something worse for the cow. It’s just unnecessary.

It’s been strange spending five years in Britain, living in a College environment where the first words uttered to me at High Table came after a meal-long break of agonising silence: “cricket or rugby”, to which I replied “cricket”, and consequently gave myself a social life. For an Australian, the successes of the Australian cricket team, and the persistent failures of the English cricket team until recent seasons, gave focus to colonialist jokes – which in most other fields are, I’m told, becoming less frequent. Cricket is the embodiment of a world order which even the Packer-assault on the game – the money, the commercialism, the multi-coloured uniforms, the “circus that is one day cricket” – can’t ultimately dent, at least within the dying kernel of Empire itself. And that includes Australia. So cricket became the circuit-breaker, the language that linked arts and sciences. I was asked to play with the other Fellows against the students, and had to decline because of the leather ball. Or chose to decline. I was asked to umpire, and avoided it for the same reason. Cricket wasn’t mentioned to me by the Fellows again.

But the porters talked about it all the time, ragging me whatever the state of play. One of the porters barracked for my grandfather’s old county, so there was a point of connection. Since I was Australian, we connected anyway because colonials (their words) weren’t part of the class structure that prevented intimacy between those who worked for the College and its Fellows. So cricket became a language across barriers. It worked against the values it seems to still stand for. The separate change-rooms for gentlemen and “others” that my grandfather had told me about (which he opposed, though “understood”), might still be there, but the “coal-miner’s son could still bowl the fastest ball and send the gentleman flat on his face!”. Cricket was a decoder, a way of breaking down prejudices. My grandfather told me about the great West Indian team of the 50s in which “blacks” and “whites” overcame the opposition together. He couldn’t understand how bans of playing in South Africa would stop apartheid – meanwhile I was being arrested for challenging nuclear warships and Western Australian cricketers who joined rebel groups to South Africa.

The people I supported interrupted cricket matches, shone mirrors in players’ eyes (I thought this dangerous and non-effective), and walked onto the pitch (which I did do). The idea of sport as apolitical was, and is, absurd to me. It was political to my grandfather as well, though he’d say it wasn’t. It was just a game, but one in which there was huge cultural investment. He wanted England to win because it reconfirmed his whole worldview – it made sense out of the colonies, out of the suicide of his alcoholic artist father – who threw himself under a train in front of my grandfather when he was barely ten years old. My grandfather never drank in his life, and never left the values of Britannia behind. He worshipped the Queen, and if something had the royal stamp of approval, it was good enough for him. For him, cricket was order. He also loved football for the same reason – an arena in which aggression and skills could be acted out. He loved boxing and classical music. It was all the same thing, it made sense.

Odd thing is, that having lived in England for so many years, it has become very much part of my notion of “home”. I found myself following the careers of individual cricketers, I began to think outside the simulacrum of the game, and to think of the team as a collection of individuals. The “English” (as opposed, of course, to notions of Britishness) team, was one thing – its propaganda role in the issues of colonisation within Britain itself, the question of Englishness versus British identity, – but the players themselves were something different. I’d always admired Devon Malcolm because he’d brought a confrontation with questions of race and English identity not only within the team but in British society. When he says he suffered racist taunts in South Africa, there’s no reason to doubt this (his “revenge” was a nine-wicket haul, bowled at a blistering pace). And I’m sure the racism was a regular thing in English cricket – one only has to listen to British commentators for a few minutes to pick this up. Nassar Hussein has shattered the binary. He gives what the English want in terms of manners and decoration within the simulacrum, but is “colonial” English – his background is “part migrant”. He is a brilliant strategist and has turned the English team around. This positive image has, I believe, challenged racist stereotypes in many parts of the community. But don’t worry, if he starts to fail, those racisms will come back with a vengeance. How many times have I heard this: how can you call it an English cricket team…? Well people, England is that.

Earlier this year, I had a terrifying experience. I have never felt racism in a “safe place” in the same way. It’s obviously only a fraction of what some people experience, but it was enough to show a pattern. I was catching the bus to Gatwick (off to the New world – joke), and a couple of young guys got on the bus. They began to smoke, and having given up a hundred-a-day habit six years ago, I felt bothered enough to ask them to stop. They told me to fuck off. The driver grew annoyed and told them to put the cigarettes out or they’d be off. The young men abused him and kept smoking. For the next hour they abused me, moved into the seats just behind me and jostled me. As I got off the bus at Gatwick, they elbowed me and said, “go back to your own country”. I have residency status in Britain and told them this was as much my country as anywhere. They got particularly aggressive and went on about jobs and migrants and physically harassed me again. Other people wanted to intervene, but were intimidated. Shortly afterwards, the young men connected with others – all wearing English footy colours. They were meeting other soccer fans, it seemed. They were in nationalistic, pumped-up-for-England mode. Good thing Australian aren’t overly successful at soccer (yet?).

It’s been difficult dealing with my cricket addiction living in the United States. There’s the internet, of course. I check every day on scores and the progress of games around the world. I follow the issues of corruption with semi-bemused interest – that it should come as a shock to anyone astonishes me. That’s what empire was always about, and we are post-nothing. Cricket almost is that perfect metaphor. Cricket Studies. I am reminded of Perec’s W. The eternal competition. The raison d’tre. The eugenics of selection, of competition. I am reminded of the recent lauding of Hitler’s film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl, and the ’36 Olympics. Time is an evil thing; it lets the greatest of sins become commodities. It is not unforgiving, it is entirely insensitive. The rebels who supported apartheid, despite their protests (making a living, it’s only sport, etc), have been forgotten. But I still look for the game. I look in other places. I have taken to watching baseball.

The attractions are obvious on one level – baseball is said to derive from cricket, though I’m sure it’s not that straightforward. And various people would have much invested in tracing such an evolutionary line, which always leaves me doubtful, no matter what the permanent record dictates. Baseball is its own game, coming out of a very different, or maybe very different (plural) cultural space/s. That it’s a ball and bat game rich in strategy and tactics, is also obvious. The chess of the sports world, or a different version of this. My original attraction, glancing at a game on network television late one night, was its numerical complexity. Here was a game of stats, as many or more stats than cricket. I half believe that my original attraction to cricket was the maths, or, as they say here, the math. To work out averages is to play with hierarchies, sure, but it’s also to play questions of probability. It’s chance interwoven with skill. It’s the precedent, the combination, probability, and much more.

In baseball, nine innings with an infinite variety of potential outcomes, appeals to me greatly. They have long innings and short innings, the game could go on. I loved reading about the Timeless Test when I was young, the cricket match that might never end. That’s what test cricket is about – movements greater than the thirty-second soundbytes, the fusing of the micro and macro, of the small gestures with great consequences, of a simulacrum that mimics and parodies the travesties of the human condition. Now, where does this leave us regarding political and cultural implications? Depends how it’s used, I guess. It’s a poem, an epic, or more interestingly, an anti-epic. It goes against the necessity for social niceties, of commodity fetishisation, of clocking in and clocking out at a particular time. It works against the market forces. Alas, things are working against this in cricket, and the one-day game, prime target of the match fixers, of the gambling syndicates, is the Frankenstein’s monster of the media. There are different kinds of colonisations going on. There are parallel and mirror territories being claimed.

Baseball has the razzamatazz down pat. No question, and the notorious “pinch hitter” question – the substitution of a batsman for a pitcher, almost creates open conflict behind traditionalists and the media-friendly amongst baseball fans. I live in Ohio at present, and the big team here is the Cleveland Indians. The appropriative and disrespectful banter behind the doings of the tribe don’t seem to be questioned by their loyal following, at least not publicly. And if an outsider comments, it will be pointed out that as a team it opened the doors for “mixed”, inter-racial teams. And this is good. So, two kinds of discourse, at least, going on here. There is a language between cricket and baseball on a meta-textual level, a political and cultural level, and certainly on the level of blind nationalism. Just watch when the United States is playing Cuba. For all the Packer-media-construct’s sins, they at least created a “world team”!

Why do certain stories stick with you out of childhood? Rod Marsh, the Australian wicket-keeper, held the record for the most cans of beer drunk on the plane from Australia to England. Wonder how many beers the gentlemen drank coming and going over in the days of ship travel? David Boon might have beaten the record. Which one of them was nicknamed Keg? Or Stubby? Dennis Lillee was an idol to Western Australian grade cricketers, though a friend of mine in fourth grade cricket said he was a giant poser, a real show-off. I’ve sat on the same planes as Ted Hughes, and wanted to speak to him of his elegant batting, of his ability to explode gracefully into action, of his having to captain a team destroyed by Kerry Packer and big contracts, but feeling unable to speak to him because of his reprehensible touring with other Australians in apartheid South Africa. Of the entire team in itself – of the Dan brothers, Aborigines of brilliant sporting ability, legendary surfers in my home of three years, Geraldton, who have spoken of the racism that’s the foundation stone of cricket. As they point out, class keeps Aborigines out of Australian cricket. Class in Australian cricket? – for sure. To do with ethnicity and which school you went to. There’s the famous Aboriginal team of the late 1800s that toured Britain, but they’re a kind of racist’s museum piece in the eyes of white Australians. For many Aborigines I’ve spoken to, they are revered figures, though scepticism is strong about how they’ve been positioned in cricketing parlance.

Cricket – a skinny guy like me, the school “Dictionary”, could charge in and whip a fast ball under the bat of a school tough, could knock the middle stump flying. Or could bowl a leg-cutter because it took some thought, and send the ball flying off the edge. It was empowerment, a way of staking a place in a territory that did its best to keep you out. It’s a game, more than any other in my mind, that should not be about prejudice or rejection. The individual can flourish, but only if that individual is part of something greater than this, as part of the whole.

Greg Chappell was a great batsman. I watched his “horror trot”, when duck after duck finished off his career. Glasses were called for. Confidence. The blindness of Australia. And there was the infamous underarm incident, against “our” trans-Tasman “rivals”. Cricket was war, is war, between Aussies and Kiwis. Now, if that’s not a combination of cultural uncertainty, guilt, and fear, I don’t know what is. Brotherly love? We’ll talk about the sisters shortly. Greg Chappell, a vegan now. Alternative living with kudos. I’ve been in the offices of a businessman who had a signed photo of Chappell in full flow. I’ve had email contact with him as a vegan, He’s a vegan for health reasons, I’m an ethical vegan. I want to chat with him about that leather ball. He was the greatest – the most aesthetically pleasing – batsman I’ve ever watched. What does this mean? Notions of beauty are informed by factors that are always going to be exclusive, contradictory, often offensive. But he seemed great to me… he does now.

The sisters. There was a match in which Brian Lara, the world’s highest-scoring batsman, was bowled by a woman called Zoe (and I can’t recall her second name, which says a lot). It was a “fun” match – she was included in the team as a gesture of good will, a novelty? Whatever. It lifted the profile of the “woman’s game”, according to the male commentators. According to the papers. She received plenty of press, made cameo appearances – in commentary boxes, in newspaper columns? Test match cricket between women’s teams in the Commonwealth is particularly active. Great sporting achievements. Little or no television coverage, little financial support. The need for an equivalent to Anna Kournikova’s knickers? It’s sickening: another prejudice of the lore that surrounds cricket. Great game, plenty of socio-cultural oppressions.

I’m playing backyard cricket in Geraldton. It’s with a non-leather ball. The team opposing me is the poet Anthony Lawrence. This is almost a decade ago. Anthony has written poetry on playing cricket – he was pretty good, reckons he almost made state selection as an all-rounder for NSW. He can certainly swing the ball both ways – I’m a right-hander, and he gets me with a wicked in-swinger. Pretty fast as well. But then I’m not much of a bat. He can accumulate the runs as well. But I can keep him pinned. I’m accurate. We play all afternoon. Kids, but competing for adult stakes. Exhilarating and sad at once. We’ve rarely seen each other since then.

My grandfather would overcome his dislike of the Australian cricket team, even the Invincibles, when it came to Don Bradman. He would tell me stories of the Don keeping a ball off the ground with a single stump – up, up, up. He had numerous anecdotes like this about how the Don honed his skills as a child. No privilege there, he’d add. I don’t know how true any of this is, and I don’t really want to know. It’s not the point. Bradman is an Australian Icon, but that’s the worst part of it. For my grandfather, he was above nation – even above the royal family. He was the creation of something extra-human, and as my grandfather was an atheist (the Church of Her Majesty was a political entity for him), Bradman represented the closest link to the spiritual world (he was a true sceptic) you could get. His achievements were unbelievable, and yet measurable. His trick, my grandfather pointed out, was an absence of ego on the field. “Never lifted a ball above the ground…”, which I’m sure is untrue, but the point is that he was not given to displays of bravado. Bradman was empirical evidence of the sublime. He gave credence to the questionable notion that birds can fly and fish breathe under water. And truly, my grandfather clung to that all his life. ‘A batting average of 99.9…. it should have been a hundred… wouldn’t it slay ya!” he’d say most times I saw him.

Of course, I can’t buy into this. Greg Chappell, for all the sledging and golden ducks and Underarm Incidents, is, as a vegan, far more of a hero to me. In fact, that very fact transports him from the role of being a hero. Cricket will only be liberated when we forget the names of individual achievers, and confront what it is in us as viewers and players that engenders so many problems in the societies we help perpetuate.