Monday, November 25, 2002

Samizdata has some comments on the difference between Australian and English attitudes to the game of cricket. There are two threads in the post, one about cricket, the other about (essentially) Australian constitutional history. Oddly enough, I wrote a piece about the difference between the attitudes to the game of cricket in England and Australia last week which would have complemented this quite well, but blogger ate it before I managed to post it. I will attempt to reconstruct it, however. (I will post a separate piece on Australian history later).

Like many Australians, I love the game of cricket. It is the closest thing to a national sport we have. In summer, if you go for a drive through any Australian city on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you will see that a section of virtually any park will have cricket games going on in it. Where I grew up, in my primary school (in an industrial and coal mining town ) playing a weekly cricket match in summer was mandatory. (Plus we would play spontaneously organised cricket matches during lunchtimes most days). In high school, we more choice of sports, but (like at any school in Australia) competitive cricket teams were fielded. (As is common for competitive team sports in Australia, if you weren't any good you weren't particularly welcome to play past about age 12, and you would go and do something individual or non-competitive instead. Australian sport is ruthlessly competitive, even at a childrens level. This is not necessarily a good thing about Australian, but it does mean we field good sporting teams). I wasn't very good as a player, so that is about when my playing career ended. However, for some reason I had developed a great fondness for the game by then, and I was a huge fan of international cricket, that I watched on television. From around age 15, I started attending international cricket as a spectator, something I have been doing ever since. (One reason I like cricket is that it is a game that lends itself to complicated statistics. and I am something of a maths geek. When I got my first computer in 1984, one of the principal uses I put it to thing to was to calculate complicated statistics about cricket matches as games were being played. In fact I recall turning off the television coverage and turning on the radio so that I could see my real time statistics as the game was being played - my Commodore 64 used the TV as a screen so I couldn't use the TV and computer at once).

Except for the business about the computer (which made me a geek and complete social outcast) this is very typical in Australia. We love our cricket. In winter we watch a variety of different games (Australian football, Rugby League, Rugby Union) depending on what state we come from and our social class, but in summer we all come together to watch cricket. International matches are played in large stadiums, with large, rowdy crowds that resemble football crowds in many countries. Spectators are fairly well behaved, but may make lots of noise, start a Mexican wave, or heckle the players and/or the spectators in the members enclosure (often because the members refuse to participate in the Mexican wave).

In 1991, I came to England for the first time, to study for a Ph.D. at Cambridge. I was happy to be in a cricket playing country. There were test matches on television and in London. The Cambridge University team even has first class status. Fenners, the University ground, is a lovely place to go and watch the Cambridge team get beaten by a visiting county side. However, what I quickly discovered was that there was not much interest in playing cricket, even amongst Cambridge students (except for a few with a very particular Public School background). In Oxbridge, the great egalitarian sport is rowing. Everyone has a go at this. Relatively few play cricket. Cricket is the third most important sport in university terms, after rowing and rugby. People who don't play cricket perceive it as a toffs game, even at a centre of toffs like Cambridge

My college did field a (largely social) cricket team consisting of graduate students. This consisted almost entirely of foreigners: Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, South Africans, guys from Barbados, even a German, but virtually no Englishmen. Similarly, when cricket's world cup was played, the room with satellite television would fill up with people from throughout the Commonwealth, but very few English people.

To generalise ludicrously, the British empire was founded by upwardly mobile people on the make and by eccentric members of the upper classes. Those people on the make made a point of spreading "Englishness" to the colonies, and cricket became a mass participation sport elsewhere, in Australia and New Zealand, in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and in the English speaking Carribean. In South Africa, the sport eventually became popular amongst the entire white population (including the Afrikaans, eventually) and may be spreading to some extent into the non-white population now. As an Australian, my natural inclination is to see cricket as a mass participation sport, and the English attitude to it still feels odd. There are at least a billion cricket fans in the world, very few of whom are English.

A couple of examples. Once, when talking to a Canadian student in Cambridge, I compared the spirit of the game of cricket to that of baseball. Both are games that are hard to understand, both lend themselves to extremely complex statistics, afficionados of both games feel extraordinary passion for the games. Both games lead to great sports writing. My Canadian friend took great offence at the comparison, however. Baseball is the national game of America (and Canada): a great egalitarian sport. Cricket is an awful toffs game. I don't feel that way, but to people who have only seen cricket in England, this seems to be a common reaction.

My first summer in England, I decided to go to a test match at Lord's ground in London, the home of cricket. I mentioned to a friend that I would go and buy some tickets, and he looked at me with puzzlement. I had just assumed that if I went to a ticket agency that sells tickets to rock concerts, west end musicals and football matches, I would also be able to buy tickets to cricket matches. After all, this is what one does in Australia. But no. To get tickets for Lord's one has to get on their mailing list, be sent a ballot paper on which you apply (by mail) for tickets. This will then be placed in a ballot, and if you are lucky you will be able to buy tickets. In any event, this had happened months before and the match was sold out. I found this offputing, and I didn't do that year or in subsequent years either. Eventually, I did go to the fifth day of a match several years later, which was pleasant. (Cricket matches are of variable length, and they do not generally sell fifth day tickets in advance because they do not expect the game to go that long. In such occasions, you pay at the gate). I was struck by how quiet the crowd is compared to Australian crowds, and also by how small the ground is. Lord's, home of cricket in London, a city of eight or nine million people, only seated about 20000 people, compared with 45000 in Sydney and 100000 in Melbourne, both much smaller cities.

Back in England this year, I finally did purchase some tickets in advance by phone (after the ballot for a game that was not a sellout). As a consequence I have been placed on the mailing list for matches at Lords. As a consequence, the ticket ballot forms for next year came last week and are sitting in front of me. They came with a lovely glossy brochure giving a map of the ground, maps showing how to get there, etc etc. (In Australia, the tickets would have been spat out of a machine, and I would have to figure out how to get there by myself). Plus the brochure contains the "General Ground Regulations". Flags, banners, and musical instruments, or any other articles that may cause a nuisance to other spectators are not permitted. (In Australia, the television network hold competitions for the best banner). The use of radios is forbidden, except with the use of earpieces. (In Australia, so many spectators have radios that you can hear the radio commentary almost anywhere in the ground). The use of mobile telephones in the stands is forbidden (Huh???). Small quantities of alcohol may be brought into the ground. A small quantity is defined as a bottle of wine or two pints of beer. Alcohol in excess of this amount will be confiscated and may be reclaimed at the end of the day. (In Australia, the standard practice at most sporting events elsewhere applies. You cannot bring alcohol in, but you can buy it at excessive prices once you are inside. And if anything is confiscated there is no way you will ever get it back). Spectators may leave and re-enter the ground before 4pm. (This means that you can go and have lunch in a nearby pub or restaurant if you want. In Australia, spectators are kept inside so they can pay excessive prices for food from in-ground caterers).

The point of all this, is that going to the cricket at Lord's is extremely genteel. You sit there, you take a sip of your wine, you watch the game, you clap politely from time to time, and you have a jolly good experience in the way that jolly good chaps do. Nobody in the crowd will possibly do anything that will wake you up if you fall asleep. There is none of that rowdiness, and only the right sorts of people know to buy tickets in the ballot in the first place. Once you are on the list of the right kind of chaps, though, they keep sending you forms and it is easy. It's actually very pleasant, but it is not like going to the cricket anywhere else. Spectators aren't going to go home disconsolate if their team loses, as they do in Australia.

The curious thing about cricket is that although the English invented it, it has only ever been played by a particular (shrinking) social class in most of this country, plus in some parts of the country it is a village game, and as Samizdata says, it isn't perceived as modern by anyone else. The people who actually belong to this social class are often unlikely to be interested in careers as professional cricketers, anyway, so the professional game shrinks.

The big exception to this occurs in Yorkshire, where cricket is a mass participation sport. The fact that Darren Gough, the one recent English cricketer to play the game like an Australian comes from Yorkshire is not a coincidence. If you go to the Headingley ground at Leeds, crowds are rowdier than anywhere else in England, and everything is much less genteel.

There actually is a way for England to put together a good cricket team. England contains many people of Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi background, as well as many people from the Carribean. In the countries these groups came from, cricket is generally a mass participation sport. These people generally love cricket as much as do people in South Asia and in the English speaking Carribean. Get their best players together on a field and you can probably put together a decent team.

However, the cricket traditions of the Carribean really do not fit into the genteel atmosphere at Lord's. The ban on musical instruments is specifically aimed at West Indian spectators. If you go to Angtigua to watch a game, there will be lots of people blowing on trumpets as the game goes on. The greatest fans of the game of cricket in England are not especially welcome at the home of cricket. And that is why the game is shrinking in importance. The cricket establishment in England can't even take advantage of enthusiasm for the game that is already there.

When I started following cricket in Australia in the early 1980s, the Australian national team was terrible. We got beaten by England, the West Indies, Pakistan, even the ultimate humiliation, defeat by New Zealand. This was seen as a national disgrace, and the player development system in Australia was completely reformed within a couple of years, and a consequence of this is the sensationally good Australian cricket team of today. Nothing like this ever happens in England, however. It might upset the spiffing day at the cricket that the spiffing chaps of the MCC might have. We couldn't have that.

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