The perfect pitch

Sport and national identity

Geoff Piggott

Society and culture, International relations | Asia, South Asia, Australia

16 April 2019

Geoff Piggott looks at nationalism and the significance of cricket in the psyche of post-colonial societies.

On 25 March 2018, then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited rural western Victoria, where bushfires had, in the days preceding, destroyed homes, farms and livestock. Taking questions from the media – flanked by firefighters in their distinctive orange-yellow overalls – he described his dismay at waking up to “a shocking affront to Australia”. Despite the setting, he wasn’t describing the natural disaster. No, Turnbull was responding to a question about what was to become one of the biggest news stories of the year: three Australian cricketers caught breaking the rules of the game by ‘tampering’ with the ball to give their bowlers an advantage over South Africa’s batsmen.

Turnbull went on to say that it seemed “completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating”. His comments illustrated not only the significance of cricket in the Australian psyche, but also the doublethink that is applied when sport is viewed as a metaphor for national virtue. This was famously recognised by Susan Brownell, who wrote of a similar phenomenon in Chinese athletics in the 1980s. In Australia, and elsewhere, a competing dual ideal of perfection is often applied to national sporting teams and individual representatives: an unrealistic, combined expectation of perfection in performance, and perfection in behaviour.

Despite their shared love of the game and history of defining themselves in opposition to one-time colonial overlord England, India and Australia’s cricketing relationship in recent decades has been typified by regular conflict.

The roots of this unrealistic expectation lie in an over-emphasis on sport as an expression of nationalism, rather than as an aesthetic spectacle of personal and team achievement limited to its immediate context. The result is regular disappointment of supporters and moral outrage directed at players who inevitably fall short of the expectations placed upon them. The outrage is often most strong from pundits and supporters of rival nations; newspaper headlines and sporting columns delight in the latest scandal affecting a rival, and online forums explode with indignation. Rivalries extend beyond the game itself and sport loses its ability to bring different nations and cultures together, instead creating antagonism and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

While the ball-tampering affair occurred in a game between Australia and South Africa, in this article I will explore how the expectations of perfection have played out in the cricketing relationship between Australia and India. In doing so, I will reflect on the ability of sport – and former colonial cultural practices, which have been appropriated by post-colonial societies – to facilitate intercultural understanding between otherwise seemingly disparate countries.

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Despite their shared love of the game and history of defining themselves in opposition to one-time colonial overlord England, India and Australia’s cricketing relationship in recent decades has been typified by regular conflict. India has seen Australia as attempting to maintain the outdated hegemony of the white cricketing nations.

On the other side, Australia has viewed India through a classically Orientalist lens – corrupt, chaotic, blessed by unfulfilled talent and lacking discipline. This narrative is not, however, grounded in the reality of the myriad cricketing connections between the two countries in contemporary times. To take just a few significant examples, Australian players now appear successfully in the Indian Premier League, in advertising and in Hindi films, and Indian players are hugely popular in Australia’s Indian diaspora.

At the current moment in history, when the challenges to the ideas of cosmopolitanism that emerged in recent decades are becoming increasingly strong, popular cultural practices such as sport, which still command the attention of a mass audience, provide an opportunity for authentic intercultural connections. Recent months saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Some have argued that Huntington’s ideas can now be seen as prophetic, that the world is divided irrevocably along religious and ethno-cultural lines. I would argue differently, and that a game such as cricket – which came to India and Australia laden with imperial overtones but has been adopted and moulded in the shape of each nation – shows that cultures and nations can successfully borrow from each other. An impediment to this, however, lies in the overlaying of every game with nationalism and the expectation of perfection in the embodiment of unrealistic virtues of supreme effort, outstanding performance and faultless behaviour.

Malcolm Turnbull’s comments on the ball tampering incident ignored decades of debate about the conduct of the Australian team of which even he, not a noted cricket follower, must have been aware. This debate has always centred on the avowed aim of Australian teams to ‘play hard’, to push the rules almost to breaking point. In the words of current player Nathan Lyon, to know where the line between playing hard and cheating is, and to “headbutt the line”. Many Australians have been critical of this approach. Douglas Booth and Colin Tatz perhaps best sum up the dismay at this approach in some quarters of Australian society in their book One-Eyed: A View of Australian Sport, in which they present a damning picture of exclusion of minorities, arrogance, hypocrisy and racism, much of which is justified by the creed of ‘playing hard’.

For many others around the world it did not seem in any way inconceivable that the Australian team was caught cheating. In the days following the incident, many former players, commentators and members of the public commented on their view of Australia’s ‘line’ between hard play and cheating as a form of arrogance, of one team – representative of its nation and culture – unilaterally determining the rules of fair play. From an Indian perspective, respected journalist Harsha Bhogle wrote that “Australia always thought that someone else did it. They drew a line, a convenient line, and thought that by being behind a line they had created, they were in the clear. Their line was often offensive to others and frequently they did to others what they didn’t like done to them.”

“The significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

Bhogle was careful to separate the cricket team from the nation, but in the popular imagination, this distinction is less well observed. Analysis of the comments thread on the first article in response to the breaking story from South Africa in the Times of India (25 March 2018), a newspaper which maintained a balanced and distinctly non-hysterical tone in response to the incident, reveals a different picture in the minds of Indian readers. While online comments threads are notoriously full of provocative commentary, the overwhelming theme that emerges is of a link between cheating at cricket and Australian national character. Thirty-four comments made this direct connection. A common theme is to reference Australia’s convict past and a genetic propensity for the descendants of criminals to cheat. Statements such as this from Shantanu Amirkhani are indicative of the general tone of the thread: “Not at all surprised. Australians are born unsporting CHEAT … Its ok when they sledge but when retaliated against they start whining and get into fistfights. All in the DNA I suppose”.

Ironically, however, the same mourning of cricket’s falling standards, growing nationalism and ugly behaviour can also be seen in India. Ramachandra Guha, in his 2002 history of Indian cricket and its place in the country’s political and social life, laments the growing boorishness of Indian crowds, whom he sees as representing “an ugly and destructive nationalism” where “under the floodlights the players become gladiators, the spectators thirsty Romans” and “the genuine cricket lover has in any case been replaced by the overworked, overpaid, half-drunk and hyper-nationalist yuppie”. Guha argues that this focus on winning to the exclusion of appreciation of the game is fuelled by marketing, which emphasises the battle-like nature of competition and creates a simplified, good versus evil narrative. Perhaps the best illustration of this came in 2008 when Indian player Harbhajan Singh was accused of racially abusing Australian player Andrew Symonds – who has African-Caribbean ancestry – by calling him a monkey. The mindless patriotism identified by Guha was evident in the reaction of Indian cricket authorities, who released a statement stating that “The Indian Board realises the game of cricket is paramount but so too is the honour of the Indian team and for that matter every Indian”, and also the defence proposed by the Indian tour manager, that “as Indians it was just not possible for them to be racist”.

In 1945, George Orwell, in his much-quoted essay The Sporting Spirit, wrote that “the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue”. Orwell used his identification of the nationalism associated with sport as a way of dismissing sport’s value as a connector across cultures. What Orwell failed to recognise, however, was sport’s ability to inspire through its aesthetic beauty, and for the moments – all the more powerful because of its primarily competitive nature – when it transcends rivalries.

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Sport has this transcendental potential, as famously recognised by West Indian writer CLR James, who, in his classic work on cricket and the post-colonial condition, Beyond a Boundary, wrote that sport is a form of art, which has its own “flow”, simultaneously connected to and separate from its socio-historical context. In James’ words, “reading poetry and watching sport are not so far apart” and that “once every year for four years … Athenian citizens … watched the plays of the competing dramatists. All that we have now to correspond is a Test match”. His argument fails, however, if sport is seen solely through the dual lens of perfection in competitive results and in the upholding of idealistic virtues of nationhood. This perfection does not allow for a recognition of humanity, which, when juxtaposed with the sublime grace of beautiful play, is where the true beauty of sport lies, just like the Greek drama James likens it too.

The press conferences Australian captain Steve Smith and his two teammates, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner, held on their return to Australia after the ball tampering affair, illustrated the impossibility of fulfilling the dual expectation of both winning and embodying ideal national virtues. Smith apologised for the “pain I’ve brought to Australia”. Warner said, “I can honestly say I’ve only ever wanted to bring glory to my country through playing cricket”. Bancroft, after echoing similar sentiments about letting his country down, showed the other side of the expectation, saying that “the thing that breaks my heart the most is that I’ve just given up my spot in the team for somebody else”. They delivered their comments in scenes of excruciating personal breakdown. All three were too emotional to continue at points, especially when referring to the shame they had brought to their families and young fans. Smith was comforted by his father. Warner referred to his wife and daughters. Bancroft sat beside a counsellor from the Western Australian Cricket Association.

These were scenes of individuals accepting the punishment of a nation. This punishment then extended to the rest of the team, and to Australian cricket more broadly. But even though the individuals made mistakes and the team culture may have legitimised cheating, it was national culture, and the international culture of cricket, that had ultimately failed by favouring expectations of perfection over the dramatic beauty of human frailty. All too often, the broader impact of this is self-righteous finger-pointing from rivals, which precludes the potential of sport to act as a force for cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural understanding.

This is a piece from paradigm_shift: Perfection, a collection of essays from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific on the concept of perfection, and how it shapes lives and ideas in Asia and the Pacific. You can read the essays for free here.

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