Sometimes with journalists, the pressure to write a column, and extract some broader, or deeper meaning, from an event can lead the writer into places where, to be kind about it, does not work to their advantage. Let’s take the case of Peter Oborne, who writes about the recent melancholy state of the English cricket team (it was hammered 5-nil in the recent Ashes tour of Australia). One of the consequences of this has been the sacking of the England coach, and now, it seems, the dismissal of one of its most recognisable players, Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen, or KP as he is known, is one of a long line of players who were not actually born in the UK (he was born in South Africa) but, by various routes, got himself eligible to play for the English national side. (His mother was or is British, as far as I know).
KP is known for being both a flamboyant striker of a ball, a great run-getter, but also someone who is not, in some eyes, a perfect “team player”. Words like “selfish”, “maverick” and “egoistic” get thrown around a bit. (As a libertarian, none of these terms strike me as particularly bad, but they are usually thought of as terrible in polite society.)
Oborne muses about all this, and he has some credibility in writing about cricket. A few years ago, he produced a book about Basil D’oliveira, who played for England, was a non-white, and who, hence, had problems in trying to play in South Africa. His story is one of how sport and apartheid endured a particularly torrid relationship. So, in general, you’d think that Oborne would be above writing nationalistic, ugly stuff about sports and games. Well, what to make of this:
The early history of Test cricket runs parallel with the fall of empires and the rise of the modern nation state. Test matches started in the 19th century, the great age of nationalism. Sir Don Bradman, the greatest cricketer who ever lived, was the symbol of Australian self-assertion against the mother country.
Quite possibly. Although let’s not overdo it.
Sir Frank Worrell, the first permanent black captain of the West Indies, was a vital figure in the liberation movement that spread through the Caribbean in the post-war era. According to the historian Ramachundra Guha, “one can read the coming into being of the nation of Pakistan” through study of the life of the nation’s first Test captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar. All of these great men saw cricket partly as a sport, but more importantly as a way of serving their country. Cricket as a means of making money did not come into it. For many of them it was also a system of ethics.
Maybe true, although “serving ones country” is not what playing a ball game is about for me. My terrible “selfish individualism”, I suppose.
At the heart of the game was a highly developed concept of fair play. Players were expected not to cheat – for instance to “walk” if they were out. The authority of the umpire was respected. It was axiomatic that the individual should subordinate himself and his talents to the team.
A golden age, truly it was.
This set of propositions was linked to a powerful vision of the social order. It was assumed that men and women of exceptional gifts would devote lives of service to their community rather than further their own interests. It was recognised that extraordinary talents came by the grace of God and were not a mark of individual virtue.
Your life is not your own. You must serve the Collective. Your talents aren’t yours – they belong to the Collective. Okay, our Peter’s just really warming up now. There’s more:
The underpinnings of this vision have weakened. Religion, with its essential teaching about the unimportance of self, is no longer the force it was. In economic terms, cricket at the top level has ceased to be a form of national service. It should be viewed as another branch of the global entertainment business, dependent for revenues on giant TV conglomerates such as Subhash Chandra’s Zee corporation and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Cricket was a form of national service. Ah, so it was like being made to wear a military uniform, being sent off to strange lands to kill people when you’d rather do all that selfish individualist, money-grubbing, Sun-reading stuff instead. It is now about evil entertainment, not the misery of standing in a hot field. Murdoch, corporations…….
Sir Frank Worrell, AH Kardar, Don Bradman and England’s Colin Cowdrey were all manifestations of the mid-20th-century nation state, and all the social and moral obligations that went with it. Kevin Pietersen is just as surely a manifestation of the unqualified victory of neo-liberal market economics over the past two or three decades. Neo-liberals have little time for social institutions, are contemptuous of national borders, and dogmatically advocate the free movements of capital and people. They regard community, place and nation as worthless superstitions. Above all, they place the individual first.
If you believe in liberty as many “neo” liberals are, then by definition, it is about the freedoms of individuals. That doesn’t mean that people cannot and do not voluntarily associate and create clubs, with rules and standards, and sometimes fall out with people whom they don’t like, such as KP. It not the case that liberals don’t understand or respect institutions so long as those institutions operate by consent and don’t use coercive force.
In so far as Kevin Pietersen has any nationality, he seems to be South African. He was born and bred in South Africa, speaks with a South African accent and made his first-class debut for a South African team. He emerged as a cricketer in the most wonderful moment in South African history, when apartheid had gone and the country was building a multi-racial national team. Pietersen wanted no part in this new world. He got out as soon as he could, claiming that the positive discrimination necessary to help black cricketers stood in his way. Lack of loyalty has been his hallmark in English cricket. He moved first to the county of Nottinghamshire, then Hampshire, now Surrey. In the England team he seems to have been the repeated cause of division and bitterness. Eighteen months ago, Pietersen shared a century partnership with James Taylor, a 22-year-old debutant, at Leeds. At the end of the session Pietersen walked off the field with the South African players, leaving Taylor on his own. It later emerged that Pietersen was sending text messages to his South African opponents. In these he is said to have mocked the England captain, Andrew Strauss. Strauss, and not Pietersen, quit in the wake of that episode – a black day for English cricket.
A right wanker, then. Should have stayed at home.
I would argue, therefore, that there are important lessons to be learnt from the Pietersen debacle. We can acknowledge that open borders and free movement of capital – the key conceptions of neo-liberalism – have brought great prosperity and a certain vitality to Britain over the past quarter century. There is no mainstream political party that would like to risk scaring away Goldman Sachs or Ford Motors.
Scaring away foreign investors? I dunno, maybe it might be a good thing to give up all that ghastly consumerism.
But the wealth brought by international capital can be intensely damaging. It drives up values of houses so that ordinary, hard-working people can be priced out of the market. The impact of globalisation, especially through immigration, can make some British citizens feel that they are living in communities that no longer belong to them in a political system that no longer listens to them.
Make your mind up Mr Oborne. So free trade/movement etc brings prosperity, but it also “intensely damaging”. All those foreigners with their funny accents and so on buying “our” homes. This is classic “fixed wealth fallacy” in action (there seems no awareness on his part that that argument might logically lead for calls for, say, a quarter of the UK population to be deported or killed so as to cut house prices).
What does it mean to be British? Who makes our laws? Who, indeed, do we want playing for our national sports teams? These are all very difficult and dangerous questions. Like most people, I am not confident about the answer. As someone who has followed and loved the England cricket team for nearly 50 years, one judgment is easy. The England selectors made exactly the right decision in dumping Pietersen for repeated selfishness and disloyalty this week.
Well, as far as Mr Oborne seems to be concerned, he doesn’t want anyone playing for England who hasn’t been born here, which I guess would have ruled out many a previous England player. They were clearly mercenaries, “neo-liberals” who failed to understand that playing a game of cricket should be seen in the same terms as, say, joining the Brigade of Guards.
These are all very” difficult and dangerous” questions. Oddly, by the logic of Mr Oborne’s argument, the hero of his book would not have been allowed to don an England cap or shirt, since, well, just how “British” was he?