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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Playing cricket is not like national service any more. Good.

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?

25 comments to Playing cricket is not like national service any more. Good.

  • CaptDMO

    I’m always amused when folks seduced and indoctrinated by Communism (by ANY other name) try desperately to appear “intellectual” by stirring emotional dreck, and citing macroeconomic minutia as the “new” placebo in defending “new” sophomores thesis of political “science”.

  • Jim

    The whole point about team sports is that the collective is greater than the individual. No one person is bigger than the team. Thus if you don’t like subjugating your massive ego to the good of the team and your team mates, don’t play team sports. Be a tennis player, or a golfer. There you can be as egotistical, selfish and as big an @rsehole as you like, and no-one will care, apart from your opponents, and they don’t count if you’re winning.

    KP is obviously unable to work within a team environment, having fallen out with in turn Natal, Nottinghamshire, Hampshire and England. When one leaves a trail of failed working relationships such as that the problem lies with the individual involved, not the erstwhile team mates.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jim, all that you say is true up to a point but great teams also have their flair players and mavericks. But Obirne was trying to weave a nationalistic garment out of this take: that’s why I have called him on it.

  • Mr Ed

    There is no mainstream political party that would like to risk scaring away Goldman Sachs or Ford Motors.

    Which is a shame, as you could scare away GS by introducing sound money and not selling government debt (and repudiating it), and as for Ford, they have all but left the UK anyway, I think they make a few vans somewhere, but clearly they haven’t got to grips with the Unions and costs, and look at how Jaguar Land Rover has blossomed after leaving Ford’s ownership. I would ‘scare’ them away by making life easier for them and their competitors, that should finish them off by comparative advantage, and if not, fine.

    As for Mr P, I heard it said of him that he was the sort of person who would join the Navy so that the world could see him.

    Nationalism in sport is daft, a team no more represents a country than a jury ‘represents’ the public. The English football or rugby union team is no reflection of my skills, and it does not make me better or worse how they perform, the only benefit that I get is amusement at the whining and excuses of the coaches, which is really just a pantomime.

    It drives up values of houses

    No, expanding credit and the money supply, and planning laws are probably the main reasons for house price hikes.

    Sports teams are not truly collective, but collaborative, a division of labour. The most intrinsically individual sport is probably the javelin etc. then chess, then squash and snooker, tennis lends itself to the variation of doubles. Individual rugby is a nonsense.

  • Jim

    @Mr Ed: I’d say golf is one of the most individual sports in that nothing you do can make you win if someone else does better. Ie your good shots do not negatively impact on your opponent, he can always do better, independent of you. Each player is in their own little bubble, effectively playing against themselves until the end when the scores are tallied up. Yes there are variations where team elements are brought in, but the basic game of golf is ultra individualistic.

  • Graeme

    mmm…Ted Dexter born in Milan, Colin Cowdrey born in India, Freddie Brown, born in Peru…what were these people doing playing for England? Let’s not mention Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinhji, or the Nawab of Pataudi Sr.

    And as for playing fair, has Oborne ever heard of WG Grace, about whom stories of cheating are legion? And, early Test cricket contains a few fellows (despicable chaps) who played for both Australia and England. One of them W Midwinter played county cricket for Gloucestershire for a while. One year, he toured England with the Australian side and was kidnapped by Grace to play for Glos at the Oval. I am sure KP never did anything like that.

  • Mr Ed

    Jim WRT golf, I simply wasn’t thinking of it as sport, it just didn’t cross my mind, as you say, the Ryder Cup has a ‘team’ element to it and there could be variations where you could alternate shots between a ‘team’ on a hole in a way that would be impractical in squash or chess (but 2 x 2 squash might make for some slapstick). The javelin is virtually impossible to ‘share’ without simply aggregating individual throws.

    Sharing a chess combination au Mikhail Tal would be almost impossible, as your team mate might cock up the combination if he can’t see it or remember it.

  • bloke in spain

    I must say, anyone who draws analogies from sport to apply to real life frightens the fuck out of me. On that basis, we’d all be at continual war.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    BiS, agreed.

  • Thornavis.

    Given the number of quality English test players who have fallen foul of this silly idea of the team being some kind of mystical higher force, to the detriment of the team performance over the years, one might think this idea had been tested and found wanting. It keeps coming back to haunt us because the collectivism of conservatives can be every bit as tenacious as that of the left, British society is riddled with it.

    Don Bradman was detested by quite a few of his fellow team mates and there was an undercurrent of religious sectarianism there too just to make it more interesting. Did they ever drop him from the test side, did they buggery. Just one of the reasons why they keep trouncing us at regular intervals. Even the saintly Ken Barrington was once sacrificed for the good of the team, after he had the temerity to score a century too slowly for the selectors’ taste. Shades of what happened with KP who couldn’t seem to do right for doing wrong in the Ashes series, however he approached an innings it was always the wrong way apparently, especially if he did what everyone said he should have been doing in the previous test. Rank hypocrisy compounded by dressing room cliquishness and narrow nationalism.

  • RAB

    “Nationalism in sport is daft, a team no more represents a country than a jury ‘represents’ the public. The English football or rugby union team is no reflection of my skills, and it does not make me better or worse how they perform,…”

    Be that as it may, the reality is vastly different. You have obviously never been in the centre of Cardiff when Wales is playing England at rugby. If Wales win, it defines the Nation, whether the celebrants were crap at Rugby in school or not. Sport is only warfare by other means after all ;-)

    And yes Golf is the most individualistic game.You play against a thing, the course, not your opponent. But then you could posit that being the opening bat at Cricket is something similar. One individual battling against 11 opponents, with no help from your team-mates back in the pavilion. You can be bold and foolhardy, you can be cautious and clinical, but your job is to score runs as quickly as possible, and there is no help coming from your team-mates, only the missed wickets and dropped catches of your opponents. You’re on your own.

  • Mr Ed

    RAB, I have been in Cardiff during a match, but I was on other business. Sports fans are, in my experience, capable of being extremely daft but often this silliness is compartmentalised and has no adverse effects in real life, but then you get idiots phoning the police to complain about football decisions.

    There is, it seems, no cure for stupid.

  • Barry Sheridan

    My own cricketing memories reach back to the 1950’s when one of those players I respected, Fred Truman, was left out of the side on different occasions because of the attitudes of the selectors. Fred was after all a straight talking man of Yorkshire, not a popular approach in certain quarters. Things really have not changed all that much over the years as the debacle with KP reveals. I a shambles of a tour with poor performances all around he is getting to a bit too much stick, yes he threw his wicket away far too many times, an attitude that must have affected the more junior players, but then again Alistair Cook and Ian Bell also disappointed. It is difficult to penetrate the Pietersen psyche, but as a senior and very experienced talented player he should have been involved by the Captain on the field and not consigned to the outfield. I see here a failure of leadership, though I do not doubt for a moment that handling KP is very difficult. Michael Vaughan has identified this factor as have others.

  • SC

    Oborne is bad enough on politics, on cricket he’s hopeless, and on both together he’s not worth taking seriously.

  • NickM

    As BiS hinted I hate the war/sport analogy. I guess I get part of this from living in Leeds for three years. The Leeds United fans are often vile. They give every impression of hating Manchester (where I subsequently moved) with a passion way beyond their passion for Leeds which I find hateful. I was disgusted once to hear them celebrating a Man U defeat by starting a rousing chorus of “How many bodies in the snow?” – a ref to the Munich air disaster. Utter gittery if you ask me. Interestingly the vastly more successful Mancs don’t feel the need for this. It’s the Wars of the Roses innit? Er… Sad far off things and battles long ago. And all that.

  • Paul Marks

    “Religion with its essential teaching of the unimportance of self”.

    That may be true of certain forms of Buddhism and it is true of certain forms of German philosophy – but it is nothing to do with Christianity. A certain doctrine of Christianity is the importance and immortality of the INDIVDUAL soul.

    By the way – the sense of personal honour among cricketers was a matter of “even if no one ever knows I cheated I WILL KNOW I CHEATED”.

    They did not want to be that sort of person (the sort who cheated) – a strong Christian (and Aristotelian) sense of self.

  • rob

    Ridiculous hyperbole. One could almost hear “There’ll always be an England” being played continuously and offensively loud throughout the entire article.

  • Whispering D

    Kevin Pietersen: There may be no ‘I’ in team, but there’s a ‘u’ country…

  • Paul,
    Yes, I’ve always tended to think a huge part of the attraction of religion is the idea of an omniscient score-keeper. I, like most prople, have done good things that were never seen by mortal eyes. It would be nice to know this was at least acknowledged. I don’t mean a reward as such but just that somewhere it is registered.

  • Cricket has always stood in a rather peculiar position between a team game and an individual one. How Oborne managed to write his article without referring to Geoff Boycott is beyond me.

    Rarely has a man so obviously played for himself as Boycott, yet in the same issue of the Telegraph who is to be found complaining Pietersen let the team down with selfish shots – none other than Sir Geoffrey!

    What these issues come down to, for spectators, is whether you want the team to succeed, or the individual. I want England to do well, so I am quite happy to see Kevin Pietersen take his bat around the various one day leagues, IPL and 20/20 venues, playing for a succession of corporate entities.

    England can build a better team without him.

  • prte

    Cricket is like rugby union.

    It has next no fans except at the superficial and TV generated level.

    It is all about the international, big occasion games, always between the same few countries.

  • […] isn’t. The other day, I had a bash at UK journalist and controvertialist Peter Oborne for his claim that a game such as cricket should not be primarily about people having a fun time, […]

  • Paul Marks

    There seems to be a cult against “the self” (the individual soul) at the moment – there was a book review in the Spectator this week, about a book that it was about “greed” (which was about the “evil” of private landownership – supposedly recently invented, and other absurd lies).

  • Laird

    “Greed is good.” Gordon Gekko just got bad press.

  • Kevin Pietersen has never played for anyone other than Kevin Pietersen. All teams are, to him, just a showcase for his boundless talent and ego. Ergo, it doesn’t matter whether his team loses because he’s just tossed his wicket away, as long as he played flamboyantly to preserve Brand KP, which he can then sell to the highest bidder, i.e. that circus in India. He’s a disgusting individual, and the opprobrium heaped on him by fellow players, captains and selectors has all been completely justified.

    You only have to compare this shallow, preening popinjay to someone with as much talent but a far better and more gentlemanly attitude — say, Sir Ian Botham — to see why Pietersen is justifiably reviled by all of us who prefer to see old-fashioned, antiquated qualities like sportsmanship and modesty in our sporting heroes.

    Performing seals like Pietersen deserve only fish; real sportsmen like Botham deserve knighthoods. That’s the difference between them.