Sunday, August 27, 2006

Geoffrey Wheatcroft article

From today's Observer.

As our damp little island descends sniggering beneath the waves of history, we can console ourselves that we leave behind a number of irreducible legacies to mankind. Although it would be nice (if maybe optimistic) to think that they include representative government and the rule of law, there's no arguing about the importance of our language, now the global lingua franca.
Nor is there about another legacy: organised team games. These are now in some ways the most important single residue of the Victorian age, almost certainly ranking higher in terms of global human consciousness than any language or political system, a common cultural interest shared by more people on Earth than any other. These games were also originally meant to carry a moral message about sportsmanship and the fostering of harmony among men.
As we have seen in the lurid fiasco at the Oval and its continuing repercussions, up to the latest revelations about Darrell Hair's grotesque demand for a golden handshake, the story turned out to be a good deal more complicated than that.
The sheer worldwide conquest of games from this island is amazing. Not only is rugby played in every continent; what Americans call football is distantly but visibly descended from it. Different public schools used to play their versions of football, until the historic day in 1863 when a group of sportsmen from Oxford and Cambridge met in a London pub to lay down a common code for a 'game of 11 men against 11' to be known as Association Football. As AJP Taylor said: 'By it, the mark of England may well remain in the world when the rest of her influence has vanished.'
Cricket had been codified well before that and, although it never spread to every country in the way that soccer did, it became the national sport of most countries which had been part of the British Empire, countries which, in some respects, became, and remain, more English than England. Without question, the world's great centre of the game nowadays is the Indian subcontinent.
We now tend to smile at 'sportsmanship' and the idea that playing games is character-building. Derision is appropriate enough when you see the orgy of cheating which professional sport has so often become. But that sporting spirit was once taken very seriously indeed and not only by the English.
In 1883, on his way to the epiphany which would see him create the modern Olympics, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin visited Rugby school and fell on his knees before the tomb of the great Dr Arnold. Although Arnold had, in fact, been a far from uncritical admirer of the religion of games, he stood in de Coubertin's eyes for the athletic ideal, and the régime arnoldien was to be a model for France, a means by which de Coubertin's fallen country could be 'rebronzed' after the humiliating defeat by Prussia.
Theodor Herzl, author of The Jewish State, the book which helped launch political Zionism in 1896, hoped that manly English sports would be played in that state he dreamed of. This conjunction of sport and nationalism was very much part of that age; not long before, the revival of Gaelic sports had begun, to purify Ireland of foreign games and Englishness in general; it was a portent.
Maybe de Coubertin and Herzl now seem innocents. There has always been an 'English imposture', the pretence that we are a uniquely decent and restrained people, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary. But this cult of sportsmanship played its part in the imposture, very successfully, to the extent that others were taken in (the English for 'die Schadenfreude 'is 'schadenfreude', the German for 'fair play' is 'die Fair-play'.)
That was far from the whole truth even at the time. In the earliest golden age of cricket, which was supposedly also the heyday of the sporting spirit and fair play, the first sportsman to be a national figure was WG Grace, a man who well-nigh invented 'gamesmanship' and who ended a long career as an amateur cricketer flagrantly richer than he began it.
But the real snag was that by providing a focus for collective endeavour and identity, team games encouraged darker human emotions. As George Orwell famously said, far from spreading the brotherhood of man, 'sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will', not to say sheer hatred, from the 'bodyline' cricket controversy when England were playing in Australia in 1933 to the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the Moscow Dynamo tour of England in 1945 which was Orwell's peg.
Even if 'unfailing' is typical Orwellian exaggeration, no one can deny some truth in what he said. Football matches can be uplifting occasions. And they can be frankly vile, as anyone knows who once heard the Leeds crowd singing when a black player gets the ball: 'Trigger trigger trigger ... kill that nigger', or the Rangers and Celtic fans' reciprocal chants about 'Fenian blood' and IRA vengeance, or the Highbury lads greeting their neighbours from Spurs: 'I've never felt more like gassing the Jews/When Tottenham win and Arsenal lose.'
Not that this country is unique in communal identity of teams. Herzl's dream came true: English sports are, indeed, played in Israel, where football is a reigning passion and where the clubs still carry the affiliations of their Zionist origins. Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, who was brought up in the right-wing revisionist tradition, is by no accident a supporter of Beitar Jerusalem, which bears the name of the militant uniformed youth movement created in the 1920s.
What happened at the Oval showed two sides of the coin. On the one, there is 'tribal feeling' or, at any rate, wounded national pride, with all too many echoes of the imperial past and anti-colonial resentment: a team of brown men (and Muslims) is accused of underhand play by a white umpire, albeit Australian. The intractable confrontation painfully illustrates Orwell's thesis that organised sport 'is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with larger power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige'.
On the other, it is at least possible that Inzamam-ul-Haq and his team are sincere in their injured anger when he says that 'the pride of the nation has been hurt'. What's done to a cricket ball is not straightforward cheating, like a footballer diving to win a penalty or one rugby player tripping another. Fast bowlers have always polished the ball and spinners have discreetly scuffed it. When the Pakistanis first mastered the dark art of reverse swing, part of the trick seems to have been to shine one side of the ball and load the other with sweat. Moral philosophers of a sporting bent may debate whether that is 'tampering'.
But it really would be racist to suppose that Asian Muslims - or Hindus or Sikhs - cannot understand 'the spirit of cricket' toasted at countless banquets or that they are incapable of sportsmanship, even if it hadn't turned out that they have nothing to learn about gentlemanly conduct from the overbearing Australian at the eye of this storm. It's notorious that the last place you can meet what used to be thought of as an English gentleman is in the officers' mess of the Indian or Pakistani armies. In his great cricket book, Beyond a Boundary, Marxist writer CLR James recalled how in his Trinidadian boyhood, to play 'like an Englishman' had been the highest praise. We might take that as a compliment, even if it sometimes means playing like Dr Grace.

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