Michael Appleton - student, Vinezac

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Spinning morals

Much has been written by historians of sport about where certain games come from; though, this sometimes seems an exercise in futility, not least because so many of the early writers on sport were keenly promoting their versions of particular games as the authoritative one of the time. If you take the sightseeing bus tour in Cambridge, you are told that this town is where association football - or soccer, as antipodeans like to call it - was invented. How so? Well, when the various clubs at the time got together and tried to agree on a common set of rules so that they could play each other, the ones chosen - the bus tour guide intoned - were those invented in Cambridge.

Lord's - the venue for today's first test between New Zealand and England - is known globally as the "home of cricket", but it was neither one of the first grounds to host regular cricket, nor the venue for the first test match. The latter was played in Melbourne in March 1877. Last week, I visited the small Hampshire village of Hambledon, which claims to be "the cradle of cricket", having hosted its first matches in the 1750s and its side having beaten the "All England" team provided on several occasions. Across the road from the cricket ground there is a pub called The Bat and Ball (the apple and rhubarb crumble was excellent, if you were wondering), whose walls are adorned with cricket memorabilia. One framed newspaper cutting told the story of a number ten batsman making over 150 in an early Hambledon match, a phenomonon which surprised some upon first seeing the scorecard. However, back in the 18th Century, batsmen were not listed by batting order but by status and - as would tend to happen in English sides made up of aristocratic gentlemen and less worthy professionals who played for material gain - the more socially lowly were better cricketers.

Cricket is still pervaded by considerations of class and empire. The countries where the sport seems to be more an all-consuming passion than a national pastime - Australia, the West Indies, and India, for example - cricket is a sport for everyone, the "common person", not just those who believe themselves to be too dignified to play more "common" sports. I have heard innumerous recollections from travellers to India and the West Indies about how all children - no matter how poor - seem to be out on the streets in their whites bowling or hitting a ball around, cricket representing both a reprieve from less palatable realities and a one-in-a-million shot at stardom and wealth. Cricket seems to be to Caribbean youngsters what soccer is to young Brazilians.

Though there are perpetual attempts by the ICC to broaden cricket's appeal - both in test countries where the sport has failed to infiltrate all social strata (South Africa, Zimbabwe, England, and I guess to an extent New Zealand) and in societies untouched by this relatively benign vestige of the British Empire - it seems unlikely that there will ever be more than 15 countries of test standard. I suppose if enough subcontinentals and Afro-Carribeans continue to travel to the United States and/or Canada, a couple of test sides could emerge from North America halfway through this century, but it is difficult to see where else test cricket could occur. Besides, building societies on the back of mass immigration doesn't seem to be as in vogue as it used to be. Consequently, the most urgent concern of cricket's authorities should be saving the current member of the test club teetering on the brink of self-destruction: Zimbabwe.

As is to be expected, Tony Blair's words on the English tour to Zimbabwe have been the usual mixture of self-righteous indignation and post-colonial tutt-tutting. One should probably observe a statute of limitations when it comes to the actions of states; nevertheless, it is a little galling to hear the pious words of a Prime Minister of a state which has a despicable record in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (blood diamonds, anyone?) offering himself as the Southern African state's moral compass. This isn't to say that Britain now is morally equivalent to Mugabe's Zimbabwe, just that the former will struggle - as it has in the Middle East - to convince those Zimbabweans who oppose the Mugabe regime that it has benign intentions this time round. Any discussions about what actions should be taken against post-colonial states has to take into account what might be termed the Anglo-American world's "credibility deficit".

Anyway, all this talk of boycotts - Australia's Stuart MacGill is skipping Zimbabwe for "moral reasons"; England's players and administrators are trying to find a way out of their tour next winter - got me wondering what would have happened had some Black Caps refused to tour England on moral grounds. There must be some peaceniks in the Black Cap side - Vettori? Oram? - and what if they had held a press conference and said, "We cannot in good conscience tour a country which is undertaking an illegal war and occupation, against the will of its own people, and which has further destabilised an already precarious world." Would New Zealand Cricket have assured them - as Australia and England's cricket authorities have over Zimbabwe - that their careers would be unaffacted by such a decision? How would Helen Clark have played the issue under the glare of what would have been a furious tabloid reaction? How would have Tony Blair framed his moralistic response? If nothing else, it would have made for a delicious spectacle.

As it turns out, the delicious spectacle will play out not in the tabloid pages but on the beautiful cricket fields of England over the next few weeks. My guess is that New Zealand will win the series 2-1, so long as the fickle weather lets them. The New Zealand side, its embarrassing loss to Kent notwithstanding, just seems to me more battle hardened and have more match winners than its opponents. Game on.