To the manner born
The list of virtues cited for Kevin Pietersen as England captain is well-known: he will be aggressive, he can hold his own in terms of playing ability in all three forms, he is confident, will be unafraid to take the attack to the enemy and so on. Running through all these expressions of support is also a hope, implicitly or explicitly expressed, that he "will shake things up"; that, fundamentally, he will work in a not-English way.
It is the expression of this particular sentiment, sometimes expressed by pointing out how the very fact of his being South African is an advantage, because he will not be caught up with being English in all those ways that contribute to losing cricket games, that I find by far the most interesting.
For this sort of suggestion, that somehow national character, a particular nation-wide psyche or characteristic, is to blame (or praise) for lack of success (or failure) at cricket, is exceedingly common in cricket journalism and in conversations amongst cricket fans. Indian fans are quick to indulge in long bouts of psychoanalytic speculation about the lack of national "killer instinct" when it comes to finishing close games, with their diagnoses ranging from weather conditions to colonial histories to religious inclinations; Pakistani fans have had a long tradition of pointing to the success of their cricket team and their endless production of fast bowlers as vindication of national aggressiveness (and sometimes a rejection of vegetarianism); Australians would have us believe that it is a particularly Aussie brand of 'mateship' that contributes to 5-0 Ashes victories (nowhere has this been better exemplified than in the visits to Gallipolli and the Buchanan Boot Camps[tm]); the self-flagellation of the English fan is well-known; the list goes on. I could supply more examples (and I invite readers to send me their favourite examples) but my slightly facetious list above should be sufficient reminder of how much speculation, conjecture and theorizing about nations and their alleged characteristics infects discussions about failures and success in cricket.
And all of this is inevitable. For what cricket provides in heaps, quite unlike any other sport, is something quite unique in international sport: direct country versus country competition, understood as the highest form game. Till the advent of the IPL, there was no international league in cricket. The closest we ever came to it was World Series Cricket a long while ago, and part of the reason it suffered initially was that people associate top-class cricket games with "official" national teams playing against each other. More than any other, the cricket fan aches for the stamp of "Certified International Contest" upon the game that he is watching. And as such, cricket is bound to provoke not just some of the nasty nationalist spats that are now a depressingly common feature of fan interactions (what the Internet giveth, it also taketh away), it also invites the sort of analysis pointed to above.
While some of this quasi-social-science theorizing is infuriatingly reductive, some of it is entertaining, and as such, should be welcomed. After all, what is not funny about linking vegetarianism with failures to produce fast bowlers? Or in the alleged linkages between military victories and defeats and performance on a cricket field? Sometimes it is in the most allegedly serious of claims that one can find the most humour; and mostly this is because of the tiny germ of truth in there, blown up to grotesque proportion. Caricature works because it seizes upon a tiny feature and exaggerates it. These wonderfully entertaining theses, masquerading as deep analysis, should be recognized for what they are, and welcomed. They lead to great conversations and might even provoke some folks to read a history book or two. So long as we don't take them too seriously.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here