Samir Chopra August 7, 2008

To the manner born

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
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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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • lux on August 13, 2008, 11:51 GMT

    we play this way, therefore we are this way?

    a personal favourite:

    reading black resistance and pan-africanism in the 80s Windies and it's corollary: the supposed collapse of values and identity as seen through the current team. that the stanford experiment (american / bling / street-cred) may succeed implies ?(fill in the blank).

    other readings: the pakistani (insert cricketer / political party / nation): quixotic, unstable, intoxicating, unfathomable;

    south africa: multi-racial-future-state experiment;

    sri lanka: island-outpost turned smiling-mutant-freakshow (war-in-paradise as the backdrop);

    reality is not for poets!

    as an australian: our success has more to do with long summers, endless space, a disdain for the intellectual and measuring the collective genitalia by sporting prowess than any ideal of mateship / mental fortitude / baked beans. that we achieve in a game played by a mix of false / fallen / adolescent / drizzling nation-states should hardly suprise right?

  • .ade on August 10, 2008, 22:54 GMT

    What I find most funny and frustrating watching cricket nowdays is the lack of commonsense n good humor of our commentators. They just go so much over the board praising some one and the very next day they will criticize the same person so heavily – sometimes they feel like the nincompoops in Indian media. I think that the SL commentators should be banned. Man their voices are so incorrigible. I heard yesterday some Sinhalese discussing about the carom ball. The winding commentator asked,”what’s carom”? reply came in an ever irritating Sinhalese accent, ”carom is a board game played in south India n SL .board has got holes n players put some flat objects into that holes by aiming at them thru a striker ‘flicking’ by their hands. We also have a queen . the person who wins the queen win the match. There was a world championship of carrom in which SL won and thrfore we are good at flicking and may be that’s why u can see mendis developing the flicking skill so efficiently”. The best part was that the Lankan found the joke amusing enough and he even managed to laugh..

  • Soulberry on August 10, 2008, 21:19 GMT

    Samir, I'm no expat and may not be correct with my view, but I hold an impression that immigres tend to be more desirous of a perfect blend with the background. But, the hopes you mention, are also real...it is true, the ordinary Englishman wants his team to be more contemporary.

  • jrod on August 8, 2008, 12:45 GMT

    So if a team rejected vegetarianism and went on John's boot camps there is nothing they couldn't achieve.

  • AJAX on August 8, 2008, 7:38 GMT

    Samir: I re-read your article and I think we share a common view on "official/certified international" matches :). So I'm looking forward to your follow up! "Flash Ass": Urm...Whoosh! I can certainly say my point was in tune with the theme of the article. Where did Pattinson "show his mettle first"? Do you seriously believe Australia selected Symonds because his "POM"ish heritage brought something refreshing that the team desperately needed?...Get the drift? I don't think you will, so I'll try again. With options like Hoggard, Harmison, Simon Jones and so many others from the county circuit England selected an inexperienced, average first class bowler... why? Maybe his starting out with Dandenong and Victoria had something to do with it? Could it be that he had avoided that frailty associated with an "English-cricket" upbringing. Could he be the one? Maybe the selector's "adoption" of this dogma is more to the point than where he was born or chose to play. Comprende?

  • Arun on August 8, 2008, 1:02 GMT

    On nations and their alleged characteristics, how about this - Americans do not have an entire day leave alone 5 to watch a game of cricket which may or may not produce results.

    And dear Yankee, could you care to tell me how long a golf tournament lasts?

    I find golf the most boring game ever. I can never fathom the tedium of watching these 'athletes' walk around the course, hitting the long ball and generally wasting anywhere from 3 to 4 good days of their and the viewers' time.

    But the Yanks would have the 90 minutes to watch a game of soccer, maybe. Nah, too boring.

  • Flash Ash on August 7, 2008, 20:37 GMT

    It seems remarkable to me that once again KP is this new fad for England? He's not the first SA Capt!! Anyone remember Tony Greig? And there have been at least three other Capts of England who have ancestry not wholly from the mother isle, so where is the radical difference.

    Also, To Ajax, Is there a Grimsby in Oz? Last time I looked it was in UK. Using your guidance you should be calling Symonds a POM!! Where was he born and where did he get the chance to show his mettle first? It wasn't in the PURA it was good old Blighty (especially Gloucestershire!!) that he impressed, before going back to his "ADOPTED" home.................get the drift?

    Good luck to KP and to any other "Adopted" sportsman who can prove their worth in their adopted homes.

    Cheers

  • Arsalan Iqtidar on August 7, 2008, 14:25 GMT

    Its a great choice. I think he will bring the change that was over due for England Cricket. Cheers

  • Engle on August 7, 2008, 13:39 GMT

    Cant help but think that KP's elevation to captaincy is an act of desperation. Can an un-English leader lead an English team ? It's not a normal situation and he will have to bring forth extraordinary leadership skills to make this work. While GSmith is a natural leader for SAfrica, Ponting for Aus, Jayawardene for SL and so on, KP is an unnatural leader for England, not merely because he is SAfrican as much as his management/leadership style does not blend in with the team's collective psyche. Stranger things have happened, but my leanings are that this is an exercise bound for failure.

  • Gizza on August 7, 2008, 13:05 GMT

    Well R. Thirucumaran, I don't think the New Zealand media use that as an excuse, it is the honest truth. When you compare New Zealand's population with that of its brother Australia, England and especially the subcontinental teams, it is rather small. And it is a fact that rugby is more popular than cricket in NZ so the lack of depth in NZ cricket is hardly a surprise, as unfortunate as that is.

  • lux on August 13, 2008, 11:51 GMT

    we play this way, therefore we are this way?

    a personal favourite:

    reading black resistance and pan-africanism in the 80s Windies and it's corollary: the supposed collapse of values and identity as seen through the current team. that the stanford experiment (american / bling / street-cred) may succeed implies ?(fill in the blank).

    other readings: the pakistani (insert cricketer / political party / nation): quixotic, unstable, intoxicating, unfathomable;

    south africa: multi-racial-future-state experiment;

    sri lanka: island-outpost turned smiling-mutant-freakshow (war-in-paradise as the backdrop);

    reality is not for poets!

    as an australian: our success has more to do with long summers, endless space, a disdain for the intellectual and measuring the collective genitalia by sporting prowess than any ideal of mateship / mental fortitude / baked beans. that we achieve in a game played by a mix of false / fallen / adolescent / drizzling nation-states should hardly suprise right?

  • .ade on August 10, 2008, 22:54 GMT

    What I find most funny and frustrating watching cricket nowdays is the lack of commonsense n good humor of our commentators. They just go so much over the board praising some one and the very next day they will criticize the same person so heavily – sometimes they feel like the nincompoops in Indian media. I think that the SL commentators should be banned. Man their voices are so incorrigible. I heard yesterday some Sinhalese discussing about the carom ball. The winding commentator asked,”what’s carom”? reply came in an ever irritating Sinhalese accent, ”carom is a board game played in south India n SL .board has got holes n players put some flat objects into that holes by aiming at them thru a striker ‘flicking’ by their hands. We also have a queen . the person who wins the queen win the match. There was a world championship of carrom in which SL won and thrfore we are good at flicking and may be that’s why u can see mendis developing the flicking skill so efficiently”. The best part was that the Lankan found the joke amusing enough and he even managed to laugh..

  • Soulberry on August 10, 2008, 21:19 GMT

    Samir, I'm no expat and may not be correct with my view, but I hold an impression that immigres tend to be more desirous of a perfect blend with the background. But, the hopes you mention, are also real...it is true, the ordinary Englishman wants his team to be more contemporary.

  • jrod on August 8, 2008, 12:45 GMT

    So if a team rejected vegetarianism and went on John's boot camps there is nothing they couldn't achieve.

  • AJAX on August 8, 2008, 7:38 GMT

    Samir: I re-read your article and I think we share a common view on "official/certified international" matches :). So I'm looking forward to your follow up! "Flash Ass": Urm...Whoosh! I can certainly say my point was in tune with the theme of the article. Where did Pattinson "show his mettle first"? Do you seriously believe Australia selected Symonds because his "POM"ish heritage brought something refreshing that the team desperately needed?...Get the drift? I don't think you will, so I'll try again. With options like Hoggard, Harmison, Simon Jones and so many others from the county circuit England selected an inexperienced, average first class bowler... why? Maybe his starting out with Dandenong and Victoria had something to do with it? Could it be that he had avoided that frailty associated with an "English-cricket" upbringing. Could he be the one? Maybe the selector's "adoption" of this dogma is more to the point than where he was born or chose to play. Comprende?

  • Arun on August 8, 2008, 1:02 GMT

    On nations and their alleged characteristics, how about this - Americans do not have an entire day leave alone 5 to watch a game of cricket which may or may not produce results.

    And dear Yankee, could you care to tell me how long a golf tournament lasts?

    I find golf the most boring game ever. I can never fathom the tedium of watching these 'athletes' walk around the course, hitting the long ball and generally wasting anywhere from 3 to 4 good days of their and the viewers' time.

    But the Yanks would have the 90 minutes to watch a game of soccer, maybe. Nah, too boring.

  • Flash Ash on August 7, 2008, 20:37 GMT

    It seems remarkable to me that once again KP is this new fad for England? He's not the first SA Capt!! Anyone remember Tony Greig? And there have been at least three other Capts of England who have ancestry not wholly from the mother isle, so where is the radical difference.

    Also, To Ajax, Is there a Grimsby in Oz? Last time I looked it was in UK. Using your guidance you should be calling Symonds a POM!! Where was he born and where did he get the chance to show his mettle first? It wasn't in the PURA it was good old Blighty (especially Gloucestershire!!) that he impressed, before going back to his "ADOPTED" home.................get the drift?

    Good luck to KP and to any other "Adopted" sportsman who can prove their worth in their adopted homes.

    Cheers

  • Arsalan Iqtidar on August 7, 2008, 14:25 GMT

    Its a great choice. I think he will bring the change that was over due for England Cricket. Cheers

  • Engle on August 7, 2008, 13:39 GMT

    Cant help but think that KP's elevation to captaincy is an act of desperation. Can an un-English leader lead an English team ? It's not a normal situation and he will have to bring forth extraordinary leadership skills to make this work. While GSmith is a natural leader for SAfrica, Ponting for Aus, Jayawardene for SL and so on, KP is an unnatural leader for England, not merely because he is SAfrican as much as his management/leadership style does not blend in with the team's collective psyche. Stranger things have happened, but my leanings are that this is an exercise bound for failure.

  • Gizza on August 7, 2008, 13:05 GMT

    Well R. Thirucumaran, I don't think the New Zealand media use that as an excuse, it is the honest truth. When you compare New Zealand's population with that of its brother Australia, England and especially the subcontinental teams, it is rather small. And it is a fact that rugby is more popular than cricket in NZ so the lack of depth in NZ cricket is hardly a surprise, as unfortunate as that is.

  • Samir Chopra on August 7, 2008, 10:43 GMT

    Ajax: The second part of your comment deserves a longer response, which will be forthcoming.

  • Bharath on August 7, 2008, 8:45 GMT

    Nice one! I agree with the article, but I have to admit to almost being embarrassed when learned commentators espouse the same thing. After the Indian victory at Galle, Sanjay Manjerekar was going on and on about how this Indian cricket team was just a mirror of the new generation in our country. Seemingly aggressive (new India), out to win the world and so on. The fact that we were pummeled in the previous test match is of course, lost.

  • AJAX on August 7, 2008, 6:26 GMT

    Hehe, my sentiments exactly. For years Australia embarked on a brilliant and successful campaign attributing their success to "mental toughness" and their opponents loses to the lack of it. It was magnificent, say it over and over again and after some time the other teams start believing it. Look at England, they would rather select any Australian bowler, even with almost no first class experience, rather than a home-bred successful test bowler. Every Indian coach emphasized the Indian's lack of mental strength, South Africans believed they were chokers, the West Indies believed they were spiraling to a bottomless abyss, the Kiwi's were the bullied neighbors etc etc etc. As for their being no serious cricket league, I disagree. I've asked this question before; Who exactly are the "national boards"? This is the greatest marketing gimmick in the commonwealth. Is a player unpatriotic for joining the ICL? Rabid nationalists can never fully appreciate a game of cricket.

  • R. Thirucumaran on August 7, 2008, 6:16 GMT

    How about the 'We don't have a large talent pool because most kids go to rugby' excuse cited by New Zealanders for their constant failure to get to the top of the cricketing world?

  • Straight Point on August 7, 2008, 5:55 GMT

    strictly from cricketing point of view we tend to judge captain (specially if he is batsman) the way he playes cricket...

    so dravid will be presumed as defensive captain and KP as as aggressive captain for the way they play...which is always not correct...

    shastri's, sehwag's name comes to mind while former was attacking later seems more subdued contrary to their popular image...

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  • Straight Point on August 7, 2008, 5:55 GMT

    strictly from cricketing point of view we tend to judge captain (specially if he is batsman) the way he playes cricket...

    so dravid will be presumed as defensive captain and KP as as aggressive captain for the way they play...which is always not correct...

    shastri's, sehwag's name comes to mind while former was attacking later seems more subdued contrary to their popular image...

  • R. Thirucumaran on August 7, 2008, 6:16 GMT

    How about the 'We don't have a large talent pool because most kids go to rugby' excuse cited by New Zealanders for their constant failure to get to the top of the cricketing world?

  • AJAX on August 7, 2008, 6:26 GMT

    Hehe, my sentiments exactly. For years Australia embarked on a brilliant and successful campaign attributing their success to "mental toughness" and their opponents loses to the lack of it. It was magnificent, say it over and over again and after some time the other teams start believing it. Look at England, they would rather select any Australian bowler, even with almost no first class experience, rather than a home-bred successful test bowler. Every Indian coach emphasized the Indian's lack of mental strength, South Africans believed they were chokers, the West Indies believed they were spiraling to a bottomless abyss, the Kiwi's were the bullied neighbors etc etc etc. As for their being no serious cricket league, I disagree. I've asked this question before; Who exactly are the "national boards"? This is the greatest marketing gimmick in the commonwealth. Is a player unpatriotic for joining the ICL? Rabid nationalists can never fully appreciate a game of cricket.

  • Bharath on August 7, 2008, 8:45 GMT

    Nice one! I agree with the article, but I have to admit to almost being embarrassed when learned commentators espouse the same thing. After the Indian victory at Galle, Sanjay Manjerekar was going on and on about how this Indian cricket team was just a mirror of the new generation in our country. Seemingly aggressive (new India), out to win the world and so on. The fact that we were pummeled in the previous test match is of course, lost.

  • Samir Chopra on August 7, 2008, 10:43 GMT

    Ajax: The second part of your comment deserves a longer response, which will be forthcoming.

  • Gizza on August 7, 2008, 13:05 GMT

    Well R. Thirucumaran, I don't think the New Zealand media use that as an excuse, it is the honest truth. When you compare New Zealand's population with that of its brother Australia, England and especially the subcontinental teams, it is rather small. And it is a fact that rugby is more popular than cricket in NZ so the lack of depth in NZ cricket is hardly a surprise, as unfortunate as that is.

  • Engle on August 7, 2008, 13:39 GMT

    Cant help but think that KP's elevation to captaincy is an act of desperation. Can an un-English leader lead an English team ? It's not a normal situation and he will have to bring forth extraordinary leadership skills to make this work. While GSmith is a natural leader for SAfrica, Ponting for Aus, Jayawardene for SL and so on, KP is an unnatural leader for England, not merely because he is SAfrican as much as his management/leadership style does not blend in with the team's collective psyche. Stranger things have happened, but my leanings are that this is an exercise bound for failure.

  • Arsalan Iqtidar on August 7, 2008, 14:25 GMT

    Its a great choice. I think he will bring the change that was over due for England Cricket. Cheers

  • Flash Ash on August 7, 2008, 20:37 GMT

    It seems remarkable to me that once again KP is this new fad for England? He's not the first SA Capt!! Anyone remember Tony Greig? And there have been at least three other Capts of England who have ancestry not wholly from the mother isle, so where is the radical difference.

    Also, To Ajax, Is there a Grimsby in Oz? Last time I looked it was in UK. Using your guidance you should be calling Symonds a POM!! Where was he born and where did he get the chance to show his mettle first? It wasn't in the PURA it was good old Blighty (especially Gloucestershire!!) that he impressed, before going back to his "ADOPTED" home.................get the drift?

    Good luck to KP and to any other "Adopted" sportsman who can prove their worth in their adopted homes.

    Cheers

  • Arun on August 8, 2008, 1:02 GMT

    On nations and their alleged characteristics, how about this - Americans do not have an entire day leave alone 5 to watch a game of cricket which may or may not produce results.

    And dear Yankee, could you care to tell me how long a golf tournament lasts?

    I find golf the most boring game ever. I can never fathom the tedium of watching these 'athletes' walk around the course, hitting the long ball and generally wasting anywhere from 3 to 4 good days of their and the viewers' time.

    But the Yanks would have the 90 minutes to watch a game of soccer, maybe. Nah, too boring.