Stephen Gelb September 2, 2008

Why Gelb doesn't worship the Don

I may be a cricket-obsessive and I may be helping in a very marginal way to produce the ‘cricket world.’ But I am not a cricket fanatic or fundamentalist, it is not a religion for me

On Wednesday last week, August 27th, our Cricinfo ‘handler’ Avi sent us four ‘Different Strokers’ a message asking “No Bradman tributes?”, and reading in full “I must say I’m a little surprised.” Fox has now admirably filled the gap, but my first reaction to Avi was surprise of my own, as it had never occurred to me to write something about Bradman, that day or any other. Avi’s message made me wonder why I had not thought of it – as a cricket-obsessive with a cricket blog, should I have written a tribute, or at least thought of it? The result of my self-reflection is my own small and indirect tribute to the Don.

Bradman has been a legend to me for over 40 years, since I started reading Wisden at age 10 or 11. Of course I’ve only ever seen him bat in some film footage, but I own several auto- and biographies and have read dozens of articles. I can reel off a list of his achievements, and just recently was amazed to learn from "The List that he was top run-getter in only 6 of his 11 Test series. He was outscored five times? By whom? But until last week I would not have been sure of his birth-year, let alone his birth-date.

In fact, the only cricketers whose birthdays I do know are Wasim Akram – because he shares mine – and the Waugh twins, because they’re the day before. I admired all three in different ways, so I enjoy this coincidence. But in general cricketers’ birthdays seem irrelevant, even if their age is not.

On the other hand, I do remember the birthdays of my two lodestars as an economist – Marx and Keynes – and also the years of their birth and death. Every year on May 5 and June 5 respectively, I figuratively tip my hat. And earlier this year, the celebration of Mandela’s 90th birthday, outside South Africa as well as within, felt entirely appropriate.

So why no Bradman tribute? I think it has to do with ‘identity’, about how I see myself, and particularly about the ways in which icons shape identity and vice versa. There is a difference between heroes and icons. Heroes – like Steve Waugh – are people whom one can aspire to emulate, because for all their qualities and achievements, they are flesh and blood, with human imperfections and limits. (And in the TV age are not limited to one’s own nation, as Fox correctly pointed out.) Icons have transcended all that, and moved into the realm of mythology and faith, as the repositories of our hopes and fears, and via their reflected glory, of how we want to be seen by ourselves and especially others.

The iconic realm is where we find Mandela of course, whose iconic status is a core part not only of our South African national founding myth, but also of the global myth of harmony between races. For me as fundamentally a left-leaning political economist, it is also the realm of Marx and Keynes, but this is far from a universal view, to put it mildly.

The iconic is also the realm of Bradman. But not for me. Bradman seems to be iconic for Australians in the way Mandela is for South Africans, a central player in the national founding myth. (The Charles Williams biography is a brilliant discussion of that point.) And as the greatest player who ever lived, he is iconic for the ‘cricket world’, in the way that Mandela is for the human race, or at least for humanists and non-racists.

After the Mandela moment last July, I did not feel that Australia went over the top about Bradman last week. But since I’m not Australian, any piece I might have written would have been because cricket is a core part of my identity. So I conclude that not autonomously writing a Bradman tribute means that I do not see myself as entirely within the cricket world. I may be a cricket-obsessive and I may be helping in a very marginal way to produce the ‘cricket world.’ But I am not a cricket fanatic or fundamentalist, it is not a religion for me. This little self-discovery, about something I think about every day, is rather comforting.

So, Avi, I hope that explains it. It’s not about the Don, he’s right up there in the pantheon.