Samir Chopra October 9, 2008

Then and now

Having observed this change we are now free to speculate on its causes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the hold that cricket photographs have on us fans. Besides the many genuinely aesthetic pleasures they make available to us, photographs play a central, historical function: they inform us of a time gone by.

Here is one difference that photographs reveal between the present and the past: the post-wicket celebration. Exhibit A: the famous photo of Jim Laker celebrating along with the rest of the team (or perhaps just noting) the end of an Ashes test in victory for England, a test in which Laker claimed 19 wickets of the 20 Australian wickets to fall. Laker and the rest of the English team seem to have wrapped up the win with as much visible display of emotion as one might make on receiving a receipt at a pawn shop.

Compare this with any photograph of the 1970s West Indian team celebrating. The exuberance on display is unmistakable. But this is not just a facile "Look at all the excitable non-white folk celebrating" or "White men can't party" point. For all teams now celebrate with the whooping exuberance of the West Indians. Some of them, the Indians for instance, take it even further: rumor has it that the famous slap heard round the world was actually just a congratulatory whack on the cheek. Some still display some reserve: Australians, for instance, pat each other's behinds in rather self-conscious fashion and shrink from the more affectionate hugs of their teammates. But in general there is no meekness on the cricket ground when it comes to celebrations: the English team is just as full of beans as anyone else. And almost all teams of the 1950s, even the West Indies, were relatively sedate in their on-field merry making.

Having observed this change we are now free to speculate on its causes. Is there too much coffee served in today's dressing rooms? Did other teams confuse the West Indian celebration as the cause, and not the effect, of the wicket falling? Is some of this put on for the television cameras? Is it, so to speak, part of the show, and the players know they are the actors?

The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle of all the speculation. Players of years gone by grew up in environments that required considerably more conformism, and social manners were more reserved. Every one of the cricketing nations has recorded in its social histories, this change in the social demeanor. It was inevitable too, that the West Indians would serve as models; not just for their fast-bowling and batting, but also for their vibe.

The high-fives and its various variants were bound to be picked up by impressionable youngsters the world over. Are there any young sportsmen anywhere that don't copy the stars in all their mannerisms? And lastly, as media and cultural theorists, and perhaps particle physicists, never tire of pointing out, our observations rapidly turn into participation: the players are ever more conscious of photographs and video coverage of games, giant screens remind them of their mannerisms, sometimes in close-up, and the sensation of living in a parallel world, that of the television production or the glossy sports magazine can take hold quite quickly. On that razzle-dazzle stage, there is no prize for sedateness and plenty of temptation to turn up the demonstrativeness a notch. The worst aspect of all this is the obnoxious, unprovoked, send-off.

But I'm not complaining. The excitement of the players is infectious; and watching a team celebrate a hard earned wicket in tests is enough inspiration to keep us watching a bit longer, hoping for another vanquished foe whose grave we can dance over. And that gives us a clue to what might be the *purpose* of the celebration: a warning to those in the pavilion of the fate that awaits them, and a signal to the friendlies that all is well. When all is said and done, sport somehow manages to turn us back to battlefield metaphors. More on that later.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here