Samir Chopra June 29, 2009

Of Cemeteries and Cricket

Given this dissimilarity, it would be nice if all of us could ease up on the "sport is war" analogy-making
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'I don't think sports teams should be using war cemeteries as venues for training' © Getty Images
 

I come from a military family (more precisely, of air force pilots). Thus, I'm generally inclined to agree with sentiments of recognition directed towards the service of war veterans, the commemoration of the war dead, and more broadly, with a sympathetic take on folks who serve in the military. Still, I would be lying if I did not say that both the Australian team's visit to Gallipoli in 2001, and the English team's visit to Flanders yesterday filled me with some unease.

What bothers me about these trips is the idea that paying a visit to war cemeteries or memorials is a "bonding exercise" for sportsmen about to engage in a major sporting encounter. This notion is deeply problematic on two counts.

First, it encourages a facile identification between sport and war (note, I'm not saying the visits do it - they just encourage it). This identification has already infected sports journalism - what with its language of "sporting battlefields", "fierce battles", "thrashings", "humiliating defeats", "gallant resistance", language that is the stuff of headlines and which often makes me cringe. Some of the borrowing of this language is unavoidable; I'm sure it slips into my blogging as well. After all, sports is a competitive encounter with winners and losers; war is a "competitive encounter" as well. But there the similarity should end.

The terrible realities of war are a far cry from even the fiercest sporting rivalry. Rick McCosker, broken jaw and all, would be the first one to acknowledge that his "battle" with the English pacemen in the 1977 Centenary Test bore as much resemblance to war as a passing shower bears to a category five hurricane. Given this dissimilarity, it would be nice if all of us could ease up on the "sport is war" analogy-making. It dangerously elevates passions in sport, and it trivializes an activity that is perhaps mankind's most terrible invention. No matter how fierce the 2009 Ashes will be, they are tiddlywinks compared to war. (Cue Keith Miller's comments on pressure here).

Secondly, at the risk of sounding like an old conservative fart, I don't think sports teams should be using war cemeteries as venues for training. Whatever the expressed emotion, these visits are clearly some coach's brainchild, part of a strategy to prepare a team for a game. But if you visit a cemetery, come to pay your respects and nothing else. Do not use the cemeteries as a means to an end, to facilitate some sort of organizational success. Who wouldn't find it tacky if we heard a corporate board was visiting Ypres as a bonding exercise, as part of a day-long "strategy planning retreat"?

If you feel your wards are in need of a little maturity, and should appreciate that no matter how tough their lives, other young men had it much, much worse, then encourage them on their own time to visit war museums and other memorials and read some history (perhaps buy them all a copy of John Keegan's The Face of Battle). But this programmed, publicised with photo-ops package tour, which uses the graves of thousands of men as part of an elaborate training routine is lacking in some desperately needed good taste.

By all means, pay your respects to the men who died in distant lands, often fighting for causes they only dimly understood. By all means acknowledge the horrendous toll in life that wars have exacted, and remember the men who could not have full productive lives, and the families who lost them. But to be truly respectful to them, leave your agendas out of it. Especially if those are part of a new-wave sports coaching plan.

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

  • Chris on July 3, 2009, 11:06 GMT

    Re; Carey's comment; forgive me, but how would commemorating W.G.Grace commemorate the "spirit of the game"?

  • Carey Clements on July 2, 2009, 22:11 GMT

    Whilst I can agree with the sentiment of visiting war cemeteries is a good thing to remember those that made sacrifices for their country, I believe the better option would be to visit the graves in cemeteries of some of the former great international cricketers such as Bradman, Grace etc... Too few of our current international cricketers know anything of the past history of the game and in particular the feats of some of the former players, which not only played with little financial reward, but had to endure uncovered pitches, minimal protective equipment when batting and long sea voyages to get to another country. By having players visit the graves of great players, they can finally underatand some of the traditions and spirit of the game that people like Bradman so often tried to advocate in his older years.

  • Anonymous on July 2, 2009, 5:36 GMT

    Once again Samir you have totally missed the point, it has nothing to do with "sport and war" and many different sports not just cricket have visited war cemeteries. It is a national team paying thier respects to those who had died in an horrific conflict, invariably a humbling experience, just ask the New Zealand and Canadian Rugby teams of the 1991 RWC.

  • Vijay Sharma on June 30, 2009, 11:39 GMT

    Good one Samir! Nice to put things into perspective. Let us not equate sport with war. The need and reasons for sport are entirely different from those of wars. Having said that, if sport can "replace" war i.e. the need to kill then sport can be sold to a certain extent in such a way. I'd rather have sporting battlefields than killing battlefields. But alas we are not such a spiritually evolved species to do away with war entirely.

  • Tony on June 30, 2009, 10:06 GMT

    Some very interesting comments to a well written blog. I, like the blogger, come from a military family. My late father served in New Guinea, and my uncle in the airforce, in WW2. Our late elderly neighbours' brother is buried at Gallipoli. Just about all of my father's close friends were veterans he served with. I grew up with them all as virtual family.

    My point being, I am not in the slightest bit offended at anyone visiting war graves. Be it a team, a group.. whomever. I live in Russia and have recently travelled to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and visited the memorials there and it was one of the most enriching, moving experiences I have ever had. No one should be denied the opportunity to visit such a site. Mayhaps a little less media scrutiny would be appropriate for such an occasion.. but so long as the visitors are respectful, humble and learn something.. then I think we are all better off.

    Thank you for a very interesting and thought provoking subject.

  • NIckB on June 30, 2009, 9:46 GMT

    I think the article is basically right. Notwithstanding the fact that the visits could have a humbling effect on individuals, it is part of a cynical marketing campaign to hype up the ashes by comparison with a war. Other conflict metaphors are being used too - the silly pictures of KP and Flintoff in boxing garb for example. They are creating a climate of expectation which is not only in bad taste but could lead to lower standards of player and crowd behaviour. Disgusting. But exactly what you'd expect from an ECB whose leader Giles Clarke has said that cricket is just like "any other business." It isn't, for the simple reason that its follwership is driven by fans believing in the players and to some extent idolising them. You don't get that with selling washing machines, Giles.

  • redneck on June 30, 2009, 6:01 GMT

    gallipoli is where our nation along with new zealand was born, the first time we stood up to be counted independently from briton. NOTHING WRONG with paying respects to your nations war dead and remembering the past sacrifices made for us to live the way we do today!!!

  • Rahil Khan on June 30, 2009, 5:15 GMT

    Dust to dust, ashes to... These visits should not be publicized and certainly their timings (before "Ashes" series) is clearly a pun to me, don't you think?

  • paul dunn on June 30, 2009, 5:00 GMT

    I agree ...... Quite simply the English team officials blew it, what a stupid place to take the team before an Ashes series. One word will counter this team bonding - Gallipoli ! Bingo....Advantage Australia

  • akshay on June 29, 2009, 17:16 GMT

    Visiting a war memorial puts into perspective your actions and how you play the game. It tell you how trivial your actions are compared to the larger picture, but how you still made a difference. It promotes not just team bonding but also makes you contribute as a team member and not as a irresponsible player. But most importantly it ignites the passion in you for your country. Cricketers can contribute in the only way they can, by becoming role models, displaying the kind of passion and burning desire to excel. Not everyone can take a gun and guard our borders. And the life of sportsmen is not so easy, they also have to live away from their families, train hard, burdened with the expectations of their countrymen. Remember Graeme Smith turning out for South Africa with his broken finger, or Anil Kumble bowling with a broken jaw. Cricket is war, and war is not just with guns, its also about conquering your inner demons, removing self doubts and playing your heart out for your country.

  • Chris on July 3, 2009, 11:06 GMT

    Re; Carey's comment; forgive me, but how would commemorating W.G.Grace commemorate the "spirit of the game"?

  • Carey Clements on July 2, 2009, 22:11 GMT

    Whilst I can agree with the sentiment of visiting war cemeteries is a good thing to remember those that made sacrifices for their country, I believe the better option would be to visit the graves in cemeteries of some of the former great international cricketers such as Bradman, Grace etc... Too few of our current international cricketers know anything of the past history of the game and in particular the feats of some of the former players, which not only played with little financial reward, but had to endure uncovered pitches, minimal protective equipment when batting and long sea voyages to get to another country. By having players visit the graves of great players, they can finally underatand some of the traditions and spirit of the game that people like Bradman so often tried to advocate in his older years.

  • Anonymous on July 2, 2009, 5:36 GMT

    Once again Samir you have totally missed the point, it has nothing to do with "sport and war" and many different sports not just cricket have visited war cemeteries. It is a national team paying thier respects to those who had died in an horrific conflict, invariably a humbling experience, just ask the New Zealand and Canadian Rugby teams of the 1991 RWC.

  • Vijay Sharma on June 30, 2009, 11:39 GMT

    Good one Samir! Nice to put things into perspective. Let us not equate sport with war. The need and reasons for sport are entirely different from those of wars. Having said that, if sport can "replace" war i.e. the need to kill then sport can be sold to a certain extent in such a way. I'd rather have sporting battlefields than killing battlefields. But alas we are not such a spiritually evolved species to do away with war entirely.

  • Tony on June 30, 2009, 10:06 GMT

    Some very interesting comments to a well written blog. I, like the blogger, come from a military family. My late father served in New Guinea, and my uncle in the airforce, in WW2. Our late elderly neighbours' brother is buried at Gallipoli. Just about all of my father's close friends were veterans he served with. I grew up with them all as virtual family.

    My point being, I am not in the slightest bit offended at anyone visiting war graves. Be it a team, a group.. whomever. I live in Russia and have recently travelled to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and visited the memorials there and it was one of the most enriching, moving experiences I have ever had. No one should be denied the opportunity to visit such a site. Mayhaps a little less media scrutiny would be appropriate for such an occasion.. but so long as the visitors are respectful, humble and learn something.. then I think we are all better off.

    Thank you for a very interesting and thought provoking subject.

  • NIckB on June 30, 2009, 9:46 GMT

    I think the article is basically right. Notwithstanding the fact that the visits could have a humbling effect on individuals, it is part of a cynical marketing campaign to hype up the ashes by comparison with a war. Other conflict metaphors are being used too - the silly pictures of KP and Flintoff in boxing garb for example. They are creating a climate of expectation which is not only in bad taste but could lead to lower standards of player and crowd behaviour. Disgusting. But exactly what you'd expect from an ECB whose leader Giles Clarke has said that cricket is just like "any other business." It isn't, for the simple reason that its follwership is driven by fans believing in the players and to some extent idolising them. You don't get that with selling washing machines, Giles.

  • redneck on June 30, 2009, 6:01 GMT

    gallipoli is where our nation along with new zealand was born, the first time we stood up to be counted independently from briton. NOTHING WRONG with paying respects to your nations war dead and remembering the past sacrifices made for us to live the way we do today!!!

  • Rahil Khan on June 30, 2009, 5:15 GMT

    Dust to dust, ashes to... These visits should not be publicized and certainly their timings (before "Ashes" series) is clearly a pun to me, don't you think?

  • paul dunn on June 30, 2009, 5:00 GMT

    I agree ...... Quite simply the English team officials blew it, what a stupid place to take the team before an Ashes series. One word will counter this team bonding - Gallipoli ! Bingo....Advantage Australia

  • akshay on June 29, 2009, 17:16 GMT

    Visiting a war memorial puts into perspective your actions and how you play the game. It tell you how trivial your actions are compared to the larger picture, but how you still made a difference. It promotes not just team bonding but also makes you contribute as a team member and not as a irresponsible player. But most importantly it ignites the passion in you for your country. Cricketers can contribute in the only way they can, by becoming role models, displaying the kind of passion and burning desire to excel. Not everyone can take a gun and guard our borders. And the life of sportsmen is not so easy, they also have to live away from their families, train hard, burdened with the expectations of their countrymen. Remember Graeme Smith turning out for South Africa with his broken finger, or Anil Kumble bowling with a broken jaw. Cricket is war, and war is not just with guns, its also about conquering your inner demons, removing self doubts and playing your heart out for your country.

  • Nikhil Jones on June 29, 2009, 17:03 GMT

    I agree with the view the similarities between war and sport are often overused and mostly unnecessary. I don't see anything wrong with these visits to cementaries, as long as the vistitors are respectful and humble. Publicity doesn't come into it.

  • Yogesh on June 29, 2009, 16:41 GMT

    Aren't teachers allowed to take kids to Cemetries to teach them some history and appreciate the sacrifices of an earlier generation ?? Yes, that is what has happened here. I have gone with my friends to WW 2 cemetries, there are groups that go to such cemetries, then why not Strauss and friends ?? The cemetries are to mourn as well as educate yourself. But yes, Australian players smiling from trenches is a bit disrespectful.

  • Steve Grzesiak on June 29, 2009, 16:32 GMT

    Thank you, Jay, for taking pity on me, but considering I actually live in Surrey and actually wasn't defending Buchanan but instead mocking all the immediate abuse that Buchanan rightly or wrongly gets, I guess that sees you 2-0 down?

    I personally think far too much has been read into this visit by the blogger and by many of those making comments.

  • Stuart Caughlin on June 29, 2009, 14:38 GMT

    I think the visit raises an interesting question in the present day.

    What is it like to feel unified working together for a common cause. Many young people will have no real idea what this is like.

    For me a trip like this would achieve two positive benefits. I think it is nourishing to reflect on how it is possible to display the ability to show bravery and overcome fear in the face of the most difficult circumstances. Balance this against the fact that cricket is ultimately trivial in comparison. The visit could provide a window into human potential whilst highlighting the fact that cricket is only a game thus relieving the pressure of performance on the sportsmen? It could be that this train of thinking. How else can we look at war?

  • Matthew White on June 29, 2009, 13:25 GMT

    I disagree, I think this would have been a humbling and emotional experience for all involved. These are professional sports people who spend most of the year away from their families and country. I think that it is fantastic they have paid their respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

  • Flash Ash on June 29, 2009, 13:24 GMT

    All I can say is if you have ever visited one of those cemetarys you would not even be calling this into question.

    It is one of the most moving things I have ever done and to think that the English and lets not forget the Aussies (Twice!!) doing it without coming away with something far more meaning than simple patriotic ferver and "Team Building" is naive to the extreme.

    The more people go to these places and the higher profile they get the better it might make us all alot more humble about the sacrifice so many made.

    If the England visit has raised awareness then thank goodness and if the war graves commission supported the move then good on them!!

    Lets discuss the cricket instead of "sniping" (get the analogy!!) at Englands preparations.

    All quite on Western Front!!

  • Will on June 29, 2009, 13:13 GMT

    Sport isn’t war. But who in the England party has said that it is? So what if the England team use a cemetery to teach themselves about say, the importance of team unity? If history is to have any purpose whatsoever it is to teach later generations of the dangers that they may face or the mistakes that they may make. And as an exercise in retaining a sense of perspective, the horrors of the 1914-18 conflict, one in which someone was killed every 14 seconds for four YEARS, would seem to be the perfect tool. Further to this, the presence of a modern sporting star at the graves of soldiers might also serve as a reminder to the under-educated children and teenagers of this country, of the sacrifices that were made for them by a whole generation of young men.

  • Sanjiyan on June 29, 2009, 12:51 GMT

    Had a look at the pictures...almost none of the Englishmen look even remotely interested.

    If you want bonding see Dr. Phil or Oprah.

  • St. John on June 29, 2009, 12:04 GMT

    From my reading of the parallel Cricinfo article, the England team paid their respects; although there was a motivational and team-bonding purpose to the visit, the trip seems to have been conducted with respect and sensitivity. Therefore, I don't see too much to complain about. I think the writer of this article makes an unnecessary conceptual leap from sportsmen visiting a war cemetery to the trivialisation of war. Also, not going on such a trip would hardly serve the memory of those who died: one could take the view that any publicity of the suffering caused by war is good for younger generations. If I were to question this trip, I would focus more on whether such a sombre visit achieves much team bonding: isn't some degree of "fun" and levity also needed? And if the gravity of WW1 is meant to put things into context, doesn't that risk complacency? For example, you could say "it doesn't matter if I make 0 or 100 runs, at least I am alive and did not have to suffer that horror".

  • Jay on June 29, 2009, 11:52 GMT

    Look @ the poor aussie Steve Greziak whining that John Buchanan is being singled out. Well lets face it Buchanan deserves it, I am not saying this particular incident is his fault but he deserves everything that comes his way, he was deadweight as a coach and he is deadweight as a consultant.

    Respect the Australian cricket team of old but never had much time for Buchanan.

  • Aussienick on June 29, 2009, 11:49 GMT

    I think you've totally missed the point - I feel both visits are intended to put the game (after all that is what cricket is!) into perspective - rather than let it run away with itself and some pumped up blonde earringed yob who thinks the world owes him a favour for just being shane....

  • D.Frith on June 29, 2009, 11:22 GMT

    The criticism is well founded. When I saw a report on a Test match in the 1970s which included the expression "It was like the Somme out there" I knew that any such comparison was simply obscene. And my stomach turned when I saw those pictures of Australian cricketers wearing the Diggers' slouch hats as they crouched in the trenches. Just goes to show how stupidly seriously they and others take this lovely GAME called cricket.

  • Mark Wiggins on June 29, 2009, 10:39 GMT

    If it raises general awareness of the truly heroic sacrifices of earlier generations, then I believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I don't think the Aussies regarded their 2001 Gallipoli trip as a "bonding exercise" - the slouch hat of the diggers is more venerated in Australia than the baggy green...I take my hat off to both.

    Even if there is a cynical PR new age team bonding facade behind England's visit to Flanders, it, nonetheless, probably the first time most of the team have visited a war cemetery.

    Better to be snapped by Sky News in front of war graves than on a pedalo at 3.00am or seeing the team rehearse the latest imaginative TV commercial for Nike or nPower.

  • surreyranger on June 29, 2009, 10:19 GMT

    hear, hear

  • Dale C on June 29, 2009, 10:13 GMT

    Oh come on.....Newsflash, Sport is not war! Tell us something we don't know. Why do schools arrange visits to these places? To teach them something about themselves. In my basic training in the British army we visited Flanders, it was used as a motivational and educational tool. The reasoning behind such visits are immaterial as long as respects are paid and something is taken away from it.

  • Daniel Smith on June 29, 2009, 10:07 GMT

    I couldn't agree more. A dead man's grave should never be an opportunity for a photo opportunity, a family's private grief should be respected.

    By all means go and pay your respects, and here I can but applaud James Aldous's intelligent comment, but it should be done privately.

  • Steve Grzesiak on June 29, 2009, 9:37 GMT

    "Oh look, England are visiting a war cemetary, must be Buchanan's doing!"

  • Diston on June 29, 2009, 9:19 GMT

    Brilliantly said Samir, This stinks of a crappy publicity coup, more than a bonding exercise. To quote a front line the world of injustice and unreason"...So the analogy would seem to be no rules, no sportsmanship?...this just seems like an insult to those who were sacrificed and just cheapens the game...this cynical gesture does have the advantage that in WW1 all cricket playing nations were on the same side, but this could so easily degenerate into petty nationalism. Will MS Dhoni and crew congregate at Amritsar before the next england tour? How about Graham Smith at a Boer concentration camp...this is simply tasteless, nasty and stupid, on a similar level to the Stanford helicopter debacle...

  • Mark Sheehan on June 29, 2009, 8:28 GMT

    Spot on Samir!

  • James Aldous on June 29, 2009, 7:28 GMT

    Very interesting piece and take on the visit. And I partially agree with your persuasive arguments. But I actually take the opposite view - that seeing the war graves is (in Strauss's own words) a humbling event and actually puts sport into a much wider context. After all, only those with the stoniest of hearts can visit Ypres and the Flanders war graves and not feel profoundly moved and feel that all the troubles in their lives are small change by comparison to the living hell endured by combatants in the WWI. It may well be that the visit is part of some wider plan to inspire and encourage the England cricket team to success against the Australians, but at the same time, the players are bound to take something much more away with them.; something that will influence every part of their lives and not just their careers. Surely that is a good thing?

  • Dave on June 29, 2009, 7:14 GMT

    I think the original Anzac’s would be pleased to have the Australian cricket team visit Gallipoli. In 1915 over two weeks, 35,000 Australians were evacuated from Gallipoli. They played cricket so everything would look normal and the Turks wouldn’t realise what was going on. The cricket team reacted that game when they visited in 2001

  • RRRR on June 29, 2009, 6:37 GMT

    I agree completely.

  • Ross on June 29, 2009, 6:04 GMT

    I agree with your sentiments absolutely. Perhaps the Gallipoli visit was different, because that particular scene of carnage does hold a special place in the Australian psyche, and many Australians do go there to pay their respects for that reason. However, just considering the thought process, presumably by Buchanan, of trying to find an 'angle', and coming up with 'cricketers who sacrificed their lives' is demeaning and disrespectful to all concerned I feel. Shallow thinking and deep cynicism at the same time. Bad idea, let's quickly move on.

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  • Ross on June 29, 2009, 6:04 GMT

    I agree with your sentiments absolutely. Perhaps the Gallipoli visit was different, because that particular scene of carnage does hold a special place in the Australian psyche, and many Australians do go there to pay their respects for that reason. However, just considering the thought process, presumably by Buchanan, of trying to find an 'angle', and coming up with 'cricketers who sacrificed their lives' is demeaning and disrespectful to all concerned I feel. Shallow thinking and deep cynicism at the same time. Bad idea, let's quickly move on.

  • RRRR on June 29, 2009, 6:37 GMT

    I agree completely.

  • Dave on June 29, 2009, 7:14 GMT

    I think the original Anzac’s would be pleased to have the Australian cricket team visit Gallipoli. In 1915 over two weeks, 35,000 Australians were evacuated from Gallipoli. They played cricket so everything would look normal and the Turks wouldn’t realise what was going on. The cricket team reacted that game when they visited in 2001

  • James Aldous on June 29, 2009, 7:28 GMT

    Very interesting piece and take on the visit. And I partially agree with your persuasive arguments. But I actually take the opposite view - that seeing the war graves is (in Strauss's own words) a humbling event and actually puts sport into a much wider context. After all, only those with the stoniest of hearts can visit Ypres and the Flanders war graves and not feel profoundly moved and feel that all the troubles in their lives are small change by comparison to the living hell endured by combatants in the WWI. It may well be that the visit is part of some wider plan to inspire and encourage the England cricket team to success against the Australians, but at the same time, the players are bound to take something much more away with them.; something that will influence every part of their lives and not just their careers. Surely that is a good thing?

  • Mark Sheehan on June 29, 2009, 8:28 GMT

    Spot on Samir!

  • Diston on June 29, 2009, 9:19 GMT

    Brilliantly said Samir, This stinks of a crappy publicity coup, more than a bonding exercise. To quote a front line the world of injustice and unreason"...So the analogy would seem to be no rules, no sportsmanship?...this just seems like an insult to those who were sacrificed and just cheapens the game...this cynical gesture does have the advantage that in WW1 all cricket playing nations were on the same side, but this could so easily degenerate into petty nationalism. Will MS Dhoni and crew congregate at Amritsar before the next england tour? How about Graham Smith at a Boer concentration camp...this is simply tasteless, nasty and stupid, on a similar level to the Stanford helicopter debacle...

  • Steve Grzesiak on June 29, 2009, 9:37 GMT

    "Oh look, England are visiting a war cemetary, must be Buchanan's doing!"

  • Daniel Smith on June 29, 2009, 10:07 GMT

    I couldn't agree more. A dead man's grave should never be an opportunity for a photo opportunity, a family's private grief should be respected.

    By all means go and pay your respects, and here I can but applaud James Aldous's intelligent comment, but it should be done privately.

  • Dale C on June 29, 2009, 10:13 GMT

    Oh come on.....Newsflash, Sport is not war! Tell us something we don't know. Why do schools arrange visits to these places? To teach them something about themselves. In my basic training in the British army we visited Flanders, it was used as a motivational and educational tool. The reasoning behind such visits are immaterial as long as respects are paid and something is taken away from it.

  • surreyranger on June 29, 2009, 10:19 GMT

    hear, hear