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June 29, 2009

Samir Chopra

Of Cemeteries and Cricket

Samir Chopra


'I don't think sports teams should be using war cemeteries as venues for training' © Getty Images
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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

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by 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"?

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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!!!

Posted by 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?

Posted by 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

Posted by 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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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