Mike Holmans June 29, 2009

Of cemeteries and cricket - another view

I cannot bring myself to condemn the trips: the players who have been have spoken of the humbling and thought-provoking nature of the experiences, and they may well have benefited in wholly laudable ways

Samir Chopra wrote eloquently yesterday about his unease at the England team having a bonding session in the cemeteries of Flanders. I share many of his qualms, though not all, and have a few of my own.

One factor which mitigates the gimmickry aspect is that they did gather to lay a tribute at the grave of Charlie Blythe, one of cricket's near-greats. There is something entirely appropriate about an England team paying collective homage to one of their fallen predecessors.

I can just about see the point of capturing that rite on film for posterity but the rest of the photo coverage was, I firmly agree with Samir, tasteless. The existence of the photographs means that there was an observer who was concentrating on taking pictures rather than paying his own respects to the war dead. And some of the photographs which have been published look posed, which would mean that the subject of the picture was breaking off from contemplating whatever thoughts the rows of gravestones occasioned to make sure that he would look good on camera.

Samir's point about encouraging these young men to go and visit memorials in their own time is well made, but is there not also a value in a collective experience? I'm with Samir when it comes to visiting war graves as a corporate management training away day, but I suspect he would have no principled objection to a school organising such a trip for 16 of its pupils, and there is an argument that a lot of young professional cricketers are little more than school kids when it comes to life outside sport.

So while I certainly object to the publicity (and am acutely conscious of the hypocrisy involved in even looking at the photos), I am less sure than Samir that the event was flawed in principle.

But Samir appeared to be addressing the issue of war graves in general rather than specifically the First World War graveyards in Flanders, whose significance is now somewhat ambiguous.

Historians argue about the rights and wrongs of WW1 breaking out, but nearly all of them agree that the actual prosecution of the war was a disaster. The armies were commanded by men who had learned soldiering in the days before mechanised heavy artillery, machine guns and air power. The troops who died in their hundreds of thousands on Flanders fields were famously described (on both sides) as lions led by donkeys, who died for no great cause but because their commanders were boneheads unable to adapt to what war demanded of them in 1915 rather than 1885. Many cast their eyes over the endless acres of the Flanders cemeteries and see a monument to the horrifying consequences of human stupidity rather than a tribute to heroism.

If there is an analogue in today's world of cricket, it's that the cricketers are the poor bloody infantry being shoved around the world for 7-match ODI series by national boards run by twerps who either think or wish it was 1975, but this seems an unlikely lesson for the ECB to want to instill. But this is to go down the road of making sport comparable with war, and Samir was extremely persuasive on the undesirability of that.

I cannot bring myself to condemn the England management in 2009, nor the Australian management who led their team to WW1 memorials on previous trips: the players who have been have spoken of the humbling and thought-provoking nature of the experiences, and they may well have benefited in wholly laudable ways. But I do still wonder whether they were wise.