Samir Chopra September 23, 2009

Cricketing friendships and nationalist rivalries

The stories that surrounded the Botham-Richards friendship were numerous and of varying quality and veracity

Ian Botham and Viv Richards - one of the greatest cricketing friendships © PA Photos

I read the late and great David Halberstam's little gem, The Teammates, this past weekend and like many of its other readers, was struck by the simple story of the multi-decade friendship of four sportsmen (in this case, Boston Red Sox luminaries Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dominic Di Maggio and John Pesky).

Halberstam's tale concerns friendships amongst members of the same team, and of those, I've heard, a few when it comes to cricket. But one cricketing friendship featured two giants of the game who played for opposing teams in international cricket (albeit the same team in a domestic cricket competition): Ian Botham and Viv Richards.

The reasons the Botham-Richards friendship struck me as so distinctive (in clearly idealized ways) were numerous: they were both cricketers I admired for the way they played their cricket; there was something undeniably romantic in the notion that men used to fierce competition against each other in one context, could then put shoulder-to-shoulder in another; a camaraderie amongst sportsmen in a sport centered largely on international bilateral contests was uncommon; the political overtones of a proud black cricketer finding comradeship with a Somerset lad; and so on.

While tales of friendship amongst team-mates were common in cricket (in the Indian context, the friendship between Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath was well-known), this kind of trans-border mateship was rare (though admittedly, in English county cricket, these had become increasingly common), and thus, there were more contrasts to be seized on, many more differences to point to as having been bridged, and many more commonalities to note amongst the two.

The stories that surrounded the Botham-Richards friendship were numerous and of varying quality and veracity: that Richards was responsible for ensuring that Botham never signed for the rebel South African tours because Botham could not have faced Richards' disapproval thereafter; that Botham was resolutely on Richards' side in any dispute including the famous ones with Peter Roebuck; that Richards haughtily waved off a congratulations and a handshake from Botham in a Test, because "this isn't a county game"; and of course, my favorite, that Richards introduced Botham to the pleasures of an occasional toke of cannabis (is that why Sir Ian gained so much weight in the 1980s?)

But I suspect the real reason the Botham-Richards friendship appealed so much to me (especially when I was a teenager) was because the idea of a cricketing friendship spanning the divisions of national sides was a romantic one that brought relief from the tensions engendered by Test cricket. One theme common to many positive reactions to the IPL's first two editions was the sight of erstwhile opponents celebrating together when brought together for an IPL outfit.

I suspect that while we celebrate nationalist rivalry on the ground, some of us like to be reminded that it is a bit of play-acting, that the same men who snarl at each other on the ground, and gladly knock each others' heads off, would in other contexts, put that nastiness aside. That is, despite the quasi-xenophobic bluster, most notably displayed in the comments sections of cricket blogs, we're softies at heart, and such friendships reassure us that all is well, that these men acting like brash warriors are really just folks like us in many ways. Maintaining and sustaining an edgy sporting rivalry can be exhausting, for players and fans alike. The friendships that international cricketers strike up in the course of their careers aren't just valuable for them; they bring us much pleasure too by humanizing the players, and bringing them down to earth.

And as the story of Richards waving off Botham in a Test reminds us, we know that when they step back onto an international arena, they'll go right back to being flag-waving ogres.

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