Australian cricket June 4, 2013

Mark Cosgrove and the stigma of obesity

Russell Jackson
What is worse for the image of Australian cricket - cricketers overweight of body, or cricketers underweight of runs?

Cosgrove's recent form has not warranted Australian selection, but there have been times in the past when it has © Getty Images

Heading into this year-long festival of Ashes, I'm willing to finally concede that I can no longer take comfort in thoughts like, "Will Glenn McGrath predict a 5-0 whitewash again?" or "Will every Aussie in the top six make a ton at Lord's?" like I did in days gone by. Those have been replaced by less palatable alternatives like, "Will any Aussie batsman make a hundred at Lord's?" and "Is the darkness creeping slowly and inevitably closer by the day?" It's just the way things are now for Australians.

But I've also been thinking about the players that made the Ashes squad and those who didn't. John Inverarity probably did as well as he might have, given the options at his disposal. He also finally picked Chris Rogers, and everyone knows that picking ginger blokes with glasses who are really, really good at batting is a good thing to do when you are a national cricket selector.

In a weird way, after the initial rush of relief at Rogers' elevation, I just started to worry about the rest of Australia's batsmen even more than I would if he wasn't there. His sturdy batsmanship and measured demeanour took flight in my imagination and immediately rendered some of his colleagues an assortment of hapless, skittish liabilities. I pictured Phillip Hughes crouched down at the crease with his head swiveling about like a drunk driver trying to slowly navigate his way home through the back streets. I imagined Constable Anderson chuckling away at the sight for a few minutes before collaring him; drunk drivers are a liability after all, even if they are sometimes entertaining to watch.

But we had no one else, right? The Sheffield Shield is merely a crèche service to give the staff at the Centre of Excellence some time off, isn't it? Well, not quite.

This is the point at which I try to convince you that even though he had no real right to be selected in this or the 2009 Ashes squad to tour England, Mark Cosgrove has been hard done by in his career. I'll admit it, he hasn't done me many favours here, what with averaging in the 30s for the last two consecutive Australian summers and all, but I'll give it a try because this isn't an argument about statistics or numbers, it is an argument about society's last apparently acceptable stigma: obesity.

Cosgrove is what any doctor would term overweight and though history is brim full of well-upholstered characters who have risen to the top of their professions, dominated their sports, and led the free world, it is wrong that Cosgrove has barely been afforded the opportunity to prosper as a result of his weight issues. Very wrong. In return for his mortal sin he has spent his entire professional career being pointed and laughed at, bullied even. Some journalists have even seized upon Cosgrove's battles as an opportunity to break the world record for shoehorning as many fat jokes into one column as possible.

Yes, there have been many times when Cosgrove's form has not warranted Australian selection, but equally there have been times when it has; times in which Australia have not exactly been spoiled for options, either. What I ask is this: if Mark Cosgrove were to average over 50 in domestic first-class cricket during the next Australian summer, would the National Selection Panel even consider him? Have his papers been marked yet and is this due purely to his weight issues?

Cosgrove is something of a physical anomaly in his sport though not in his country, where close to 64% of adults are overweight or obese

Cosgrove's body shape has been looked on by more than a few pundits as being emblematic of a kind of cultural poison that he'd bring to the national team set-up, as though his weight problems were somehow contagious. Yet it was Tasmania, Australian cricket's current cultural cradle, which opened its arms when Cosgrove was cut loose by South Australia. Tasmanian cricket is arguably a much more serviceable piece of machinery than the national set-up at present and Cosgrove is a valuable cog within it, making that point moot. Personally I hope Cosgrove makes a truckload of runs next year and turns this into more than a hypothetical. What is worse for the image of Australian cricket: cricketers overweight of body, or cricketers underweight of runs?

In a measured, insightful discussion of "fat discrimination", University of New South Wales Research Fellow Deborah Lupton spoke of overweight people and the "moral failure that their bodies represent". She also told of the diminished respect and career opportunities suffered as a result of obesity. Nowhere is the perception of this "failure" element more present than in professional sports. It is anathema to everything elite sport and its ever-expanding circle of sports scientists and high-performance managers stand for.

Phrases like "failed to meet the expectations of professionalism placed upon him" abound now in a combination of medical, management, and marketing-speak that is somehow meant to soften the personal blows that come as a corollary to the double stigmas of failure and weight gain. It is also why AFL football clubs have even taken the step of publicly chastising players for ballooning skin-fold results. Cosgrove is something of a physical anomaly in his sport though not in his country, where close to 64% of adults are overweight or obese.

We've all heard it before: "he's let himself go", "he's not professional enough" or even worse, "he doesn't want it bad enough". I don't know Cosgrove but every time I've watched him bat he seems to be taking a great amount of pleasure in scoring runs. In first-class cricket he has 8386 of them at an average of 43.22. Those aren't Bradmanesque numbers but we are all adjusting our expectations of Australian cricketers these days, anyway. I'd find it hard to ever view Cosgrove as a failure though. With the odds stacked so increasingly against him with each passing season, he just hangs in there, ready and waiting for that next loose one. I'll think about him during the Ashes too. I know it.

There's every chance that Cosgrove won't allow me to indulge this minor obsession much more, I guess. He might not follow the advice of every person who has even passed public comment on his career and lose some weight. He also might not score enough runs next season to even be mentioned as a possible international. Many of us will then indulge in that awful reflection of what could have been and whether we're all connected in this problem of his, this problem of everyone's.