June 20, 2013

Is Trott the new Batman?

It's not such a stretch to think of England's No. 3 in the role of a certain caped crusader

Real heroes don't play to the gallery © AFP

In a century that has given us terrorist crises, long, intractable wars, the near-collapse of the global financial system, and the IPL, it is little wonder that a slew of superhero movies has cropped up as a cultural response of sorts. It makes sense too, since many current superheroes were originally products of the Great Depression and the World Wars.

No recent superhero film has equalled the commercial and critical success of the Dark Knight trilogy, and one thing that set it apart from other contemporary and classical hero movies was its celebration of conservative values. Forbes magazine called it an "instant conservative classic", arguing that the third film was a denouncement of the French Revolution. The Telegraph celebrated that the films showed Batman as "secretly, wonderfully Right-wing", while the Wall Street Journal claimed that The Dark Knight was "a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W Bush in this time of terror and war".

It takes a moment to realise how momentous the popularity of a superhero championing conservative values truly is. Popular culture has often been accused of pushing liberal and allegedly subversive values, so a Batman inspired by Dubya feels quite radical.

This development is not part of some global, Murdoch-led conspiracy. Conservatism is genuinely popular nowadays for various reasons. Part of it is a response to the global economic downturn, with similar enthusiasm for right-wing populism seen during the Great Depression as well. Part of it, according to this report in the Guardian, is because contemporary right-wing parties offer "better" moral values and interests to voters. It is why there is working-class and popular support for the right across swathes of Europe and many Muslim-majority countries, even when they don't address economic inequalities. This is an age of conservative champions.

On Wednesday, Jonathan Trott walked off the Oval pitch, his score of 82 not out having yielded a tantalising strike rate of 97.61 - just enough to ensure that the debate of whether Trott was too slow or just right could continue. Since England won at a canter, his supporters could celebrate. But it seems that despite being among the tournament's highest run scorers Trott won't escape the "boring" tag even if he shows up for the final in a mankini.

Trott has faced criticism for his scoring rate for a long time now, and in fact is second only to Sir Ravindra Jadeja as a source of cricket-based memes. #TrottsFault is one of the most treasured hashtags in the Twitterverse, and a reflection of the hysteria accompanying any debate on the man.

Yet, much like the Dark Knight, Trott has trotted along guided by a sense of duty to his team rather than to the gallery. Most players struggle to combine these two virtues anyway, but there seem to be few in the modern game who would seemingly actively refuse to become more palatable to crowds (and consequently, sponsors).

The advent of T20, and the unprecedented levels of money in the game now, have led to the sort of existential crises cricket loves to revel in. How important is entertainment to the game? How should we measure the importance of a player? Is the much-hated IPL producing a legacy of decadence and profligacy?

Men like Trott emerge as hopelessly divisive figures in such debates, seemingly encapsulating the arguments being spewed back and forth. And he is not alone here.

Although Pakistani captains are used to being abused and vilified, few can lay claim to the sort of cult loyalty that adherents of #TeamMisbah display. Like Trott, Misbah-ul-Haq is the subject of intense discussion and near-violent debate. His detractors mock him as "Tuk-tuk" (roughly translates in this instance to "block-block"), while his fans call him Quaid (meaning "leader", but specifically a term used for the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah). Like with Trott, there is no possibility of being indifferent to Misbah - you must either hate him or love him.

Men like Trott and Misbah are similar to the Dark Knight, in that they are not universally loved, are often derided for being aloof and distant, and accused of lacking compassion

Similarly, the long-lost twin of Pakistani cricket, the West Indies team, has its own conservative hero. Darren Sammy's appointment as captain was portrayed as some sort of symbol of how low Caribbean cricket and its history of flamboyancy had plummeted. Yet like Misbah and Trott, Sammy has displayed a defiantly fierce sense of competitiveness, and in doing so, he led his team to only their second ICC title since 1979.

Each of these men has had to constantly battle not just their own image, but the ideas fostered by their anti-theses in their sides. For the morose Trott, there is the peacock-like Pietersen; for the pedestrian Sammy, there is the sun god Gayle; and for the risk-minimising Misbah there is the blond-bleached supernova of Afridi. Though these pairs of players are in the same teams, the public perception forever pits them against one another, and each small victory for the yin is celebrated as a defeat for the yang.

Moreover, at the risk of stretching the analogy too thin, the likes of Gayle, Pietersen and Afridi resemble the unstable, strangely alluring, and ultimately self-destructive Dark Knight villains. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to visualise Afridi dressed as the Joker, watching the world burn.

In the end, men like Trott and Misbah are similar to the Dark Knight, in that they are not universally loved, are often derided for being aloof and distant, and accused of lacking compassion. But like the Dark Knight, they also seem to be consumed by a sense of doing the right thing and refusing to trade their defining characteristics in for the ephemeral joys of popularity.

Many years from now, when all cricket history will be captured in HBO dramas, it is easy to predict how our time will be portrayed. We are the age that has witnessed the Dour Knight Rising.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here