September 27, 2013

What do they know of cliches...

Cricket clichés find their most obvious and oft-parodied home in commentary boxes but we're all guilty of them from time to time

Ishant Sharma: exactly the bowler his average suggests © Getty Images

As is the case with most of the sports we love and talk about, cricket long ago fell victim to a variety of enduring and evolving clichés. We're all guilty of indulging in them from time to time if we're honest with ourselves.

I guess you should consider this a kind of warning shot or manifesto for my appearances on the Cordon. Maybe it can even act as a warning to myself. "Is that really something you think or is it just something that everyone says?" Feel free to give me a nudge when I lapse.

Cricket clichés find their most obvious and oft-parodied home in the various commentary boxes of the game's major broadcasters. Often they fall into the category of "groupthink", where one ex-player's prattling or agenda comes to be accepted as the prevailing wisdom. A great example of this is the popular theory that, "Ishant Sharma is a better bowler than his figures suggest." Sorry to spoil the party, but aside from a couple of spells to one RT Ponting, Ishant is exactly the bowler his average suggests. A Test bowling average approaching 38 is a bit unlucky if you're a freewheeling rookie on the receiving end of some bad slips fielding, not if you're a 51-Test veteran. We have enough of a statistical sample size now; enough of this nonsense.

There are clichés to be found in the way we think about cricket, the way we talk about it, but most irksome of all in the way we write about it. If only I had a pre-war Wisden for every time some so-called cricket appreciator in the op-ed columns of a broadsheet newspaper has sprinkled that one CLR James quote (we all know the one, don't even say it) into a piece as though that in itself were persuasion enough that the writer does indeed have a thorough, beard-stroking understanding of the game's intricacies.

These James-referencing articles normally fall into one of two categories: ones that provide a ham-fisted or erroneous interpretation of the famous line and others again that present it completely devoid of context; just a bobbling boat of misguided self-importance. It's an attempt at adding a dash of intellectual heft to otherwise pedestrian observations and it usually sticks out like a wicketkeeper's thumb. Have any of these people actually read the damned book? It's great obviously, but please give us something that's not in the Amazon summary or the back-cover blurb.

To borrow the words of James' biographer Dave Renton, in coming to a genuine and considered appraisal of the Trinidadian writer's output and philosophy, "we must scrape through a muck of encrusted cliché". Renton also takes accurate aim at Wisden cliché-peddlers, sagely adding that "usually and lazily termed cricket's bible: more accurately it is the game's hadith: its tradition". Corollary to this is the equally hackneyed concept of the "cricket tragic", a self-description abused with regularity by boasting politicians and celebrity cricket frauds alike. Besides anything, there's actually very little about loving cricket, or any sport, that veers into tragedy. I guess Australians might now pause longer to consider that one.

When the cliché purveyors aren't telling you all about the "wristy" batsman of the subcontinent, they're banging on about the WACA being "a fast bowler's dream"

When the cliché purveyors aren't telling you all about the "wristy" batsman of the subcontinent, they're banging on about the WACA being "a fast bowler's dream". They should really have a word with AB de Villiers about the latter; he has made hundreds in his last two Tests there; or Hashim Amla, who belted 196 at near enough to a run a ball at the other end last November. Their South Africa team piled on 569 in their second innings.

On the topic of pitch-based clichés, Australians most famously view Indian pitches as untamable minefields perfectly curated to expose their side's deficiencies against spin. In actual fact they're not all that bad to bat on once you get yourself in and establish a tempo. Just ask the recently victorious England squad, who found the going far easier than the Aussies. Bad batting is bad batting.

Let's not allow players off the cliché hook either. A month or so back, Matthew Hayden took aim at recently displaced Aussie coach Mickey Arthur, decrying Arthur's leaked utterances about Shane Watson and painting the coach as an unwelcome interloper in his "old boy's club", an irony-gasm of epic proportions to those following the story at even the most superficial level. The former Test opener bellowed, "Correct Mick, we're an old boy's club. We're 450-plus players that have played for our country.

"We're proud of our culture, we're proud of our community of cricketers and one thing we actually can't stand is being interrogated on our watch in terms of criticising the fabric of the baggy green."

It's a sensational sound bite, but as with many evocations on the aura of the baggy green, it doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny. Was Hayden referring to the same tight-knit brethren that teased Scott Muller out of Test cricket? The ones who immediately turned on Bryce McGain the minute he bowled his first Cape Town long hop, or watched on as his spinning colleague Beau Casson rolled himself up into a foetal position and disappeared off the face of the earth?

I myself recently likened the Australian Test team of its recent glory years to the Cosa Nostra, and that's probably more accurate in terms of a family metaphor; if you step out of line or make a false move, you might get whacked.

And as for the present cricket cliché du jour? Well, the BCCI clearly isn't responsible for all of cricket's woes, just a decent heaping of them.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here

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