October 26, 2013

Cricket players or comrades in arms?

Can we imagine players to be just wage workers who, like the rest of us, have day-to-day issues with their colleagues and employers?

Dressing room or office cubicles? © Getty Images

Jonathan Wilson's analysis, here on the Cordon, of cricket's workplace and the "unrealistic" expectations of player relationships it seems to generate among fans made for some very interesting reading.

Fans, of course, expect player relationships to be far more cordial and chummy than they actually are, or even could be, because - among other things - they view cricket through an imaginative and hopeful lens, one that refracts and distorts and magnifies and colours in all sorts of ways. We view cricket not as a series of prosaic encounters of bat and ball wielded by salaried men, but rather as the stage and setting for a variety of noble encounters that resolve archetypal conflicts. We populate this stage with a variety of stock characters: heroes (our side), villains (their side), damsels in distress (the nations the players represent, which need rescuing from all manner of insults), scapegoats (those on our side who fail us and must be blamed for the defeats that could not possibly be our just fate), traitors (see: scapegoat), village idiots (sometimes umpires, sometimes opponents, sometimes selectors, sometimes our own team), magicians, gnomes and wise men (the captains, and now increasingly the coaches, all capable of changing the fortunes of nations and groups of men with mysterious incantations and potions). And so on.

The vision of cricket afforded by these lenses is one that cricket writers, going back to the game's earliest days, and television producers and commentators in more recent times, have drawn on and embellished. It is one whose moral universe is relatively unambiguous, whose human relationships follow smooth, predictable trajectories; its decision-makers experience little cognitive dissonance, whether ethical, strategic or tactical; where rough edges are miraculously smoothed out by good intentions and ceaseless striving. The only reward our heroes expect is adulation and fame and the gratitude of adoring nations.

I do not mean to suggest that such is the fan's consciously distorted view of a game; rather it is that every fan's experience and interpretation of the game is not without its component of unconscious or subconscious fantasy imposed on its visible proceedings.

One set of prominent stock characters that populate this stage for the fan are drawn from stories of adventure and war, where "bands of brothers" or "comrades in arms" face adversity and the enemy as a united front and ultimately emerge triumphant. A magical brew of togetherness is stewed, one made more potent by mutual respect and affection and something called "team spirit"; it overcomes all opponents. Among this band of brothers, there is fraternity and camaraderie; there is much backslapping and shoulder-to-shoulder support; there are handshakes and there is mateship; everyone has someone's back. This a bunch of soldiers, united together, perhaps like the "pal battalions" of Kitchener's Army, going off to fight the good battle.

The modern team knows of this image and it draws on it in its public-relations exercises and its team-building manoeuvres; there is talk of visiting war memorials and cemeteries; "boot camps" are conducted, sometimes in jungles, sometimes in mountains; team members speak glowingly of the dressing-room "atmosphere", one made especially salubrious for some by long hours of drinking together; players speak glowingly of their trench buddies and their "partnerships".

In this understanding of the game, the workplace picture of men and their trades, engaged in work for wages, possibly drawn into all manners of conflict, on or off the field, with their co-workers or "management", is a jarring disruption. It is not one that sits comfortably with our imagined conceptions of what takes place on a cricket field. It is not how we "enjoy" the game. It is not how the game functions for us, or how we make sense of, and ascribe meaning to, the "hallowed 22 yards" far away, dimly glimpsed, out there in the middle.

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