November 5, 2013

Monty, Ayn Rand and cricket

A certain rubbishy pop-philosophy "classic" may be more about cricket than you think

Cricket: the discerning objectivist's pastime of choice © Getty Images

Many years ago, during my brush with Further Education, I turned up to an English Literature lecture holding a book - not one of the set texts but a copy of Ayn Rand's doorstopper The Fountainhead. "Ah," said the prof, a splendid and wise old cynic who'd seen it all before, "a young man's book…"

At the time I thought it was a compliment, but then at the time I was a young man. And in truth, like a lot of young men at that time, I'd found my way to The Fountainhead not through voracious reading but instead via the Canadian power rock trio Rush, who had acknowledged "the genius of Ayn Rand" on their most famous record, 2112 (a dedication that has dogged them for 30 years, but then they were young men too when they made it).

The Fountainhead, just like Rand's more famous and even more batty subsequent novel Atlas Shrugged, is woven through with a personal philosophy that Rand called objectivism, which can kindly and loosely be defined as the notion that an individual's sole moral responsibility is to their own happiness (it can be defined a lot less kindly too, and at far greater length, but the usual soundbite is "far right").

The Fountainhead is about an idealistic architect called Howard Roark, who, after many thousands of pages, dynamites one of his projects when he discovers it has not been built to his design, and then gets off at his trial with an impassioned speech about individualism, wins his girl and builds a massive skyscraper (see, I did get to the end…)

It's exactly the kind of self-important piffle that attracts the young. It's still in print and has (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true) sold more than six million copies since its publication in 1943. One of the more recent sales was to a Mr Monty Panesar, who is, as reported by Jarrod Kimber in the News Hurl, reading it during England's tour of Australia.

There's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it's encouraging to know that cricketers still read on tour. I remember Mike Brearley once saying that he tried to take a big book away each winter, and that he was just starting Anna Karenina. Those days may be fading in the era of the PlayStation, but Stuart Broad did tweet that he might buy Alex Ferguson's autobiography at the airport.

Putting all facetiousness aside, and without pre-judging what an intelligent man like Monty might think (and let's not forget he managed to take a set of professional exams during his last winter tour), The Fountainhead, Rand and objectivism - however objectionable - do have something to say to the modern sportsman. Indeed, modern sport might have been constructed with Rand in mind. Its core concepts of individual success and self-fulfilment in a universe that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile might as well describe the insular world sportsmen exist in, and the idea that triumph and free will should be embraced is at the heart of most team talks.

Cricket, with its curious way of rewarding the individual within a group, and with all of its IPLs and Big Bashes that dilute the concept of a team by their ephemeral nature, can be thought about in that way.

It may not be golf or tennis or running, which really do pit one man or woman against everyone else, but its course is dictated by the mini-society of the team being constructed in such a way that it allows the individual to flourish. While it plays constant lip service to the requirements of the group, cricket, since the days of Grace, has used the individual to drive it forwards. Stripped of the unpleasant political implications, that is something that Monty may recognise in the otherwise mad pages of The Fountainhead.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here