June 20, 2008

Bored games

As half of Australia's cricketers have been at pains to point out, cricket isn't tiddlywinks. Nor, apparently, is tiddlywinks either



Too late, a crucial realisation about the nature of cricket dawns on Stuart Clark © Getty Images

Over the past six months "it's not tiddlywinks" has turned into an Australian catchphrase to rival "the right areas" and "execute our plans". Judging by the frequency with which those involved in the country's cricket mention the board game, it has become a popular trivial pursuit. And the Australians' unique adaptation of the hobby turns it into a bonding exercise that is safe from physical or verbal confrontation.

In analysing the recent tributes, it is clear tiddlywinks has replaced cricket as the preferred gentleman's game. James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, has also shown he knows his boondock from his carnovsky. During the peak of behavioural friction between Australia and India in January, Sutherland's comments allowed his players the freedom to speak about their off-field passion.

"Test cricket is what is being played here, it's not tiddlywinks," Sutherland said. "It's a tough game and out there, from time to time, emotions will bubble over and perhaps some of the words that are said would not be acceptable in genteel company, but they are said and that is what happens."

Since then some of the players have started to practise calming techniques where they recall the happy thoughts from the plinking, splating and squoping of stress-free tiddling. What is amazing to anyone who has tried the game in cramped quarters on summer holidays is that the cricketers retain their decorum while winking.

In our house the children's version of tiddlywinks had to be banned due to the emotion involved when it wasn't clear which score the piece landed on. "C'mon children, settle down," mum would say, "it's not cricket."

When Patrick Barrie of the English Tiddlywinks Association talks about the sport he sounds like the chief executive of a major cricket organisation. "It's a tough game," Barrie says. "Emotions do bubble over and some words are said that would not be acceptable in genteel company.

"Earlier this year I loudly denounced my partner as an idiot when he missed a simple squop for a big win. The cry 'you've subbed, you stupid cow' has been shouted in earnest. Stronger language is used too, just as it is in cricketing circles."

The revelation will hurt the Australians, who will be shocked to learn they have not been playing the game properly. They have introduced their own spirit-of-tiddlywinks document that sits alongside the pots and mat at every contest. The code is so strict that even if someone gasps "bastard" when their squidger slips they are sent for 40 winks.

However, their rule pledge can't stop them from being upset when they don't win. "Anytime you lose anything, whether it's game of cricket or a game of tiddlywinks, it's disappointing," Stuart Clark said in Perth after Australia's Test streak ended at 16.

 
 
In our house the children's version of tiddlywinks had to be banned due to the emotion involved when it wasn't clear which score the piece landed on. "C'mon children, settle down," mum would say, "it's not cricket."
 

A month later Rodney Hogg, a fiery fast bowler of yesteryear, was seemingly worried about society thinking the current group was the only one involved in the game and spoke of its impeccable, mythical standards. "This is international sport, obviously people are going to say things to try to unsettle you,'' Hogg said. "It's not tiddlywinks."

Matthew Hayden was so impressed with Hogg's passionate reasoning that he quoted him a couple of weeks later. It's not known what the team thinks of England's Gladstone Small, who invoked the call to arms in April when discussing beach cricket, interrupting Australia's monopoly on the fun.

"If England play Australia at tiddlywinks we are still going to want to beat them," he said, apparently issuing an international challenge. Previously England's past-time of choice was Balderdash, although the players were embarrassed on the 1996 tour of Zimbabwe when the coach David Lloyd boasted he was flippin' murdering everybody at the tables.

Back in the elite world of tiddlywinks there is a request for people to take the game more seriously. "Like in cricket, opponents do sometimes 'chat' to each other during a game," Barrie says. "It's not sledging in the case of tiddlywinks, but a subtle form of gamesmanship that is permitted."

So what is allowed? "A player may well say, 'If I nurdle that wink, I think he'll struggle to pot it', during his own turn," Barrie says. "But during an opponent's turn no player would ever dream of saying, 'It's nurdled; he's going to miss it, and he looks like a monkey!'

"The denigration of tiddlywinks by using the word to denote a frivolous activity is one of the great misunderstandings of the 21 century." The Australians have to lift their game.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo