Cricket in rugby country

Paul Ford
Unlike in the subcontinent, where cricket rules hearts and minds, in New Zealand everything starts and ends with rugby

Some say that in India cricket is a religion, or if they're being religiously correct, they say it is "second only to religion" as a passion of the people. Either way, it has been said so often that it has become a cliché. But what we do know is that Indians love cricket more than any other nation on earth. I loved former magazine editor Vinod Mehta's take on it:

The country comes to a stop when a cricket match is being played - the roads are deserted, parties and weddings are postponed, operations in hospitals are rescheduled, parliament goes in for early closing.

North-south, east-west, rich-poor, men-women, rural-urban, Hindu-Muslim - a craze bordering on madness unites the nation when it comes to cricket.

And nobody can agree why.

Meanwhile, deep down in the depths of the southern hemisphere, cricket is New Zealand's national summer sport - but nobody ever says cricket is a religion here. There is no widespread fervour about much in this place, unless people have had a few too many Sauvignon Blancs or craft beers.

Make no mistake, this is rugby union country from top to bottom.

You can see it in the bricks and mortar of the nation's sporting citadels: Eden Park began as a cricket ground but has metamorphosed into a rugby stadium that you can put a cricket pitch in for a few months every year. If you have to. If you must. The Concrete Garden of Eden boasts preposterous boundaries as a result of its bizarre configuration.

And in the capital, Westpac Stadium is at least the right shape for cricket, but it was built with the buttocks and wallets of provincial and international rugby supporters in mind - not the comfort and enjoyment of cricket lovers. There is no aisle named after a cricketer here, but Aisle 13 is a tribute to one of the city's favourite rugby sons, Jonathan Ionatana Falefasa "Tana" Umaga.

Rugby hearts beat beneath the country's drop-in pitches, and cricket is often wedged in like a size 18 lady squishing into a size 8 dress.

Rugby rules here. You can see it in the nation's psychological make-up too. As rugby writer Gregor Paul put it: "It is a form of worship at least, a means for young and old to gather and pay homage to a sport that pushes all their buttons."

Historian James Belich described rugby's place in New Zealand society like this:

New Zealand rugby union ranks in socio-cultural resonance with soccer in Latin America and cockfights in Bali. New Zealand should be a world capital of the historical study of sport. But it is not - almost as though sport is a religion too important for scholars to tamper with.

Plenty has been written about rugby's quasi-religious following in 19th and 20th century New Zealand. By smart people too - they write amazingly named articles like "Myth and Reality: Reflections on rugby and NZ historiography" (John Nauright), "A Secular Religion: The Historical Iconography of NZ Rugby" (Scott Crawford) and "The Oval Opiate" (Mike Grimshaw).

Crawford reckons rugby was one answer to the "increasing industrial anomie of the 1880s" - a way for people to come together and counter the tough life in the fledgling outpost of the British Empire. He says enthusiastic support for rugby made possible "a new feeling of ritualistic belonging within a larger group".

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For more than a century, rugby has set the benchmark for all New Zealand sporting teams, especially the performances of the reigning world champion All Blacks.

Our Men in Black almost always win, and there is no question that this relentless series of victory marches generates an unreasonable expectation for other national teams. The winning aura that surrounds the All Blacks is aviation fuel on the bonfire of the Kiwi passion for rugby.

I've often thought that a decent chunk of New Zealanders' love for rugby stems not from an obsession with second five-eighths and openside flankers, but from a love of winning. This complicated oval-ball sport is one of the things our small country of four million is world-class at - along with softball, film-making, atom-splitting, shotput-throwing, milk-generating and sheep-breeding.

I suspect a lot of Kiwis, especially those who are fans rather than hands-on involved with a rugby team, are intoxicated by winning and the sense of patriotic pride that this generates rather than a genuine love for the game.

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Of course, none of this means New Zealanders don't love cricket. Some of us do. And plenty of us care about it. And many of us like it. And heaps of us are interested in the results as they get along to a game or two each summer - especially if the Black Caps look likely to be on top.

But our cricket team always plays second fiddle to the All Blacks. Only in New Zealand could a rugby player's off-season injury trump the national cricket team winning a match in the sports headlines of the day.

No cricket oval here at Eden Park © Getty Images

It cuts both ways. On one hand, the benchmark comparison with the All Blacks is insanely high - especially from those at the less passionate end of the cricket-loving scale: "Jeez, Brendon, they win nine of ten games, so why can't you?" "Bloody hopeless - they need the ABs coach in there to sort them out."

Yet on the other hand you could say failings draw a less cacophonous response if our cricket team is involved. I suspect expectations have been set lower by those who know the relatively limited resources and lack of clout that cricket in New Zealand is afforded.

After the glory days of the 1980s came a tough period for cricket in New Zealand from which it has never fully recovered - and probably never will until it brings home a World Cup or two. That lack of winning began in the 1990s, after Sir Rhythm Hadlee's retirement - 12 winless series in a row and some dreadful cricket to absorb.

That produced a level of pessimism and cynicism that took deep root in a generation's heads and hearts, except for true lovers of the game. And those of us in this latter club of tragics have become immune to criticism of the team. We bite our tongues and grow increasingly pachydermous.

Of course many more Kiwis love to talk about that 1992 World Cup run of glory - and ignore the rest. And we will talk rugby rankings until the cows come home. That's because for many New Zealanders, regardless of whether they support cricket or rugby, the winning is the thing.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. @beigebrigade

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2015, 23:12 GMT

    New Zealand Cricket has a lot to answer for how Cricket has been losing popularity even with a stellar team at present. New Zealand Cricke is short cited and is only interested in showing a positive balance sheet at the end of the year, they don't care about growing the game. Perfect example, Cricket world cup comes to New Zealand... not a single game free to air on TV...

  • Android on January 5, 2015, 22:00 GMT

    NZ, SA, Aus & Eng will all be aiming to both WC this year. In fact Aus, NZ & Eng will be keen on the triple with the netball as well. Aus probably can't win the rugby and Eng can't win the cricket, both NZ and SA will fancy their chances though. Only Aus has ever achieved the feat.

  • Dummy4 on January 5, 2015, 8:15 GMT

    Nice article. Time for All Blacks to win the Rugby World Cup when it's played outside New Zealand and defeat some other team other than France in the final. From an Indian All Blacks Fan. India for Cricket WC 2015 and New Zealand for Rugby WC 2015. The year of the World Cup defense. :) ;)