The power of cricket

July 5, 2011

I have never understood those who belittle the importance of sport. Often these people tend to be irritable lefties who write about how football is the opiate of the masses, and a distraction from more important issues. This piece from Laurie Penny is a quintessential example of that genre. If that doesn’t make you sufficiently annoyed, there’s another similar piece, also from the New Statesman, here.

Anybody who doubts the power of sport, and specifically cricket, to do good, or who thinks that somehow sport and politics can be kept apart, should probably read Beyond a Boundary for starters. The core of the book is about Learie Constantine, the great West Indian cricketer, and about how he “revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man”. In a similar vein, although I haven’t seen the film, you could probably do a lot worse than watch Fire in Babylon.

Alternatively, a good place to start would be Kumar Sangakkara’s Cowdrey Lecture, which he gave at the MCC yesterday. You should listen to it if you have a passing interest in any of the following:

  • Cricket
  • Politics
  • Terrorism
  • Class
  • National Identity

And not necessarily in that order.

Sangakkara is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest ever cricketers, and the first Sri Lankan to be invited to give the Colin Cowdrey Memorial Lecture, which began in 2001. As a Sri Lankan he is well-placed to talk about the role of politics in sport. After all, as Sangakkara says in his speech (p. 13) no Sri Lankan team can take the field without the approval of the Sports Minister. Which sounds incredible doesn’t it – imagine if Jeremy Hunt had the final say in England’s team selection, rather than Fabio Cappello. Yet this shows the enormous power cricket has had to unify Sri Lankans behind a common cause.

It is this power that I want to touch upon in this blog. Sangakkara spoke very courageously against the “partisan crones” running Sri Lankan cricket, and has generated both headlines here and enemies back home. He also spoke movingly about the history of Sri Lanka, about their struggle with civil war, and of how the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by terrorists when touring in Pakistan. However, these are all topics that shall be left for another day, for this blog is about the power of sport. Sangakkara said that during the 1980s the Sri Lankan government was fighting the terrorist LTTE. “Each and every Sri Lankan was touched by the brutality of that conflict.” Many thousands died. Parents travelled separately so that if one of them died, the other could look after the children. He goes on: (p. 6)

People were disillusioned with politics and power and war. They were fearful of an uncertain future. The cycle of violence seemed unending. Sri Lanka became famous for its war and conflict.

It was a bleak time where we as a nation looked for inspiration – a miracle that would lift the pallid gloom and show us what we as a country were capable of if united as one, a beacon of hope to illuminate the potential of our peoples.

That inspiration was to come in 1996 [with Sri Lanka’s win in the Cricket World Cup of that year].

Sri Lanka’s captain was Arjuna Ranatunga, who battled the elitism that had existed in Sri Lankan cricket. Before getting Test status in 1981, Sri Lankan’s cricketers hailed mainly from the elite schools that had been funded originally by British colonisers. Sangakkara notes that before 1981 80% of Sri Lankan cricketers came from these privileged English schools, but the 1996 World Cup-winning side contained not a single player from one of these schools. The victory in that competition opened up cricket to the masses even more so that had happened previously. These players played cricket the Sri Lankan way:

We were no longer timid or soft or minnows. We had played and beaten the best in the world. We had done that without pretence or shame in a manner that highlighted and celebrated our national values, our collective cultures and habits. It was a brand of cricket we were proud to call our own, a style with local spirit and flair embodying all that was good in our heritage.

Most importantly of all (and this is a long quote): (p. 9)

The 1996 World Cup gave all Sri Lankans a commonality, one point of collective joy and ambition that gave a divided society true national identity and was to be the panacea that healed all social evils and would stand the country in good stead through terrible natural disasters and a tragic civil war.

The 1996 World Cup win inspired people to look at their country differently. The sport overwhelmed terrorism and political strife; it provided something that everyone held dear to their hearts and helped normal people get through their lives.

The team also became a microcosm of how Sri Lankan society should be with players from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions sharing their common joy, their passion and love for each other and their motherland.

It is the passion of ordinary Sri Lankans, as well as the knowledge that cricket has the unique power to unite a society divided by civil war, that Sangakkara has in his mind every time he walks out to bat when wearing his distinctive helmet. It’s a fantastic story, of triumph over civil war as well as race and class divisions. What’s more, (p. 16)

[T]he conduct and performance of the team will have even greater importance as we enter a crucial period of reconciliation and recovery, an exciting period where all Sri Lankans aspire to peace and unity. It is also an exciting period for cricket where the re-integration of isolated communities in the north and east opens up new talent pools.

The spirit of cricket can and should remain and guiding force for good within society, providing entertain and fun, but also a shining example to all of how we all should approach our lives.

Hopefully it shall be a story with a happy ending.

Could Laurie Penny really look Kumar Sangakkara in the eye and say that “Mistrust of team sports as a fulcrum of social organisation comes naturally to me”? I hope not.

In Defence of Referees: Why Arsene Wenger can bugger off

March 12, 2011

There are two things that annoy me most about football. The first is when Arsenal fans (and Arsene Wenger especially) seem to think they are entitled to success simply because they have a nice way of playing football.

It’s become less of a footballing philosophy and more a moral crusade. It’s like arguing that you should vote for the politician that has the smartest suit. Yes, you played prettily, but lost 1-0 because you tried to pass the ball into the net. Jog on.

The second thing that really annoys me is people blaming the referee for costing their team the match. As you can imagine, events this week mean that these two happenings have merged into one inglorious avalanche of piss:

The Arsenal manager called into question the Swiss official’s “attitude” and claimed that his team would have won the tie if Van Persie had not been sent off.

He called into question Busacca’s approach and confronted him twice in Italian – in the tunnel and then a second time just as the Arsenal bus was departing more than an hour after match.

Wenger said: “It’s not a surprise the referee didn’t book a single Barcelona player. I just spoke to Uefa people.

“They are shocked as well. He killed a promising, fantastic football match. What for? If it’s a bad tackle it’s a second bookable offence but the way he did it is embarrassing, if you love the game.

I have no sympathy for this kind of argument.

For a start, I’m a fatalist, and believe that the amount of good and bad decision your team gets even out over the course of a season. Complaining about the decisions a referee makes is like whinging about the weather.

Also, in this specific case, saying that Arsenal would have won the game otherwise is daft. Counterfactual history, as E.P. Thompson said, is “unhistorical shit” anyway. Look at the match statistics. Barcelona had 76% of the possession, 12 shots on target to Arsenal’s 0, a 90% pass success rate to Arsenal’s 71%, and completed 738 passes to Arsenal’s 199. Yet Arsenal lost all because of the referee?! Yeah, whatever Arsene.

Also, the TV coverage of refereeing decisions instinctively makes me want to stick up for them. Brian Clough nailed it years ago in this interview with John Motson (from about 4 minutes in):

I think that what you do to referees is nothing short of criminal. I do, honestly. And I think that the standard you feel that should be coming from referees at the moment is absolutely incredible…He makes a decision in 5 seconds, or 2 seconds, or one  second or whatever it is, in the heat of the moment, with 22 players and 30,000 people shouting and bellowing. All I’m saying is that you don’t make that point strongly enough. It should be over-emphasised how hard it is to referee a match.

I don’t really care hugely about football. Cricket is my only true first love. When Channel 4 covered cricket on telly, they would show footage of the umpire’s decision in “real time” as well as showing some slow-motion replays. Whenever they showed such a “real time” decision of a disputed catch, LBW or whatever, Mark Nicholas would then say something to the effect of “well, you can see why the umpire would have given that decision.”

You never see that happening with TV coverage of a decision made by a referee or one of his assistants. Instead, you’ll get three or four slow-motion replays of, say, an offside decision, and they will pause the action at the moment the ball is passed to the striker, and they’ll say something like “the linesman has made a terrible decision there”.

What they never do is show the decision in real-time and say “well, you can understand why they made that decision”. Clough was absolutely spot on: TV pundits seem to assume that referees have the ability to pause live games and slow them down.

It’s no wonder referees like Mark Clattenberg feel the need to take a month off to cope with the stress and constant scrutiny that he has to endure as a referee. The Henry Winter article is well worth a read, and shows that referees clearly feel they have very little backing from footballing authorities.

All this whilst managers like Wenger, who have more claim to be role models than footballers themselves, undermine referees’ authority. He’s supposed to be intelligent and should know better.

It’s demeaning for football, and all those involved should, quite frankly, grow up.

A pictorial representation of just how excited I am about the Cricket World Cup

February 19, 2011

According to the counter on the Cricinfo website, the Cricket World Cup starts in approximately 8 hours time. I think the picture below represents my level of excitement about this prospect at the moment:

If Test cricket is a four course meal at the Ritz with wine, and 20/20 cricket is a Big Mac, then 50-over cricket is a meal at Little Chef, or Wetherspoons. Absolutely impossible to get excited about. Not to mention the fact that England are crap at it, and have been since 1992.

After six weeks – SIX WEEKS!? – of the tournament, complete with about 5,749 meaningless group games, England getting knocked out by some awful, evil buggers like the South Africans (and doubtless with Oldham losing out on a playoff spot) I’ll probably feel a bit like this: 

Still, I’ll watch the highlights, and go through the motions, and get that funny feeling whenever I think of dear old Colly. But it feels like the end of a tired, old format now.

Hopefully I’ll be proved wrong through, just as I usually am about all my cricket predictions.

It’s been a hectic week – hopefully I can get some more blogs up after I’ve spent this weekend playing chess. Until then, have a good weekend, and may your God go with you.

Thank you Colly

January 9, 2011

I found one of my best friends at university through cricket. At a flat party in Freshers Week we refused the joint that was being passed around and instead talked about our shared love of Mike Atherton.

We ended up living together for a couple of years, and obviously we had many cricket conversations.

These consisted to a large extent of me making predictions firmly grounded in logic and evidence, but that usually turned out to be completely wrong. One such recent assertion was that Ian Bell should be dropped from the England side after the first Test between England and South Africa in the 2009/10 series. This was after he left a ball from Paul Harris that bowled him on middle stump.

I was convinced that Bell had had his nine lives, was mentally fragile, and was this generation’s Graeme Hick. Mike, a Warwickshire supporter, understandably disagreed.

Needless to say, Bell wasn’t dropped and has averaged 74 in the 12 Tests since then.

Another prediction of mine, that I must have made around the time of the 2005/06 England tour of India, was that Paul Collingwood did not have enough quality for Test cricket.

Mike is too much of a gentleman to remind me of my continuing failings in cricket predictions. But I remembered it whilst I was getting rather emotional at Paul Collingwood’s retirement from Test cricket.

For Colly turned into one of my favourite cricketers. It helped that he was Northern, and could score hundreds when he was so out of form it looked like he was holding his bat upside-down. He was a fighter who made the most of his limited batting talent, and you had to admire him for that. He was, also, an absolutely cracking fieldsman.

I felt confident when Paul Collingwood came out to bat when England were 30-3; something I haven’t felt about any other batsman apart from Graham Thorpe. Other batsmen were too unpredictable (KP), too infuriating (Bell again) or too rubbish (Ravi Bopara).*

Thank you Colly, “the housemate who at least tries to clean up the mess“.

*Not that Bopara isn’t/won’t be a good batsman, but do you really feel confident with him walking out if England are 30-3? Also, given my history of cricket predictions, if I call Bopara rubbish he’ll go on to become an all-time great.

2010 Dick of the Year: Wayne Rooney

December 31, 2010

The very last post of 2010 *sobs* I wrote this for Bright Green Scotland; it’s my nomination for 2010’s Dick of the Year. Enjoy!

I’m not nominating Wayne Rooney because of his woeful World Cup performances. As Bill Bailey has observed, the English crave disappointment, so Rooney was only giving the public what they want. The nomination is also unconnected to the revelations that he slept with a prostitute whilst his wife was pregnant.

In October Rooney said he wanted to leave Manchester United because they did not “match his ambitions”. Two days later he performed a Clegg-esque u-turn, and signed a five-year contract. The consensus was that Rooney had been “posturing” to receive an improved contract offer, taking his weekly wages from £90,000 to an eye-watering £250,000 a week.

The coalition insists that “we are all in this together”.  The salaries of Rooney and his ilk make a mockery of that claim. They are unjustifiable given that the impending cuts that will affect the poorest most, and that inequality causes corrosive social problems.

Even after tax, Rooney earns five times more in a week than the average annual salary, and will earn more in 2011 than the average person earns in a lifetime. Aditya Chakrabortty argued for the introduction of a “Rooney tax“. If this happens, maybe Wayne Rooney won’t be Dick of the Year 2011. 

Paperback Rioter’s Review of 2010

December 29, 2010

This is the seemingly obligatory end-of-year roundup. Like this blog, this review does not intend to be comprehensive or systematic, and instead hopes to be personal and idiosyncratic. With that in mind, let’s roll:

Worst moment of 2010: After delivering leaflets and door-knocking until 9.30pm on election night for Elwyn Watkins, and then staying up until 2pm waiting for the result to come in, finding out that Phil Woolas had been elected MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth by 103 votes.

Best moment of 2010: Finding out that Phil Woolas had lost his appeal, and was indeed kicked out of Parliament and barred from standing as an MP for three years.

Subject I have been unhealthily obsessed with this year: Go on, take a flying guess…

Other highlights of my year:
– My two weeks shadowing at a primary school, which I absolutely loved, and I realised that primary teaching was what I wanted to do.
– Finding out that some people actually like what I write on this blog.
– Brad Haddin getting out to make Australia 77-7 in the last Ashes match.
– I also attended my first wedding (congratulations, Becky and Nick!).

I could list many more, but that would get a bit dull for you. Basically, in 2010 I had a great time.

Quote of the year: “Yes we can. But…”  – Barack Obama on the Daily Show.

Ironic fact of the year: The Daily Telegraph and the rest of the right-wing press conducted a desperate smear campaign against Nick Clegg in the last week of the election campaign. Who would have thought that the best way to make him unelectable and discredited was to appoint him Deputy Prime Minister?

My favourite news clip of 2010: The Daily Show coverage of the BP oil spill, back in the days when you thought the leaking would never stop.

The fact that proved Test cricket is still the shizzle in 2010: I had completely forgotten that England won the World T20 cup until Aatif talked about it on Test Match Sofa yesterday.

The biggest Pyrrhic Defeat of 2010: England not being given the rights to host the 2018 World Cup. The build up to this year’s was bad enough as it is. Then when England had not been given hosting rights, the Daily Mail blamed it on the fact that our promotional video had lots of black people in it. All the talk of “passion” and the soft-core xenaphobia exhibited by some England fans after the vote was nauseating as well.

Sobering sporting fact of 2010: I have been punished for my sins in a past life by being made an Oldham Athletic fan in this one. Earlier this year our two owners, who have bankrolled the club since saving us from bankruptcy six years ago, have said they are unable to continue funding the club. Oldham’s annual turnover is less than the amount that Manchester United pay Rio Ferdinand. A striking example of the poisonous inequality affecting English football (and society) at the moment.

My five best discoveries of 2010:

1) Test Match Sofa
I cannot believe that it was only this summer I discovered this online cricket commentary station. I’ve written about them before, so don’t need to drone on about them here. Thanks for keeping me company while I wrote my thesis, chaps.

2) The Shield
I spent most of the first half of 2010 watching this TV series with my housemate John. (John, if you’re reading this, please come back! Question Time isn’t the same without you!) John glibly summarised it as “The Wire for Republicans”, and that isn’t too far off the mark. It’s a police procedural that’s absorbing, entertaining and has some damned good acting. Worth buying with your Christmas money.

3) Twitter
I set up my @goldenstrawb Twitter account last year, but only really started tweeting this year. Since then it’s helped me make some new friends, brought my attention to some very impressive blogs, and kept my sanity during Question Time (just about) by being able to live-tweet it. What’s not to love?

4) Tony Judt
I sadly only found out about Tony Judt and his work after the publicity that surrounded his tragically early death in August. I’ve been making up for lost time since then: I’ve read Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, read some of Reappraisals, and bought (but yet to read) Postwar. He is a wonderful historian and political thinker, and shall be sorely missed.

5) Tom Lehrer
It was my very dear friend Ed who introduced me to Tom Lehrer, courtesy of this song. I can’t believe I’d lived without his sense of humour for so long.

Album of the 2010: Obviously this is Elvis Costello with National Ransom. Another very impressive album, and his most interesting since The Delivery Man in 2004. Listen to the title track, be impressed, buy the album. Or listen to it on Spotify.

Song of the Year: John Hiatt, The Open Road. I found that Hiatt’s latest album as a whole was a little bit “meh”, mainly because it was all overshadowed by this opening track, one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. 

My favourite Paperback Rioter post of 2010: The Hunt for Raoul Moat did not take place. I’m quite proud of this one.

My favourite blog post of 2010: Probably Laurie Penny’s gonzo-style piece on the Millbank Riots.

My favourite piece of writing of 2010: Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. I found it incredibly inspiring, especially given the circumstances in which it was written. Buy the book. Just buy it.

Five reasons to be cheerful for 2011:

1) There’s a referendum on the voting system! And you should all vote Yes to AV, as I shall be explaining on this blog in tedious detail. If you don’t, expect me to come round to your house and give you a stern talking-to.

2) The student protests: It’s nice to see some political action rather than political apathy. Keeping it non-violent, and gaining support from outside the student movement, is key for the next year.

3) The implosion of the BNP in the May elections: Obviously the rise of the EDL is incredibly worrying. But let’s just be happy that there was no massive increase in vote for the BNP as some doom-mongers had thought there would be.

4) ENGLAND HAVE RETAINED THE ASHES! We’ll hold the urn until at least 2013. In your face, Australia.

5) The detention of child asylum-seekers will end during 2011: I don’t like a great deal of what this coalition government is doing, but we might as well celebrate the good stuff they do before the cuts hit/while it lasts.

If this is insufficient optimism for you, then go and read the Independent’s 21 reasons to be cheerful.

Two inspiring quotations for 2011: both by Bertrand Russell on the subject of happiness:

The secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible.


The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

Have a great New Year.

My exclusive report on the first day of the Ashes having not watched any play whatsoever

November 25, 2010

Peter Bloody Siddle.

That is all.

At least, until I watch the ITV4 highlights.


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