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Rivalry and competitiveness are central to sport, and cricket is no exception. But cricket has a further feature that many other sports lack—that while all the individual dramatic moments that consecutively and collectively constitute the game are between two individual protagonists, batsman and bowler, each of these takes its place in, and is to some extent influenced by, the overall context of the contest between the two teams. So cricket, like baseball but unlike soccer or golf or tennis, involves individual contests in the context of team competition. Unlike baseball, however, cricket’s contests between bat and ball can last for long time periods— days, even—and go through many ups and downs. A weathervane in the shape of Father Time surveys Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, the “home of cricket”—symbolizing both the fact that time brings everything to an end and, perhaps, the timelessness of the experience of watching and playing cricket. Cricket is unique in its potential for drawn-out struggles between two people, each with his powerful narcissistic wishes for admiration and fears of humiliation, all within a team context.[1] The threat of failure is hard to bear in every sport. For the cricket batsman, failure means having to leave the stage altogether. It is a symbolic death; it evokes the deposition of a king.

If human beings were not combative no one would have invented sport. But if human beings were not also cooperative neither team nor individual games would have found a place in society. For reasons I will come to, rivalry can—and indeed should—be taken close to the limit. But alongside this, cricket also involves recognizing the unspoken or unprescribed realities of the spirit, respect and generosity of the game. This is not merely a matter of obedience to the laws (or rules) governing the game; it also involves the kinds of ordinary civilities that oil the wheels of relationships and collegial activities, the recognition of limits, and the give and take of a kind of dialogic interplay on the field.

RIVALRY AND RESPECT

Healthy rivalry between respecting individuals requires and fosters a developmentally necessary differentiation of self from other. In many contexts rivalry is a necessary feature of life. It supports proper ambition; it can help develop a full self, with a full growth of one’s capacities; and it allows the other, in competitive situations, to strive and express him- or herself freely.

Rivalry does not entail lack of respect for one’s opponent, whatever the outcome of the match or series. Test cricket—the highest level of the game, international matches played over five days—is, like many other forms of sport, rightly a tough business. But there is another side of these tough contests which can too easily be forgotten, and that is the playfulness and consideration between hard, high-powered competitors. When England won a Test in 2005 against the old enemy, Australia, by the tiny margin of two runs (after five days of battle), England’s hero Andrew Flintoff left the team huddle at the moment of victory and put his arm round his defeated opponent Brett Lee. We not only want to defeat our opponents, we also depend on them and their skill, courage and hostility in order to prove and hone our own skills, to justify proper pride. There is a unity of shared striving, as well as a duality of opposition. The 22 players in a Test match go through it together, in a way that no spectator does. The Latin etymologies of both “rival” and “compete” reflect this fact: rivalis meant “sharing the same stream,” competens meant “striving together with,” “agreeing together,” as in “competent.”

Striving can also mean proving some- one wrong; a “highly successful [musician] interpreted her whole career as an extended exercise in proving wrong the primary school teacher who had ignored her talents,” writes Ed Smith in What Sport Tells Us About Life. The writer refers here to a healthy bloody-mindedness in reaction to a snub. This is part of proper pride. Envy and jealousy also play a part in, and have to be accommodated within, ordinary rivalry. Dickie Dodds, the Essex opening batsman, was once out without scoring on a pitch that was perfect for batting. Essex went on to dominate the morning session, and by lunch had reached 150 without losing any further batsmen. Having had to watch his team’s success from the pavilion, Dodds came up to Doug Insole, one of the “not out” batsmen, and said, “Skipper, I hope you haven’t been troubled by any bad vibes this morning?” In- sole replied, “Can’t say I have, Dickie, been too busy enjoying myself—why do you ask?” Dodds: “Because I’ve been so full of bitterness I’ve not been wishing you well.” Here is an understandable and very human envy; since there was also frankness, remorse and regret, it did not spoil the relationship.

In 1976-77, I was fortunate enough to play five Tests in India. One of India’s formidable quartet of spin bowlers was Eripalli Prasanna. He was a short, somewhat rotund off-spinner, with large, dark, expressive eyes, and a wonderful control of flight. For some reason, he and I would engage in a kind of eye-play. His look would say, “OK, you played that one all right, but where will the next one land?” And mine would reply, “Yes, you fooled me a little, but notice I adjusted well enough.” He had that peculiarly Indian, minimal, sideways waggle of the head, which suggests that the vertebrae of the subcontinental neck are more loosely linked than in our stiffer Western ones. The waggle joined with the eyes in saying: “I acknowledge your qualities, and I know you acknowledge mine.”

I found it easier to enter into such an engagement with a slow bowler, who might bamboozle me and get me out, but wasn’t going to hurt me physically. But I had something similar with some fast bowlers, especially when we were more or less equally likely to come out on top. With such bowlers I could actually enjoy their best ball, pitching on a perfect length in line with off stump and moving away. I also enjoyed the fact that it was too good to graze the edge of my bat and thus lead to a catching opportunity. There was the same friendly and humorous rivalry. The spirit of cricket—or more broadly, of sport itself—at its best, I think.

But how much do we really desire to be tested, in life or in sport? If the opposition’s best fast bowler treads on the ball before the start of a Test match (as did Australia’s Glenn McGrath at Birmingham in 2005) and cannot play, is one relieved or disappointed? There is no escaping the relief. We all want an easier ride. And it would be easy to be hypocritical, falsely pious, and say insincerely that we regret that the opposition team is thus hampered. But at the same time there is also a wish—in the participants as well as among spectators—for the contest to be fought with each side at its best, not depleted, so that no one can cavil at victory or make excuses for defeat; similarly, one might take more pleasure in scoring fifty against the great Australian bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson than in a big hundred against lesser bowling.

There are many inevitable differences between spectators and participants: one is that the spectator wants to see the very best pitted against each other; the pleasure of watching a big innings by a great batsman is greatest when it is played against the best bowlers around, in conditions that help them. Spectators (except for the most partisan) enjoy evenly balanced matches, with both sides playing at their best, as well as being at full strength. Again, the players’ feelings will be mixed. We all hope our opponents have an off-day, and that we win by a large margin. But the players also have another strand within them, one that values the close contest and relishes the battle. They cannot fully hope for it, as a neutral spectator can, but they can enjoy it and feel most fully alive through it.

PSYCHOANALYSIS AND SPORT

I retired from cricket some time ago; now I work as a psychoanalyst. One patient tells me his relentless denigration of me is for my benefit: it keeps me on my toes and stops me becoming complacent or arrogant as a result of the sycophantic adoration he assumes my other patients give me. This patient is challenging; for example, there is also in his attitudes and behavior toward me the unconscious aim of letting me know what it is like to be unappreciated. More generally there is the danger that the psychoanalyst may get secret masochistic pleasure from such encounters, or may allow himself to become paralyzed. But what this patient says is valid and important in that patients need to be able to bring the whole of themselves to the analysis, including that which in ordinary life is often avoided or masked by politeness and insincerity. This connects sport and psychoanalysis, as well as art. In all three, within the safe (or safer) boundary that separates each from ordinary life, things can be said and emotions expressed that cannot otherwise be said or shown. For that freedom, allowed or enabled by the analyst without a loss of his analytic capacities, patients are often deeply grateful. And the analyst too should be grateful for the generosity of the patient in thus risking so much.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott addressed this when he spoke of the need for the child, and later the patient, to feel he has hurled the full force of his aggression at the parent or the analyst and yet has not destroyed them (or rendered them weak or ineffectual, unable to function properly in their respective roles). Winnicott argued that such visceral truthfulness is part of the process whereby the child or patient comes both to accept the urgency of his own subjectivity and, simultaneously, to recognize the subjectivity of the other. It takes courage to risk all in this sort of way, and courage and generosity to accept it without either retreat or revenge. Martial arts like kung fu illustrate and teach this lesson. One has to defend oneself from attack by using the force of the opponent, by first stepping back, then stepping forward to deliver a blow that hits home without being too damaging.

It is in this context that we see most clearly our need for wholehearted and skillful opponents. Without rivalry there could be no sport, but rivals also need each other in their cooperative role. They are co-creators of excellence and integrity, in sport as in analysis. As the old Yorkshire and England batsman Maurice Leyland once said: “Fast bowling keeps you honest.”

FEAR OF COMPETITION

Competition can get out of hand, turning into ruthless and narcissistic destructiveness, or plain cheating. But it can also be perverted in the opposite direction. Some people are afraid of winning, perhaps because of their fear of gloating, or because they are over-identified with the pain of the opponent, and may refrain from competing wholeheartedly. I knew a young boy who desperately wanted to win the first game with his father, but then equally desperately needed to lose the second, so that neither party would lose face, or have to bear too much disappointment, or have to deal with his own tendency to gloat. One might think, loftily, that the mature attitude to winning in sport is not to mind. The opposite is true. Not minding often means not really trying.

I once played for a spell as a guest player for an English professional side on a short tour involving a number of matches. During the first half of the tour, we had tried our best but lost more than we won. We had been facing good and talented players, in their conditions. The matches were played hard, even though they were not part of any ongoing competitive league or series. In the next game, we were led by the newly arrived captain, against a very strong side. This captain preferred to emphasize the entertainment value of the game, this being a supposedly “friendly” fixture; not wanting to be too serious, he soon took off his frontline bowlers, allowing the batsmen to display their most powerful strokes. He thus “gave” batsmen runs. They scored an even bigger total than they would have without his misguided generosity, bowled flat-out against us, and we limped to a crushing defeat. This gesture of giving runs patronized the other team and robbed each party of the satisfaction of doing their best and striving properly to win. We did not properly lose (though we did lose face and respect). The gilt on our opponents’ win was tarnished.

Such dilution or evasion of proper rivalry can also occur out of a wish to look good in someone’s eyes. One Test captain, whom I won’t name, decided during the afternoon of the last day that his batsmen should play for a draw rather than take further risks in going for a win. He was, however, reluctant to be seen as, and criticized for being, a defensive captain. This happened to be the first Test for a young batsman in the middle order; he hadn’t scored in the first innings, and been given a hard time by the crowd, who wanted its local hero selected in place of the youngster. When he went in to bat the captain gave him the following orders: “Play for a draw, but don’t make it look as if we’re playing for a draw.” This was hypocritical and cowardly; the task for the young player was difficult enough without having to act a role. This captain was more interested in how he himself looked than in competing properly or supporting and protecting a young player.

In the great battles of sport, no quarter is given and none expected. These are occasions when observers tremble with awe. The most memorable contests are those where the aggression is raw, but contained, perhaps only just, within the bounds of respect for the opposition and for the rules and traditions of the game.

But there is no need for unpleasant language, for bad-mouthing, for what is known in cricket as “sledging.” In my experience the great West Indian fast bowlers said nothing to the batsman on the field. One might say: they had no need to—first because of their superlative ability, but second because they were quite able to convey menace by eye contact. It happened that, when I played my first Test match, against the West Indies in 1976, both teams were staying at the same hotel in Nottingham. I ran into Andy Roberts at breakfast. He gave me a quizzical little look, not crudely unpleasant, but conveying, I felt, something along the lines of “Shall I be eating you for breakfast or for lunch?” Andy gave these looks on the field too; like Helen of Troy’s face, which launched a thousand ships, Andy’s conveyed a thousand words.[2] 

I am aware, of course, that recreational sport played for fun also has an important role, to do with giving people a chance, sharing the batting and the bowling; of one recreational captain it was said that “his captaincy had twin aims: to give every player a good game and to beat the opposition as narrowly as possible.” But in sport we have the opportunity, and the license, to assert ourselves as separate and authentic individuals against others who have the same license; and this potential can allow us to find our own unique identity, while respecting that of others. And this is part of a wider growth of the personality, of which one aspect would be the Quaker capacity to “Speak Truth to Power.” One element in telling the truth is being able to say no, to stand firm against powerful and sometimes bullying forces, without becoming a bully oneself. The more strenuous and spirited aspects of competitiveness enhance self-development, courage and sheer exhilaration. They can also be the occasion and source of the development of new methods and techniques. Correlatively, being less than wholehearted is liable to be, though it may not be, a kind of evasion or cowardice.

However, competition is not always so straightforward or so simple. It is often contaminated by disrespect, contempt, envy and other factors. When such things predominate, competition is corrupted into triumph at any cost, friendly rivalry turns into poisonous scorn, and defeat becomes a humiliation to be averted or reversed at any cost. There are differences that would be hard to define between appropriate shrewdness in undermining an opponent and boorish expressions of contempt. Cricket is after all not only a physical game; it includes bluff, menace, ploy and counter-ploy. Setting a field is not only a matter of putting someone where the ball is most likely to go, but also of making the batsman wonder what is coming next, or making clear to him that the captain thinks he lacks certain strokes. The aim is to provoke him by such a “statement,” either into loss of nerve or into reckless attempts to prove the captain wrong. Words may enter into this; a captain might say within a batsman’s hearing “you don’t need anyone back there for him”—and I would be inclined to see this as a fair enough nibble at the batsman’s state of mind. Viv Richards’ swagger at the crease and Shane Warne’s slow, mesmerizing nine-step walk which took up most of his so-called “run-up” allowed each to state unequivocally that this was his stage, and that his opponents had little right to share it with him. All this seems to me to be acceptable, even admirable. But such attitudes can tip over into arrogance, superiority, contempt—even a sort of gang warfare. Superiority and arrogance may be endemic in a person or a culture. The British Empire was riddled with it. Military and administrative power was identified with cultural superiority. The British had many terms of abuse or disparagement for members of subject races or cultures. Such attitudes, which were often unconscious and automatic, involved stereotyping, projection, and splitting. In the atmosphere of colonial times, these psychological processes allowed white people to represent black players as all spontaneity and exuberance, but lacking in resolution and solidity, technique and discipline. They were said to fall apart in panic more quickly than we whites do, as if children in comparison with us adults. Of course this meant that for many years it was out of the question for a black man to captain a national team, for children cannot be adults, and children need mature parental leaders. If one is treated terribly there are various possible psychological outcomes. Perhaps the most insidious is when a person takes on the identity that is attributed to him and becomes in his own eyes worthless. The racist is internalized, becomes part of one’s own self; one begins to treat oneself as an object only. The psychoanalyst Fakhry Davids, for example, describes a young black boy in England who came to see the brownness of his skin as dirty.

CONTEMPT FOR THE OPPONENT

However, competition is not always so straightforward or so simple. It is often contaminated by disrespect, contempt, envy and other factors. When such things predominate, competition is corrupted into triumph at any cost, friendly rivalry turns into poisonous scorn, and defeat becomes a humiliation to be averted or reversed at any cost.

There are differences that would be hard to define between appropriate shrewdness in undermining an opponent and boorish expressions of contempt. Cricket is after all not only a physical game; it includes bluff, menace, ploy and counter-ploy. Setting a field is not only a matter of putting someone where the ball is most likely to go, but also of making the batsman wonder what is coming next, or making clear to him that the captain thinks he lacks certain strokes. The aim is to provoke him by such a “statement,” either into loss of nerve or into reckless attempts to prove the captain wrong. Words may enter into this; a captain might say within a batsman’s hearing “you don’t need anyone back there for him”—and I would be inclined to see this as a fair enough nibble at the batsman’s state of mind. Viv Richards’ swagger at the crease and Shane Warne’s slow, mesmerizing nine-step walk which took up most of his so-called “run-up” allowed each to state unequivocally that this was his stage, and that his opponents had little right to share it with him. All this seems to me to be acceptable, even admirable. But such attitudes can tip over into arrogance, superiority, contempt—even a sort of gang warfare.

Superiority and arrogance may be endemic in a person or a culture. The British Empire was riddled with it. Military and administrative power was identified with cultural superiority. The British had many terms of abuse or disparagement for members of subject races or cultures. Such attitudes, which were often unconscious and automatic, involved stereotyping, projection, and splitting. In the atmosphere of colonial times, these psychological processes allowed white people to represent black players as all spontaneity and exuberance, but lacking in resolution and solidity, technique and discipline. They were said to fall apart in panic more quickly than we whites do, as if children in comparison with us adults. Of course this meant that for many years it was out of the question for a black man to captain a national team, for children cannot be adults, and children need mature parental leaders.

If one is treated terribly there are various possible psychological outcomes. Perhaps the most insidious is when a person takes on the identity that is attributed to him and becomes in his own eyes worthless. The racist is internalized, becomes part of one’s own self; one begins to treat oneself as an object only. The psychoanalyst Fakhry Davids, for example, describes a young black boy in England who came to see the brownness of his skin as dirty.

But of course traumatic abuse (of which colonial and racist attitudes are an example) can have other outcomes in its victims. One is a countervailing arrogance and even cruelty: the leaders of the French Revolution degenerated within a few years from high principles to self-righteousness and a frenzy of base revenge. Sadism can be exciting. Moreover we defend ourselves against a feeling of inferiority, envy and humiliation by projection, by ridding ourselves of these feelings in ourselves and placing them in others, whether those who are below us in the pecking order or those who previously formed the powerful elite.[2]

In other words, the weapon can turn into an inverse racism, fueled by hurt and resentment. What is one to say, for example, of one writer’s description (whether accurate or not) of Viv Richards batting at Lord’s: “he intimidated, mocked, and perhaps humiliated such gatherings. It was political. The score had to be settled.” Is this an admirable and honorable part of a proper pride in response to centuries of humiliation? Or is it a counter-racism? The writer also stated as part of the player’s attitude this sentiment: “We must not let the brothers down.”

TRANSCENDING CONTEMPT

Cricket was the quintessential game of the British Empire. In the early days, the colonial cricket authorities in most West Indian islands kept blacks (and “coloreds” according to the designations of the time) out of many clubs and out of representative teams. They sometimes dishonestly based such exclusion on the grounds that black players were professionals, not amateurs. Trinidad was a partial exception in the 1890s, allowing their fast bowlers, “Float” Woods and Archie Cumberbatch, and batsman Lebrun Constantine to play in matches against visiting English teams. The same bowlers were not, however, allowed to play in inter-island matches. Exclusion is a powerful form of splitting. They are not like us; we do not want to play with or against them.

Yet sport can transcend such constructions: it is not easy to keep good players out indefinitely—skill will out. In the West Indies, small integrations led to recognition of the qualities, personal and technical, of the trailblazers, which in turn forced the extension of recognition to other non-white players. Moreover, there were also voices for inclusion among the local whites and visiting grandees, just as there were advocates of education, enfranchisement, and human rights. In Jamaica, for example, there was a prominent advocate of Fabian socialism in no less a figure than Sydney Olivier, who was Governor of that island between 1907 and 1913, having previously been its Colonial Secretary. In 1928, the West Indies entered the world stage with a multiracial team captained by a white man. In 1948, George Headley became their first black captain, though his reign lasted for only a single match. And then, finally, after a long campaign led by the Marxist critic C.L.R. James, Frank Worrell was in 1960 appointed the first permanent black captain of the West Indies. Talent and capability had conquered prejudice.

What is so remarkable about the rise of West Indian cricket—a rise that culminated in an extraordinary period of world dominance during the 1970s and ’80s—is that people who had been enslaved and then released into a world of prejudice, arrogance and power, with many of these arrangements extending into cricket, should have been so patient, so keen to learn, so open to values that they found in this colonial game. Self-disparagement is one consequence of racial and other kinds of trauma, yet cricketers like Wood, the Constantines (father and son), Headley and Worrell were able through their exploits and attitudes to build up the self-respect of their fellows, so that the next generation could be stronger, more determined, more in touch with their proper pride. It seems to me that those West Indians were able to be humble (in the sense of knowing they had a lot to learn) without being abject, and proud without being arrogant. They were prepared to celebrate the glass as half full rather than rage against its being half empty. They were willing also to wait. It was thanks to their pride and forbearance that the next generation of West Indians, Richards included, could triumph so memorably in what was able to be, by then, healthy competition between true equals.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Editors’ Note: Cricket is a distant cousin of baseball. There are eleven players on each side, and each team has two innings. Two batsmen need to be on the field for the game to proceed, which means that each innings is over when ten batsmen are out; in practice an innings can last for as little as two hours and as much as three days, and the game is a draw if neither side has won after five days. As in baseball, a batsman can be both run out (=tagged) and caught (=flying out), but there is no “striking out”; instead there are various other possibilities for dismissal, such as the ball hitting the three wooden stumps in front of which the batsman stands. Whereas the baseball batter stands at the edge of the field, in cricket the action takes place in the middle, which allows the batsman to hit the ball through 360 degrees. Unlike in baseball, the ball typically bounces before it reaches the batsman. The bowler (=pitcher) can therefore try to outwit the batsman by getting the ball to move either in the air or off the pitch, often with the goal of hitting the edge of the bat in order to produce a catching opportunity for the wicket-keeper (=catcher). The fact that the ball has different properties at different speeds means that some bowlers will bowl as fast as ninety-five mph, others as slow as fifty; the latter kind are known as “spinners” because they aim to make the ball spin off the surface. Some surfaces, or “pitches,” will benefit spinners, others will benefit fast bowlers; more generally, some pitches are better for batting, others for bowling. The captain of a cricket team plays a role similar to that of the coach in other sports, except that he is also a player. When fielding, the captain decides which type of bowler to use and where to place his fielders; since batsmen can hit the ball in any direction, there are more permutations than in baseball. Michael Brearley was captain of England from 1977-1980 and again in 1981.
  2. When England were about to tour India in 1976, some of us players took the opportunity to ask Len Hutton, one of the greatest batsmen of all time, and a Yorkshireman noted for his dry, enigmatic comments on the game, for advice. Len appeared characteristically guarded. He then uttered a single short sentence: “Don’t take pity on them Indian bowlers.” 
  3. One example is of a bowler in my team who regularly expressed contempt for my ideas, provoking sharp and mutually hostile exchanges. It took a long time for me to realize that part of his contempt grew from his own insecurity, that he felt at times humiliated and inferior, and that he tried to deal with these uncomfortable states of mind by inflicting something similar on others and especially on the captain. We are all liable to identify with powerful figures in our attempt to escape from inferiority (whether this inferiority complex is inflicted on us, or becomes part of ourselves, or derives more from our own anxieties), thus trying to reverse the experience of being put down from above.
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